In his book Redescribing Reality, Walter Brueggemann spends a chapter illustrating his basic method of biblical interpretation using Genesis 50: 15-21. (Brueggemann: pp 53-62.) The passage is set at the end of Genesis just after the death of Jacob, Joseph’s father.
Brueggemann notes that in Joseph’s brothers’ opening speech in this passage we have a combination of Hebrew words which tanslate into English as ‘grudge’ (stm) and ‘payback’ (gml) which eloquently express the brothers’ anxiety that Joseph will seek revenge on them now that their father, Jacob, has died. Brueggemann mentions that “the term ‘gml‘ is a common word for ‘payback’ that exposits the world of quid pro quo calculation in which the brothers lived.” (Brueggemann: p 59.)
Joseph’s brothers had treated him in a demeaning and shameful way earlier in their story (Genesis 37: 12-36). Their assumption of likely retribution and revenge betrays common understandings in their culture. Joseph should seek retribution, his honour demanded it. He clearly now has the power to exact that revenge and is not constrained by Jacob’s opinion.
As this short incident unfolds there are a number of possibikities to consider. First, in verse 20, there is a double use of the word ‘intend’ (hsb). Brueggemann says that this “functions to contrast the ill-intent of the brothers toward Joseph [in the past] and the alternative good purpose of YHWH.” (Brueggemann: p60.) Perhaps this is an example of the story subverting accepted cultural norms. YHWH has brought honour out of shame for Joseph.
Second, the brothers abase themselves before Joseph (in verse 18). Brueggemann says that “the abasement is strategic, in order to secure forgiveness from their powerful brother. … Such subservience is refused by Joseph through every part of his response.” (Brueggemann: pp 60-61.) Two possible interpretations of this section refect the dynamics of honour and shame: (1) Maybe the narrative is again subverting prevailing beliefs. Joseph is demeaned by his failure to respond by taking revenge, yet the narrative suggests that he is honourable in his actions; or (2) Alternatively, the story can be seen to finally confirm Joseph’s status in relation to his brothers. Those of significance and importance do not need to heed a challenge from those of lower status. (Malina: pp28-62.) Joseph had made a claim to great honour, in Genesis 37: 1-11, in dreams which placed him at a higher status than his father, mother and brothers. Genesis 50: 15-21 can be seen as the final vindication of that claim!
Bruce J. Malina; “The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology;” Westminster John Knox Press’, Louisville, 1993.
Walter Brueggemann; “Redescribing Reality: What We Do When We Read the Bible;” SCM, London, 2009.