Scripture text: Genesis 50:19-20
Most Christians only hear the Bible read in church. That means that they customarily hear Scripture read in short fragments, fragments either assigned by the lectionary or chosen by the preacher.
When we listen to Scripture in fragments, we miss the wider context in which those fragments are embedded. And in missing the wider context, we also are inclined to miss major themes that are being developed in a Biblical book as a whole.
A good example is the Book of Genesis. A significant motif in Genesis is the bitter strife that develops over and over again between an elder and a younger brother. These rivalries always end in some kind of tragedy.
Brothers Cain and Abel become rivals. The rivalry ends in Abel’s murder and Cain’s condemnation to a life of wandering exile. Ishmael and Isaac become rivals. It ends in Ishmael’s banishment from Abraham’s family.
Esau and Jacob begin fighting already in their mother’s womb. Their strife ends in Jacob stealing Esau’s birthright and having to flee for his life.
And then we come to Jacob’s family, where the history of family dysfunction continues unabated. Joseph, son of Jacob’s younger wife Rachel, so inflames the jealousy of his older half brothers that they sell him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph becomes as good as dead to Jacob and his family.
But it is easy to overlook how this cycle of fraternal strife is broken at the end of Genesis. When his brothers reappear in Egypt seeking grain during the famine, Joseph has every reason to seek vengeance for the terrible injury done to him.
There is a hint, however, that his brothers feel some sense of remorse for what they did to Joseph years before. When Joseph demands his brother Benjamin as a hostage, Judah offers to step in and take his place, so their father will not be sent into mourning twice. Given this change of heart, Joseph is able to forgive his brothers and swear off vengeance.
He does so, saying, “Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (Genesis 50:19-20).
The pattern that begins with Cain and Abel is broken. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King, the fractured community is reconstituted as the beloved community. And if it has happened for Jacob’s family, it can happen for other families as well. We easily miss this promise of hope, if we are not paying attention to the wh