Breaking the cycle: the resolution of Joseph’s story

I’m blogging my way through the first several books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the “historical books” or the Covenant History. Today’s installment is the last from the book of Genesis.


The account of Jacob’s family continues as the entire land is besieged by famine, just as Joseph predicted. The only place with any food left is Egypt — and that is credited to Joseph’s diligence.

Back in Canaan, Jacob says to his 10 oldest sons, in effect, “What are you all standing around for? Get your butts down to Egypt and get some food before we all starve.”

It’s not surprising that residents of Canaan would turn to Egypt for help. Archaeological evidence suggests that Canaan was an Egyptian colony of sorts during the second millennium BC — right up to the point when a tiny nation called Israel came onto the scene. In other words, Israel emerged “out of Egypt” in more ways than one.

The tale of Joseph and his brothers is a darn good read. It’s biblical storytelling at its best. Sometimes, characters in the Bible can come across a bit, well, two-dimensional — perhaps because the Bible isn’t just telling stories for the sake of telling stories.

But not in this case. You can almost feel the brothers’ panic when they discover the silver in their bags, planted by the Egyptians before making their way home. Jacob’s despair at the prospect of losing his youngest son, Benjamin, reverberates off the page.

What goes around (doesn’t always come around)

There’s a beautiful sense of irony to this story, too. Not only because Joseph’s brothers end up bowing down to him, just as he dreamed they would. The story has come full circle. Near the beginning, Joseph came to his brothers, sent by their father. But his brothers did not welcome him. (Unless being thrown into a pit and sold into slavery is your idea of rolling out the welcome mat.) Now, many years later, Joseph’s brothers come to him, sent by their father.

Near the beginning, Joseph’s brothers ate and drank while Joseph languished in the pit. Now his brothers have nothing to eat or drink; they are the ones languishing. This could be the perfect opportunity for Joseph to get a bit of his own back. But in the end, Joseph breaks the cycle of hostility. Abraham’s family — the family of promise — is in danger of fracturing into oblivion. Joseph’s choice to reconcile instead of avenge keeps the family — and the promise — alive.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, though

But there’s also a portent of darker days ahead. As the famine wears on, we learn that Joseph has inherited his father’s scheming ways. When the people of Egypt run out of money to buy food (the food Joseph had stockpiled for the Egyptian government, that is), he takes their livestock in exchange for more food. When that food runs out, he takes their land as well.

Which makes me wonder: why don’t conservatives despise Joseph? He’s the biblical poster boy for big government. While everyone else panics, he takes advantage of a crisis to seize everyone’s land and enlarge the government of a tyrant.

In fact, the text itself sounds a note of disapproval, saying, “Joseph reduced the people to servitude.” Which could also be translated, “Joseph enslaved the entire population.”

Everyone, that is, except the pagan priests.

The implication would not have been lost on the original readers. Just as Jacob’s son enslaved the Egyptians, so Egypt would enslave the sons of Jacob.

So with Joseph’s brothers, we see how the cycle of oppression and retaliation can be disrupted. But otherwise, the cycle continues unabated. Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians will have repercussions. Just as his too-close-for-comfort affiliation with Egyptian gods will have lasting consequences for his descendants. (Three times Genesis tells us that Joseph married the daughter of an Egyptian priest. It keeps coming up, as if to say, “See? This’ll come back to bite you.”)

The ransom of Benjamin (and the ransom of us all)

One more thing worth noting about this story is the ascendancy of Judah. Earlier, Judah was introduced as the fourth son of Jacob. But Judah’s namesake will emerge as chief among the tribes of Israel. The line of David, Israel’s greatest king, traces its roots back to Judah.

The elevation of younger children over their older siblings is a recurring theme in Genesis. Abel, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, etc. From our vantage point, the choice often seems arbitrary. Jacob’s dominance over his brother Esau, for example, is foretold before they are even born.

Judah, on the other hand, rises to the occasion. Joseph orders his 10 brothers to bring Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, to him. Jacob is afraid of losing Benjamin the same way he lost Joseph. (Both were special to him because they were the only sons of his favorite wife, Rachel.) So Judah promises to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s safety.

Down in Egypt, Joseph plants his silver cup on Benjamin, then accuses him of stealing it. When Joseph threatens to make Benjamin his slave, Judah intervenes. (Notice the irony. No one intervened when Joseph was carried into slavery; now the brothers get a second chance.)

Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place. If he can’t bring Benjamin back to his father, better to not go back at all. Judah, in effect, lays his own life down as a ransom for Benjamin’s.

Centuries later, a descendant of Judah will come, claiming to do the same — but this time, for the whole of Israel and for humanity itself. The story of Jesus is a fulfillment — that is, the full expression or completion of — Judah’s story. It is through and through a story of deliverance from slavery and exile. And it is our story, too.

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