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In God, Forgiveness and Reconciliation and Salvation are Possible -- Joseph's experience in Genesis 45

Updated: May 17

God desires to preserve life, even when we desire to destroy it.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 45

This incredible story contains two "reveals" that blow away even the most creative work of fiction: the Egyptian official the brothers were buying grain from was actually the long-lost brother they had sold into slavery, *and* God had been at work in the circumstances of their terrible sin to bring about Joseph's ability to save them from famine and death.

Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. (45:8)

When We Studied This Passage Last

In my last post on these verses,

I had a good time with the opening discussion:

  • The power of makeup (explaining how Joseph's brothers did not recognize him)

  • Your old yearbook photos (it's been perhaps 20 years since Joseph's brothers saw him)

Other topics include:

  • Human emotions

  • The big picture of how this illustrates salvation

  • The most dumbfounded you've ever been

  • Rags to riches stories

  • Why did Joseph try to fool his brothers?

Lots of interesting ideas to think about in these verses; I'll try to strike down new paths in the rest of this post.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Least Likely Thing to Happen to You

This is more of a contest than anything else -- what's the least likely thing you think will ever happen to you? Be as humorous as you want. Here's my entry:

  • Getting struck by lightning while claiming my lottery winnings.

Top that.

In this week's passage, Joseph's brothers discover that the Egyptian official who has been dealing with them is actually their long-lost brother Joseph. I guarantee that was not on their bingo card.

"The Reveal"

"The Reveal" is a pretty common trope in literature/tv. When done well, it really turns the plot on its head and makes the entire story more interesting. Sometimes it's something the audience knows -- like Tony Stark saying "I am Iron Man" or Bruce Wayne saying "I am Batman" -- in which the interest is in how the other characters react to the reveal. That's the situation we're dealing with in our passage in Genesis. The readers know something Joseph's brothers didn't.

But sometimes the reveal stuns the audience and characters alike -- Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father, Pip's benefactor (Great Expectations, a terrible book) is the convict from chapter 1, Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde are the same person -- which can be a very satisfying experience for the audience.

What is your favorite "reveal" in book or film? Why?

The way the story of Joseph unfolds in these chapters is truly brilliant. Human authors have struggled mightily to capture a faint echo of this amazing dramatic turn.

Handling an Emotional Meltdown

In this week's passage, Joseph loses control of his emotions. Has that ever happened to you?

I want to be careful about this. I'm not referring to a "breakdown" (an emotional breakdown is apparently thought of in similar terms as a nervous breakdown). A nervous breakdown is when a person is overwhelmed by their emotions -- often anxiety -- to the point that they physically shut down.

That's not what happened to Joseph. Joseph simply got to the point where he couldn't hold his emotions in.

There's a scene in the old movie Hoosiers where one of the characters (who is in the hospital for detox) got so excited when the team won the state championship (spoilers) that the orderlies had to put him in a straitjacket. He was so happy, he didn't even mind. (The movie was set in the 50s, o reader with sensitive sensibilities.) That's an "overwhelmed by joy" scenario. When we read this passage, I want you to think about what emotion Joseph was overwhelmed by.

Again, let's turn this to you. Have you ever been overwhelmed by an emotion? What emotion was it, and how did it "come out of you"?

I remember times in my life when I've been so sad that I couldn't stop crying (hard to call it "sobbing uncontrollably"), but I don't know that I've ever had an emotional experience like Joseph's.

Incidentally, this seems like an appropriate place to insert the "emojis for engineers" meme:


Where We Are in Genesis

To say that a lot has happened since last week's passage would be an understatement.

As we know, Pharaoh put Joseph second-in-command in Egypt. We find out that Joseph was 30 years old at that time (41:46), meaning he had been in slavery and prison anywhere from 8 to 13 years (again, we don't know for certain). For the next 7 years, Joseph enacted this incredible scheme of collecting and storing grain from the abundance.

During that time,

  • his name was changed to Zaphenath-Paneah,

  • he married a priest's daughter (Asenath), and

  • he had two sons by her -- Manasseh and Ephraim.

This is similar to Daniel's experience in Babylon, so if Daniel didn't compromise his religious beliefs while being integrated into Babylonian society, we can assume that Joseph did not either.

And then the famine began. We learn that the famine affected the known world (which is why Jacob gets involved), and people from everywhere came to Pharaoh to buy food. Joseph sold it to them, and Pharaoh became unfathomably rich.

If we skip ahead to chapter 47, we learn that as the famine continued, Joseph became ever shrewder on Pharaoh's behalf. When all was said and done, Pharaoh owned all of the land, all of the livestock, and all of the people were in servitude to him. If that sounds extreme, we have to remember that God intended this as a harrowing picture of human slavery to sin.

Anyway, let's get back to our context. In chapter 42, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain (not counting Benjamin, Jacob's new favorite son(?)). Because God was at work, they somehow managed to report directly to Joseph, who recognized them immediately. (But they did not recognize Joseph! Through heavy Egyptian makeup and 20 years of aging (not to mention not expecting to see him), they had no idea Joseph was their brother.)

[Aside on not recognizing someone: this is more confession than anything else, but when I am in a place where I don't expect to see someone, I often don't recognize them. We ran into someone at a Brave's game -- my wife recognized them immediately, but it took me a few blinks. Same thing happened on our vacation to Disneyworld a few weeks ago. I feel terrible about not recognizing someone I know. But I can understand how Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him!]

Then Joseph embarks on his rather uncomfortable tests.

What I said in the 2019 post was that Joseph didn't have any time to prepare for his brothers' appearance. He had to make this up on the fly. For obvious reasons, he didn't trust his brothers. He wanted to know if they had learned any lessons over the previous 20ish years. His method? To use Benjamin as leverage.

When the brothers asked Joseph for grain, they told him about their family and their brother they left behind. Joseph said to bring Benjamin as "proof" of their story, and he would keep one of the brothers (Simeon) as "collateral" until they returned.

Here are the two details that I have had to ponder:

  1. When Joseph commands them to bring Benjamin, the brothers immediately start talking about Joseph to each other (in Hebrew, of course, not realizing that Joseph could understand them). That seems like a convenient plot driver. However, when the brothers talk to Jacob in 42:38, it's clear that Jacob was "clinging tightly" to Benjamin as "the only one left". In other words, the brothers' guilt over what they did to Joseph had turned into a zealous care for Benjamin (Rachel's other son) and an acceptance that Benjamin was Jacob's "new favorite". I'm not saying that's right, but that's why the brothers immediately started talking about Joseph.

  2. When the brothers go back to Jacob to get Benjamin, they stay there until they have eaten all of the grain Joseph sold them. What? Simeon is stuck in the king's prison until they return with Benjamin! This seems like a very callous disregard for Simeon's well-being. I honestly don't fully understand this one. Jacob is that unwilling to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt -- he clearly prioritized Benjamin's well-being over Simeon's. This is a tough one for me to process.

Along the way, both Reuben and Judah try to convince Jacob to let them take Benjamin and rescue Simeon. Reuben takes the absolute wrong approach -- he places his sons' lives as security for their safe return (very unfair to those sons!). But Judah places his own life as security for Benjamin's. Jacob finally accepts that.

So in chapter 43, they return to Egypt, quite fearful about the reception they will get. Joseph receives them kindly, and he has his first "meltdown" when he sees Benjamin. (He has to leave the room until he can get control of his emotions.) He gives the brothers a nice banquet filled with subtle hints that he knows more about them than he reasonably should.

But all of this leads up to the real "test". Joseph "frames" Benjamin for a crime and says that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as his slave. In other words -- the same thing is about to happen to Benjamin that the brothers did to Joseph decades before.

But whereas in Joseph's case, the best the brothers could do was a half-hearted rebuttal from Reuben, this time Judah begs to take Benjamin's place.

So the lesson has been learned, and true heart-change has occurred. That's what Joseph wanted to know, and that's what brings us to this week's passage.


This Week's Big Idea: God's Providence

This is one of the most amazing stories of what is often called "God's providence". Here's how to look at it: all of the humans involved freely chose their own actions, and yet God brought about the end He desired.

I'm going to quote the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology on this one:

The doctrine of providence may be viewed from three different aspects.
1. The creation is the stage on which are enacted God's dealings with humankind. Providence is God's gracious outworking of his purpose in Christ which issues in his dealings with humankind. We are not at this point slipping over into the doctrine of predestination, but are saying that from the beginning God has ordered the course of events toward Jesus Christ and his incarnation. From the biblical point of view world history and personal life stories possess significance only in the light of the incarnation. The squalid little story of lust in Judah's dealings with Tamar (Gen. 38) falls into place in the genealogy of the Messiah (Matt. 1:3). Caesar Augustus was on the throne in Rome for the sake of the unknown baby in its manger.
2. According to Acts 14:17; 17:22-30; and Romans 1:18-23, God's providence served also the purpose of bearing witness to God among the heathen. God's fatherly care was a sign, pointing toward himself. Romans 1:20 makes it clear that the purpose of this witness of providence was simply to render man inexcusable for not knowing God. At this point also, therefore, providence is included in the doctrine of reconciliation.
3. The God who gives man life also preserves him while he is on the earth God is not a God of the soul alone, but of the body also. In Matthew 6:25-34 the disciples are reminder (by their Creator himself) of their creaturely relationship to God, and are freed from all anxiety about their earthly future. The other creatures (as exemplified by the birds and the wildflowers) have been set in a definite relationship to God which he faithfully maintains by caring for their needs. Will God bestow less care upon humans, to whom he has given a higher place in the creation (cf. Ps. 8:6-8)? Men therefore 'glorify their Creator ... by a daily unquestioning acceptance of His gifts" (D. Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship, 154). Behind this doctrine lies the almighty and loving freedom of God.
In sum, the doctrine of providence tells us that the world and our lives are not ruled by chance or by fate but by God, who lays bare his purposes of providence in the incarnation of his Son. (965)

Note that this author did not attempt to explain how God maintains His providence over creation. That knowledge is beyond us.

But if God's intent is to preserve life and provide creaturely care for His creatures, why is there a worldwide famine in our passage? Isn't that the opposite of creaturely care?

If you remember nothing else today, remember this: God's providence makes space for the free choices and actions of humans. That includes the introduction of sin into the world, through which all of creation has been corrupted. That includes the continued sinful choices and actions of humans throughout history (many of which we have observed in our story). God did not cause the famine. The famine was an unavoidable consequence of living in a corrupted world, likely exacerbated by the poor choices of humans in the region. But God worked through the famine to:

  • preserve Jacob's family, and

  • bring about His plan of salvation through His people.

Okay, here's another thing you need to remember: God's providence always moves toward His plan for salvation in Jesus Christ -- bringing about the circumstances for Jesus's ministry in the time before the crucifixion, and pointing the lost world to Jesus in the time after the crucifixion.

I'm sure you can see how the events in this week's passage prepare the stage for the future coming of Jesus Christ into the world.

[Editor's addition: I need to make an important clarification about this section, thanks to a wonderful reader who asked a pointed question. God does cause some natural disasters in direct response to human sin and rebellion. The Bible is clear about that, and what I said above could be interpreted to mean that God does not cause any famines.

But more importantly, there is Psalm 105:

16 He called down famine against the land and destroyed the entire food supply. 17 He had sent a man ahead of them—Joseph, who was sold as a slave.

That sure reads like "God caused the famine", doesn't it?

In trying to explain this, I'm realizing the difficulty in expressing how I distinguish "God caused" from "God allowed". This particular famine was clearly a part of God's plan to preserve life through Joseph, and God clearly controlled the timing and the extent of this famine. If anyone concludes that this means "God caused", I won't argue.

To me, it comes down to a question of what Joseph meant when he said that "God sent me here to preserve life". Famines are functionally at odds with preserving life, right? Perhaps the better way for me to look at this is that God sent a famine with a solution -- He was going to preserve life (somewhat kicking in the teeth of the famine), but He was going to do so in a way that brought about the next chapter in salvation history: how God's people came to be slaves in Egypt.]


Part 1: The Unexpected Reveal (Genesis 45:1-3)

1 Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers. 2 But he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and also Pharaoh’s household heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But they could not answer him because they were terrified in his presence.

So now we're back to one of the opening ideas -- have you ever lost control of your emotions? Why? That's really what verse 1 is about. "Losing your composure" seems to be about something different in today's culture. People lose their composure usually either from being extremely nervous or being criticized. But you can lose your composure without having an emotional meltdown like Joseph. Joseph lost control over his emotions.

[Aside: let me repeat something I said in the 2019 post: having a meltdown or a breakdown is not itself a sin. As far as doctors have explained, those are internal physical reactions to overwhelming stimuli. The real question is what you do next. Joseh let his emotions out without losing control of his faculties. In other words, he did not sin while losing control of his emotions.]

Finding out that his brothers had truly developed a sacrificial love for one another (well, maybe except Simeon) was the trigger for this meltdown. Joseph had probably thought about this off and on for 20 years, and it went the way he had hoped.

Here's a possible discussion question for your group: have you ever waited for a long time -- perhaps years -- to have a particular conversation? As you were getting into it, what were your emotions like? If it went worse than expected, what did it do to you? And if it went better than expected, how about then?

What emotion(s) was Joseph feeling when he lost his composure?

For obvious reasons, other members of Pharaoh's court were present during this exchange (and slaves as well). Joseph was willing to let down his guard with his brothers, but he didn't want that moment shared with the Egyptians, so he sent them out.

Not that it made a huge difference. The buildings were built with natural ventilation, so it's not like they were soundproof. Everyone could hear Joseph's outburst. And I'm sure it was a bit surreal for them! Joseph was likely the most levelheaded person in Egypt! He had organized the near-impossible public project, and he was now responsible for meting out life and food to all the people. If he hadn't broken down yet, what could possibly cause him to break down now?

I'm sure his brothers were awkwardly thinking the same thing. And then "the reveal".

Here are three fun words:

  • gobsmacked

  • flabbergasted

  • stupefied

If you don't know what they mean, learn them and work them into your vernacular.

When was the last time you were gobsmacked? What was the situation?

Joseph's brothers were absolutely gobsmacked. This was so unexpected that it simply froze them. And as they began to process this information, it began to terrify them. What was the last thing they did to him? Now, he had absolute power over them, their families, everyone they knew.


Part 2: The Even More Unexpected Reveal (Genesis 45:4-8)

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please, come near me,” and they came near. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. 5 And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. 7 God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

Joseph wanted to dispel their fear immediately. He had come to terms with what had happened long ago -- he had forgiven them many times over. Now, in the action of embracing them, he was offering reconciliation.

[By the way -- remember that "forgive and forget" does not mean that you open yourself to the same offense over and over again. Just because you must forgive someone doesn't mean you must reconcile with them. Reconciliation is always our hope, but for it to be reality, there must be movement by both parties involved. Joseph very shrewdly tested his brothers to make sure they had changed before he made himself vulnerable to them again. That was as much for their good as for his own.]

And here's the biggest reveal of all -- God was at work in all of this. Joseph being in the position he was in was the reason Jacob's family would survive the famine.

Question: does that mean God caused the brothers to sell Joseph into slavery (i.e., to sin)?

Go back up to what I said about providence. God does not cause anyone to sin. People choose to sin (and Paul would later explain that we are actually slaves to our sin). God worked "for the good" the circumstances of the sin the brothers committed so many years before. He also worked "for the good" through the sin of Potiphar's wife.

That's because God (in His providence) is about preserving life. And the most important way He does so is through salvation in Jesus Christ. The Hebrew experience in Egypt (when they would later become slaves and rescued through Moses) both preserved the lineage of Jesus Christ and also illustrated our need for Him.

Note: Joseph was probably not thinking that far down the line when he said this. He was thinking about the immediate preservation of his family through this famine. But even that recognition is spiritually astounding. This reveals such a deep relationship with God (remember that Joseph didn't have any kind of Bible or anything!) as to leave me speechless.

The maturity of what he said to his brothers is also inspiring. Yes, what they did was wrong, but because he had forgiven them, they had no purpose in maintaining their own guilt or anger with one another. It was in the past, and God had worked it out for good.

To be fair, none of us has probably had an experience quite like Joseph. BUT every one of us has seen the evidence of God working through the circumstances of our life. What's a time God brought something good out of a situation that was not good?

It's very important for us to recognize that this good outcome did not wash out the terrible things Joseph had endured for many years. And he was not trying to pretend that they didn't happen! So, if you shared the gospel with somebody while in the hospital, you're not trying to believe that it was good that you got sick, but that God brought something good out of your sickness. Or if you were in a location to help somebody because your car had just broken down, you're not trying to believe that it was good your car broke down, but that God brought something good out of the breakdown.

And here's a last point of comparison -- your tragedy probably did not result in you becoming second-in-command for an entire empire (yet) like it did for Joseph. But that does not make God's working in your life any less valuable or powerful than in Joseph's.


Part 3: And the Cherry on Top (Genesis 45:9-15)

9 “Return quickly to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me without delay. 10 You can settle in the land of Goshen and be near me—you, your children, and your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and all you have. 11 There I will sustain you, for there will be five more years of famine. Otherwise, you, your household, and everything you have will become destitute.”’ 12 Look! Your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin can see that I’m the one speaking to you. 13 Tell my father about all my glory in Egypt and about all you have seen. And bring my father here quickly.” 14 Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. 15 Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.

And from the brother's perspective, things just keep getting unbelievably better. Not only will Joseph provide them with the food they need to survive, he will give them a new (and safe) home in Egypt. The famine still has five years to go, so if they return to Canaan, they will almost certainly be killed by desperate marauders who want to steal their food.

Joseph says he will settle them in Goshen. This map has the traditional location north of Cairo and safely in the Nile delta. Egyptians found shepherding to be an unclean occupation, so this land (very good for flocks) was available for settlement.

Note that Joseph is still trying to convince them that he really is their brother. This makes me think of Jesus' post-resurrection appearance to the disciples:

Luke 24:36 As they were saying these things, he himself stood in their midst. He said to them, “Peace to you!” 37 But they were startled and terrified and thought they were seeing a ghost. 38 “Why are you troubled?” he asked them. “And why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself! Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” 40 Having said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 But while they still were amazed and in disbelief because of their joy, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 So they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence.

Jesus was running down the list of "what else can I do to convince these guys who I am?" And those are the very parallels we are supposed to see in the brothers' experience with Joseph -- Joseph "returned from the dead" and saved them from their impending doom, forgiving them of their sin against him in the process.

Just one of countless sneaky illustrations of how God would one day provide salvation to the world through Jesus Christ -- salvation not from death but from damnation.

What an amazing story!

Now for an important practical application. Joseph's time in prison did not increase his resentment for his brothers. (Too many people are consumed by their resentment.) And during the years of being in charge of Egypt, he thoroughly processed how his circumstances led him to that moment. So, when he finally saw his brothers again, his reaction was not one of anger desiring retribution but hope desiring reconciliation.

Who are the people in your life you have the "most beef" with? Are your thoughts about them more driven by anger or by hope? What can you take from Joseph's experience to help you release your anger?

Remember -- God said that we must forgive those who sin against us because otherwise we don't truly understand what God has forgiven us. And forgiveness includes the desire for reconciliation. Reconciliation is a two-way street; it takes two for healthy reconciliation to take place (remember that Joseph tested his brothers first!). So, who are the people in your life you don't want to reconcile with, and what do you need to talk to God about in order to change that?

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