I spent some time studying and writing on the story of Joseph this month. One of my research assignments was to read the narrative with an eye to the theme of bitterness and forgiveness. I was encouraged by what I learned and a bit surprised as well. You know the story. Here is a thematic rundown of his life.
Joseph was favored by his father, hated by his brothers, and sold by his own flesh and blood. He was wrongly accused for immorality, unjustly imprisoned for integrity, and left to rot in a prison cell. He was forgotten by the cupbearer, remembered by God, and exalted by Pharaoh. He gave food to the hungry, grace to his offenders, and honor to God. He was proud in his early years, humble in his middle years, and stately in his older years.
Joseph had every reason to be a bitter individual. Can you imagine being sold by your own family and then forced into a life of slavery? What about being falsely accused of a crime and then imprisoned for around 13 years at the prime of your life? It is hard to grasp the trauma and pain that Joseph experienced.
In the story, Joseph is brought face to face with his brothers. Amazingly, he gives them grace and forgives them for what they did. It was not easy, the text seems to point to the conflict raging within Joseph. He held a position of authority that would have enabled him to exact vengeance on his brothers. He refuses revenge. Instead, he pardons and absorbs the pain. Forgiveness always requires that someone absorb the pain of the wrong.
What enabled Joseph to give grace? How could he after so much suffering? Throughout the story, Joseph points to his source of strength multiple times. This is where the surprise comes. Joseph’s forgiveness was rooted in and motivated by the the sovereignty of God. What a strange place to draw this type of strength. Wouldn’t God’s sovereignty actually make Joseph more bitter? After all, he was ultimately responsible for Joseph’s suffering.
Joseph didn’t see it that way. He makes some incredible statements in this story about his faith in God’s comprehensive reign. Here are two sections of the story that capture Joseph’s astonishing perspective.
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8).
Joseph’s grace toward his brothers came flowing out of the conviction that God put him in Egypt. Three times he calls God the sender. He views his brothers wicked plan as the means through which God worked out his plan. Notice how the people who wronged him fade away in light of his belief in God’s control. His beef was ultimately with God. I would guess that there were many late night wrestling matches with God while in prison that brought him to this place of calm trust.
After Jacob dies the brothers are fearful that Joseph is going to lash out on them. They approach Joseph and get on their knees to beg for mercy. Joseph weeps at their actions. Then he makes this statement.
But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them (Genesis 50:19-21).
Again Joseph turns to his faith in God’s sovereignty. He knew his place and he let God have his. He did not attempt to sit in the Judge’s seat. He did not attempt to transgress his creaturely boundaries. He knew his place and he accepted it. He also believed that all the horrible things that happened to him were orchestrated by a God of good intentions. He even grasped that all he went through was for the benefit of the very people that had wronged him so terribly. Joseph waged war on his bitterness and his weapon was God’s sovereignty.