Could you forgive someone who murdered your entire family?
After she survived imprisonment and torture in concentration camps during World War II, Holocaust survivor Corrie ten Boom became a writer and speaker, traveling around the world speaking about her experiences and how God had helped her survive, heal, and forgive. However, one evening in 1947, she found herself doubting the extent of her own message.
After her preaching, she met and recognized a man who had been a guard at the Ravensbrück concentration camp where she had been imprisoned -where her sister had died - and was faced with the choice to either offer this man her forgiveness, or not.
(I can’t do her story justice; take a moment and read it in her own words here.)
In the end, God gave her the power to forgive and love this man who had harmed her family so much. It's good that Corrie ten Boom found healing, but I still find myself flabbergasted at her conclusion. How hard would it be to forgive someone who took your life away?
Joseph, I imagine, asked himself the same question. As we reach the end of our study of Joseph – and along with it, the book of Genesis – we turn to a fairly long passage: Genesis 42-47. I’d encourage you to read it slowly and thoroughly. We can only hit the highlights here, but as we’ll discover, the climax of Joseph’s story brings many of the themes running through generations of his family to the forefront yet again.
Pharaoh’s dream was right: famine had struck the world, and as country after country faced starvation, Jacob sent all of his sons to Egypt in search of food – except for Benjamin, his last reminder of Rachel and Joseph. After all of that time, Jacob still played favorites – and his sons had to watch Benjamin grow up, always knowing what they did to Joseph.
When his brothers arrived in Egypt, Joseph was shocked. For the first time in years, he was directly confronted with his past, and he longed to reach out to his father, to his home, to the baby brother he left behind. Before he could do so, it was time for one more deception. As had become the custom in his family (remember Jacob and Esau?), loyalties had to be put to the test.
Taking advantage of the fact that his brothers didn’t recognize him, long grown up and in Egyptian clothes, Joseph imprisoned Simeon and refused to release him unless his brothers return with Benjamin in tow. Perhaps he was afraid that they had killed Benjamin too. Perhaps he just wanted to see how they would treat his father’s new favorite.
As they departed, they discovered that the silver they paid for food with was in their sacks of grain, and they turned to each other saying “What is this that God has done to us?” Their immediate attribution of this strange occurrence to God fascinates me. They’ve been haunted by guilty consciences for years. Did they think that God was finally punishing them for their betrayal of their brother all those years ago?
Jacob, of course, was terrified to send Benjamin to Egypt. In response, however, his sons started to show that they really did change since he saw them last. First Reuben stakes his own sons’ lives on Benjamin’s, then Judah – the ringleader who sold Joseph into slavery in the first place – offered his own life as forfeit if he couldn’t bring Benjamin back alive. This time, they don’t resent their father’s favorite. This time, they’ll do anything to keep him safe.
The brothers’ protectiveness continued as they took Benjamin to Egypt. They didn’t complain for a moment as Joseph held feasts for them and constantly gave Benjamin more food and drink and attention than they received (Gen 43:34). And then, on the road back home, animals laden with the food they needed to keep their families alive, they faced Joseph’s final test. He hid his prized cup in Benjamin’s grain sack just to see how his brothers would react.
Joseph’s soldiers pulled up next to the caravan, vowing to execute whoever stole a precious silver cup that had gone missing. One by one, the brothers swore their innocence, until – to their horror – the soldiers discovered the cup among Benjamin’s things. Then something happened that Joseph did not expect. Judah himself falls on his face and begs Joseph to take him as a slave instead. It was the only way he could spare his father from a broken heart. The man who sold his brother into slavery was willing to become a slave. The deceiver had been successfully deceived. The circle was broken. All of the generations of deceit and jealousy and manipulation have led to reconciliation – to salvation.
Weeping openly, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers, and forgave them without limitation, “Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here,” he says, “because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you…God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance” (45:5,6 NIV). He didn’t gloat. He didn’t exact his revenge. Instead, he thanked God.
Then Joseph said the most important line in the book of Genesis: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Genesis 50:20). Joseph's story summarizes the major theme of the book of Genesis: humans have fallen into evil and do evil things, but God is turning their evils around back into good. This is not just the theme of Joseph's story, or even just the book of Genesis, but is setting us up to see what God is going to do through the rest of the Bible, with the rest of human history. So whether it's a man forgiving his brothers in Ancient Egypt, or a former prisoner forgiving a Nazi guard after World War Two - God plans to bring goodness and peace out of humanity's evils.
- There are a number of ways in which people were hurt during the selling of Joseph into slavery: Jacob was hurt by the lie of his sons, to feel the grief of a death that never actually happened. Joseph himself was obviously harmed most directly, and Benjamin had to experience the loss of his brother. Now read Genesis chapter 45. How do you see each of these hurts healed or compensated for in this account?
- In a similar situation, could you trust God to use the suffering in your life for good? Could you forgive Joseph’s brothers?
- The text doesn’t mention how Jacob reacted to the revelation that his sons had lied to him all these years. What must that have been like?
- Is there a difference between forgiveness and reconciliation? Give an example of how this difference could be illustrated.
- Are there some people or grievances that we shouldn’t forgive? Can you forgive someone and still not trust them?
- How do you react to Corrie ten Boom's story? Could you forgive someone who had treated you in such an evil way?
- What would someone have to do for you to find it almost impossible to forgive them?