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“Accept my offer. Take me instead of him to be your servant: … I want atonement, atonement for all. Here, before you, strange man, I take the frightful oath we brothers swore – with both hands I take that oath and break it in two across my knee. Our eleventh brother, the father’s ewe lamb, first son of the true wife, him the beast did not rend; but we, his brothers sold him into the world” (Thomas Mann, Joseph and his brothers; English translation: Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter).
For the healing of the deep wounds of the primary relationships of our lives (brotherhood), there is a vital need of time. We never really get reconciled if we do not let the pain/love penetrate to the core of the wounded relationship, to be absorbed there and to slowly heal it. But what is most needed are the actions as they communicate in the language of behaviour that we want, really, to start over.
The second part of the cycle of Joseph is a wonderful lesson on the process of the reconstruction of denied fraternity, especially of the broken brotherhoods where there is a victim, an innocent man who succeeds in reaching forgiveness and reconciliation after a long and painful journey. After the first seven years of abundance (of the ‘fat cows’), there came a harsh famine, ‘but in all the land of Egypt there was bread.’ (Genesis 41:54).
The famine reached Canaan, too. Jacob-Israel ‘learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt’ (42:1), and he sent his sons to the land of the Nile. The sons left, except Benjamin, his last born by Rachel. Jacob kept him home, because ‘he feared that harm might happen to him.’ (42:4). The same harm that had happened years before to Joseph who now awaited them, having become “visir”, in Egypt (41:40). It is not uncommon that it is a “famine” that makes us reconcile after many years of conflict. Joseph, still as a young boy, was sold into slavery by those brothers whom now, as an adult, he is saving by giving them grain.
With the arrival of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt, a narrative masterpiece of the Bible begins. Joseph immediately recognized his brothers, but ‘they did not recognize him’ (42:8).
Genesis does not tell us much about the emotions of Joseph in that meeting. It says only that ‘he treated them like strangers’, and that he ‘spoke roughly to them’ (42:7), and also that ‘he remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them’ (42:9). He accuses them of being spies, and sends them into prison. As a price for their release, he asks them to return home and bring their ‘youngest brother’ (42:15), Benjamin to him. In the meantime, he holds one of them (Simeon) hostage, earnest of their return (42:24). The nine brothers depart for Canaan, and Joseph sets up a test to verify the actual change in the hearts of his brothers. Along with the grain he orders (unbeknownst to them) that the money they had paid for the grain should also be put in their sacks (42:25). When they open the bags – he probably pondered – will they take the money and not return to liberate Simeon (in short, will they sell him for money, as they had done to him), or will they go back to redeem him? ‘What was the real reason why my brothers sold me to the merchants?’, Joseph surely kept asking himself over the years in Egypt. ‘Was it only for those twenty pieces of silver? And now, will they do the same to another brother? Or have they changed?’
In many serious conflicts with our “brothers”, sooner or later the question emerges: but have they done this for the money? For the inheritance? For the house? But was it really for so little that we hurt each other, broke the bond of our brotherhood, and made our parents “die”? All this pain for just twenty pieces of silver?
The brothers find the money in the sacks (42:28), however, after a difficult time persuading their father Jacob (43:6-12) they return to Egypt, bringing Benjamin, the money found in the sacks to return and many gifts. Joseph now changes his ways towards them, he invites them for lunch (43:41), and, seeing Benjamin ‘his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there.’ (43:30).).
Joseph has not yet revealed himself as their brother, because the process of the reconstruction of fraternity has not yet been completed. And here, in fact, is another twist: Joseph orders his steward to put a sacred cup into Benjamin’s bag (44:2). So the eleven brothers leave home, but the steward reaches them and accuses them of having stolen the cup. They deny it, and, being sure of their innocence they state, ‘Whichever of your servants is found with it [the cup] shall die’ (44:9).
But then the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, and ‘they tore their clothes.’ Heartbroken, they go back to Joseph, where the second test of repentance and conversion takes place, which touches the heart of the relationship of brotherhood.
Judas – who was the inventor of the selling of Joseph – speaks to his brother Joseph: ‘…please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers’ (44:33). The brothers have already shown that they are not willing to exchange money for Simon, and now Judas proves that his heart has changed, offering himself in exchange for Benjamin.
After certain wounds, to be able to really start over again, words are not enough, not even in the biblical culture founded on and by the Word. Joseph could have interrogated his brothers and verified their repentance.
Instead, he wanted to see their reactions, secretly. After a marital betrayal, a great deception of a brother or a partner, the words “forgive me”, or “sorry” are just not enough. They are necessary, but not sufficient: we need facts, acts, atonement and penance. This is not about revenge or retaliation, but their opposite: it’s all about love. If you have intentionally betrayed our marriage covenant, if we really want to reinvest in our family and start over, words are not enough, neither is a gift nor a dinner. It is important that you show me with some “costly” and unequivocal acts that you really want to start over, you really want to believe in our relationship again, you want to heal that wound that you have procured to our relationship together. Biblical forgiveness is the for-give-ness that evokes resurrection, it is not the “forgetting” of the past, but the remembering of the pain in order to rebuild a new future. It is forgiving aimed at reconciliation.
Every family, every brotherhood, every community knows what the concrete necessary actions are, and without these acts, reconciliation is not there, or it is too fragile. Human relationships are actually “embodied”, they are not just feelings or good intentions.
Our relationships are “third parties” who are in front of us, they are alive with us and they are like us. Just as our children, they are our “flesh and blood”, and when a relationship is denied or betrayed it is this “body” that is hurt, and what needs to be healed, with time and actions. This is a great teaching of biblical humanism that reveals the logic of the sacrament of penance (you do not understand “sacrament” without having an idea of the “embodied” nature of relationships and life), and one that has made it possible that one day a relationship (the Spirit) could be called a Person.
Joseph also suggests that many instances of reconciliation after great betrayals have not proved durable because there was no time for a journey of reconciliation, because these ways are very costly for everyone (Joseph cries many times in these chapters). The virtue of fortitude is especially important to those who must accept repentance and forgive, as there is a great temptation to stop too soon (perhaps out of pity), and therefore not to allow enough time for the cure of the relationship by reaching to the bottom of the wound.
When you have the force to resist, every involved person’s feelings get purified (even those of Joseph) – the forgiveness of the innocent ones is one of the few actions that can touch the sky. We live only in history, and all the crucial events of life have an essential need of time: to return to Canaan, nine months in a womb, three days in a tomb.
Finally, in this fresco of reconciliation, money is given a special role. In that money slipped into the bags and then returned, there is not only a test of repentance and conversion. Joseph, in fact, puts the money back in the sacks in the second voyage, too (44:1), when the first ‘economic’ test of the brothers had been over. Therefore in that return of money a treasure may be hiding. When an engagement is (or was) broken off, it is customary to return the gifts, because in the absence of love those objects aren’t “good” anymore: they become “bad”. The story of Joseph tells us that when brotherhood is denied, the contractual payment should also be returned. The fees we pay to lawyers because we fight over inheritance, or those paid for conflicts in family businesses do not produce any good. Money is always a bad coin to heal relationships, but it is even worse when we have to deal with brotherhood. Without a new covenant of reconciliation, our hunger for grain in the famines of fraternity cannot be satisfied by any contract:
“They shall return and dwell beneath my shadow; they shall flourish like the grain; they shall blossom like the vine; their fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.” (Hosea 14:8).
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 13/07/2014