Difficulties in Forgiving: Joseph and his Brothers

Joseph_and_His_Brethren_Welcomed_by_PharaohThe story of Jacob’s return to Esau illustrates the difficulty of believing in, let alone accepting forgiveness. (See Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau) The story of Joseph and his brothers takes us primarily through the difficulties of forgiving.

As a youth, Joseph is a victim of collective violence. As is often the case with such victims, Joseph has been singled out both for adulation (by his father) and opprobrium (by his brothers). In contrast to the origin of collective violence as envisioned by René Girard there are a couple of cracks in the unanimity to kill the victim. Both Reuben and Judah differ and try to save Joseph but their plans are foiled. If either had had the courage to stand up to the other brothers, each would have had an instant ally and together they would likely have turned the tide and saved Joseph from his near-death in the pit.

Joseph’s serene words that it was God, not his brothers, who had sent him to Egypt and that although they had meant him harm, God had used it for good, taken by themselves, suggest an easy forgiveness on the part of Joseph, but the story is—well—another story.

While Esau welcomed Jacob back with open arms in spite of the harm Jacob had done him, Joseph does no such thing. Like Esau, Joseph has done very well in spite of his brothers’ intent to hurt him, in fact he benefitted in the end from what they had done to him, but Joseph holds back and remembers his youthful dream where his brothers bowed to him. Joseph goes on to play an elaborate series of mind games that amount to torture. It is possible that Joseph’s harsh way of speaking to his brothers was an act, the beginning of an educative process, but I can’t help but feel that the anger was very real and at least a little raw. As a test to see if they can treat the youngest, Benjamin, better than they treated him, it was hardly necessary to lock Simeon in prison for a year and threaten his own family with starvation if they didn’t obey all of the demands that could make little sense to them. Joseph’s father Jacob also suffers because of this treatment, which may also be intentional. In my pastoral experience, I have found that one who was a favored child carries a heavy burden from this favoritism rather than finding it a blessing. Sadly, while Jacob never showed any repentance for the way he treated Esau, Joseph’s brothers have such a guilty conscience that they think that their suffering at the hands of Egypt’s steward is a just punishment for what they had done to Joseph.

As things turn out, it is Judah, not Joseph, who triggers Joseph’s forgiveness by offering himself as a slave to spare Benjamin that fate. Since Judah had wanted to save Joseph in the first place, he is not a reconstructed persecutor but a man showing a compassionate heart for a younger brother that he has always had. The difference is that while Judah was cowardly before, he is brave this time around and his bravery is awarded. Joseph is won over and he forgives his brothers, but not until he has worked through tons of anger on his own part. It was his intention to put his brothers to the test, but in a sense he himself was put to the test by Judah. Fortunately, Joseph had the grace to give up his control of the situation which he had lost anyway and cry on the necks of his brothers.

Following carefully in our own hearts Joseph’s steps to forgiveness: his anger, his pride, his manipulations, and but also his crucial willingness to accept help from a brother when he needed it, can be a way for us to track our own difficulties of forgiving the hurts we have received in life and move through them to an awareness that although certain people intended us harm, God has used these harmful actions for good.

For more on the difficulties of forgiveness see A Miserable Gospel.

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The Difficulties of Forgiveness (1): Jacob and Esau

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauWe are commanded to forgive by the teaching of Jesus and Jesus taught us to pray that we forgive those who wrong us as we forgive them for their wrongs against us. The petition in the Our Father for forgiveness suggests that accepting forgiveness can be at least as difficult as forgiving. Remaining oblivious to this latter difficulty reflects our prior difficulty in forgiving and I suspect it makes it all the harder for us to forgive. The two stories that conclude the book of Genesis help us move through our own difficulties by following through the difficulties experienced by Jacob and his son Joseph. We all know how difficult it is to forgive. We tend to overlook how difficult it can be to accept forgiveness.

The story of Jacob and Esau is a telling illustration of the difficulty in believing in forgiveness, let alone accepting it. Jacob had patently wronged his brother Esau in stealing Esau’s blessing and Jacob fled for his life with a guilty conscience. Years later, after similar wrangling with Laban, Jacob returns with his wives, his children and his flocks which had all grown too plentiful for Laban’s taste. Jacob has every reason to fear what will happen when he meets up again with Esau. Hearing that Esau is coming with four hundred men was not reassuring. The nighttime struggle with a dark figure seems to project Jacob’s combatant personality. Still the shifty coward he’s always been, Jacob puts the wives and children he cares about least in the most vulnerable positions in the front so that he can escape with his favored sons if need be.

What happens is an amazing surprise. Esau embraces Jacob with no reservations and not the slightest sign of resentment. No matter how many times one reads or hears the story, it is hard to believe. Jacob doesn’t believe it. Repentance and forgiveness aren’t really Jacob’s things. Jacob’s words: “truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God” are among the most profound words in the entire Bible for the ultimate revelation is Divine Mercy in a human face. But, as I said, Jacob can’t believe it even after this warm greeting. Jacob turns down the invitation to travel with Esau, using the excuse that he can’t drive his flocks too hard in one day. (Benedict quoted this verse in his Rule to illustrate the need for the abbot not to drive his monastics too hard!) Jacob, still shifty and cowardly, manages to avoid ever meeting up again with his brother for the rest of his life. Think of the years of friendship and companionship they missed out on!

The story is complicated by the later history of Edom, the people descended from Esau which reach a climax in Paul’s quoting, In Romans, Malachi 1:3: “Yet I have loved Jacob, but hated Esau.” In spite of Esau’s forgiveness narrated in Genesis, Edom has not been forgiven by Israel for its siding with their enemies in several wars. That Edom never recovered from the Assyrian invasion seemed to confirm that. The unflattering portrayal of Esau as a stupid, hairy oaf who sells his birthright for a pot of soup is perhaps another way of expressing Israel’s grudge against Edom. And yet this stupid hairy oaf suffered a terrible wrong from his unrepentant brother, moved on and built up his own flocks rather than spending his life in resentment, and forgave his brother. The story of these two brothers is often presented, including by Paul, to illustrate the mystery of God’s election. Jacob is the one chosen to carry on the Covenant, but the rejected brother, Esau, is the one much more in the place of Christ both in his rejection and in his forgiveness. Can repentance and forgiveness be strong enough in our lives for us to believe forgiveness when we see it?

See also Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2)

Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (2): Abraham’s Offspring

Jacob_Blessing_the_Children_of_Joseph_-_WGA19117[Continuation of Mimetic Blessing through Abraham (1): Cain and Abel

God promised Abraham that he would have as many descendants as the dust of the earth. (Gen. 13:16) I like the later image of the stars in the sky and the grains of sand on the seashore (Gen 22:17) but the earlier image ties in with the creation of humanity out of dust, thus making it clear that descendants of Abraham (like us) are part of God’s ongoing creation. That’s how expansive God’s blessing and being God’s blessing can be.

When Abraham and his nephew Lot found there was tension between their herdsmen, Abraham suggested that they separate and he gave Lot the choice of taking the land to the left or the land to the right. This is quite the opposite from what most of us do which is the first see what the other desires and then desire it for ourselves. Instead, Abraham renounces desiring what his nephew desires and goes in the other direction. (The better-looking land turned out to have its liabilities but that is another story.)

Unfortunately, Abraham does not renounce mimetic desire and rivalry when it comes to his sons Ishmael and Isaac. In spite of being called to be a blessing and promised as many descendants as the dust of the earth, Abraham fails to believe that both of his sons can inherit the blessing he has been given by God. Far from fighting each other, Ishmael and Isaac play well together but they fall victim to the rivalry between their mothers. (Women are equal participants in the mimetic rivalry game in Genesis.) Abraham casts Ishmael out so that his favorite son born of Sarah can inherit the blessing. God, however, makes it clear that there is a blessing for Ishmael, too, even if Abraham did not believe it.

Following his father’s example, Isaac assumes that only one of his two sons can receive his blessing and, like Abraham, he wants to give it to his favorite son. Rebekah’s involvement in this rivalry causes this Isaac’s scheme to misfire. This time, it is the son who receives (takes) the blessing who is exiled where Jacob spends many years in rivalry with his kinsman Laban. When Esau re-enters the story on Jacob’s return, we can see that Esau has done well for himself and has no need to envy his brother’s success. Apparently there was a lot more of a blessing left for Esau than Isaac thought.

Jacob stubbornly upholds the family tradition of disbelief in the scope of God’s blessing and singles out his favorite, Joseph, over/against his ten older brothers. This time the fratricidal strife has enough brothers to create a scenario of collective violence. In contrast to the primitive sacred, however, the unanimity is not complete. Both Reuben and Judah, separately, make plans to save Joseph but they both fail. If they had stood up to their brothers, the mimetic process would likely have been redirected in a peaceful direction. The upshot of the story is that Joseph ends up becoming a blessing to Egypt and to lands far beyond and he saves his own family through his foresight in collecting food during the years of plenty. (Joseph’s making the Egyptians buy back the food that had been taken from them does make Joseph less generous than his God.)

Before he dies, Jacob blesses the two sons of Joseph: Ephraim and Manasseh. He crosses his hands to indicate that Ephraim will be greater than his elder brother, but he gives both boys the same blessing. Finally, through excruciatingly painful experience, Jacob has learned that God has blessings for all of Abraham’s offspring.

Twin Killings

220px-Rubens_Reconciliation_of_Jacob_and_EsauIn baseball a twin killing is a double play: two outs on one batted ball. “Two for the price of one,” as the great Detroit Tigers great sportscaster Ernie Harwell called it. Double plays are a legitimate part of baseball. But there is another kind of twin killing that has been a part of humanity until close to the present day that is not legitimate: the killing of twins.

Why was one, and sometimes, both twins been killed in early societies? René Girard suggests that it was the fear of what he called “mimetic doubles,” two people united through conflict. After the social chaos was resolved by collective violence, societies created structures to prevent the repeat of the chaos as much as possible. Twins, especially identical twins, were too much of an image of the indifferentiation that lead to conflict. They could not be allowed to live. During the time of chaos, indifferentiation was precisely the problem as differences between people melted in the heat of conflict. It is obvious to us now that these babies were innocent victims of society’s fear of mimetic doubles, but in today’s society where social differences are dissolving, perhaps we should fear, not twin babies, but mimetic doubles.

The authors of Genesis had no illusions about the danger of mimetic doubles. Brothers paired off against each other are the driving force of the book, culminating in Joseph’s brothers ganging up on him. Jacob and Esau were twins. The conflict that kept them apart for many years finally resolved in an uneasy reconciliation as Esau turned out to be more forgiving for the wrongs done him than Jacob ever believed possible.

Lois Lowry’s chilling dystopia The Giver also has a twin killing. The society is shown to be peaceful but colorless. (Literally so, as we learn when the protagonist, Matthew, begins to see colors.) It becomes apparent that everything is designed to prevent conflict. There is no courtship or sex; medication stifles the latter and babies are grown in test tubes, implanted in adolescent girls, and distributed to couples, each of whom gets one boy and one girl. Not surprisingly, the cost of this “peaceful” society is high. When Matthew is apprenticed to the Giver, he learns that it is his job to keep track of everything that is happening via TV monitors but to do nothing unless asked, as the job is consultative only. A day or two before Matthew makes his escape, he watches his own father “release” one of two twin babies with a lethal injection, the normal way of releasing somebody. (The elderly are so released at a certain age after a celebration of their lives.)

Much else is shown to be wrong with this society but the killing of a twin shows clearly enough that preserving the peace by squelching mimetic doubles inevitably institutionalizes violence, even if, as in Lowry’s society, it is kept invisible. René Girard would argue that one of many effects of the Cross and Resurrection is that we don’t kill twins and we have the freedom to build God’s kingdom where we actualize the freedom shown by Esau to forgive and then later by Joseph to his brothers. It is no longer possible for social structures to contain the potential violence of mimetic doubles in conflict. It is possible, and in our times, necessary to renounce conflict, even if it means forgiving the theft of a blessing. This renunciation leads to its own blessings. After all, Esau had done pretty well for himself while Jacob was away.