Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, "Send everyone away from me."
So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.
And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. (Genesis 45: 1-2)
Recall sometime in your life when you wailed. I’m not talking about weeping, or sobbing, or even crying; I’m referring to full-throttle, who-cares-if anyone-hears-me, wailing. Perhaps it was as a teenager, after breaking up with your boyfriend/girlfriend. Or as an adult, after receiving a middle-of-the-night phone call from the sheriff’s office that your child was in a terrible car accident, but will be okay.
I imagine Joseph wailing--that vocal expression defying control--as he comes face-to-face with his brothers, who years before, had sold him into slavery. Is Joseph’s wailing due to anger and resentment that may have fomented in his heart over the years due to his brother’s horrific decision? Or is it a result of the joy he feels at seeing his family once again?
Let’s review Joseph’s life, so far, to see if we can discern the source of his wailing. Joseph grows up as the youngest of Jacob’s clan. Like his father, he has a propensity of getting into trouble with members of his family. Joseph dreams of being a great leader, and mistakenly shares this with his brothers, who already are jealous of their little brother, for he is their father’s favorite son. At first the brothers plot to kill Joseph, but end up selling him to some nomads, who in turn sell him into slavery in Egypt. But Joseph is a smart, wiley character, and grows into adulthood as a right-hand man to Pharaoh and leader of the Egyptian people! Meanwhile, a great famine is unfolding in the world. But Joseph the visionary (thanks to God!) orders the Egyptians to store up their grain in order to survive the famine. Meanwhile, back in Canaan, Jacob (Joseph’s daddy) hears there is grain for sale and sends ten of his sons to Egypt to make a purchase. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but does not reveal who he is. Joseph orders that the eleventh son of Jacob (Benjamin) be brought to Pharaoh’s palace. Flash forward to today’s scripture, where Joseph finally breaks down in front of his brothers, wailing so hard that everyone in the palace can hear him.
So, is Joseph’s wailing a result of anger or joy? Perhaps it is both. Maybe even more than both. If I were in Joseph’s sandals, my source of wailing would have been both anger and joy. Like losing your child at the mall, and upon your reunion, feeling both the anger that you allowed them to wander off (and anger that they wandered off!) and joy that they are now safely in your arms. I think though, that there is more going on in his response than the human emotions of anger and joy.
Like I’ve said before, it is important when reading scripture to take a bird’s eye view of the broader story in order to glean the meaning of the text. Unlike other major Old Testament characters, such as Abraham and Moses, God and Joseph don’t do much talking. But we can see God at work within Joseph’s story; within the pain and brokenness of family, and within the suffering of human communities due to drastic changes in weather and climate. From a bird’s eye view of Joseph’s story, I see a pivot in Joseph’s character within his heart-wrenching wailing; a transformation from wiley, self-serving, man of power to one of forgiveness and generosity toward his brothers. Even Joseph attributes this change to God: “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45: 5-8)
The saga of Joseph and his brothers and his rise to power in Egypt is colorful and entertaining. Even Broadway saw the potential of this story in drawing audiences to experience the highly entertaining musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat”! For people of faith searching for God’s presence in their lives though, this story offers much more than entertainment: God is at work even in the lives of people who seem to be power-hungry and self-serving, or, as my mother would say, people who deserve their ‘comeuppance.’ If you read Joseph’s story, which ends with the book of Genesis, you will see that due to God’s transforming grace in Joseph’s life, the family of Jacob settles in the land Egypt, and prepares us for the opening of the next great saga--that of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt and the wilderness journey to the Promised Land in the book of Exodus!
May your feel God’s presence every day of your life!