Crocodile Tears? - Reflections on Genesis 45:1-15

by Dr. John Holbert on Monday, August 14, 2023

Just Like His Ancestors

Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28

The Peripatetic Hebrew Bible Preacher


          The scene of Joseph’s revelation of himself to his brothers has often led to all manner of claims of Joseph’s wonderful forgiveness of them, despite their dastardly attempts to murder him in the desert, abandoning him in that fearful dry well. The scene is often paired with the second scene of supposed forgiveness, and an announcement of the providence of God, found in Gen.50: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people” (Gen.50:20). Indeed, that phrase has graced many a sermon as a signal moment of human behavior that mirrors the grace of God. 

          Allow me to offer another way of hearing this scene in Gen.45. I have on occasion been accused of an overly dark view of biblical passages, a view that has led some of my hearers and readers to wonder seriously about my basic faith convictions. I must assure you that I consider myself a person of faith, but I also see myself as a careful reader of texts, and, as such, I am fully aware that great texts say far more than one thing, and may certainly be heard in multiple ways. And because I believe that much of the biblical narrative is great literature, I am forever on the lookout for fresh ways of examining those texts, ways that others may not see. I am a firm adherent of that memorable phrase from Emily Dickinson in one of her delightfully elusive poems: “Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant—Success in Circuit lies.” Later in the poem she says, “The Truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.” I have long loved those words and have taken them as the hallmark of my work as a Bible reader. “Slant,” “circuit,” and “gradual” are the keywords for me. With those in mind, let me briefly reread Gen.45.

          The context of this revelation speech is crucial. Joseph has just cruelly played with his brothers for the preceding chapters. They have come to Egypt to buy grain, the breadbasket of the ancient world since they are starving in Hebron. Joseph, now having become the governor, or perhaps secretary of agriculture of the land of Egypt, one of the pharaoh’s most important advisors, immediately recognizes his bothers the instant they step into his opulent audience chamber (Gen.42:7) but instead of treating them like the brothers he knows them to be, he “treats them like strangers, and speaks harshly to them.” Why? What is Joseph playing at? Is it pure revenge? “Well,” he may assume,” the shoe is on the other foot now, you dolts! Now I have the power, and can do with you what I will!” 

          There may be a certain evil pleasure for the reader, allowing Joseph for a time to get even with his helpless brothers, but surely the game ought not to go on too long, lest the brothers be reduced to groveling fools before this awesome Egyptian. Joseph speaks to them through an interpreter the entire time, adding to his power and control—obviously, he understands their Hebrew among themselves. But the game goes on too long! He demands to see the youngest son of old Jacob, the existence of whom the brothers clumsily reveal if he is to satisfy the brothers’ desperate need for food. Who better than Joseph knows what Benjamin’s trip to Egypt to meet the terrible vizier will do to poor Jacob who is still convinced that his prior youngest, Joseph himself, has died in the desert. But before they are forced to produce Benjamin, the game continues, as the wily governor imprisons Simeon, finally demanding the bringing of Benjamin. But even that is not enough! Now Joseph conceals his special cup in Benjamin’s baggage, and as soon as it is discovered, they trudge in terror back to Egypt, where Joseph accuses them all of theft, forcing Judah in abject fear to offer himself for them all to satisfy the mysterious rage of the potent Egyptian. This is stark cruelty indeed, going well beyond any reasonable desire for revenge. 

          Finally, he reveals himself, weeping copious tears as a supposed sign of…what? He has wept privately two earlier times, unwilling to end the monstrous cat and mouse fun he apparently is having, but the weeping now, so loud that even the pharaoh’s house hears it, may be as much tears for himself and his ferocious and pitiless behavior toward them. Might it be that even Joseph himself is ashamed of what he has done to these pathetic boys?

          Hence, all his comments, stated in the midst of completely silent brothers, overcome with the radical shock of the existence and revelation of a brother they thought long dead, ring hollow as half-truths at best. After announcing, “I am Joseph,” he asks immediately “Is my father still alive?” This could be a concern for the old man, or a nasty way of wondering whether old Jacob has survived the multiple cruel blows that the now-powerful Joseph has administered to him. Joseph then adds, “Do not be pained or angry with yourselves that you sold me down here, because for sustenance God (Elohim) has sent me before you” (Gen.45:5). Joseph blithely brushes past the appalling ways in which he has played puppet master with his brothers and their father over many days, during many fruitless trips back and forth to Hebron, all the while knowing that all has been a filthy charade. It is difficult for me to take Joseph’s words with a sense of forgiveness, or an attempt to smooth things over with the brothers.

          This fact is made all too clear at the end of the tale in Gen.50. After Jacob’s death, and his burial back in Israel, the brothers are still convinced that Joseph has it in for them. They lie that their dying father begged Joseph to forgive them of anything they had done to him (Gen.50:17). Upon hearing that false claim, Joseph weeps for the final time in his story. The weeping now suggests that his family has not been sutured back together, that no amount of crying and supposed succor from the powerful Joseph toward his family has convinced them for a moment that “all’s well that ends well.” Joseph’s overt cruelty toward them has poisoned the air between them forever; nothing can ever be the same.

          Joseph then is a bully, a man who gained vast power but chose to use it for cheap and trivial revenge, the result of which was a fractured family. Is Joseph’s behavior not fully reminiscent of many persons in our own time, famous or not, who throw their weight around in the attempt to gain a brief “power over.” Just as Joseph was a failure in his behavior so are we when we seek power over rather than community with. So, there is a “slanted” reading of this wonderful tale. Does it ring true with you?

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