Forgiving and Forgetting?

Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him. -Genesis 44:1-2

The story of Joseph appears to be all “on the surface.” Joseph first rises to power in his family, becoming preferred to take over the family business (the message of the coat of many colors), and is sold into slavery. Then Joseph rises to the head of Potiphar’s household, only to be betrayed by Potiphar’s wife, and put into jail. Here Joseph rises again to the top of the jail, and is finally called forth to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. Joseph again rises to the occasion, becoming, in effect, in charge of Egyptian grain production, if not Egypt itself.

But then his brothers come to buy grain. Has Joseph forgiven them for selling him into slavery (or having cause him to be sold into slavery)? From all appearances, he has. He does not yell at them, or degrade them, or take advantage of them. When Joseph finally does reveal himself to them, he doesn’t do so in anger, but in joy. He assures them that he is not angry, and tells them not to be angry at themselves, for God has worked out the entire situation through his providential care to save the lives of many people. But there is one point in this entire story that doesn’t make sense, if we view it with modern eyes.

Why did Joseph test his brothers?

Was it to be a lesson from God? The Scriptures don’t say so —in Genesis 44:1, above, we are clearly told this was a test designed and administered by Joseph to test his brothers? To test them for what? We have a single clue in the meaning of the cup Joseph chose to use in the test itself —the cup of divining. We can be certain Joseph didn’t really use this cup to divine the future —a process of dropping stones or other objects into wine or oil, and using the resulting swirls to determine the future. For Joseph was Godly, and would never have engaged in such a practice.

But there is another way in which the word “divining” can be used. To divine can also mean to test someone’s character, in order to find out how they would really act in a given situation. Does this fit the test Joseph has set up? It certainly appears to. Joseph works hard to show his brothers that they are being blessed by giving them more grain than they deserve, and returning their money. Joseph goes out of his way to make Benjamin the center of attention multiple times —first in insisting that they bring Benjamin the next time they come to buy food, and then treating Benjamin as the favored guest. This was evidently designed to stir up the jealousy of the brothers, to make them react against Benjamin as they had reacted against him.

But why would Joseph care about divining the character of his brothers? Hasn’t he already forgiven them? And aren’t we told to forgive and forget? Or are we?

Here, in this story, shows the reaction of a Godly man —and Joseph is nothing if he is not Godly— to being mistreated in a way probably too horrible for us to imagine. The key to understanding Joseph’s reaction is that he doesn’t trust his brothers outright. He has forgiven, but he hasn’t forgotten. He doesn’t want to put himself into the power of his brothers again until he knows he can trust them.

We have been taught, as Christians, that we should simply forgive those who wrong us, acting as though nothing has ever happened, and will never happen again. Joseph shows us, with his life, another way —forgive, and maybe even forget, but that doesn’t mean to jump off the same cliff again without looking at what’s below. Trust needs to be rebuilt on the basis of forgiveness, rather than resulting from the forgiveness itself.

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