Thursday of Week 14 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 44:18-21, 23-29; 45:1-5

We continue the story of Joseph and his brothers. In our reading, large sections have been omitted from the biblical narrative and what immediately follows below is by way of a lead-in to the actual reading.

Still not knowing the real identity of the Pharaoh’s chief minister, the brothers return to their father Jacob with the food Joseph had given them, but without their brother Simeon, who is being held as a hostage until they bring Benjamin with him on their next visit. Joseph has expressly asked to see their youngest brother, although at this stage they do not know the real reason.

With great reluctance – because he has already lost Joseph and Simeon – Jacob agrees to let his youngest and dearest son Benjamin go back with them to Egypt. They have to go because the famine continues and their food has run out.

They are received by Joseph with great pomp and ceremony. When he sees his younger brother, his only full brother by the same mother, Joseph is overcome with emotion and has to leave the hall until he recovers. After this meeting, the brothers are sent home again, laden with food. But, unknown to them, Joseph has arranged to have a silver cup hidden in Benjamin’s sack.

While already on their way, servants of Joseph are sent to stop them and accuse the brothers of theft. The brothers are horrified when they find the cup in Benjamin’s sack; now, he will have to stay behind and presumably be severely punished. Knowing their father’s love for Benjamin, the brothers are distraught at this turn of events.

It is at this point that today’s reading begins. Judah, the eldest of the brothers, pleads on behalf of his youngest brother, but even more on behalf of his father who will be heartbroken if Benjamin does not return, something the brothers had sworn to Jacob would happen.

This whole passage (we read only a part) is one of the longest speeches in biblical story-telling and marks the turning point in the brothers’ present dealings with Joseph. Judah is the hero of this scene, remarkably retelling the whole story as it has unfolded so far.

He speaks to Joseph with great deference and fear. He uses the language of a subject speaking to a high official. He even uses the expected flattery – “You are equal to Pharaoh himself.” He tells Joseph that, when they left home the first time, there was just their father, who is already very old, and their youngest brother. The father is particularly attached to Benjamin because the only other boy he had by Rachel was Joseph, who, of course, all believe is dead.

Even so, Jacob had to let his brothers bring Benjamin to be seen by Joseph or they would not get any more food which they so badly needed as the famine continued. Now, Benjamin has been arrested because of the cup, presumed stolen by him (found in his sack of food). Judah tells Joseph about the words of Jacob before they left for Egypt with Benjamin:

You know that my wife bore me two children. When one left me, I said he must have been torn to pieces. And I have not seen him to this day.

Jacob believed that this was the fate of Joseph because, when the brothers returned home one day without Joseph, they produced his famous coat of many colours saturated with blood. Jacob believed it was Joseph’s blood, the result of being killed by an animal. As told earlier in this story, his coat had actually been dipped in animal blood precisely so that Jacob would reach this conclusion. The reader, of course, knows that Joseph had actually been sold into slavery by his brothers to a group of traders on their way to Egypt. (And the rest, as they say…)

Judah, who is telling Joseph this, knows very well what happened, and he and all his brothers are now consumed in feelings of guilt. Jacob’s final words to his sons had been:

If you take this one [Benjamin] from me too and any harm comes to him, you will send me down to Sheol with my white head bowed in misery.

In verses not included in today’s reading, Judah then offers himself as a slave to Joseph, if only Benjamin can be allowed to return home to his father.

Joseph now can no longer control his feelings. He orders all his retainers out of the audience hall and then, for the first time, reveals his true identity to his brothers, and for the third time in this story, he breaks down into great sobbing:

…so loud that the Egyptians heard him, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.

Joseph then asks about his father, but the brothers are speechless, partly out of sheer astonishment (is it a ghost?) and partly out of fear of vengeance on the part of their wronged brother. But he has already teased them enough, and he reassures them they have nothing to fear. He then tells them to come closer to him. Up to now, they would have had to keep a very respectful distance before such a senior official in the Pharaoh’s court. He now wants to speak with him as family.

And, far from being angry with them, he shows them that everything that happened was in the providence of God.

But now, do not grieve, do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here, since God sent me here to preserve your lives.

Another example of God writing straight with crooked lines, another example of how good can come out of something which, at the time, could only be seen as evil. A lesson here for our lives, too.

There are striking parallels here between Joseph and Jesus. Jesus also was sold and betrayed by brothers in Israel into the hands of a foreign power. He forgave them:

Father, they do not know what they are doing.

And, because of their actions, he became the Saviour of so many.

Like Joseph, Jesus took “the form of a slave”, but went even further in the utter emptying of himself on the cross. As Joseph became rich in money and power, we have become rich, not with money or power, but in love and grace because of the poverty, destitution and sufferings of our Lord.

The Jerusalem Bible makes the following comment:

“This narrative, unlike what has gone before, proceeds without any visible divine intervention and without any new revelation; it is one long lesson: Providence thwarts men’s plots and turns their malice to profit… Betrayed by his brothers, Joseph is rescued by God who makes the betrayal itself serve the divine purpose, for its result – the arrival of Jacob’s sons in Egypt – is the first step in the making of a chosen people. This theme of salvation (“the survival of a numerous people”, 50:20) runs through the whole of the Old Testament to be enriched in the New. Here, as later with the Exodus, we have a preliminary sketch of the Redemption.”

All in all, the story of Joseph is one of the most touching and most human in the whole of the Bible. Next to David, Joseph must be one of the most attractive personalities in the Hebrew Testament. The whole story is well worth reading. The two passages we have in our liturgy do not do justice to the richness of the whole account.

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