Here is a list of the posts in my series on blindness.
Don Hennessy speaks with wisdom and compassion. Much good info here.
One thing I learned that I hadn’t heard before was Don giving more details about the Cork Relationship Counseling Centre’s experience of running groups for male perpetrators. After running those groups for a while, they realised that the groups were doing more harm than good.
- The abusers were learning new abusive strategies from each other.
- The target women were expecting the men’s groups to reform their partners / ex-partners, so they felt let down by the counseling centre.
The counselors keep running the men’s groups for a while longer, not in the expectation they would be able to change the men for the better, but in order to study the men to be able to find a language that described the abusive men’s mentality and strategies.
They eventually concluded that men who abuse their intimate female partners were using the same strategies as PEDOPHILES — targetting, setting up, and grooming. They also concluded that men who abuse adult women in intimate relationships are better at targetting, setting up and grooming than pedophiles are.
This interview of Don Hennessy was done in 2018, but I have only just found it.
I will be adding this post to my Don Hennessy Digest. If you want to learn more about Don’s work, click that link.
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
After their father died, the ten older brothers were afraid of Joseph’s anger. This post explores why. It also discusses the value of comprehensive horizontal confession: confessing in detail to the person we have hurt exactly how we sinned against them.
(Gen 50:14-15) After Joseph buried his father, he returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone with him to bury his father.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said to one another, “If Joseph is holding a grudge against us, he will certainly repay us for all the suffering we caused him.”
They worried that Joseph had not fully forgiven them. They thought that perhaps Joseph had been concealing his grudge while their father was alive, but now that their father was dead there would be nothing to restrain him from taking vengeance on them.
Why were they so anxious about this? There is no indication in the entire Genesis narrative that Joseph had been privately nursing (let alone subtly emanating) resentment against his brothers. Everything Joseph had said and done had been godly.
It seems to me that the older brothers still had unquiet consciences about their abuse of Joseph even though twenty-two years had elapsed since their emigration to Egypt. I suggest that the brothers were anxious because they had accepted Joseph’s forgiveness and enjoyed the privileges he bestowed on them, but they had never confessed in detail all their sins to Joseph. Having observed and heard about the behaviour of many abusers, having studied the abuser’s way of thinking, this hypothesis makes sense to me.
At no time after Joseph had revealed his identity to them do we ever see them saying to Joseph anything like this: “Our consciences are gnawing at us. We did wrong — terrible wrong — when we hated you, mocked your dreams, were jealous of you, held you in contempt, plotted to kill you, threw you into a pit, sat beside the pit and ate food without offering you any, sold you to the Midianites, and concocted a lie to our father that you had been killed by wild animals. To make matters worse, we then hypocritically comforted our father in his grief. We let our father believe our lie for years. We repeated that lie to you when we came to buy grain. We kept on allowing our father to believe that lie until you compelled us to reveal our deception to him. Thank you for pressing us so hard that we had to tell our father the truth. Thank you for your great kindness to us; we did not deserve it.”
Nor do we see Judah saying to Joseph anything like this: “I have something particular to confess. It was my idea to sell you to the Midianites. I was more greedy than merciful. I wanted to make money out of you rather than simply leave you in the pit.”
On their second grain-buying trip to Egypt, when the silver cup had been found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah had made a confession of sorts to the Governor (Joseph): “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead? How can we justify ourselves? God has exposed your servants’ iniquity.” (Gen. 44:16) On the surface, Judah had been confessing about the cup and the money in their sacks. However, the ten older brothers privately knew the deeper meaning of Judah’s confession: God was harrowing their calloused hearts and exposing to them their old iniquities — their abuse of their brother Joseph and their deception of their father.
Now, years after that superficial confession, their father had died and they were anxious about Joseph becoming vengeful. One way the brothers could have dealt with their anxiety would have been to seek a face-to-face meeting with Joseph to confess their sins in detail. But rather than doing that, they sent this message to Joseph:
(50:16-18) So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before he died your father gave a command: ‘Say this to Joseph: Please forgive your brothers’ transgression and their sin—the suffering they caused you.’ Therefore, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when their message came to him. His brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your servants!”
I wonder — did Jacob really command the ten older brothers to ask Joseph to forgive them? Or did the brothers make up Jacob’s deathbed speech? If they simply invented it, that would have been another lie to save their own skin. People who are reforming their character defects can sometimes slip back (even if only temporarily) into their old self-serving behaviours. (I know this from working on my own character reformation.)
On the other hand, if Jacob actually had instructed the brothers to humbly ask Joseph for forgiveness, why did the brothers repeat Jacob’s words to Joseph? Why not just send Joseph a message like this: “Please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father. Please forgive our sins against you. Please forgive us for all the suffering we caused you.” Was there any need for them to preface their request by quoting Jacob’s speech? Did they think that by introducing their request with Jacob’s words they would influence Joseph to be generous towards them?
On a related note, if Jacob actually did say those words to the brothers before he died, he must have had an inkling that their consciences were not wholly clear. Maybe Jacob was aware that the brothers were feeling anxious about Joseph paying them back for the suffering they caused him. The Bible does not narrate the episode where the brothers confessed to their father that they had deceived him about Joseph’s disappearance, but what transpired during that episode may have revealed a lot to Jacob about how the brothers were feeling about themselves and how they were feeling about their abuse of Joseph.
Jacob had been a deceiver in his youth. He had deceived his own father, thus obtaining the blessing which Isaac had meant to give to Esau. He knew how deceivers thought! He had fled from Esau’s wrath, spent years working for his uncle Laban in Syria, and on his way back to Canaan, he had wrestled with God. He had been very afraid that Esau would take vengeance on him, despite all those years having passed. As he grew old, he would have reflected on all this. And he wanted the best for all his sons.
Ideally, confession needs to be horizontal as well as vertical. Sometimes it is not possible to confess to the person I hurt — that person might have died, or I do not know how to contact them. But that was not the case with these brothers. The older brothers needed to confess and beg Joseph’s forgiveness from a place of complete humility and transparency. Not because Joseph had to hear this to be satisfied, but because a full confession brings cleansing.
The following two verses are about vertical confession but — by extension — they have some application to horizontal confession.
If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
For if you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised him up from death, you will be safe. For the belief of the heart justifies, and to acknowledge [confess] with the mouth makes a man safe. (Rom. 10:9-10)
Vertical confession needs to be accompanied by horizontal confession (if possible).
Therefore when you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way first and be reconciled to your brother; and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24)
Horizontal confession — confessing to the person I hurt — helps me keep a clean conscience before God. If I resist the pricks of my conscience that tell me to make horizontal confession to someone I have wronged, my conscience gnaws at me. I know it is sinful to squash my conscience when it is instructing me rightly. (‘Rightly’ is a key word in that last sentence. Over the years of my recovery from abuse, I’ve been learning to differentiate false guilt from real guilt.)
Not that my acts of confession justify me. My works, whatever they are, do not justify me. Faith alone justifies. William Tyndale set this forth beautifully in his Prologue to Romans:
When I say that faith alone justifies, understand that only faith and trust in the truth of God and in the mercy promised to us in Christ Jesus, and him crucified, obtains this reconciliation with God, confers Christ’s innocence upon us so that we are pronounced righteous, and assures our consciences that our sins are forgiven, and we are in the full favour of God.
The words the brothers used when they sent their message to Joseph are illuminating: “And now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father.” Those words echo a phrase used by Joseph’s steward — “Your God and the God of your father…” (Gen 43:23). In saying ‘the God of thy father’’, the brothers were acknowledging that Jacob’s God was the right God. In saying ‘the God of thy father’ they were implicitly acknowledging that Joseph had never rejected God, whereas they had rejected God. So they were saying: You were right, we were wrong; we spurned the true God when we abused you, we were not true Israelites; but we now plead to come back. Their words acknowledged that they had gone into apostasy as abusers, which Joseph had implicitly accused them of when his ‘divining’ cup was missing.
(50:19-21 ) But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Here we see two things. Firstly, Joseph does not minimise or ignore their wrongdoing — he names it squarely: you planned evil against me. Secondly, we see Joseph’s forgiveness, his love for his brothers, and his longing to nurture them.
* * *
Genesis quotes are from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). NT quotes are from the New Matthew Bible (NMB).
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 3: Reconciled with his brothers
Part 4: Is this post
A list of all the posts in my series “Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?”
If I ever get the time to write more posts in this series, I will add them to this list.
Note: Numbers 5 & 6 in this list also belong to another series (the Joseph series).
Joseph would have been glad to see his older brothers again, but he still did not know how far he could trust them. In order to test them he had set them up with charges of theft (see part 2 of this series). Now he needed to see how they would respond.
(Gen 44:14 -16 CSB) When Judah and his brothers reached Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell to the ground before him. “What have you done?” Joseph said to them. “Didn’t you know that a man like me could uncover the truth by divination?”
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “How can we plead? How can we justify ourselves? God has exposed your servants’ iniquity. We are now my lord’s slaves—both we and the one in whose possession the cup was found.”
The brothers prostrated themselves before Joseph for a third time. It seems that by default the older brothers let Judah be their spokesman. To Joseph’s formal accusation, Judah proclaimed and confessed that they were all guilty, that God knew their iniquity, and that, although only one was culpable for the cup, they all deserved and would gladly take punishment.
Judah said “God has exposed your servants’ iniquity.” Was it a good sign that Judah referenced God in his confession? At face value, Judah was confessing their collective guilt for stealing the cup and the money. Joseph knew they had not stolen those things, therefore the guilt they claimed to feel was false guilt. But previously, Joseph had overheard them talking their true guilt for selling him into slavery and telling their father he was killed by wild animals.
Perhaps it was a good sign that under the accusation of theft the brothers seem to have properly felt the helplessness that comes from knowing one’s sins are abhorrent to God. But an abuser can readily confess guilt when under pressure. The question is, what does the abuser do after such a confession? In this case, Judah said ‘we will all be your slaves’. This was not just a promise to go to counseling. It was not a vague promise to be good from now on. It was offering themselves as lifelong slaves to the Governor of Egypt.
(44:17-23) Then Joseph said, “I swear that I will not do this. The man in whose possession the cup was found will be my slave. The rest of you can go in peace to your father.”
But Judah approached him and said, “My lord, please let your servant speak personally to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, for you are like Pharaoh. My lord asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ and we answered my lord, ‘We have an elderly father and a younger brother, the child of his old age. The boy’s brother is dead. He is the only one of his mother’s sons left, and his father loves him.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him to me so that I can see him.’ But we said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father. If he were to leave, his father would die.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘If your younger brother does not come down with you, you will not see me again.’”
Judah respectfully reminded the Governor of the moral dilemma he had placed them in when they last left Egypt. The Governor had instructed them to bring Benjamin to Egypt even though it might kill their father to part with him. In reiterating that former conversation, Judah repeated the old lie that one of their brothers was dead. Hmm… to what extent had the brothers reformed from what they had been twenty years ago?
(44:24-31) “This is what happened when we went back to your servant my father: We reported to him the words of my lord. But our father said, ‘Go again, and buy us a little food.’ We told him, ‘We cannot go down unless our younger brother goes with us. If our younger brother isn’t with us, we cannot see the man.’ Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One is gone from me — I said he must have been torn to pieces — and I have never seen him again. If you also take this one from me and anything happens to him, you will bring my gray hairs down to the grave in sorrow.’ So if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us — his life is wrapped up with the boy’s life — when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. Then your servants will have brought the gray hairs of your servant our father down to the grave in sorrow.”
Judah’s speech seems to demonstrate compassionate empathy for his father. The beautiful phrase his life is wrapped up with the boy’s life could indicate that the brothers had changed for the better.
One of the pains of being abused is being constantly misunderstood — being blamed for things that aren’t your fault, being told you have attitudes or motives or feelings that you don’t have at all. A victim yearns to be understood and believed. A victim yearns for true empathy.
Judah and his brothers had been selfish. But now in Judah’s speech we hear selflessness, putting the needs of another before one’s own. This selflessness is what victims of abuse have longed for, prayed for, believed for, hoped for, from their spouse… and have tried to demonstrate to their spouse, despite the continual trauma of abuse.
Let’s go back to Judah. Speechifying is not enough. Do self-sacrificial actions follow?
44:32-34 “Your servant became accountable to my father for the boy, saying, ‘If I do not return him to you, I will always bear the guilt for sinning against you, my father.’ Now please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave, in place of the boy. Let him go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the grief that would overwhelm my father.”
Judah brought his plea to a climax by offering to take Benjamin’s punishment on himself. He had promised his father that he would make sure Benjamin came home. Now he was following through with that promise.
An unreformed abuser might have rehearsed his opening speech to the Governor, but when Judah says “I could not bear to see the grief that would overwhelm my father”, his spontaneous words have the ring of true empathy. Here we see reformed selflessness; the Christ-type of which Ephesians 5:25 speaks.
(Gen 45:1-3) Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers. But he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and also Pharaoh’s household heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But they could not answer him because they were terrified in his presence.
The emotional drama of this moment is all the greater for its being so long held off. Joseph, who had restrained his tender emotions so well, was now free to release them, discerning that it was safe to do so. Knowing the bridge had been fully inspected by the engineers and discovered to be sound. Knowing that the individuals on the other side of the bridge were not going to throw his pearls before swine. Knowing that his own selflessness would be met by comparably selfless (if rather shocked!) hearts. Knowing that now the relationship would be one of mutuality and respect.
45:4-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please, come near me,” and they came near. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Joseph sought to put their minds at ease. They had felt the anxiety and terror of conviction; they had repented and demonstrated fruits of repentance. Now it was right that they feel the joyous grace of forgiveness, and the sweetness of knowing that the whole bitter history could be forgotten. He assured them that he held no resentment against them because it had all been part of God’s plan, and for a purpose. So completely had he forgiven them that he did not even think to mention it. Instead he urged them to forgive themselves. (Rom. 8:28)
The narrative goes on to record the happy invitation Joseph was now able to make — to have all his family come and live in Egypt and be nourished for the next five years of famine. The brothers were astonished.
45:14 -15 Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.
Next, Pharaoh himself confirmed Joseph’s offer, and spelt out its generous terms: they were to bring the whole extended family to Egypt, with their animals, and eat of the fat of the land, and not worry about bringing their household goods, for ‘the good of all the land of Egypt is yours’.
45:21-24 The sons of Israel did this. Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he gave them provisions for the journey. He gave each of the brothers changes of clothes, but he gave Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothes. He sent his father the following: ten donkeys carrying the best products of Egypt and ten female donkeys carrying grain, food, and provisions for his father on the journey. So Joseph sent his brothers on their way, and as they were leaving, he said to them, “Don’t argue on the way.”
Although he no longer needed to test them, Joseph bestowed still more gifts on Benjamin than the other ten brothers. This was his prerogative and an expression of his special affection for Benjamin; but he may also have done it as an aid for the others — to help them remember and practice their new-found unselfishness, to consolidate the learning they had already made.
George Athas, Professor of Hebrew at Moore College Sydney, says,¹ “We should remember that clothing in the ancient world was far more valuable than today, since it took far longer to produce without modern technologies, and only the wealthy tended to have more than one set of clothes.”
Joseph’s caution “Don’t argue on the way” was wise. They were going back to Jacob and would have to make a clean breast of it with him. While Joseph had been forgiving, the older brothers might well be anxious about recriminations from their father. And Benjamin might have had questions for them on the journey; they would have had to respond to Benjamin with humility and honesty. The word ‘argue’ is a Hebrew word meaning to quiver (with violent emotion, especially anger or fear), be agitated, quake, be excited, perturbed. Joseph was telling his brothers not to be agitated, not to give way to fear or anger on the journey. In other words, Joseph was well aware that after character reformation, there is need for vigilance to make sure the good fruit lasts. All learning comes by repetition and practice.
We can leave this chapter, and (almost) our narrative here. The brothers broke the good news to their father, no recriminations happened, and the emigration of the family took place successfully. There is one little postscript to this saga of abuse and reconciliation, however, which is interesting. In the next part of this series we will move several chapters ahead, to the death of Jacob, who died in Egypt but was buried in Canaan, according to his wish.
¹ Private communication from George Athas who has kindly sent me a section of his draft MS for his forthcoming book Bridging the Testaments (to be published by Zondervan).
Note: I changed ‘Sheol’ to ‘the grave’ in Gen 44:24-31. For more on the meaning and translation of ‘Sheol’, see this article by Ruth Magnusson Davis.
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 3: Is this post.