By Michael Kolarcik, SJ
Special to Catholic News Service
The stories recounted throughout Genesis are all about relationships: God and humanity, husband and wife, parent and child, and brothers –- many brothers. It’s interesting to notice the movement from the first set of siblings to those at the end of Genesis. We move from the most violent at the beginning to reconciliation at the conclusion.
First, Cain kills his brother Abel. A son of Noah acts with disrespect to his father in front of his brothers. Ishmael and Isaac become permanently separated (but I like the touch where both of them come together to bury their father Abraham, Gen 25:9). Jacob and Esau compete to the point of threatening death, but become almost reconciled.
Finally at the end, covering Chapters 37-50, longer than any other family story in Genesis, the story of Joseph and his eleven brothers is mostly about seeking reconciliation.
All because of a special place that Joseph had in his father’s heart, tremendous jealousy swelled up in the older brothers. Joseph received a special tunic from their father and he did not wear the special status well before his brothers or before his parents. The conflict in this family is one each generation must face. How do you treat those who are your equal but more gifted? How do you treat your equals who are less gifted than you? Joseph at seventeen does not yet know how to use the gifts he is given for the service of others. The brothers do not know how to recognize and foster the gifts in their younger brother.
The conflict reached a breaking point. The brothers stripped Joseph of his special tunic, threw him in a pit, sold him to a caravan heading to Egypt and returned the blood-smeared tunic to their father. “Here is a bloodied tunic, see if it is that of your son!”
Lost to his family, Joseph goes through test after test until he emerges as one who has learned to use his gifts for the benefit of others. For this reason he was placed in charge of Pharaoh’s government.
The story might have ended here except that we want to know how these brothers will act if they have to face each other once again. Sure enough, Jacob sends his 10 sons to Egypt in search of food during a famine while keeping the youngest son Benjamin at home. Joseph, who is not recognized by his brothers, forces them to undergo a trial to see whether they too have learned in their lives to care for those weaker than they.
Just as Joseph had undergone two tests (in the pit at the hands of his brothers and in the dungeon at the hand of Potiphar’s wife) so too do the brothers undergo two tests, first with Simeon then with Benjamin. Judah emerges as the one who offers himself to save the life of his youngest brother.
With this sacrifice, Joseph can contain himself no longer and reveals his identity to his brothers with great weeping and joy. As he sends them off to bring their families and their father Jacob to Egypt, Joseph gives to each brother a set of clothing. He gives to them that which they had long ago stripped from him.
The gift of clothing to each and five sets to his brother Benjamin, points to the concrete way Joseph wants to assure his brothers that they are all reconciled once and for all. But it is not easy. In the end, it will be the brothers who finally clothe Joseph after he dies in the clothing of embalmment with the promise to bring his bones back to the promised land.