Saturday, January 15, 2011

Joseph’s Brothers Struggle With Guilt - Genesis 42:20b-22

And they did so.  Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.”  And Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen?  Now comes the reckoning of his blood.”

The text just prior to this portion of Scripture ends with Joseph giving his brothers direct orders to return to Egypt, get their youngest brother Benjamin, and bring him to Joseph, so that they could clear themselves of the charges of being spies.  The text is puzzling here because right after that and at the beginning of this portion, it states, “And they did so.”  Most commentaries are totally silent on this phrase or at least it’s positioning in the text.  It is a simple phrase, yet, unless it was really meaning, “And so they would do” implying a future fulfillment of Joseph’s orders, it may confuse readers, for as we will see neither the trip nor its details had been quite worked out yet.  It appears that as a minimum they had at least agreed to go in order to save their necks having been given very little choice in the matter.  They certainly were not operating from a position of strength this time, as they were when they put Joseph in a pit and later sold him to traders.

They weren’t at all happy about the fact that they had to go back to Jacob without yet another of his sons (as they would have to leave one brother behind as security) and now tell them that he had to trust them with his most beloved and youngest son, if they were all to live and have enough grain to keep their households from starving.  Clearly the idea of that started them murmuring and thinking about what may well have caused all this trouble they were now in.

One or more in the group suggested that this all stemmed from the fact that they had indeed been guilty of sinning against their brother Joseph.  That guilt was exemplified by the fact that the brothers realized Joseph had been calling out and begging them to save him, either from the pit they had placed him in or later from the traders who were dragging him away, hearing the “distress of his soul” yet not listening or coming to his rescue.  They now felt that Joseph’s unanswered distress of long ago was now to be experienced by all of them.  They had turned a deaf ear to their brother’s need, and now they had no one to listen to their needs.

One of the brothers, Reuben, plays the “I told you so” card with them, indicating he had warned them not to kill Joseph (Genesis 37:21, 22), which indeed he had, and while they did not kill him, they did sell him to be used as a slave in Egypt.  Reuben had precisely warned them to “Shed no blood.”  For all intents and purposes though, Joseph, having been sold as a slave, was as good as dead to his father Jacob and the family.  They all recognized that it was now time to pay for the blood they had indirectly shed.

What is the lesson here for us?  I think it is a twofold one.  One aspect may be close to home, part of our actual situation, our very own actions and/or relationships; and the other deals with the world at large and is harder to come to grips with and address.

First, there is a possibility that in the past or even recently, we have played a part in someone’s demise or unfortunate circumstances.  Perhaps it was by our own actions or it may have been by our inactions.  It may have been by our failure to stand up and speak the truth.  It may have been by our apathy.  As a result the distress of someone else fell on deaf ears.  As I write this section, I am aware of a situation in Toronto where there is film footage of a police officer unreservedly, and with no apparent cause, beating a bystander at a recent international G20 Summit incident.  Apparently, they can see the officer’s face; as well as identify his uniform and the first few letters of his badge.  Yet in order to substantiate the truth, someone needs to come forward, preferably from within the group of other officers and supervisors that were present, and looking at the film, say, “Yes, that is so and so.”  Yet the code of total silence among officers is so strong that no one is coming forward.  Those men and women will live with that guilt the rest of their lives.   If we find ourselves in those circumstances, we need to know that we will be wrestling with that knowledge of being a party to another person’s perhaps ultimately undeserving calamity the rest of our lives unless we get it right with them and God.  I would encourage you to think about that very possibility. 

Second, and on a much broader scale, I sometimes wonder if we are all guilty of either not doing anything or not doing enough to address the distress of millions of others, some in our own church, neighborhood, city, country, not to mention those around the world who are crying out with the distress of their souls to us for assistance – be it due to hunger, pain, torture and persecution (as the Christians in North Korea have been recently), disaster (as in Haiti and so many other places), dictatorships, epidemics of illness, and so on.  We hear their voices on the television, on the Internet; we even hear those who are trying to help them as they speak from our pulpits; we see their pleas in the literature we get in our mail.  Yet, we do nothing of significance to help ease the pain.  I challenge us this day to do something about that so that God will bring about all the weight of the reckoning of their blood on us.

It is for this reason, at a time when I could be nicely retired and enjoying my remaining years with my wife, my children, and grandchildren, I am involved with a Canadian Mission working with our aboriginal people and also with an International Mission working with those that need “a hand up” so they can stand on their own, in Africa.  At 63 years of age, my wife and I are looking forward to taking our second trip to Kenya in just a few months.  Will you stand or better still come, with us?  If not, will you do all you can to listen to the physical and spiritual distress of others, wherever it may be?

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