It's funny how we sanitize so many of the Bible's stories in an effort either to find a simple, positive theme on which to focus or to obscure the parts that make us uncomfortable. Unfortunately, it is often those parts which are most troubling that ring truest to our human condition and our spiritual state.
Consider young Joseph from the book of Genesis. It's fun to wax eloquent on his father giving him a sporty, multi-colored coat and on the fact that he not only had vivid dreams portending the future but could interpret the meanings of others' dreams. And he's a rags to riches guy, kind of the ultimate "American Dream" set several thousand years ago in a faraway land. What's not to like about a saga of a fellow rising to be the King's Chief of Staff and then saving the country from disaster?
That's all good and certainly true to the Bible, but there are a few details missing. My brief rendition left out the whole part of him being falsely accused of hanky panky with the wife of one of the King's top officials and finding himself stuck in prison, where he would have remained were it not for his God-given dream interpretation skills. It also left out that he'd been sold into slavery and then purchased by the aforementioned official, a fellow by the name of Potiphar.
Now, who sold Joseph to be a slave? That's where the story really went off the rails, way back when he was about seventeen. Joseph was the next to youngest of the twelve sons of Jacob and he was his daddy's favorite, thus the fancy outfit he received. So, his brothers were a bit peeved and jealous and Joseph didn't help things by sharing dreams he'd had that predicted he'd one day rule over them. Such visions of grandeur tend to not set well in a family and the brothers concluded to solve the matter by killing him.
Fortunately for Joseph, Reuben, the eldest of the lot, thought murder was a little drastic, so he convinced the boys to merely toss their brother in a well. He intended to rescue Joseph and then sneak him back home, but Judah, another of the brothers, had a better idea than merely letting him die in a well. Why not make a little money off the little booger?
And that's how Joseph became a slave. His own brothers sold him to some Ishmaelites for twenty shekels, or about eight ounces, of silver. The Ishmaelites hauled him to Egypt where Potiphar ultimately purchased him.
Consider the ramifications of familial discord and disharmony, of anger and conflict and even hatred. A young man is ripped from his homeland and faces a life of slavery and potentially horrific trials and his brothers have to live each day with the reality of their own guilt. It's just one example of the ugliness of fractured relationships. Sure, it's extreme, but that doesn't mean the brokenness that families and friends experience today is any less tragic.
There's another aspect of the story that haunts me, one that I never saw until I became a father. When Joseph's brothers returned home, their father was naturally going to do a head count and realize that one was missing. Having 95% of your kids come home isn't enough for a parent; Daddy was certain to ask a few questions and he would expect answers. Sir Walter Scott, you remember, said "Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive." The sons of Jacob had to do a little weaving, and fast.
First, they killed a goat. Then, they dipped the fancy robe in the blood, and headed for the house. Upon arriving, they showed their father the robe and said, "We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son's robe." (Genesis 37:32) Not "our brother's robe," but "your son's." Jacob forlornly concluded his boy had been ripped to shreds by a ferocious animal and he vowed to mourn until he joined Joseph in death.
That's the way the family lived for years. One away in slavery, then in prison, and then ascending to a position of wealth, power, and prestige. His brothers mired in the muck of their jealousy and hatred and enslaved to the lie theyt had to perpetuate and which only grew bigger and more ugly with each day. And their father, arising each dawn to a day without the son he loved, grieving until finally night might bring him tortured sleep.
I cannot imagine being Jacob, and now as a father, I wonder if those brothers ever really saw his anguish. How could they stand hearing him speak of missing his son? How could they bear the burden of knowing the pain he bore every day, a pain caused by their rage and its continuing aftershocks? How could they look at the man's face?
Sadly, their anger had created a brokenness that they could not even begin to repair. Finding their brother was impossible. He could have been anywhere suffering who knows what unspeakable horrors. A cruel master might be beating and torturing him in a faraway place or he might be rotting in a hellish prison. The break was unfixable.
How many of us live on the backside of the break? Angry words or hostility or accusations, or whatever, have been hurled and we've stomped away to our corners and become locked in prisons of bitterness and unforgiveness. We're shackled to what we believe is our justified anger, but the truth is, we're slaves to it.
Remember Jacob, too. He's a bystander, but he bears wounds and scars not of his choosing, but real and terrible nonetheless. Rarely are the aggrieved parties alone in their hurt, for none live on an island. I think of a shotgun, its barrel spewing forth pellets that spread and rip and tear in a wide pattern, inflicting destruction beyond the target.
It's really a horrible story, isn't it? And, again, one that the brothers couldn't fix even if they wanted to, which, sadly, there's no indication they desired to pursue reconciliation and thus relieve their father of his torment. Remember, though, while it's a very human story, it's even more a God story.
The story weaves and twists until the brothers in desperation go to Egypt to purchase grain as a devastating famine grips the land. There they discover that Joseph's earlier dreams of them bowing down before him had come true as he not only provided them with food but revealed himself, in all his regal power and authority, to them. The stage was set for reconciliation, and they returned home to their father.
Upon learning from them the truth that his boy was alive, Genesis 45:27 says that "the spirit of Jacob revived." A spark flickered and he was himself again. That's what reconciliation can do.
By the time I get to Genesis 47:11 - "So Joseph settled his father and his brothers in Egypt and gave them property in the best part of the land, the district of Ramses, as Pharaoh directed" - then I know that our God is always on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation. Broken relationships, seething anger, bitterness and enmity, none of these are God's desire for human relationships. It took an act of God, several really, to bring the twelve brothers back together and to restore the shattered heart of a broken father. But that's the business of God and it's the way of Jesus.
We may not want to take that first step toward reconciliation. God can give us the power. The other may not take a step toward us, but God calls us to forgive and to seek to persevere. It may take time and there may be more hurts along the way, but a life of grace is not without challenge, or blessing.
Forgiveness and reconciliation, rightly done, are worth it. Just ask old Jacob.