A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

Joseph’s treatment of his brothers — reflections and applications

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. In order to be wise as serpents yet harmless as doves, shrewd calculation is sometimes necessary.

How to help re-activate a person’s conscience

Only the Holy Spirit can convict a person of sin. To whatever extent the brothers felt conviction in their hearts, Joseph was a subsidiary (second cause) of the brothers coming to feel that way. In a sense, Joseph was intelligently cooperating with the Holy Spirit’s work of convicting sinners. His tests helped reactivate the seared consciences of his brothers. The narrative leaves us in no doubt that all his actions were done in love.

It is not necessarily our role to help God reactivate another person’s congealed conscience. God can do that entirely on His own! But if we are to play a subsidiary part, how can we do so? How can we help a person who no longer feels the pricks of conviction because he has persistently suppressed them? If that person’s sins are defined as crimes under the criminal code, we can report the crimes to the police and hope that the State, which wields the sword, will legally prove guilt and punish the offender. If — big 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). However, as we know, both church discipline and the legal system often fail to properly investigate and enforce justice. And even when those institutions carry out justice rightly, the sinner does not necessarily admit his sin, let alone genuinely repent and reform.

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 the confirmed sinner head-on about his egregious sin, his conscience is most hardened on that very point, so we will achieve nothing. He doesn’t feel the weight of that accusation. 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 that Joseph used with 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.) and 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 to prick the hardened conscience

Another way to penetrate a hardened conscience 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 convict. 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.

The prophet Nathan used this strategy when he 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. Then he confronted David: “Thou art the man!” (2 Sam 12:1-15).

Another example of the ‘tell a story’ strategy is in 2 Sam 14:1-21. David had banished Absalom for murdering Amnon. Joab got the 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 harmless and benevolent agenda. Her story elicited David’s sympathy. Then, with great 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.

Many of the parables of Jesus fall into this category too — they were aimed at activating the seared conscience because it would have been profitless (and potentially dangerous) to hit the sinners between the eyes with their sin.

Comparing ourselves with Joseph

Even if we (as victims of abuse) are unable to do much to help God activate the seared conscience of our abuser, we can learn a lot from Joseph about wise reconciliation.

We do not have the powers of the State, as Joseph had. We are not rulers of the land. We do not have the power to imprison, to set free, to ‘set up’ and accuse, to shower gifts and favours. We probably don’t have the power to demand the production of ‘evidence’ (Benjamin), or to withhold the basic food that keeps body and soul together. But if we do desire continuing relationship with the offender, we can, like Joseph, purposefully refrain from reconciliation until it is proven safe. We can withhold reconciliation until the abuser genuinely demonstrates reformation of character, and this has been proved by testing the abuser under pressure, in situations of temptation.

If you are currently separated from your abuser and you need wisdom to be able to test your abuser in this way, I suggest you pray for that wisdom. God may give you ideas about how to test your abuser. You might have friends or counsellors who can assist with devising tests. The counselors need to be wise to the deceptions of abusers and the counterfeit reformations of abusers. You might like to ask your friends and counselors to read this series.

Above all, I encourage you not to be afraid of seeming cold and heartless. Remember Joseph — use him as your model.

If people misjudge you as cold and calculating; take courage. God looks at the heart, not on outward appearances. God knows the difference between sham reconciliation and true reconciliation. God does not want sham reconciliations, and he certainly does not want dangerous reconciliations where the abuser will turn again and rend you to pieces.

Perhaps some of Joseph’s strategic brilliance came from divinely imparted wisdom, but some also came from his own maturity of character. I venture to suggest that this is one of the biggest differences between us and Joseph. What Joseph had is what we so often lack. Let me make that personal: What Joseph had is what I so often lack. Allow me to show you what I mean.

When his brothers first presented themselves to him, Joseph’s heart was ready to burst with joy for the impending reunion, but he hid his emotion. He kept under control his need for reunion; he was strong enough to set that need to one side while he put into effect the series of tests. Are we victims that strong? Often we are not. We fall with relief into the open arms of our (un-reformed) abuser, glad for his enfoldment of us, happy to drop whatever half-hearted boundaries we might have been forming, ready to ‘forgive and forget’ in naivety rather than wisdom.

Of course, our cultural and church conditioning trains us to take this approach, and our position in society is far less powerful than Joseph’s was in Egypt. So it is not really fair to compare ourselves too unfavourably with Joseph. But I know that for me there was a weakness in my personality and in my understanding that contributed to the sliding back into the unchanged relationship with my abuser. The personality weakness came from my sexual abuse in childhood; the weakness in understanding came from the lack of good counsel I had received on the subject of abuse and reconciliation with one’s abuser.

Dear reader, lest you collapse in self-condemnation or despair about the vast difference between Joseph’s strong character and your own, I will now point out some other significant differences.

When Joseph tested his brothers so stringently, he came from a position of robust health, self-confidence and social approval.

The abuse Joseph suffered, whilst grave, was not so extreme, soul destroying or prolonged that he was permanently damaged. Joseph’s trauma was relatively light compared to the trauma of long-term domestic abuse, repeated rape, child abuse, being tortured for a prolonged time, being a concentration camp victim, or a prisoner of war under the Japanese. He had not been manipulated for years into thinking that ‘it was all his fault’. He had not been so systematically traumatised and manipulated that he had bonded with his abusers as the only way of coping with the untenable.

Even during Joseph’s years in prison, his good character had been acknowledged and valued. In contrast, the good character of a victim of domestic abuse is rarely acknowledged and valued by her friends, family, church and church leaders. Her abuser only pretends to acknowledge her good character when he is at the stage of the cycle where he is ‘treating her like a princess’ and is trying to manipulate her to get things such as sexual favours.

Unlike most victims of abuse who are considering reconciliation, Joseph the Governor had not been living with his abusers for many years. It was about twenty years since he had been subject to the original abuse by his brothers; and it was seven years since he had been released from prison and elevated to the position of Governor (five years of plenty, two years of famine). He had well and truly recovered from whatever ill health the abuse had caused in his body, and the damage it had caused in his soul. His life was in order, his housing secure, he had no family court matters pending or judged against him, he was in a well paid, high status job, his children weren’t abusing him or out of control, his family life was stable, and he was not lonely.

Furthermore, Joseph had no circle of acquaintances who were likely to collude with his abusers’ point of view. These Egyptians didn’t know Joseph’s brothers, nor did they know any of the history of the relationship. They did not have any doctrinal agendas which might incline them to put pressure on Joseph to reconcile quickly. In addition, Joseph did not have children with his abusers. His children were not putting pressure on him by saying to him “Daddy, can’t we let them come and live with us?” If and when he did choose to reconcile with his brothers, it was most unlikely he would be living under the same roof with them. To summarise, Joseph was in no fear of his former abusers, no-one was colluding with his abusers, and he was in no desperate straits in other departments of his life.

This should be a lesson to the church which, having listened to and believed an abuse victim, is trying to support her. If she can be helped to gain control and security in all the departments of her life — basic safety and protection from ongoing abuse, housing, finance, health, bringing up children, employment, legal stability, friendship, emotional recovery (which includes looking at and understanding the abuse in all its details), then she is likely to be in a position of strength from which she can with safety and wisdom consider the path of reconciliation. If she is not helped with these things, she is more likely to make poor choices… poor choices of unwise reconciliation, of unwise re-partnering, of neglecting or even abandoning her faith — the list could go on and on. And so could the abuse.

It is my prayer that abuse will cease, that misunderstanding will be no more, that suffering will end. However, the Bible tells us that only in the new heaven and the new earth will there be no more tears. If there must be tears, let us seek to promote the tears of godly separation from ungodly perpetrators, rather than the tears of the prisoners who believe they are condemned forever to imprisoning relationships. Let us help rebuild lives, let us examine the bridges we build to others, and if there could be reconciliation, let us promote only the careful, wise, well-tested reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers.


Posts in this Joseph series

Part 1: Joseph tested his brothers by falsely accusing them

Part 2: The second test Joseph gave his brothers

Part 3: Reconciled with his brothers

Part 4: Joseph’s brothers were afraid of Joseph even though he had forgiven them

Part 5: Is this post

Related series: Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?


  1. Auriel

    This is so insightful Barbara.

    I’m so glad you pointed out the fragility of abuse victims as they escape.

    Broken doesn’t nearly describe me. I was closer to destroyed. Walking the dangerous line of a joyless life, where death is so appealing. We do need all of the support you describe and to be restored by God before we can consider reconciliation. I love that you have given hope and strategies that this may eventually be an avenue I can explore. My prejudice at the moment suggests it may be fruitless, however I am reminded in your earlier posts that Joseph had years to prepare his thoughts.

    Thank you again for this work Barbara. It’s stretching me 💖

    [Paragraph breaks added to enhance readability. Editors.]

  2. Ali Rowan

    Again, I’m blown away by your wise and astute observations, Barb! I’d never have realised this story has so much to teach us about godly and completely assured reconciliation.

    Seriously, as much as I want our ex-pastor who is deranged with NPD to repent and seek reconciliation, my husband and I now have no access nor inroads into his Narcissistic world, closely shielded by his deceived faithful codependents. We are completely persona non gratis. Although he abused us, his mental disorder and totally skewed paranoid perception of reality means he truthfully believes we abused him! We would also have to simultaneously convince all of his enablers to stop perpetuating his delusion. A complete impasse, as far as I can tell, sadly.

    But it can be done. God is recorded bringing the great narcissist, Nebuchadnezzar to repentance, but only because he had the power to do so. We aren’t able to inflict that season where he was stripped of his sanity – demolishing all vestiges of the facade, his “image” and reputation, and cracking apart his codependent world for a season. Yet it worked!

    However totally implausible as it seems, should he ever approach us for reconciliation, we are now armed with the right tools to bring him to fully understand the magnitude of his sin is totally transparent before us – and God. But more than that, that his confession and contrite repentance would demolish the web of lies in which he had imprisoned his codependents – all of them once dear friends of ours. I believe they would all need godly counseling to detoxify and become independent agents in their own right again.

    • Hi Ali Rowan, I am not convinced that Nebuchadnezzar truly repented. 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.

      Also, you referred to the people in your former church who are imprisoned by the web of lies of the pastor. Personally, I am uncomfortable with the term ‘codependent’ being used for people who are abused. If you want to understand why I am not comfortable with that term, read this: Are Abuse Victims Codependent?

  3. Thanks Ali Rowan and Auriel.

    As you know, I really appreciate people commenting on my blog. And it’s helpful to me to see how my readers are reflecting on this post.

  4. Sister


    I’ve enjoyed much of this series. You made very strong good points about Joseph’s shrewd, calculated tests being wise. However, I part ways with you on this post. I offer this critique as a sister in Christ in the spirit of “iron sharpens iron.”

    “His tests helped reactivate the seared conscience of his brothers.”

    The Bible verses pertaining to a seared conscience are 1 Timothy 4:1-2. “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron.”

    The seared conscience is cauterized and cannot be brought back. The Bible does not refer to anyone having a seared conscience which is then reactivated.

    Neither Joseph’s brothers nor David, are referred to as having seared consciences. In fact, Reuben wanted to rescue David from his brothers’ hands when they were going to kill him and he intended to rescue him and restore him to his father.

    Genesis 37: 21-22 (NASB) “But Reuben heard this and rescued him out of their hands [lby saying, ‘Let’s not take his life.’ Then Reuben said to them, ‘Shed no blood. Throw him into this pit that is in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him’—so that later he might rescue him out of their hands, to return him to his father.” In verse 29 Reuben even tore his clothes when he discovered his brother was gone.

    Then there’s the story of Judah and Tamar in Genesis 38. Tamar is one of several women in the Bible who are unjustly maligned by Pastors. I won’t go over the whole story here, but Judah had given Tamar to his first and then his second son. They were to provide her offspring, but God took their lives because they were evil. Judah withheld his third son from her, blaming her for their deaths sending her to live with her Father on the pretense of waiting until his third son grew up. Then in egregious vicious hypocrisy, he felt entitled both to sleep with a prostitute, and burn Tamar alive for “playing the harlot.” However, when Tamar told him he was the one who slept with her, Judah said, “She is more righteous than I inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah.” This illustrates to me that as unfathomably unjust his actions were, he did not have a seared conscience.

    Joseph’s sons and his brothers were the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel (Jacob) as part of God’s covenant with Abraham. God gave Joseph those dreams beforehand that foretold what happened in Egypt. Joseph could have reached out to his brothers at any time once he came to power, but he did not. God did not speak to him so he had no way of knowing if they were repentant. He tested their integrity to see if they had repented as they stood before him. God did not use him to reactivate their consciences.

    The fact that David felt convicted by Nathan’s story about the man with the lamb, also shows that his conscience had not been seared.

    I refer back to the verses about a seared conscience, 1 Timothy 4:1-2. “But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron.”

    The men described in the post had done some wicked acts, but they did not have seared consciences / had not fallen away from the faith. The premise stated in the post leaves a false sense of hope that some abusers may repent and be reconciled with their victims. However, abusers professing to be Christians are identified as having denied the faith and being worse than unbelievers.

    1 Timothy 5: 8. NASB, “But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.”

    More could be said. Please revisit and reconsider.

    Thank you.


    • Hi Sister thank you so much for your critique. You are right. At the very least, I ought to have defined what I meant by a “seared conscience”.

      I am going to reply more tomorrow when I am fresh. It’s nearly 9pm here. If you or any other readers have suggestions about how I can amend the post I am most open to hearing them.

    • I’m going to re-write this post in light of Sister‘s feedback. I may take a few days to do it, as this coming weekend I have a family wedding to go to.

  5. Hopeful

    Hello Barbara,

    This series your wrote on Joseph is very good. This last blog was the icing on the cake. You know how hard it will be for any survivors to genuinely emerge victor because the lack of living support from the “church” is this bad. Thank you so much for your work.

    Do not despair. Please reach out to me the next time you do.

    We genuine survivors of spiritual, emotional, and domestic abuse need to support one another. Too many want to be “Christian writer celebrities.”

    Check out my FB posts in the last two weeks. Since my friends cannot be trusted, I’ve gone public, why hide? My daughter is old enough to understand. Adonai is our protector.

    All the best, Hopeful

    • Hi Hopeful! Thanks for your comment 🙂

      I will certainly reach out to you if I get close to despair! I am currently feeling pretty good in my mood and my overall situation. I am getting support from various health professionals (the chiropractor I found is a God-send!) and I’m being supported and encouraged privately from time to time by some of the ACFJ readers. At least one of my readers prays for me every day, and she texts me scriptures every day that the Lord tells her to text to her ‘list of friends and family’. Sometimes she texts me a scripture that the Lord tells her only to send to me.

      So overall I’m doing okay. It’s summer here and there is no lockdown, which helps!

  6. Sally Graham

    Very well written.

  7. Helpful visual reference

    Excellent depiction of what to consider if / when faced with those family members (and possibly others) who had been abusive. Particularly helpful is the distinction of what wisdom looks like when testing. Joseph’s story had a happy ending, ours may not end as such, but his strength in the testing is a great point of reference if we are placed in the similar situation. Joseph had MANY years of no contact with the family of abusers before he was inadvertently placed in the situation where he had to test – he didn’t go seeking it.

    • I like the point you made that “Joseph was inadvertently placed in the situation where he had to test — he didn’t go seeking it.” Yes indeed; Joseph was not told by ‘religious leaders’ that he had to seek his brothers and try to reconcile with them. That’s a big difference between a Christian abuse victim’s experience and Joseph’s experience. The ‘c’hristian church often pressures victims to seek reconciliation with their abusers.

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