ALICE VON HILDEBRAND
September 20, 2007
The one character in the Old Testament that stands out as an unmistakable figure of Christ is Joseph, Jacob's son by his beloved Rachel. When I was told in grammar school that he revealed his dreams to his brothers, young as I was, I wondered whether he was very wise. These dreams clearly disclosed that Joseph was to rule over them, and that was bound to trigger their jealousy. Moreover, he was clearly Jacob's favorite. The combination of these two factors was ominous. Murderous plans had probably been germinating in his brothers' minds for quite a while.
The Devil offered them an ideal occasion. Asked by his father to check whether his ten sons, who were pasturing their flocks, were faring well, Joseph immediately obeyed. His very sight lit up their venomous jealousy, and they planned to murder him. They would then inform their father that Joseph had been devoured by a wild beast, and dip his tunic (a gift of Jacob) in a goat's blood as proof of his death. Reuben, the oldest, objected, and suggested that they put him into an empty cistern. His intention was to save him. But Providence intervened: Midianite traders passed by on their way to Egypt, and Joseph was sold for twenty shekels of silver—a clear presage of Christ's being sold by Judas.
Genesis does not give us details of this dramatic event: but one can picture vividly Joseph's despair, pleading with his siblings to desist from their evil plan to sell him as a "ware" to mercenary men. Moreover, the brothers knew how much Jacob loved Joseph. They knew that the news of his death would break Jacob's heart. But hatred and jealousy had hardened their own hearts, and clogged their ears to the voice of conscience.
Joseph was a teenager. He was now separated, possibly forever, from both his father whom he loved, and his only full brother, Benjamin. He must have been deeply wounded by his brothers' hatred. He certainly had a taste of Christ's agony.
Upon arriving in Egypt, he was bought by one of Pharaoh's courtiers, whose name was Potiphar. Young, lovable, and handsome, the young Hebrew was noticed by Potiphar's wife, who used wiles to try to convince him to sin with her. The chaste young man rejected her advances. How could he betray his master and offend God?
A rejected woman can be vitriolic in her revenge. Her’s was brutal: she accused him of having tried to seduce her. She was believed, and Joseph was put in jail. Once again, he must have tasted the bitterness of despair. But God did not abandon his faithful servant, and had given him prophetic gifts. In prison he gained the favor of the jailer, and interpreted correctly the dreams of the chief butler and the chief baker imprisoned with him. The first was reinstated in his functions. The second lost his life. Joseph asked the first to remember him. But—and this should surprise no one—the moment the liberated man was out of jail, he forgot all about Joseph's request.
The Pharaoh had disturbing dreams, however. The wise men of Egypt were called, but none of them could interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams. The chief butler suddenly remembered that Joseph had correctly read his dream, and mentioned him to the Pharaoh. Joseph predicted rightly that there would be seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He was granted a key position in the kingdom of Egypt, was honored above all the courtiers, and was made responsible for organizing the huge crops that the land produced and for planning to guarantee that when the famine would hit the country—the reserves would save the Egyptians from starvation.
From the moment Joseph was sold by his brothers until he became the most prominent man in Egypt after Pharaoh, thirteen years had elapsed. His youth was over; yet, he never lost his faith.
When the famine predicted by Joseph started afflicting Canaan, the elderly Jacob ordered his sons to go to Egypt to buy grain. How powerful and poignant is the scene depicted in Genesis when Joseph recognized those who had planned his death out of jealousy, and then sold him as a slave. But, the guilty brothers did not recognize him. He decided to put them to the test and accused them of being spies. He then heard Reuben say to his brothers, "We are being punished for the way we have treated our brother. He besought us and we would not listen." The sacred writer now hints at the agony Joseph suffered, begging and pleading, but to no avail. "Behold his blood is required" (Gen. 42:22). Joseph knew that they were tortured by guilt: but, guilt is one thing; repentance is another. Were his brothers truly repentant? They feared punishment for their crime; at best, they had imperfect contrition.
Joseph decided to test them further. Overwhelmed by his feelings, he withdrew for a moment and wept. Simultaneously, he saw that God had permitted these evils with a purpose: he would be able to save his father and his guilty siblings from starvation, a premonition of St. Paul telling us that all things work to the good of those who love God.
While still accusing them of being spies, Joseph questioned them about their background. His questions were so pointed that it is most surprising that his brothers did not suspect who he was. Their eyes were blinded. Joseph was informed that both his father and his younger brother were alive and well. Wishing to test them further, he made a request: to prove that they could be trusted, he commanded them to go back to Canaan and bring Benjamin back with them. Simeon was kept as a hostage.
The nine brothers went back to their father, but found out that the money they had brought to pay for the wheat they had purchased was in their bags. They were puzzled and concerned. Upon arriving home, they informed their father of all that had happened.
After a while, the famine persisting, Jacob ordered his sons, once again, to go down to Egypt. They reminded him of the order given them: they were not to present themselves in front of the Regent of Egypt unless they came with Benjamin. Jacob protested: Joseph was dead; Simeon was in jail. If he lost his youngest child, he would go to the tomb. But the sine qua non of Joseph was so unambiguous that he had to yield. Both Reuben and Judah pledged that they would bring him back safe. Reuben went so far as to say that if he did not keep his promise, Jacob could deprive him of his two sons!
The ten brothers went down to Egypt once again. Upon arriving, they informed the superintendent that the money had been found in their bags and were told that it was a gift of their God.
When Joseph saw Benjamin, “burning with tenderness” for him, he had to withdraw into his chambers, and give free access to his tears. He then washed his face, trying to hide his emotions, and invited his brothers to a meal, making sure that Benjamin was given a much larger portion than his siblings received.
The ten brothers left with a large provision of wheat. Joseph had ordered the man in charge, once again, to put back the money they had brought into their bags. Moreover, he told him to put his cup in Benjamin’s bag. Soon after their departure, this man was ordered to catch up with them and accuse them of theft: the cup of the Regent had been stolen. The brothers pleaded innocent: if the cup were found in their bags, they would willingly accept to be the Regent’s slave. They were told that only the guilty one should be punished. The cup was found in Benjamin’s bag. Crestfallen, they were brought back to Joseph. Then Judah pleaded and reminded the Regent that his younger brother was the joy of his elderly father, that he had convinced his father to let him go down by being his guarantor, and that he offered to be a slave in his place. Judah had not hesitated to sacrifice Joseph; he now wanted to save Benjamin. There was clearly a change of heart.
Incapable of controlling his emotions, Joseph ordered everyone out of the room, and said to his brothers, “I am Joseph.” He started sobbing uncontrollably. This is one of the most moving scenes in the Old Testament. What is particularly striking is that he makes no reproaches to his brothers: he tells them that God had permitted these sad events to use him as an instrument to save their lives. Surprising is the fact that the Holy Book tells us neither that the guilty brothers also cried (yet tears of contrition were truly called for), nor that they begged him for forgiveness.
Joseph told them to fetch their father, and come down to Egypt where he will provide for their needs in giving them a particularly fruitful piece of land. For the fourth time, he breaks into tears while embracing Benjamin who was also sobbing. Joseph, a true figure of Christ, also embraced all of his brothers. He had fully forgiven them without requesting them to beg for forgiveness.
Joseph sobbed again when he saw his beloved father after years of agonizing separation. The Bible tells us that he threw himself at his father's neck and wept: Jacob, on his part, said that now he could die for he had seen again the face of his beloved child.
Jacob lived for another seventeen years in Egypt. Then his hour came, and he was reunited with his deceased ancestors. Once again, Joseph sobbed over his father's death, proving that if there are tears of self-pity and rage, they are also blessed tears: tears of love, of gratitude, of contrition.
Now that the holy patriarch was gone, Joseph's ten brothers understandably feared that their brother would pay them back for all the harm they had done him. Instead of showing perfect contrition by begging for forgiveness, they approached him with the following words: "Our father gave the following order before his death. He told us to inform you that he begs you to forgive our crime and all the harm we have done to you."
When Joseph heard these words he wept for the seventh time and told them to be without fear. He repeated what he had said previously: that God had permitted these evils to take place to draw good out of them.
Later a towering Old Testament figure, King David, would also commit a crime: adultery leading to murder by proxy. There is no mention of contrition on his part until the prophet Nathan opened the sinner's eyes. But once he perceived the horror of his crime, he immediately acknowledged that he had sinned against the Eternal. We owe the fiftieth psalm—one of the most beautiful ones—to David's repentance. He knew that it was against God alone that he had sinned. He had done a tremendous harm to Uriah, first by stealing his wife, and then by ordering his death. But sin is always directed against God Himself. For this reason, Plato, who had a keen notion of moral evil, but was inevitably ignorant of the Personhood of God, had no perception of sin: offenses are to be forgiven—or not forgiven—by the person offended.
The New Testament sheds new light on the crucial question of forgiveness and repentance. The ultimate sacrifice of love that took place on Calvary had now fully opened men's eyes to the fact that (with the exception of the Blessed One among women) all human beings without exception have some share of responsibility in Christ's death on the cross. The “Pater Noster” that Christ Himself taught us tells us explicitly that we should forgive those who have sinned against us as we ourselves hope to be forgiven by God. Moreover, like Joseph, we should fully forgive even though the offenders have not asked for forgiveness. St. Stephen, the protomartyr, and Maria Goretti should be our role models: they forgave their murderers who had not shown the slightest sign of repentance.
This is the holy generosity—a fruit of divine grace—the trademark of the New Testament. A consciousness of our own sinfulness, watered by grace, should make it “easy” to forgive the worst offenses committed by our brothers. The harm done to us can never be measured against our offenses to God: for the higher a person is, the more grievous the offenses committed against him.
Man has a special talent for going from one error to another (apparently) opposite one. The spirit of our time is a violent reaction against Jansenism, the detestable caricature of God’s justice. Today, the spiritual fashion is to constantly highlight God’s mercy—a crucial divine virtue—totally eliminated in the heresy just mentioned. Was it not the cynical optimist, Heinrich Heine, who said, “Of course, God will forgive us: After all, it is His job (“C’est son metier”)? But this “rediscovery” (for it was always present in the Holy Teaching of the Church) makes us forget that if we ought to forgive our unrepentant neighbors (reminding ourselves of the weight of our debt toward God), God, a very Fountain of Mercy, cannot possibly invite to the divine banquet anyone who claims that his sins are no sins, that his blashemies are no blasphemies, that God has no right to place Himself above man.
St. Therese of Lisieux rejoiced that in Heaven, there will be perfect justice: and justice demands that the sinner ask for forgiveness from the one who loved us unto death.
Let us all pray daily that on our deathbed, we shall be granted the grace of perfect contrition, coupled with a boundless confidence in the love of the One who “came to save sinners.” God alone, He who is Mercy itself and always ready to forgive, can exact contrition as a condition for forgiveness.