Joseph and Pain (Part 4)


Morgan-bible-fl06The Joseph story, which takes up the last quarter of Genesis, is an extremely dialogue-rich narrative. As such, it resembles a two-party resolution process that surfaces a deep-seated conflict that is still ‘alive’ with electricity. The excess negative charge from the past needs some sort of outlet to be grounded so that true peace can return. As we have seen already, direct, face-to-face dialogue provides the proper context in which real resolution can unfold. The Joseph story, with scene after scene of rising action, builds slowly towards a climax where the brothers can find reconciliation and peace.

It is not enough, though, for Joseph’s brothers to experience the same feelings of powerlessness and despair that Joseph had to endure earlier. Once they are confronted with the truth of their past actions, being stirred deeply within by the family pain they had set in motion, they are left with a chance to respond to what they have newly learned. Indeed, they are left with ‘response-ability’. In this piece we will look at how Reuben and Judah, representing the moral conscience of all the brothers, responded like contrite offenders who are willing to be held accountable for their actions.

We are at the story’s midpoint between the first and second trip to Egypt (the juncture between Genesis 42 and 43). Again we see Jacob’s inconsolable pain which finds expression in his over-protectiveness of Benjamin. Reuben the eldest steps up to the plate. “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care” (42:37). Reuben is using the strongest language possible to express his own accountability. To paraphrase: “If you lose both Joseph and Benjamin, then I too will lose both of my sons.” Under this language is Reuben’s empathetic commitment to ensure Benjamin’s return.

tissot-jacob-mourns-his-son-joseph-214x275x72But Jacob will not budge. “His brother is dead, and he is the only one left.” From a family-systems approach, this does not say much for Jacob’s filial ties to his other sons. “If harm comes to him on the journey, you will bring my grey head down to the grave in sorrow.” This is not the first time we have heard Jacob’s victimhood voice expressed with a self-centered tone. All he can focus on is death — Joseph’s death, Benjamin’s death, his own death — and this limits his ability to see into a new future. But underneath all of this runs the subterranean currents of inner pain.

As the famine notches up, the return to Egypt presses upon the family. Judah recounts the terms of Joseph for returning with Benjamin. “Why did you bring this trouble on me…?” Jacob asks, again absorbing all to himself. Judah now steps up to the plate of personal accountability. “I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.” Judah is laying his full future on the line. This is not imposed accountability that we often see in the justice system. This is willingly chosen accountability that comes naturally to offenders after they realize how their actions have affected other people. When victim parties experience this level of ownership, empathy and reparation, it helps them to move forward more than anything else that a justice process can offer.

“…hold me personally responsible”

At last we see Jacob having a ‘shift’ experience. His protective, yet death-prone mentality is finally offset by the persuasiveness of his sons who said they would sacrifice all for the sake of family restoration. In the dramatic sweep of the story, this is a profound moment. Yes, the real climax is yet to come when Joseph reveals his identity. But at this juncture we have the offenders expressing their accountability to the highest degree and we have one of the victims expressing his willingness to lean into a better future. Up until this point, everything is emotionally weighted to the past: for the offending brothers, the repressed emotions of remorse; for the victimized father, the overt emotions of despair. But now things are shifting toward a hopeful future.  

Worth noting is how Reuben and Judah were the ones who originally lobbied for Joseph’s life to be spared. How interesting it is that they now step forward to risk their own lives for the sake of the family. The whole experience thus far has softened their own hearts and they are willing to accept any and all consequences for how things will play out. Added to this, however, is Jacob’s own softened perspective. He urges the sons to travel back to Egypt with a number of “best products” to help in the exchange process. They also take double the money to repay Joseph. “Perhaps it was a mistake,” Jacob says. He’s thinking more positively, and this new thinking allows him to be more giving and to let go of Benjamin. “Take your brother….and may God grant you mercy” (43:14). He is also mindful that Simeon is still held in custody. But then, with a final show of his old self, he says, “As for me, I am bereaved, I am bereaved.”

jacob sends...

The brothers then “hurried” off to Egypt and came to the house of Joseph. Joseph saw Benjamin and ordered his servants to prepare a feast. Nevertheless, the brothers “were frightened.” They still lived with an inner trepidation that they would be found out for stealing the silver, and that things would go from bad to worse. Plus, they had no guarantee for how things would play out with Benjamin. One would think that enough drama has been played out and Joseph would launch the happy reunion at this point in the story. But more was still to happen between the brothers to unravel the deep harm that had strained their relationship.


Stay tuned to how Joseph interacts with his brothers in the next scene, and how the opening of his heart is still a journey that takes some time.


Contacting Ted Lewis

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