We are nearing the end of the Book of Genesis. This week we find ourselves in the midst of the Joseph story. Our hero Joseph, recently sold into slavery by his brothers, has now achieved power and renown in Egypt. The brothers who think he is a slave in a far away land must now approach him and beg for food. They do not recognize him. He walks like an Egyptian. He talks like an Egyptian. He, however, recognizes them. And so Joseph tests them.
Much of Genesis can be viewed through the lens of the siblings it portrays. It is a story about brotherly love, although more often than not jealousy and rivalry. Ultimately the book concludes with a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. There are four sets of brothers.
We open with Cain and Abel, the children of Adam and Eve. Cain is so consumed with anger that he kills his brother Abel. The hatred, apparently fostered by God’s acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s, is never overcome.
The next set of brothers is Isaac and Ishmael. They too have difficulty getting along, although fare better than their predecessors. After Isaac is born Sarah banishes his brother Ishmael. They are forced to live apart from each other. And yet they come together to bury their father Abraham. No words are exchanged. After the funeral they immediately go their separate ways. Still there appears a moment of reconciliation.
Next we read about Jacob and Esau. After Jacob steals the birthright Esau threatens to kill him. Jacob runs from his angry brother. He builds a successful life, again living apart from his brother for many years. Later they are reunited. The Torah offers a tender description about their reconciliation: “Esau ran to greet [Jacob]. He embraced him and falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.” (Genesis 33) And then once again the brothers go their separate ways.
The Joseph story is far lengthier and offers more detail. It occupies four portions. It is the culminating story.
In response to Joseph’s test he discovers that his brothers have changed. They rise up and protect their younger brother Benjamin rather than betray him as they did Joseph. Joseph is overcome with emotion and offers a model of forgiveness. He states: “Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.” The brothers are dumfounded and unable to speak. “[Then Joseph] kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45) Finally they speak to each other. Joseph and his brothers forgive their wrongs.
Unlike the prior instances, Joseph’s brothers do not part ways after their reconciliation. The brothers, as well as their father Jacob, and their mothers, join Joseph in Egypt. The family is reunited. The brothers speak to each other. They are reconciled. It begins with Joseph’s forgiveness.
Perhaps that is lesson of the Book of Genesis.
Brothers, and siblings, and families, are often at odds. And yet this can change. It can turn. It may take years, or even generations, but ultimately there can be full reconciliation.
Many families are unable to repair divides. They keep each other at a distance. A few, however, can right the wrongs of yesterday. Joseph’s family offers the model of complete reconciliation and repair.
That might very well be the most important lesson of the Book of Genesis. It is most certainly its concluding note.