Genesis 45: Joseph Reveals Himself

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Joseph is very affected by Judah’s impassioned speech. Without a shadow of a doubt, he believes that his brothers have changed. They will do anything to protect their father from the loss of Benjamin. It is such a convincing statement that Joseph can no longer control his pent up emotions. On two previous occasions, he is able to run out of the room and gather his composure before returning to face his brothers. So no one has seen him weeping. But that is about to change. He can no longer control himself, and all of his attendants are still with him. So he cries out, telling all of them to leave his presence – everyone except for his brothers. He probably does not want to become a public spectacle, nor does he want to share this very intimate moment with outsiders.

As soon as Joseph is alone with his brothers, he makes himself known to them. He begins by weeping so loudly that the Egyptians can hear him. The sound of his crying is so loud that all of Pharaoh’s household hears about it. Clearly, everyone is wondering what is happening.

Finally, Joseph is able to pull himself together enough to speak. He blurts out two words that say, “I am Joseph!” Without allowing them to respond in any way, he adds, “Is my father still living?” It is Judah’s repeated concern for Jacob that has brought them to this moment. Joseph’s real concern is for information regarding his father.

But just imagine for a moment how this news sounds to those eleven brothers. For the better part of two decades they have believed that Joseph is dead. And here he is – second only to Pharaoh. He’s not equal to Pharaoh because Pharaohs operate under the premise that they are divine, but Joseph is next in line. He virtually has unlimited power. With a snap of his finger, he essentially controls the police and all the guards. He can order things done at will; he doesn’t have to check with anyone for permission. That’s the level of his power. Now in contrast, here are the eleven brothers – essentially aliens in a strange land, standing accused in Joseph’s house. They are in his space. And even though he has just sent his whole entourage outside, they are all standing right outside the doors – close enough to hear him weeping. How threatening is this?

The brothers are still absolutely powerless. And the text says, “The brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.” Struck speechless! Gaping mouths! What can they possibly say? Not in a million years has the possibility of this situation ever crossed their minds. Right now they are in shock, and absolutely terrified. If this is the Joseph that they had sold, what will that mean for them?

Joseph calls them all to come close to him. He tells them that he is the one they sold to Egypt. Though this might sound like a rebuke, it is information that only Joseph would know. Any reservations or doubts that they might have had must now be put aside. This is truly their brother, Joseph. He continues by reassuring them: “Don’t be distressed; don’t be angry with yourselves because it was to save lives that God sent me here ahead of you.” By changing the word “sold” to “sent” Joseph imbues his experience with a divine purpose. It is not known when this revelation occurs to him. It is doubtful that it was there from the beginning when his brothers acted with evil intent, selling him to slave traders bound for Egypt. But little by little, the idea must have taken hold. Up to this point, there has been no suggestion that this has been his conclusion.

Now, however, he says that it had to happen that way in order for him to be in Egypt at this time, in order to save all these people. The famine has already been raging for two years, and “for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping.” Perhaps farmers have already learned that plowing is a waste of effort because nothing can grow. Joseph is convinced that God “sent him ahead of them to preserve for them a remnant on earth and to save their lives by a great deliverance.” These words are laden with theological significance.

At various points throughout the patriarchal story, God’s promises to Abraham have been in jeopardy. Typically, it has been because of human frailty. Here, those promises are endangered because of a natural catastrophe. Perhaps when Joseph’s brothers stood before him the first time, Joseph begins to realize that more is at stake than human lives. God will preserve a “remnant” on earth. This is an unusual word in this context because all of Jacob’s family will be saved. Nonetheless, the “great deliverance” of this family keeps God’s promises intact.

Joseph then repeats for the third time that it wasn’t them who sent him here; it was God. He continues that “God made him father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler of all Egypt.” These descriptive titles indicate his high position. Yet, scholars know of no such title as “father of Pharaoh.” Efforts to explain it have fallen short. Presumably, Joseph is speaking to his brothers in their native Hebrew at this point. It could refer to nothing more than his advisory role to Pharaoh. The second term repeats what Pharaoh says at his installment. And the third might be an oblique reference to Joseph’s initial dreams in which he ruled over his brothers; now he rules over all of Egypt.

He tells them to “hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son, Joseph, says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay.’” Although this follows a classic messenger formula, Joseph is clearly rooting his success with God. God is the one who has made him lord. Because of that, he is able to invite his entire family to come to Egypt to live. He wants them to settle in the region of Goshen. Scholars haven’t been able to precisely locate this area. Most think it lies along the eastern side of the Nile and northward. This land would have been a prime spot for cattle. Indeed, Egyptian annals confirm the presence of Semitic people in this area during the Sixth Dynasty (ca. 2200 BCE) and beyond. The really interesting point, however, is that Joseph doesn’t have to run this by Pharaoh. He doesn’t have to clear it with anyone. He’s decided the best way to resolve the situation is to transport his entire family and all their belongings to Egypt. That’s the kind of power he has.

Once they have settled in Goshen, they will be cared for by Joseph. He again repeats that there are still five years left of this famine. He argues that they will be destitute if they don’t comply with his orders.

The brothers have yet to make any remarks. Joseph continues to talk. He appoints them as eyewitnesses to the events that have transpired: “You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that it is really I who am speaking to you.” They are to tell his father about the honor bestowed to him and everything else that has happened. He concludes by saying, “Bring my father down here quickly.” Twice, he uses the term “my father,” as if to indicate his intimate relation with Jacob. He also says, “my brother, Benjamin.”

All the talking now turns into a love fest. Joseph begins by throwing his arms around Benjamin and weeping. Benjamin returns the favor. Joseph goes to each brother in turn, kissing and weeping over them. Suddenly, his brothers find their voices and are able to speak with him. None of their conversation is recorded, but surely they have a lot to discuss. Now they are convinced that this official really is their brother and they believe that he harbors no ill will toward them. It is an amazing discovery.

When the news reaches Pharaoh’s palace, he is pleased. At this point, he tells Joseph to invite his whole family to come to Egypt. This will include all their cattle and children and grandchildren. Then Pharaoh says, “I will give them the best of the land of Egypt and they can enjoy the fat of the land.” In this way, Pharaoh is essentially affirming everything Joseph has already promised them. It is likely that Joseph has communicated with Pharaoh expressing the needs of his family.

To that end, Pharaoh adds that they should take carts from Egypt so that they will be able to move everything. They won’t have to bring food, because the best of all Egypt will belong to them. It helps to remember that Joseph has made Pharaoh’s house extremely wealthy – legally and without war. So it is in his best interest to be equally generous back to Joseph and his family. To say nothing of the fact that Pharaoh has benefited greatly by having Joseph in charge of the grain dole during the famine. Joseph is an honest person with good judgment and a clear sense of fairness. He doesn’t have to watch over his shoulder or worry that Joseph is stealing from him. Joseph has been good for Pharaoh. So why wouldn’t he do whatever is necessary to help Joseph’s family now?

The sons of Israel finally agree to everything. Joseph gives them carts and anything else they will need. He also gives each of the brothers a new set of clothing. But to Benjamin he gives 300 shekels of silver and five sets of clothing. He gives many gifts for them to give to Jacob as well. His parting words to his brothers are for them to not quarrel along the way. Needless to say they have been under a lot of stress. He doesn’t want them to mar this momentous occasion by quarreling over petty issues.

So off they go, and shortly they return to where Jacob is living. They say, “Joseph is still alive; in fact, he is the ruler of all Egypt.” Imagine Jacob’s reaction. He is dumbstruck. Obviously, he doesn’t believe them. So they repeat everything for him. It is only after he sees all the carts that he begins to believe them, and the text reads, “His spirit revived.” Some people think he might have actually passed out upon hearing the news. Now he’s gaining consciousness and realizing it’s not a dream.

Of course, once he believes them, he wants to go see Joseph right away — “before I die.” It is just an unbelievable ending for this story.