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Joseph's Awkward Family Reunion -- a study of Genesis 45

Thank goodness this story has a happy ending.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Genesis 45

Our last lesson in Genesis, Joseph forgives his brothers for their great sin against him and gives them a chance at survival in Egypt. We see how God has been able to use all of these events to bring about His long-term plan of salvation. The lesson is a challenge for us to forgive, and also to trust God through our challenges.

God sent me ahead of you to preserve life (45:5)

[This resource was once a printed newsletter for teachers. I am slowly putting older newsletters online for reference.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Power of Makeup!

You might be like me in wondering how Joseph's brothers didn't recognize him. Come on--it's your brother! Well, this seems like a fun exercise: how much of a difference does makeup make? (In ancient Egypt, heavy makeup was a common thing.) See if your class can identify “celebrities without makeup”. Here's a slideshow of examples I found (of course, you’ll want to search for your own examples, but be careful! once you get into celebrity gossip, the internet gets nasty).

Basically, the answer to my own wondering is YES, makeup can make a huge difference in a person’s appearance.

Unrecognizable Yearbook Photos!

Another way to approach this “how did they not recognize Joseph” fun is to do the yearbook thing. Joseph was probably the equivalent of a senior in high school when his brothers sold him into slavery. And something like 20 years has passed before they see him again (maybe even longer). Add in the new environment, the new fancy duds, and the heavy makeup, and it’s easier to forgive the brothers for their ignorance. Let’s pick on dudes this time—would you have any idea who they were from their yearbook photo?

Just a fun way of putting your group in the “reunion” mind for our lesson.


This Week's Big Idea: People Losing Their Composure

As (1) an American male, (2) a product of the southern US, (3) an engineer, and (4) an American male, I’ve been conditioned not to show emotion (or as the kids say, “get caught up in my feelings”). As I’ve gotten into leadership, particularly pastoral leadership, that condition has been reinforced. When times get tough, when terrible things happen, I need to hold myself together, be the stable and firm emotional rock, for the sake of the people around me. Based on what I know of you guys, a lot of you feel the same way.

So, imagine how hard it is for me to deal with Joseph’s behavior in our passage this week! Here is a "man’s man"—a man who has been to the bottom, a man who has kept the faith through the worst, a man who has the weight of a civilization on his back (at the moment of our passage), a man who should be a hero to all of us—losing his composure so thoroughly that people outside the room stop because they can hear him sob and wail. His brothers freeze because they’ve never seen a person in Joseph’s position behave in this way. It’s not even in my Stoic vocabulary to process something like that.

It turns out that the Bible has a lot to say about extreme emotions. And it starts with a subtle difference in wording that I am learning to appreciate: the Bible says much less about “controlling our emotions” than “don’t let our emotions control us” (e.g. Prov 25:28). Our emotions aren’t usually the problem—it’s what we let our emotions lead us to do. I read a Bible study on “The Bible and Emotions”, and I noticed the same emotions in the list of “good” and “bad”. What the real difference was was the person’s response. For example: anger. Cain killed his brother out of anger. Jesus drove out the money-changers from the temple out of anger. Another example: fear. Abraham lied to Abimelech out of fear. Isaiah repented in the presence of God out of fear. Certainly, some emotions are just sinful and need to be completely controlled as a result: jealousy, envy, terror, lust, hatred, greed, guilt (after you’ve repented), resentment, pride, selfishness (but see the next “Aside”). And some emotions are clearly a part of the image of God: love, joy, happiness, compassion, contentment. When we look at Jesus, we see three times when He wept publicly and loudly: Lazarus (John 11), over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41), and in Gethsemane (Heb 5:7). We think of Paul as being this complete in-control kind of guy, but in his letters, he reveals intense doubts (of himself), anger (of Christ’s enemies), and sorrow (for the fate of people he cared about).

Here’s the long and short of what I learned: it’s okay to be emotional. Emotional outbursts are human. I personally cannot imagine having an outburst like Joseph had, but I have not lived in his shoes. However, Joseph’s life was not characterized by being out-of-control emotionally. Back in 43:30, in a similar situation, Joseph excused himself so he could weep privately, and then he “pulled himself together”. Importantly, after his outburst in our passage, he then resumed his role as the responsible leader. His outburst did not interfere with his duties, and it did not have a lasting negative impact. “Do not let your emotions control you” is the way I would summarize this. This goes to the people who are suffering from inner grief over a loss or from inner pain from what someone did to them—they feel like it would be inappropriate to express it, or they don’t know how (or they’re afraid they couldn’t control it). That’s where close, trustworthy Christian friends come in: people who can help you express your emotions without being mastered by them. That’s what we’re here for.


Where We Are in Genesis

This is our last lesson in Genesis. We essentially have to cover chapters 42-50! Lifeway chose to focus on this final reunion in chapter 45, which works just fine. But make sure that you explain how this whole scenario fits into the broader picture of the plan of salvation.

  • Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery

  • While a slave, Joseph gets thrown into prison

  • While in prison, Joseph interprets dreams

  • Joseph eventually interprets Pharaoh’s dreams

  • Pharaoh puts Joseph in charge of his food plan

  • The 7-year famine strikes the whole region

  • Joseph’s family comes to buy grain from Egypt

  • Joseph tests his brothers (they pass)

  • Joseph invites his family to live in Egypt

  • Joseph puts the rest of Egypt in bondage to Pharaoh

  • Jacob blesses his children and dies

  • Joseph lives to see his great-grandchildren

  • The Israelites multiply greatly in Egypt

We could learn so much about what Jacob said to his sons (see below), and there are touching moments of promises to bury the bones in the Promised Land.

But here is what you want to explain to your group (big picture): God sent Jacob’s family to Egypt, knowing that they would be enslaved there. He did so by having Joseph sent there and using incredible circumstances to bring him to a position of power such that he could sponsor his family. Why did God do that? I can think of three reasons:

  1. Jacob’s family would not be strong enough to survive the famine. If they had saved enough food on their own, the marauders around them would simply have killed them and taken their food. In other words, this preserved God’s people.

  2. God had business with the people living in the Promised Land, specifically that they needed time to repent. Eventually, God used His people as the means of His judgment, but not until they had a chance to repent. In other words, God was showing mercy.

  3. The Exodus would be the means by which God established His people’s identity as well as His own identity in the world. Egypt was the great power of that time; by miraculously bringing His people out of bondage, God etched in their minds who He was. By moving them all together through the wilderness like He did, God also put them in a position to hear and learn His laws (for society, for worship, for everything). That would have been harder if His people were fat and happy in the land.

Most importantly, the New Testament reveals to us that Israel’s slavery in Egypt was a picture of our slavery to sin. Joseph was a picture of Jesus (at the beginning of this ordeal—saving his family at great cost to himself); Moses was also a picture of Jesus (at the end). All of these things together show us not only that we need saving but also that God is able to provide it—in the most miraculous ways possible.


Part 1: Revealed (Genesis 45:1-4)

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. But he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and also Pharaoh’s household heard it. 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. 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.”

That Joseph’s brothers were terrified in his presence is the least shocking part of this passage. Just put yourself in their shoes . . .

Based on these opening verses, you can see why you need to spend plenty of time making sure your group knows how we got to this encounter. Elsewhere, I give you my thoughts on Joseph’s emotional breakdown as well as his choice to fool his brothers to this point. There really aren’t any questions about what’s going on here, so here are some questions to get your group discussing the scenario:

  • What’s the most dumbfounded you’ve ever been? Or what does it take to shock you speechless?

  • Who is one person you haven’t seen in a long time you would be shocked and delighted to run into by chance?

  • How do you think Joseph was able to embrace his brothers after all they put him through?

That last question would be your transition. Joseph is put up for us as a model of grace, forgiveness, and mercy. But when we’re hurt, we tend to lash out or hold a grudge. Ask your group to think about some of their broken relationships: what happened between them? Can they imagine a world in which they can forgive? Or more incredibly, can they imagine a world in which they can forgive and embrace like Joseph did? Remind your class that a long time has passed here—more than 20 years; sometimes, it takes a long passage of time before this kind of forgiveness can really happen. And Joseph has all the evidence he needs to believe that his brothers have changed.


Aside: What Exactly Are Emotions?

So this is the rabbit hole I fell in this week. Joseph wept uncontrollably, and I presume it was a combination of relief, joy, sorrow (old memories), pain, and surprise (he probably never thought he would see them again).

Not surprisingly, there is no consensus on what “emotion” means or what they are. I like the school that says emotions are universally recognizable and measurable responses (i.e. facial expressions and tones of voice). The six on this chart are the “big six”, but over the years, there have been added amusement, awe, contentment, desire, embarrassment, pain, relief, sympathy, boredom, confusion, interest, pride, shame, contempt, interest, relief, and triumph.

If you’re looking for an application to this lesson that’s “off the beaten path”, perhaps you can ask your group what kinds of emotions they control well and what kinds they do not. Where has that gotten them into trouble? And what can they do to be in control of their own emotions? Again—Joseph had his outburst, but it didn’t knock him out of his very important role. We have a lot we can learn from Joseph!


Part 2: Remnant (Genesis 45:5-8)

“And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 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.”

And now we come to the most astounding part of this entire passage: Joseph’s grasp of the big picture. Joseph knows and believes that God can work all things out for the good of His people. He also realizes that God’s plan doesn’t always mean that every part of it will be good for every individual. Joseph had to suffer for years, but as a result he was able to save his family and even the whole world (again—Joseph is painted as a type of Christ, someone whose story points us to Jesus). You have group members who want to know why they’re experiencing whatever suffering they’re experiencing—how it fits into God’s plan. Just help them realize that Joseph went through 20 years of it before he was shown the big picture. 20 years! We don’t know how long it will be before we see what good God will be able to bring out of our sorrow or loss. Note that Joseph gave God all the agency here. This should not be read as Joseph inadvertently blaming God for his brothers’ sins. Rather, this is Joseph understanding that God can work through our sins to bring about a good end.

Because Joseph knew his family has changed, he wanted to help them forgive themselves (again, Joseph’s maturity is astounding). He wanted to put the past in the past, which is a critical step moving beyond forgiveness to reconciliation. To do so, he explained in great detail how God was able to use the past to create the present. What a testimony! We’ve all heard stories of forgiveness making tremendous changes in families, communities, and churches. Ask your class if they have any such stories to tell. It may not be quite as “grandiose” as Joseph rising up to save the world, but it will be just as important in the eyes of God.


Aside: Rags to Riches

Joseph’s brothers would have been shocked speechless for a number of reasons, not the least of which would be the meteoric rise of Joseph from such an awful position. I think most of us love a good rags to riches story, so perhaps put your group in the “shocked” frame of mind by imagining you’re a childhood neighbor of . . .

  • Henry Ford—who grew up on a farm and taught himself to be a watch repairman.

  • Walt Disney—who also grew up on a farm and spent time jobless while looking for work as a cartoonist.

  • Ralph Lauren—who grew up in a strict Jewish family and would sell ties for extra cash.

  • Steve Jobs—who had to drop out of college because his foster parents couldn’t afford it.

  • Oprah Winfrey—who grew up wearing dresses made out of potato sacks.

  • J. K. Rawling—who would write while strolling her babies because she couldn’t afford childcare.

  • Shahid Khan—who washed dishes to pay for his college education.

  • Genghis Khan—grew up in the wild (I'm serious).


Part 3: Reunion (Genesis 45:9-13)

“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. 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. 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.”’ Look! Your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin can see that I’m the one speaking to you. Tell my father about all my glory in Egypt and about all you have seen. And bring my father here quickly.”

Joseph still loves his father dearly, and he knows that Jacob has been suffering under the belief of Joseph’s death. He also knows that his command to his brothers will force them to come clean with Jacob about their deception and actions—necessary for them, but I’m sure it was a hard exchange for everyone. If you have time, you can ask your group why people put off confession as long as they do. I can’t imagine how the brothers would have prepared for their confession to Jacob during their very long walk home.

But look at how Joseph proves his forgiveness and concern! He’s not just going to sell them food—he’s going to give them a new place to live. I’m out of space in this handout, but Goshen was a very fertile area, perfect for raising cattle. Egyptians were not into cattle, so they didn’t appreciate this part of the Nile River delta. They wouldn’t have survived the famine had they stayed in Canaan.

Also, don’t see Joseph’s words as bragging—it’s just the truth. (kind of like the dreams Joseph had that got him into so much trouble earlier in life . . . )


Part 4: Restored (Genesis 45:14-15)

Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.

We all want forgiveness to end with reconciliation and restoration, and hopefully you’ll remember from our time with Jacob and Esau that restoration isn’t always a possibility. But in this case, it is. Note that Benjamin is so important to Joseph because he is his only full brother. We don’t know how much younger Benjamin was, but we can see from this exchange that they missed out on too much of their lives, but they would now be able to catch up. But the Bible specifically says that Joseph went to each brother individually to make sure they knew that his forgiveness was unilateral. And then they talked, probably family reunion-style. And what stories they would have had to share!

Your closing discussion will probably be trying to put yourselves into this situation. How does Joseph’s example encourage us to get part our old bitterness or anger? What specific steps does Joseph’s story invite us to take to show mercy on someone who has wronged us? Of course, every opportunity to talk about what forgiveness means is a good opportunity, not just because we all need to give and receive forgiveness with one another, but we all need to be reminded of what God has forgiven us in Jesus. It’s a great gospel application.

Close by asking your group what they’ve learned from Joseph’s story. How have they been specifically encouraged by it? How have they been able to relate to it, and what have they been challenged to do about it? Have everyone pray for opportunities to extend forgiveness to people in their lives, and also pray for opportunities to tell people that God has extended forgiveness to them in Jesus.


Closing Thoughts: Why Did Joseph Fool His Brothers?

I have long struggled with this question, especially since I consider Joseph one of my heroes of the faith. Seriously—Joseph bullies his brothers, badgers them, manipulates them, and maintains this big charade. How do we explain or justify that?

In the first place, this continues a big and important theme going back to his father Jacob (“the deceiver”). We spent a lot of time cataloging all of the deception in Jacob’s life. That deception continues in Joseph’s brothers when they fool Jacob into believing that Joseph is dead. To this point, Joseph hasn’t tried to deceive anyone—he’s been totally honest. This episode is simply par for the course of Jacob’s life. Joseph is simply continuing his family’s legacy; the difference is that Joseph breaks that cycle.

In the second place, when we read these chapters carefully, we see that Joseph had some legitimate concerns with his brothers, and I don’t think he had time to come up with a better plan. Think about it—it’s not as if Joseph expected to see them ever again, so he wouldn’t have thought about an approach to take. They just showed up, and in shock, he had to act quickly. Given another chance, he might have done that differently.

Joseph wanted to see Benjamin and Jacob and (rightfully) he didn’t trust his brothers any further than he could throw them. He doubted they would listen to him if he just came out with the truth and asked them to bring Jacob and Benjamin, and so he “put the thumbscrews” on.

Most importantly, he wanted to find out if they had changed, and he wanted them to have the chance to prove it without the fear of them deceiving him. And I can’t really blame him for that. This story fits right into the character of the rest of Genesis.


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