Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 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. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.'” … And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.Genesis 45:3–11, 15 (NRSV)
Often, those in power dominate spaces with their voice and physical presence. The lectionary texts for this week turn that power on its head and give voice to the ones who have been wronged. Genesis 45, in particular, exemplifies this reversal of power and allows the survivor to reframe the narrative, something my tradition, the Catholic Church, has failed to do in response to allegations of abuse against priests.
The Joseph story spans Genesis 37–50, and this week’s text lies at the climax of the narrative arc. Previously in Joseph’s narrative arc, Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, he gained power, lost power and was thrown into prison, interpreted dreams, and became second in command over all of Egypt. Now, his brothers have returned and realize for the first time since they sold him into slavery that Joseph is alive.
In Canaan, it is Joseph’s brothers who have the power over him. When they strip him of his cloak and throw him into a pit, Joseph’s voice and reactions are not recorded in the text. Instead, the voice and actions of his brothers dominate. They plot to ensure that Joseph will no longer be their father’s favorite son, and Joseph is rendered silent.
Once in Egypt, Joseph rediscovers his voice, rising to second in command over Egypt. The real test of his resolve occurs in Genesis 42–44 when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to purchase grain. Joseph tests them in various ways to see how they will respond and likely to see if they have changed. In these chapters, Joseph does not reveal his identity to his brothers, instead choosing to talk to them through an interpreter.
In Genesis 45, Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers for the first time since they had abused him in Canaan. Joseph sends out everyone from him so that he is able to address his brothers alone (Gen 45:1), at least in theory. Before Joseph lets his brothers know who he is, he weeps so loudly that everyone in the entire household is able to hear him (Gen 45:2). I imagine that their host’s inexplicable weeping would have been startling to the brothers. But, when Joseph speaks and says, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (Gen 45:2), it must have come as a complete shock. And yet, the text focuses more on Joseph’s revelation than on his brothers’ reaction. Rather than faltering and falling silent as Joseph did in Canaan, we see a reversal in the text. Now, it is Joseph who speaks and the brothers who are stunned into silence. Through his speech, Joseph forces his brothers to confront their wrongdoing by virtue of his very presence and life.
Instead of retribution, he reframes the past and acknowledges all the good that has happened since his brothers sold him into slavery. In spite of their actions, God still made something good of the situation. In fact, Joseph goes so far as to say that it was not his brothers who sold him into slavery but rather God, in order to ensure the survival of the world during a famine.
This text has been used many times against survivors of abuse to try to persuade them to forgive their perpetrators. I would like to suggest a different interpretation.
Healing often means reframing the narrative one tells oneself. One thing survivors of trauma do in therapy is to create their trauma narrative, an account of their experience infused with the emotion they experienced and continue to experience (Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 175–178). The goal of this experience is to integrate the traumatic event into the way the person understands their past (Herman, 181). It is a strategy for making sense of the past and understanding the past as just that: the past.
If the way someone tells their story does not change over time, this may indicate that they are having trouble relegating the experience to the past. Consequently, healing from trauma often involves the survivor reframing their story over time. It does not mean they are misremembering the past but rather moving on from it by seeing oneself in a different role than they previously did. Regarding this idea, Herman states: “Her task now is to become the person she wants to be. In the process she draws upon those aspects of herself that she most values from the time before the trauma, from the experience of the trauma itself, and from the period of recovery. Integrating all of these elements, she creates a new self, both ideally and in actuality” (Herman, 202).
I doubt that while Joseph lingered in the pit waiting to see what would happen, or even in Potiphar’s house, he would have explained his situation the way he does in Genesis 45. Joseph’s claim that it was God who engineered the situation for good is indicative of a person, or at least a narrative character, who has experienced healing over time, away from his abusers. He has reframed his narrative to better suit how he sees himself and his world now, a world where he has power.
This text must be read carefully and not mapped on to every survivor’s experience. Sometimes survivors don’t find meaning in reframing the situation in such a way. Some may find the genre of lament more helpful in understanding their relationship to God and suffering. That’s also valid and meaningful. My wife, a pediatric hospital chaplain, is fond of asking her patients: “Is this theology working for you?” when they profess to believe something about God. Sometimes they say it is, and she leaves it alone. Other times they say no, and she helps them work through what they believe about God in that moment and for that situation.
I offer the same advice when approaching this text: Joseph’s story offers one possible example of how a survivor of abuse might claim their voice and power by reframing their narrative. There is no universal path to healing, however. Therefore, interpretation of this text must be approached with care.
Additionally, reframing the narrative is not something anyone but the survivor can do. If anyone, and especially the perpetrator, attempts to reframe the narrative for the survivor, this is an example of gaslighting. There are many cases of alleged or convicted abuse where the perpetrator tries to reframe the narrative and convince the survivor that the abuse either didn’t happen or wasn’t that bad. This is endemic in cases of church abuse.
I think particularly of my own context and perhaps the most egregious perpetrators of systemic abuse: the Catholic Church. Stories continue to come to light about the cover-up of priests who abused children. Recently, Former Pope Benedict XVI was accused of moving around a priest who had abused children and continued to do so in his new position. Further, he claimed not to be at a meeting held to discuss the misconduct of this priest and only revised that claim when documentation demonstrated he had in fact been there. This is an example of the perpetrators reframing the narrative for their own ends and to protect themselves irrespective of the survivors of the abuse.
This gaslighting primarily harms the people who are directly affected: the survivors of abuse. However, the harm goes beyond just them. The Catholic Church has engineered a situation in which the Church (meaning the people) can no longer trust the institution to do the right thing, or at least hold those who do the wrong thing accountable. When even the pope (or former pope) caused this mistrust, I have to wonder if there is any hope of recovering from this decades long abuse and cover-up. Without the faith and trust of the people, the institution will crumble. By trying to control the narrative rather than accept responsibility, the Catholic Church has done irreparable harm not just to the people but to the institution itself.
The Joseph story turns this trope on its head and gives the power to the survivor. It is a case where the survivor chooses to face his perpetrators, to claim his voice, and to tell his story. Choosing to face the perpetrator is an important piece of this; it’s not something anyone should ever be forced to do. Joseph takes control in this situation and tells his brothers that they weren’t even really a part of his story: it was God who engineered the whole thing. For Joseph, this was healing.