If you’ve ever gone on a cruise, you’ve been through a certain obligatory exercise known as “the lifeboat drill.” It usually happens on the first day. Before you’ve even learned your way around the ship, you receive instructions to go to a certain designated location on deck. There, you join a select group of a dozen or more passengers, along with several members of the crew. Those crew members may be waiters, cleaners, clerks or even casino dealers, but for these few brief moments, they’re all sailors.
In the event of a dire emergency, they’ve been trained to escort your little group over the rail and into a lifeboat, which, for the moment, is hanging ominously overhead.
It’s a bit of a downer, to be honest. There you are, all ready to begin your vacation afloat, when you’re solemnly reminded that — in certain highly unlikely circumstances — the ship you’re standing on may no longer be afloat.
There’s something else they teach you to do during the lifeboat drill: put on a life preserver. There you stand with your fellow holidaymakers with this puffy vest around your neck. Your friendly crew members teach you to cinch it tight across your chest. They point out that it has a whistle and a battery-powered light. There’s nervous laughter — and a bad Titanic joke or two — before the bellow of the ship’s horn signals the end of the drill. You happily hand over your life preserver and try to think about anything but the ship going down.
And when it inevitably pops back into your mind, it’s no small comfort to know a life preserver is waiting for you at your designated muster zone.
Today’s lesson from the Hebrew Torah is about a life preserver of a different sort. This life preserver never got anywhere near the briny deep. It has a name: Joseph. This biblical character declares to his 11 brothers, in Genesis 45, “God sent me before you to preserve life.”
These words Joseph speaks are among the most extraordinary in all of Scripture — because they’re terrifically difficult for him to say. In a single day, Joseph travels from death to life, and becomes a life preserver for his brothers.
There are a number of Josephs in the Bible, but only two of them can be called leading characters: Joseph the earthly father of Jesus, and this Joseph, son of Jacob. This Joseph is one of 12 sons Jacob had by four different women. Jacob was married to Leah and Rachel simultaneously. Zilpah and Bilhah were concubines or slaves of Jacob’s two wives.
According to the custom of the day, it was acceptable for a wealthy tribal chieftain like Jacob to have more than one wife, and to use his wives’ servants, if need be, as surrogate wives — just in case there weren’t enough children already. This resulted in one big, not-so-happy family.
If you know anything about families today — especially step-families — you know how incredibly complicated relationships within the family can become. These complexities are multiplied exponentially in a patriarchal, polygamous family like Clan Jacob.
Among his two wives and at least two concubines, Jacob has a favorite, the one called Rachel. Among his 12 sons and an unspecified number of daughters, Jacob also has a favorite: Joseph. Not so coincidentally, Joseph is a son by his favorite wife, Rachel.
Most any Sunday school child can tell you about Joseph and his coat of many colors, and how his 11 brothers got sick and tired of their father’s favoritism. And most any lover of Broadway musicals can tell you it is a technicolor coat. When Jacob sends Joseph out one day to check on whether they’re doing a good job as shepherds, his brothers’ resentment boils over. They decide to beat some humility into him. But things rapidly escalate out of control — as they so often do when mob rule takes over. Before his brothers realize what they’re doing, they’ve thrown Joseph into a pit and sold him to some passing slave traders. As a cover-up, the 11 brothers dredge Joseph’s coat through some animal blood and take it back to their heartbroken father as proof that wild beasts have killed his favorite son. How’s that for a dysfunctional family?
Fast-forward, now, a decade or two. Joseph is, by now, only a memory to the family he unwillingly left behind. Everyone assumes he died long ago, both those who believe the wild-animal yarn and those who know the truth.
A terrible famine has come upon the land. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so Jacob sends his sons packing off to Egypt in a last-ditch attempt to broker a grain deal with the Pharaoh’s chief of staff.
Little do they know. This high-and-mighty Egyptian official, Pharaoh’s number-one advisor, is none other than their brother Joseph. Against all odds, he has survived.
More than merely surviving, he has prospered. Through an incredibly unlikely series of events, he has gone from slave to chief slave to dream-therapist to butler to prime minister. Joseph had plenty of time over those long years to brood over what he might do to his lousy, back-stabbing brothers if ever he got the chance. And now — quite unexpectedly — that day has come. Joseph finds himself face-to-face with all 11 of them. They’re on their knees, prostrating themselves before him, and he has all the absolute power of an oriental potentate in his hands.
“Revenge,” according to the familiar proverb, “is a dish best served cold.” If that’s true, the emotional atmosphere in that Egyptian audience hall is well south of freezing. All Joseph has to do is call for the palace guard. Without questioning why, they’ll convey this Palestinian riffraff to Pharaoh’s torture chambers, or to the slave market — or maybe they’ll just lop off their heads — whatever is the whim of the mighty Joseph, mouthpiece of the divine ruler of all Egypt.
Joseph examines the faces of his brothers. They still don’t recognize him. Those faces are so much more aged and careworn than when he last saw them. Reuben’s losing his hair. Simeon’s brow is a mass of wrinkles. Issachar walks with a limp. Funny, but Joseph never thought of himself as aging very much. But when he compares these faces with the face that gazes back at him each morning from his jewel-encrusted looking-glass, he realizes how many years have passed. And he feels — unexpectedly and against all odds — the tie that binds them all together.
Back when he was a teenager, all Joseph could think about was how much distance he could put between himself and his brothers. He, Joseph, was his father’s favorite. He was too good to go tramping off to the high pastures, with sheep and goats trailing behind. He was the one who wore the elegant robe, emblem of their father’s favor. But now, after all these decades, all Joseph can think about is how much they have in common.
Those brothers he has long imagined as prideful and powerful now seem pitifully small and weak — and old. All of them have worry lines cut deep into their faces. They’ve all had more than their share of troubles.
Enough of anger and revenge! Joseph realizes that if he doesn’t break that grim cycle — and if he doesn’t do it today — no one ever will.
“Send everyone away,” he commands, gesturing to the courtiers and guards who are never far from him. “But my Lord,” says his scribe, “have I heard you rightly? These are foreigners, and palace security guidelines dictate …”
“Send them away,” says Joseph.
The 11 sons of Jacob wonder what this is all about. This Egyptian lord on his golden throne, clad in elegant linen garments, his eyes ochered and his jet-black hairpiece secured by a circlet of gold, is looking back at them with the strangest expression on his face. Now he’s standing up and coming down the steps. Could he possibly be weeping?
The Egyptian lord sits on the bottom step of the dais, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. He looks over at the 11 sons of Jacob, and gestures for them to draw closer. When he speaks, his voice is barely a whisper. “I am Joseph,” he says. “Is my father still alive?”
Can you blame the 11 for being speechless?
The next words Joseph speaks are gentle and full of compassion. And that’s what brings him to that remarkable line, “God sent me before you to preserve life.”
After all those years of licking emotional wounds and dreaming of revenge, Joseph has caught a higher vision: the preservation of life. What’s of paramount importance, he now sees, is life, and not mere human life itself — for life is cheap in Pharaoh’s Egypt — but the life of God’s chosen people. Joseph now realizes that his life’s vocation — quite apart from all he has done for Pharaoh and for Egypt — is to preserve God’s covenant, to be the living instrument by which the promise is passed on to the next generation.
And so, standing there on the mosaic floor of the royal palace — which no one in Egypt would be surprised to see run red with his faithless brothers’ blood — Joseph instead pronounces absolution. He all but commands his brothers to lay aside their guilt, and to cherish instead their precious family tie. His carefully nurtured anger has suddenly left him. Blood, he has come to learn, is thicker than bile.
It may have occurred to you that there’s a troubling aspect to this story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers: it’s not very fair. For chapter after chapter, the Bible has told how this remarkable man triumphs over every adversity — of his guts and determination and cleverness and, yes, his faith. We fully expect the story to end the way most stories like this do. We look for an ending like Homer’s Odyssey, when the mighty Odysseus bends back the bow-no-man-can-bend, loops the string over its free end, and sends his first arrow whooshing through the row of battle-axes set up as targets. Then, with the cold, methodical precision of a serial killer, Odysseus sends one arrow after another flying into the living bodies of all those sleazy suitors who’ve been trying to steal his beloved Penelope. The end of the Odyssey is bloody, but fair. Harsh justice is meted out, under the impassive eyes of the Greek gods.
But this story from the Hebrew Scriptures — with Joseph’s troubling words about preserving life — is about the last thing we expect, isn’t it?
The way of the world is often the way of revenge. Joseph demonstrates a higher way, the way of forgiveness. Forgiving others — especially when the wound is deep — is one of the most difficult things any of us will ever be called upon to do. Yet few tasks are more important, not only for the person being forgiven, but also for the person doing the forgiving.
A wise person has said, “Forgiveness is when you set a prisoner free — and then you realize the prisoner is yourself.”
There’s a story from the Native American tradition that makes a similar point. A boy comes to his grandfather, filled with anger at another child who has done him an injustice. “Let me tell you a story,” says the grandfather.
“I too, at times, have felt great hatred for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hatred wears you down and does nothing to hurt your enemy. It’s like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.”
He continues, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me; one is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and takes no offense when no offense is intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way.
But the other wolf, ah, that is a different matter! That one is full of anger. The smallest irritation will set him into a fit of rage. He fights everyone, all the time, for no good reason. He cannot think clearly because his anger and hatred are so overwhelming. It is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them wish to dominate my spirit.”
The boy’s eyes have by now grown wide. “Which one wins, Grandfather?”
The grandfather solemnly replies: “The one I feed.”
Joseph, too, has long been living with two wolves inside him. When, at last, he looks into the faces of his brothers, the choice he has to make is clear. He must stop feeding the wolf of vengeance. To release that wolf into the wild is not easy; it never is. Over the years, in a strange way, Joseph has come to love that voracious beast. Now he must disown it, for the sake of his brothers — and for his own.
But these are ancient tales. A more recent story about leaving vengeance behind involves a college student named Amy Biehl, although the story ends up being more about her parents. Amy grew up in the First Presbyterian Church of Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was active in Sunday school and played in the youth bell choir. As a college student, she was the kind of young woman who made her parents proud: a straight-A student and a college diving champion.
Amy had one great passion in her life, and that was South Africa. All through college in the early 1990s, she worked to keep the anti-apartheid cause before her classmates and professors.
“Free Mandela!” was the slogan frequently on her lips. When Amy won a Fulbright Scholarship, no one was surprised that she used it to travel to South Africa. She immersed herself in that troubled country’s culture and politics.
But Amy’s young life ended tragically in 1994, when she was stoned and stabbed to death by a mob of angry militants. To them, she was just a white person, an oppressor. They had no idea they were killing a friend of their own cause.
It was one of those terrible, tragic, senseless events. Amy’s parents were devastated by the news. But instead of lashing out in anger, they decided to try to do what their daughter would have wanted. They set out to understand Amy’s sense of commitment to these people of a distant land.
Amy’s parents immersed themselves in the study of South Africa. They read the diaries she’d kept while living there. The more they read and studied, the more determined they became to travel to South Africa themselves — which they soon did, bringing their three surviving children with them.
Amy’s mother Linda attended the trial of her attackers. They visited the squatter camps of Gugulethu, the black township where Amy’s killers had grown up. Seeing the abysmal conditions under which the people were forced to live, they began to understand the frustrations that drove some of them to violence.
Linda even visited the home of one of the murderers. She sat awhile with his mother. Linda told her she forgave the woman’s son for what he had done. Later she told a reporter from the 60 Minutes TV show that, after hugging the woman.
“I walked out of that home,” Linda said. “There was a rainbow in the sky. My heart was very light. I felt I had come to terms. And if that is forgiveness, I felt it. And I felt — you know, I felt — I feel at peace with myself. So, to me, that’s forgiveness.”
One of Amy’s professors in South Africa, a close friend named Rhoda Kadalie, said of Linda and Peter Biehl, “It is a gift from God that they can forgive the killers of their daughter, meet with the mother, go into the homes of the killers and understand who they are and where they come from.”
The Biehl family spent an extended time in Gugulethu. Several times a day, they passed the spot where their daughter had been killed. When they returned to the United States, they established the Amy Biehl Foundation, which, with half a million in grants, donations, and their own money, soon sponsored 15 different programs in that community, including job-training and after-school programs involving thousands of young people.
What the Biehl family did became widely known throughout South Africa. It became an inspiration to many. “[They have] turned it all upside down,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with admiration. “It is the victims, in the depth of their own agony and pain, who are saying, ‘The community which produced these murderers, we want to help that community be transfigured.’”
Among the children who first enrolled in the after-school program was the 12-year-old sister of one of the murderers. When her brother and the other two murderers applied for amnesty after serving four years in jail, the authorities told Peter and Linda they could block the men’s release, if they wished. The Biehls decided not to exercise their right to object. The men were freed.
It’s an incredible story, but no more incredible than the tale of a man thrown into a pit and sold into slavery, who has his oppressors within his power but chooses to forgive them.
This sort of forgiveness is not easy. It goes against the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” ethic that’s so prevalent in this world, even 20 centuries after Jesus Himself renounced it. Forgiveness like this may seem, to some, pitifully weak and soft on justice — but in reality, nothing could be stronger nor more determined. True forgiveness does not condone the wrong that has been done, nor does it forget. Forgiveness freely and openly acknowledges past offenses, but then it moves on, seeking always to preserve and enhance life.
“Only the brave know how to forgive,” writes the 18th-century preacher and novelist Laurence Sterne. “A coward can never forgive; it is not in his nature.”
What burden of anger or resentment are you carrying around today? How long have you nurtured it, even cherished it? Maybe it’s time to let that anger go — for, very likely, it’s causing you more pain and anguish than anyone else.
Remember the conclusion of the famous prayer of Francis of Assisi: “For it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”