The story of Jacob’s return to Esau illustrates the difficulty of believing in, let alone accepting forgiveness. (See Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau) The story of Joseph and his brothers takes us primarily through the difficulties of forgiving.
As a youth, Joseph is a victim of collective violence. As is often the case with such victims, Joseph has been singled out both for adulation (by his father) and opprobrium (by his brothers). In contrast to the origin of collective violence as envisioned by René Girard there are a couple of cracks in the unanimity to kill the victim. Both Reuben and Judah differ and try to save Joseph but their plans are foiled. If either had had the courage to stand up to the other brothers, each would have had an instant ally and together they would likely have turned the tide and saved Joseph from his near-death in the pit.
Joseph’s serene words that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt and that although they had meant him harm, God had used it for good, taken by themselves, suggest an easy forgiveness on the part of Joseph, but the story is—well—another story.
While Esau welcomed Jacob back with open arms in spite of the harm Jacob had done him, Joseph does no such thing. Like Esau, Joseph has done very well in spite of his brothers’ intent to hurt him, in fact he benefitted in the end from what they had done to him, but Joseph holds back and remembers his youthful dream where his brothers bowed to him. Joseph goes on to play an elaborate series of mind games that amount to torture. It is possible that Joseph’s harsh way of speaking to his brothers was an act, the beginning of an educative process, but I can’t help but feel that the anger was very real and at least a little raw. As a test to see if they can treat the youngest, Benjamin, better than they treated him, it was hardly necessary to lock Simeon in prison for a year and threaten his own family with starvation if they didn’t obey all of the demands that could make little sense to them. Joseph’s father Jacob also suffers because of this treatment, which may also be intentional. In my pastoral experience, I have found that one who was a favored child carries a heavy burden from this favoritism rather than finding it a blessing. Sadly, while Jacob never showed any repentance for the way he treated Esau, Joseph’s brothers have such a guilty conscience that they think that their suffering at the hands of Egypt’s steward is a just punishment for what they had done to Joseph.
As things turn out, it is Judah, not Joseph, who triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. Since Judah had wanted to save Joseph in the first place, he is not a reconstructed persecutor but a man showing a compassionate heart for a younger brother that he has always had. The difference is that while Judah was cowardly before, he is brave this time around and his bravery is awarded. Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through tons of anger on his own part. It was his intention to put his brothers to the test, but in a sense he himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation which he had lost anyway and cry on the necks of his brothers.
Following carefully in our own hearts Joseph’s steps to forgiveness: his anger, his pride, his manipulations, and but also his crucial willingness to accept help from a brother when he needed it, can be a way for us to track our own difficulties of forgiving the hurts we have received in life and move through them to an awareness that although certain people intended us harm, God has used these harmful actions for good.
For more on the difficulties of forgiveness see A Miserable Gospel.