The story of Joseph in Egypt stands as a metaphor for the atonement and instructs us in patience, faith, and brotherhood.
For my purposes here, the reconciliation of Jacob’s sons with their brother, whom they had sold to Middianites and not seen in many years, is particularly relevant. During the time that Joseph lived in Egypt, he found himself prospering and then betrayed, then prospering again until he was nearly as powerful as the Pharaoh and was put in charge of Egypt’s grain—at a time when the rest of the land was in a drought. Those suffering included Joseph’s faraway family. Finally, his brothers–they who had sold him—came to Egypt to beg, as it were, at the mercy seat, unaware that it was Joseph himself sitting resplendently before them. Years had changed them all, and Joseph was dressed as the Egyptians. Nor did he speak to them in the language of their childhood, but used an interpreter. There would not be a simple reconciliation, but a test to see how much his brothers’ hearts had changed. In asking them to bring the youngest brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt with them, he was proving their loyalty. After they did as instructed, Joseph tested them yet again, and threatened to imprison Benjamin. At last, Judah spoke of the brother (Joseph himself) who had been “lost” and of grief which would overcome their father should he lose yet another. Judah then offered himself in Benjamin’s place, and said he was willing to spend the rest of his years as a slave rather than break his father’s heart (Genesis 44:33-34).
At this offer, Joseph “made himself known unto his Brethren” (Genesis 45:1). How did he do this? By removing his finery so that he was dressed like them? By washing his face of Egyptian make-up? The scriptures don’t tell us, but clearly he did something to reveal himself before he spoke to them in their common language. Once he had removed whatever divided him from them, he wept loudly, and finally spoke: “I am Joseph, your brother, whom ye sold…”(verse 4).
The brothers were reconciled, and all of the family moved to Egypt, where they prospered.
The Book of Mormon preaches a similar message of reconciliation. Brothers divide themselves (and the reason for the division isn’t as important as the division itself). Traditions grow supporting tribalism, and we see the tribes—referred to simply as Nephites and Lamanites—seeking to destroy each other. War begets war. Sometimes the Nephites are in the right, and sometimes the Lamanites are. All the wars culminate in massive destruction of the land, and only the “more righteous” of either group survive. Finally, they unite, and all choose to self-identify as Nephites (3 Nephi 10:18). Together they see Jesus Christ descend, and receive instruction and blessings under His hands. Their conversion is so thorough that they build a community in which all things are had in common, with no rich nor poor; no bond nor free (4 Nephi 3). Divisions cease, and there is not “any manner of –ites; but they [are] in one, the children of Christ and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 17).
The utopia ends, of course, as utopias generally do. Once again, the people name themselves tribally according to their ancestors and their previously abandoned traditions. Classism returns, and children are taught to hate the “others”, just as their progenitors had done (4 Nephi 39).
Our challenge in these latter days is to identify anything which will divide us or keep us from recognizing our brothers and sisters because they don’t quite look like us, or they are dressed either more richly or more poorly than we are. We are asked to press forward towards the kind of unity Christ himself would inspire, denying ourselves “all ungodliness” (Moroni10:32).
What ungodly traditions might we still be clinging to? Could any Latter-day Saint justify prejudice against Mexicans because of strong feelings about legal immigration? One of my Institute students reported a co-worker telling her flatly, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t like Mexicans. It’s nothing personal.” Could a Latter-day Saint maintain prejudice against Blacks because of what past leaders have stated? Surely anything a Mormon leader said which might encourage division is overridden by all that the Savior said. Could a Latter-day Saint nurture prejudice against a Muslim because of the acts of a few fanatics?
I close this post with the words of a young man in the Congo, who recently returned from his mission. He had been a revolutionary, trained to hate white people and everything involved with Colonialism. Joining the LDS Church was a huge turning point in his life, and he vowed that he would prove during his mission that racism need not exist.
He wrote me these words while he was still serving:
“I know there are some incidents in the story of not only the Church but also of the whole world in which we can find hatred or racism between human races. But these are the mistakes of men, for said the Lord in the Book of Mormon ‘This is not my doctrine to stir up the hearts of men with anger one against another.’ However, what sometimes men may call hatred or racism is not really hatred or racism. Men sometimes need to understand the Lord and learn to know the dealings of God. If we recognize His love and wisdom and also the shortness of our minds we will see our need of relying on Him.”