Joseph’s treatment of his brothers — reflections and applications
Update: I have altered this post after receiving constructive criticism from Sister.
I no longer agree with everything I wrote in the first version but am keeping the first version in the public domain as a PDF (link). It can also be found at the Web Archive
— Barbara Roberts, April 16th, 2021
Joseph’s treatment of his brothers was not vindictive or bitter, but it was shrewd and calculating. He boxed them into a corner. To plan and execute that complex series of tests required wisdom and strategy.
Shrewd and calculating ≠ cold and heartless
Joseph is a good example of how being shrewd and calculating does not necessarily mean being cold and heartless. The narrative leaves us in no doubt that all Joseph’s actions were done in love. In order to be wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, shrewd calculation is sometimes necessary.
Churches often urge the victim of abuse to try to activate the abuser’s conscience. This puts too much responsibility on the victim. The urging is typically couched in biblical precepts that sound lovely but can be very dangerous when applied to interpersonal abuse —”Show the abuser Christ’s love, be long-suffering, submit and forgive, display gentleness of spirit, try to win (or restore) the abuser to the Lord.”
Fundamentally, it is only the Holy Spirit who can convict a person of sin. That is the Holy Spirit’s role, not our role — most especially it’s not the victim’s role! God can convict a person’s conscience entirely on His own; He does not need our help.
It’s true that we are to expose evil and admonish wickedness, but it is not necessarily our job to help God activate another person’s hardened conscience, especially when that person is an adult. (Parents do have a responsibility to teach their children so that the children’s consciences are formed with godly principles.) The self-appointed morals-police who try to convict others of their sin will often get it wrong.
So we need to bear in mind this distinction: Joseph set out to test his brothers’ character; he did not set out to activate their consciences.
I grant that testing a villainous sinner to see whether they have reformed might have the effect of pricking the sinner’s bad conscience. But there is no guarantee that testing a person’s character will effectually prick that person’s conscience. If any pricking of the conscience is done, it is by the Holy Spirit, not the person doing the testing.
The intent of the test is to see whether it is safe to be in relationship (or in closer relationship) with the person who, in the past, was an egregious sinner. The test is to see if your enemy is no longer your enemy. How can we do this?
Test the sinner by setting moral dilemmas which require him to act
As individuals, we will almost certainly be ineffective if we confront the sinner point blank. If we tackle a sinner head-on about his hard-hearted sin, his conscience is probably most resistant on that very point, so we will achieve nothing. He is likely to repel a direct accusation. He might deny that he has done wrong. Or he might admit that he has done wrong, but his confession is mere words: he makes no reparation to those he has harmed; he does not reform his character and conduct.
The way to do it is to find or create issues (moral dilemmas) that will link to the issues we really want the person to face. This is the strategy Joseph used when he tested his brothers: he gave them experiences where ‘the boot was on the other foot’ (they were the ones who were imprisoned, falsely accused, called spies, etc.) — where they were put in the moral dilemma of either sacrificing another vulnerable person or protecting the vulnerable person. Joseph’s set-ups compelled the brothers to choose. They couldn’t ignore the test: they had to act.
Use stories and parables
Another way is to tell a story that is analogous to the sinner’s issue. On the surface, the story doesn’t name the person we are trying to test. If the person sees the weight of the moral issue in the story, we can then help them make the connection to themselves and their own behaviour.
God instructed the prophet Nathan to use this strategy with King David. Nathan told a parable to King David. He did not start off by accusing David directly. Instead, he told a story which brought David to express moral indignation about the sinner’s conduct in the parable. He then confronted David: “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam 12:1-15).
For safety reasons, this method may not be the best method for a victim of abuse to use when testing their abuser. David had not been an enemy to Nathan. David had not abused Nathan in the past. David was unlikely to clout Nathan when he spelled out the point of the parable. However, it may be an appropriate method for a third party (such as a counselor or church leader) to use.
Another example of the ‘tell a story’ strategy is in 2 Sam 14:1-21. David had banished Absalom for murdering Amnon. Joab got a woman of Tekoa to tell a story to David. The woman recounted the story as if it had really happened to her, but it was a made-up story. In that sense, what she did was akin to Joseph telling lies to test his brothers: she lied, but her falsehood was only done with a benevolent agenda. Her story elicited David’s sympathy. Then, with courtesy and deference to his office of kingship, she showed David how the story related to his own treatment of Absalom. This pricked his conscience and he relented from his harsh attitude to Absalom — he allowed Absalom to return from exile.
Unlike Nathan, Joab had not been directed by God to take this action. It was Joab’s own idea to make this intervention. It is worth noting that the long-term outcome of Joab’s intervention was not very good: Absalom mutinied against King David and the nation underwent tumult as a result.
We may report the sin to authorities who can deliver appropriate consequences
We can apply for a protection order from the secular justice system (police and courts). If the order is granted and the abuser breaches the order, the breach is a criminal matter. We can collect the evidence and report the crime(s) to the police. We hope that the State, which wields the sword, will legally prove guilt and punish the offender.
If we are in a local church where the elders are astute, we can report the offender’s sins to the church in the hope that the church will apply discipline to the offender (e.g., remove the offender’s privileges, leadership position, even excommunicate the offender). Unfortunately, many church leaders are not astute and they end up being snowed by the abuser (see here).
Church discipline and the legal system often fail to carry out justice properly. And even when those institutions carry out justice rightly, the sinner does not necessarily admit his sin, let alone genuinely repent and reform.
The sinner may have a seared conscience
Intimate partner abusers very seldom reform. I know of two cases of non-Christian men who had abused their intimate female partners but, after much work on their own characters, they reformed.¹ However, I have never heard what I consider to be a believable account of a so-called Christian abuser reforming.
One Christian woman told me her Christian husband had ceased being abusive and had remained reformed for years. Some years after that, she emailed me again saying she had been sorely mistaken. She had realised that he’d been sexually abusive to her all along. As you might expect, she was staggered by that realisation. The deception was unveiled and she saw reality. Her testimony fits with what Don Hennessy says: “The male intimate abuser gains control of the mind of the target woman so that he can dictate the level of intimacy and sexual activity in the relationship.”
Those who profess faith in Christ but abuse their family members are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim 5:8). They are arch-hypocrites.
The abuser, if he is passing himself off as a Christian, is one of the hardest, most evil kinds of sinners. He has heard the good news about Christ dying for our sins; he knows about God’s mercy and the free gift of salvation. He can parrot it and pretend it. Yet in his heart, and his pattern of covert abusive behaviour, he rejects it all and persists determinedly in his sins, digging his pit ever deeper. In my view, the abuser who professes to be a Christian has seared his conscience (1 Tim 4:1-2; Hebrews 6:4-8). A seared conscience is cauterised and cannot be brought back. All abusers I have heard of who profess the Christian faith fit this description. (For more on this topic, see my Blindness Series.)
A seared conscience inevitably results in death (eternal suffering in hell). We don’t need to pray for the sin that leads to death (1 John 5:16).
The Bible does not refer to anyone having a seared conscience which is then reactivated. As victims of abuse, we can all too easily waste effort trying to reactivate a seared conscience.
Some people suggest that King Nebuchadnezzar is an example of a seared conscience being reactivated, but that idea does not hold up under examination. God gave Nebuchadnezzar two powerful teaching experiences, each of which resulted in him acknowledging and blessing God. Yet despite having experienced all that, Nebuchadnezzar did not reform his character in the long-term. We know this because he did not make reparation to those he had mistreated — he did not return to the Jews the holy vessels he had stolen from their temple.
The fact that David felt convicted by Nathan’s parable shows that his conscience had not been seared.
Now let’s consider Joseph’s brothers. The Bible does not expressly tell us that any of Joseph’s older brothers had seared consciences.
- Reuben, the oldest brother, slept with his father’s concubine (Gen 35:22). But he sometimes showed glimmers of conscience. He wanted to rescue Joseph when his other brothers were going to kill him; he intended to restore him to his father (Gen 37: 21-22, 29). Mind you, when the brothers contrived the lie that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, Reuben went along with the deceit.
- Simeon and Levi, the second and third oldest brothers, betrayed the agreement Jacob had made with the Canaanites and the Perezites who agreed to be circumcised (Gen 34). Simeon and Levi viciously took vengeance for the rape of Dinah, their sister. When Jacob rebuked them, they refused to admit they had done wrong. (Years later in Egypt, Joseph kept Simeon in prison when he let the other brothers go back to Canaan. Perhaps God prompted Joseph to select Simeon for extended incarceration.)
- Judah, the fourth oldest brother, showed a glimmer of conscience when he confessed that Tamar, his daughter-in-law, was more righteous than he was, after Tamar had exposed his injustice and hypocrisy for not giving her in marriage to Shelah (Gen 38).
When Joseph boxed his older brothers into a corner and revealed his identity to them, they realised that the Governor they had been bowing down to was their brother whom they had mocked for his God-given dreams. What humiliation they must have felt! They returned to their father and confessed they had lied about Joseph’s disappearance — more humiliation! And after their father died, they again bowed down to Joseph to beg his forgiveness.
Under Joseph’s testing, Judah had taken the lead in being unselfish and honest; the rest of them went along with Judah.
Let us imagine that one of the brothers had had a seared conscience. This brother had cauterised his conscience so that it could not be brought back, as per Tim 4:1-2 and Hebrews 6:4-8. When Judah was taking the lead in being unselfish and the other brothers followed Judah’s lead, the evil brother would have fought against or covertly undermined Judah’s course. He might have assented to Judah’s course with his lips, but in his heart he would have contrived treachery (Prov 26:24a ABP). He would have devised dirty tricks some way or other.
But the narrative gives no indication that any of the brothers were like the one we imagined. Thus, even though Joseph’s older brothers behaved very badly at times, I think it’s fair to conclude that none of them actually had a seared conscience.
I have made the case that Joseph’s older brothers were not as hardened in conscience as intimate partner abusers are. Let me repeat what I said earlier. I have never heard what I consider to be a believable account of a so-called Christian abuser reforming. Those who profess faith in Christ but abuse their family members are worse than unbelievers (1 Tim 5:8).
Before resuming any contact with a person who has abused you in the past, it is prudent to test that person’s character under pressure to assess whether they have reformed. The cardinal rule when responding to abuse is Put Safety First. Always make safety the first priority. Proceed with caution. Be shrewd and calculating. Observe and assess the person’s response under pressure.
Joseph was testing his brothers to see if they had changed. He was not attempting to soften their consciences.
It is wrong for Christians to use the story of Joseph to urge victims of intimate partner abuse to do things to soften the abuser’s conscience.
The victim of intimate partner abuse need not feel obliged to go to lengths to prick or soften the abuser’s conscience.
Survivors of domestic abuse, especially survivors of intimate partner abuse, would be wise to work from the premise that their abuser has cauterised his conscience and will never reform — he will only get worse.
It is wrong to use the Joseph story to pressure, manipulate or subtly coerce victims into reconciling with their abusers.
The next post will be the final in the series. I actually published the material of the next post in the original version of this post. But now I’ve updated this post I’ve decided to make that material into a separate post titled “We can learn a lot about wise reconciliation by comparing and contrasting our own situations to that of Joseph.”
¹ For more info on the instances I know of where intimate partner abusers reformed, go to this post and find what I say about Dave Nugent, Ivan Clarke and Dave Weir. Nugent and Clarke are both non-Christians. Dave Weir was an unbeliever when he was abusing his wife; he appears to have been born again in prison while serving a sentence for domestic violence; after that he worked on reforming his character.
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 3: Reconciled with his brothers
Part 5: Is this post