‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’
The first word, lû, translated here "what if," in fact means "if only," or "would that"—it expresses a wish. Prof. Anathea Portier-Young makes this really interesting observation.
If only, the brothers wish, Joseph would take his revenge. The end of the Joseph cycle takes is to the heart of its purpose. From the beginning we have known that the dream that has been given to Joseph is destined to disrupt lives. It disrupts the lives of Israel and Joseph’s older brothers. On a larger, more social level, it disrupts the powerful claims of Empire as the Pharaoh cannot deal with famine, but the shepherd boy turned slave, Joseph, can, due to his call to be the one who carries God’s vision. And that is a major point. Let’s not skip over it. While it may be subtle, the dream that God gives Joseph is a dream which disrupts power that is prideful, destructive and violent, and places power in the rightful hands, the hands of the one who listens, follows and obeys God. Or, the truly powerful are the ones who do not seek power at all, but simply seek to serve and share the wisdom of God. So the moral to the story of Joseph is that those called to dream by God, are called to exercise their power in opposition to powerful political, social, cultural forces that promise life, but cannot deliver, and only lead to death. This opposition is not rebellion, but humble service and faithfulness to the ways of God, as exhibited by Joseph’s strength of character throughout the story.
But the brother’s wish, that Joseph would actually exact revenge upon them for plotting to kill him and relenting only for profit goes to an even deeper disruption. The brother’s cannot imagine relationships, culture, world, that is not governed by the laws of vengeance and violence. One scholar has suggested ( I forgot to make a note as to whom it was), that the end of the Joseph cycle is God making right, what went wrong between Cain and Abel. Remember that in that story, one brother is inexplicably favored and the disfavored one kills the favored. Which was Joseph’s brother’s plan at the beginning. By chapter 50, the brothers, all this time later, still are paralyzed by the anger, bitterness and guilt of their actions and can imagine no way to be free of this, other than to have vengeance enacted upon them.
In other words, the dream given to Joseph was not only meant to disrupt the presumptions of the wealthy and powerful, exposing their injustice and their weakness, but it was also meant to disrupt the cycle of vengeance and violence in the world. Would that we would listen.