Editor’s note: This Lent season, Bread Blog is running a series of devotionals written by staff, alumni, and friends of the San Francisco Theological Seminary, which is affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
By Joe Chapman
Genesis 50:15-21 describes how Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. After their father dies, Joseph’s brothers grow anxious that he will “pay [them] back in full for all the wrong that [they] did to him” (Gen. 50:15). They come up with a plan. They tell Joseph that their father “gave instructions . . . to forgive the crime of your brothers” (Gen. 50:16-17). And Joseph weeps, not because he necessarily believes their story, but because he sees their fear and it moves him. How did Joseph find the compassion to forgive his brothers? Or, to offer an example from this nation, how did the family members of the victims find it in their hearts to forgive Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who murdered their children, parents, and spouses in Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church? In each story we marvel at the courage it took to forgive, but perhaps we should also marvel at the imagination it took to even conceive of forgiveness, an ethical act that is beyond ethics. I find myself wondering: how was it possible for Joseph, and for the families of Mother Emmanuel, to turn toward those who had harmed them, when it would have been infinitely easier to turn away?
In Sunday school, we’re often encouraged to see the major characters of the Hebrew Bible as heroic. Not only are many of the characters in Genesis as flawed as we are, but, even more challenging, their heroism doesn’t fit neatly into our ideas of heroism. Joseph listens, not to what his brothers are saying, but to what’s in their hearts. And he weeps for and with them. He weeps for their fear of him and estrangement from him. He then weeps with them as they remember their father together. Joseph listens, grieves, and forgives heroically, but our revenge-saturated action movies would not have a role for him, nor would he make a decent comic book hero. (I challenge you to find a Marvel superhero whose special power is listening.) Instead, Joseph is thoroughly human, as the notable intertextual allusion at the end of Genesis shows. At the beginning of Genesis, when the serpent convinces the woman to eat the fruit, he tells her, “You will not die . . . and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4-5). At the close of Genesis, though, Joseph, in his humility and humanity, reassures his brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” (Gen. 50:21). It’s a quiet yet stunning reversal of the hubris of Genesis 3.
It is also a turn toward the forgiveness and grace that we will find in Christ.
Joe Chapman is pursuing a Master of Divinity at San Francisco Theological Seminary.