Peter von Cornelius, Joseph Reveals Himself to His Brothers, 1816–1817 (incamerastock/Alamy Stock Photo)

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The ending of Genesis brings to a close two sustained narratives, one the story of Joseph and his brothers, the other the story of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the patriarchs, men with whose names God ever afterward chose to identify Himself. Before the rise of Joseph, the children of Abraham drifted through the world as their flocks and their little ones allowed, as drought required, as God directed. They were dwellers in tents and keepers of cattle, unexceptional, perhaps, even in having a conception of God unique to them, drawn from the dreams and visions of the most revered among them. Abraham stood in the door of his tent and saw the heavens shining with their multitudes of stars, which were all the families of earth. Now we know that there are vastly more stars than he would have seen, even allowing for the purity of earth’s darkness on an ancient night. And the earth has indeed been fruitful, bearing and nurturing families enough to justify the Lord’s promise. That radiant futurity had nothing to do with grandeur of any kind beyond its own singular magnificence. Abraham was told that he would be a blessing to humankind. We can’t well imagine that there was such a man, brought out into the night by his friend the Lord to consider the ongoingness of Creation at its most spectacular and to be told by Him that he has a part in its unfolding. This moment is like nothing I know of in any other literature or myth system. It is worldly in that the vision sees the glory of the heavens as like the families of earth, which are and will be numerous and also glorious. In this moment it might be possible to say that Abraham saw as God sees, valuing humankind as God does.

The book of Genesis begins with the emergence of Being in a burst of light and ends with the death and burial of a bitter, homesick old man. If there is any truth to modern physics, this brings us to the present moment. Disgruntled and bewildered, knowing that we derive from an inconceivably powerful and brilliant first moment, we are at a loss to find anything of it in ourselves. God loved Jacob and was loyal to him, no less for the fact that Jacob felt the days of his life, providential as they were, as deep hardship.

After the passing of Jacob/Israel and his son Joseph no more will be heard of the Israelites for four hundred years. Their descent into Egypt is carefully prepared in the stories of both Jacob and Joseph, and when it comes it is a descent into utter silence. This is remarkable. Captivity in Egypt is a very central part of Israelite identity, yet no tales of pathos or of heroism are given a place in Scripture before the birth of Moses. Historical, literary, or both, this dark passage defeats every question that might be asked about its place in the working of providence.

For the purposes of the law it rooted compassion in experience, as for example in Deuteronomy 24:17–18: “Thou shalt not pervert the judgment of the stranger, nor of the fatherless; nor take a widow’s raiment to pledge: but thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in Egypt, and the LORD thy God redeemed thee thence.” Or the beautiful Exodus 23:9: “Thou shalt not oppress a stranger: for ye know the heart of a stranger, seeing ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Laws based on compassionate identification with those most vulnerable to abuse are vanishingly rare, in antiquity and in every subsequent era. It is a comment on human nature, presumably, that a captivity so long and profound would be required to introduce this kind of empathy into personal and social morality. And it is another comment on human nature that such a harsh experience could yield an ethic of justice and generosity rather than of insularity and resentment. If Israelites fell short of this high standard, notably after their entry into Canaan, so do we all, and in much less exigent circumstances. As always, to their great credit, they cherished their mingled heritage and preserved it.

Redemption is another central idea that emerged for scriptural purposes from the centuries in Egypt. To be redeemed means literally to be “bought back,” to be freed from trouble, especially bondage, by a kinsman or benefactor. Poverty or debt often led to slavery, so to pay the debt was to restore the debtor to freedom. God presents His intervention in these human terms that, like a covenant, involve loyalty to the relationship on the part of the stronger party. The word and the relationship retain the memory of slavery and of a gracious act of liberation. This understanding of the bond between God and Israel remains important through the whole of the Hebrew Bible. Its significance to the New Testament can hardly be overstated.

In this moment it might be possible to say that Abraham saw as God sees, valuing humankind as God does.

There is a moment early in the story of Moses that might have been the beginning of his career as a revolutionary leader. “He went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew, one of his brethren.” A young man brought up in the circles of power and privilege one day realizes his identity with an oppressed people and reacts to an act of violence with violence, no doubt thinking that in killing the Egyptian and concealing his body he has done something just, worthy of respect. Perhaps assuming this, when he sees two Hebrews fighting, he asks the aggressor, “Wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?” The solidarity he has begun to feel he wants to encourage in them. The Hebrew makes a startling reply. “Who made thee a prince and a judge over us? Intendest thou to kill me, as thou killedst the Egyptian?” Moses is not admired for the violent act but taunted with it. Farther on in the story Moses does indeed emerge as a prince and judge, but not as the leader of an insurrection. His killing of the Egyptian, personification as the man may have been of the brutality suffered by the Hebrews, does not at all redound to his credit. So Moses will become the leader of an exodus, not an insurrection. This exchange with a nameless man, long before Moses is given his role by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is remembered in the text, an isolated Hebrew voice speaking out of the Egyptian silence, expressing in his way the old belief that to kill any human being is to kill Adam, God’s image. Clearly Moses, who goes into hiding, understands his words to mean he will be seen by the Hebrews as a murderer and not a hero—and perhaps not as a Hebrew, either, since he has violated this prohibition. This is remarkable in the circumstances and crucial to the form resistance will take. We are told that the Egyptians feared the Hebrews because they had become so numerous. But rather than turning to force, through Moses and Aaron they ask Pharaoh for leave to be gone, and only when they have received it—granting spectacular coercions—do they depart. This is a moment in which some Spartacan act of heroic rebellion would be satisfying. And this is an instance in which God repays evil for evil. But the Hebrew people simply gather themselves up and walk out of Egypt.


Genesis can hardly be said to end. In it certain things are established—the nature of Creation and the spirit in which it was made; the nature of humankind; how and in what spirit the Creator God enters into relation with His human creatures. The whole great literature of Scripture, unfolding over centuries, will proceed on the terms established in this book. So Genesis is carried forward, in the law, in the psalms, in the prophets, itself a spectacular burst of light without antecedent but with a universe of consequences. This might seem like hyperbolic language to describe a text largely given over to the lives of people in many ways so ordinary that it is astonishing to find them in an ancient text. This realism by itself is a sort of miracle. These men and women saw the face of God, they heard His voice, and yet life for them came down to births and deaths, love, transgression, obedience, shame, and sorrow, everything done or borne in the course of the characterization of God, for Whom every one of us is a child of Adam, made in His image. God’s bond with Jacob, truly a man of sorrows, is a radical theological statement.

Herman Melville’s Father Mapple calls Scripture “a mighty cable.” Its intertwined strands of narrative exist in time, which they also create, or assert. There are the three overlapping generations of the patriarchs, which reach their mortal conclusion in old Jacob. There is the slow working out of the confrontation of Joseph’s brothers with their crime, time as experienced under a burden of guilt and dread. At the height of Joseph’s power in Egypt, there is imminent time, the four hundred years for which he, unbeknownst to himself, is preparing the prologue. And there is God’s time, always tending toward a resolution or realization or culmination inconceivable to us. Within this great arc are the eras we live out as history, and within them the comings and goings of human life, and human lives—the generations passing one to another the lore they have about it all, as they emerge and as they vanish.

To speak about strands of scriptural time is too schematic. It is useful, nevertheless. There is the kind of narrative that allows for character, experience, and choice and will be expressed most vividly in the psalms and the prophets. There is the constancy of the covenant, the Lord’s faithfulness, which makes Him a presence in every ebbing of faith and in all impending trouble. Then there are visionary moments, which seem to rise out of time and take on, however briefly, the character of truth, of goodness as the word is used at Creation.

Joseph does not see the face of God, not in a dream that affirms God’s care of him, nor in an angelic intervention in his time of sorrow and peril, nor in his embrace of his alienated brothers. What he sees instead is the working of divine intention.

In his first encounters with his brothers, Joseph is in the role of disguised avenger. Odysseus likewise conceals his identity to deal with offenses against him. He returns unrecognized from war and wandering to find his house filled with his wife’s suitors and hangers-on. In an ecstasy of rage he plans and carries out a great slaughter. His house runs with blood. Not even servant girls are spared. In another literature a character in Joseph’s place could have made a choice of this kind, could have demonstrated wiliness and power while he satisfied a crude definition of justice. But this is Scripture, and in place of catharsis there is an insight that casts its light over the narrative of Joseph and over the whole book of Genesis. When Joseph has made himself known to his brothers he tells them not to be distressed, because “God did send me before you to preserve life.” On these grounds, because he is able to save them from famine, he has forgiven their abuse of him, or he has seen matters in another light that made their guilt of no interest. As always in Genesis where revenge or punishment is an issue, the demands of justice in the human sense are not satisfied. God might have killed Cain, Esau might have killed Jacob, Judah might have condemned Tamar to death, and Joseph might have made his brothers feel his anger and his power by letting them and their families starve. It must be true that sacred history would have found its way to its ends even if these lives had been cut short, though the story is told in a way that makes every one of these lives seem absolutely consequential. This is something to consider, seeing that it occurs in a context that can be taken to mean that divine intent is altogether determining.

From a literary point of view, the fact that both can be true simultaneously is amazing, Father Mapple’s mighty cable at its most impressive. God’s humanism is so absolute that one particular Egyptian serving girl must be the mother of the Ishmaelites, one particular Canaanite widow must complete in long anticipation the genealogy of King David. By extension, any one of us, if we knew as we are known, would realize that there was a role that required our assuming it, uniquely, out of all the brilliant constellations of human families. I won’t speak here of the possibility of falling short, since there are so many instances of rescue, compensation, or reversal in the Bible that we are not competent to judge sufficiency or failure. If tasting that apple was the felix culpa, the “fortunate Fall” that launched us into history, the crime of Joseph’s brothers was comparable as the impetus that began the history of the nation Israel.

He promises to look after his brothers and their “little ones,” who are never forgotten when people are thought of in their vulnerable humanity.

How to make moral sense of this is a real question. The next great phase in the history of Israel is God’s giving of the law, which is far too revelatory of His nature to be thought of as a kind of patch on a deeper antinomianism. In Romans, the apostle Paul paraphrases the book of Proverbs, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” Our punitive bias, the legitimation of vengeance, in many cases the sanctification of it, which never means respect for the fact that God has claimed it for Himself, very much complicates the issue. If one wishes to align oneself with the will of God, granting every difficulty, grace, kindness is clearly the safer choice.


When Jacob dies, Joseph asks “his servants the physicians” to embalm him, and they put the mortal remains of the old herdsman through this very protracted, utterly pagan process, which, the text notes, takes forty days. Then, with his family, they deliver him with much ceremony and lament to the cave in Canaan where lie Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Leah, once again the wrong wife. Jacob must have seemed a strange intrusion, mummified and encased. Everyone meant well. Joseph is embalmed in his turn and placed in a coffin in Egypt. After Joseph the situation of the Hebrews worsens.

While he lived, at the pinnacle of authority, Joseph saw his dreams play out more beautifully than anyone could have imagined, not as foreseeing mere superiority or dominance but instead as giving him an occasion to comfort, sustain, and forgive. This is the climax the narrative has been building toward since Cain and Abel. I know of no other literature except certain late plays of Shakespeare that elevates grace as this book does. Joseph’s brothers have brooded for years on the grievous harm they have done him and their father. But in their darkest moment they might never have thought that Joseph himself, clothed in power, would hold their lives in his hands. Certainly they give little sign of happiness, even of relief, at seeing him. And when Jacob dies, they fear that Joseph will take his revenge on them. “When Joseph’s brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him.’” So they send him a message saying that their dying father instructed him to pardon them. “And now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father.” It is surprising to find them identifying themselves in these terms, since to this point their piety has been expressed only as dread of divine retribution. And yet, no matter how sincere they are in speaking in this way, what they say is perfectly true. Just these men will lead the Hebrews into Egypt and bondage. Their families will multiply until they become a people. The life of the nation Israel will instruct and bless multitudes. The names of Joseph’s brothers will be remembered on earth for as long as the God of Genesis is remembered. Jacob struggled to find words of blessing for most of them, yet, like everyone whose story is told here—like everyone, presumably—they are indispensable. Joseph’s act of forgiveness in effect opens the way for them to assume their essential, though unexplained and unrecorded role in sacred history. In every instance where it arises, forgiveness is rewarded by consequences that could not have been foreseen or imagined. The application of this doctrine is straightforward.

So what constraints are there on Joseph when the lives of his brothers seem to be his to take if he chooses? If providence has a use for them, their survival could be said to be predetermined. But the scene in which Joseph again pardons his brothers fully and finally is beautiful because, Egyptianized as he is, never favored with the visionary dreams like those that engaged and instructed his forefathers, he has seen the actual workings of providence, another kind of vision. When his brothers raise the matter of his possible vengeance against them, he says, “Fear not: for am I in the place of God?” Yes, he is, in the sense that his mercy toward them seconds what he sees as God’s will. And yes, in the sense that he sees beyond a human conception of justice, which shapes his brothers’ fearful expectations, to the good issue of everything that has happened to him—good he reckons in terms of the lives he has saved. “As for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.” He promises to look after his brothers and their “little ones,” who are never forgotten when people are thought of in their vulnerable humanity.

At the end of his life, Joseph is revealed as a true heir of the covenant. He says to his brothers, “God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob…. God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” And, after generations, when the Israelites made their exodus from Egypt, “Moses took the bones of Joseph with him.” 

Published in the March 2024 issue: View Contents

Marilynne Robinson is the author of the novels Jack (2021), Lila (2014), Home (2008), Gilead (2004)—winner of the Pulitzer Prize—and Housekeeping (1981), as well as four books of nonfiction: Mother Country (1989), The Death of Adam (1998), Absence of Mind (2010), and When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012), and The Givenness of Things (2015), and What Are We Doing Here? (2018). This essay was excerpted from Reading Genesis, to be published in March 2024 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. © 2024 Marilynne Robinson.

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