Joseph and Pain (Part 2)

Joseph may seem like he was the only victim in the Genesis narrative, carrying all the family pain by himself. But he was not the only one who was in pain. Father Jacob fell into major depression due to the family loss, and the brothers, at varying degrees, carried guilt and shame for disrupting the relative peace of the family.  They also carried the burden of a secret they could not divulge. The ripple-effect from the offense against Joseph continued to radiate streams of negative emotional energy throughout the entire family which time alone would not heal.

joseph_flavitskyIn my field of restorative justice, I have observed how both victims and offenders carry the weight of unresolved issues within them, and when they do have opportunity for safe encounter and constructive dialogue, it is as if the negative ripples are reversed, allowing positive ripples to spread out and dissolve all negative feelings. Many times, as a facilitator, I have actually felt a palpable shift of energy from a state of tension to a state of relief.

What we are exploring in the Joseph story is how built-up toxic feelings, based on past harms, required a process to undo those feelings in order to make the family whole again. This was not a quick and easy. It involved a complex process where both Joseph and his brothers entered into places of greater vulnerability, revisiting the past in order to be set free from the past. But before we unpack the dynamics of their encounter in Egypt, it is helpful to fill out the earlier history of family tensions.

16 Zurich Bible Joseph Lowered Into The WellEmory UniversityFrom a family-systems approach, we see right away that rivalry ran strong in Jacob’s family. Perhaps the sons absorbed Jacob’s ‘grasping’ tendencies toward self-advancement. Three times we read that the older brothers “hated” Joseph. Behind this, obviously, was the rivalry between mothers. Even the Hebrew names of the brothers reflect this competition. And so when Joseph was accosted, nearly murdered, and then sold as a slave (with thanks to Judah who pushed for a higher ethic), we see how this harm was an outward symptom of a deeper family dysfunction. Everyone was thus implicated.

Scapegoating at its worst is when people cannot take responsibility for their part in a group’s insecurities, and thus they target others as the source of trouble. Get rid of the person and you get rid of the problem. Good conflict resolution, however, shifts the focus to how everyone shares a common problem and everyone bears responsibility for past issues and future solutions.

jacob-weeps-over-joseph-s-tunic-1931When Jacob heard of Joseph’s ‘death’, he “tore his clothes and mourned for many days” (37:34). His family tried to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No”, he said, “in mourning will I go down to the grave to my son.” We find here a picture of someone who gets stuck in grief and finds reasons for never having closure. Jacob cannot detach from Joseph. The section ends with him weeping. While this includes genuine lament for the loss of a loved one, I think it is also mixed with underlying pain for how family rivalry had turned belly-up, producing a dark mood that held the family captive.

Joseph, meanwhile, is poised for an adventure that combines personal formation with outward success, and we see how his pain does not debilitate him from acting responsibly. He is a transcender, both inwardly and vocationally. But as I noted last time, he wept on seven different occasions, some of which involved uncontrollable sobbing. By this we know that he had an electrical charge stored up within him. And given the right circumstance or trigger from the past, this loose charge could jump out and zap whoever was nearby. Just as a spark jumps out from our fingers to ‘zap’ someone after we have rubbed our shoes on the carpet, so it was that when Joseph encountered his 10 brothers, a spark zapped them, leaving them momentarily stunned.

Why 10 brothers? Why not 11? Certainly, that is Joseph’s first thought. “Where is Benjamin? Where is my only full-blooded brother?” We learn that Jacob did not send Benjamin with the others “because he was afraid that harm might come to him” (42:4). A dozen years could have gone by and Jacob was still in pain, coping through over-protectiveness so that he does not experience more pain. He cannot let go of Benjamin because he cannot let go of the past.

And so, while Joseph “pretended to be a stranger,” he spoke harshly with his brothers. He zapped them with the unresolved emotional charge stored up within him, and they got a shock. “You are spies!” he told them. Note how relational hurt and relational mistrust go hand-in-hand. Mistrust is actually a very natural response of a victim who suddenly encounters an offending party without safe preparation. Trust has to be earned, and if trust is in the deficit, the negative charge of any volatile storm system arcs quickly as it did from Joseph to his brothers. Nevertheless, this transfer of energy is the start of a necessary grounding process that eventually dissipates the negative charge.

“Your servants were twelve brothers…and one is no more.”

The brothers try to be as honest as they can, even saying they are “honest men.” “You are spies!” Joseph repeats. The brothers then notch up their honesty. “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man. The youngest one is with our father, and one is no more.” They are entering the realm of truth-telling, but clearly they are not telling the full truth. Joseph hears these ambiguous references to himself, sensing their lack of clear ownership or empathy, and it touches the still-touchy wound within him. Later, he will have a sense of mercy, but at this point his excess charge bursts out with the force of lightning. “It is just as I told you. You are spies!”

bdbe14fbe946698f5ebd9d3364bbcdd4We might think Joseph is over-reacting unreasonably. Or at the other extreme we might think he is calculatingly cool, being in full control. Neither of these, however, fit the text well. Rather, Joseph is being very human in his feelings while staying very present to the situation. And then, perhaps in a flash, a scenario comes together in Joseph’s head. It is a scenario that reaches far into the past as well as far into the future. “You will not leave this place until your youngest brother comes here.” Yikes. It’s as if Joseph has just rubbed his shoes intentionally on the carpet, ready to send out a bigger bolt than before. But hidden in this demand is a seed of hope that can bring about healing and restoration. Perhaps if the family can re-live the past more honestly, it can finally be re-lieved from the pain and shame of the past.

Stay tuned, for in the next posting we will begin to see how Joseph’s self-facilitated TRC (Truth and Reconciliation Commission) unfolded in a dramatic way to bring about a reversal of the pain that no one in the family wanted to deal with.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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