Where Penitence Meets Righteousness


In this week’s verses from the Prophets, Ezekiel reports on a mysterious, yet powerful request from God. Ezekiel is asked to put a piece of wood with Judah’s name on it with another piece of wood with Joseph’s name on it and they will become one together in his hand.

Since the kingdoms of Judah and Israel had split apart after the reign of Solomon, this prophecy is read as God’s promise one day to bring all the children of Israel together again in the land. They would thereafter turn away from idols and sin, restored to relationship with God. They would live in God’s ways, in peace, with hope for the whole world of God’s dominion and saving power.

I think all this is right in the grand scheme of things, but I think there is something more, something that touches us in the here and now. And I believe we can find these more intimate truths if we look at this text’s companion portion in Genesis, where we see the actual coming together of Judah and Joseph. For, it is their reconciliation that teaches us most personally of this deeper meaning of Ezekiel’s prophecy.

Recall the story.

Judah and his brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. They then deceived Jacob, their father, by saying Joseph had been killed. This, of course, brought years of extreme difficulty to Joseph and great grief to the father.

In this week’s portion, Joseph, now in power in Egypt, has the opportunity to test his brothers to see whether they have changed their ways for the better. Joseph has made it appear that one of the brothers, one particularly dear to Jacob – Benjamin – will be held hostage. So, Judah, who had already begun to walk the penitent’s path by promising his father that he would take responsibility for Benjamin, must decide whether to step forward.

What happens when he does is among the most poignant moments in the Bible or any story, for that matter. Let’s watch.

First, probably at some risk, Judah “went up” to Joseph. Sages say this motion was tantamount to a remarkable drawing close, both physically and emotionally. One of the great rabbis says this going up was so significant in what it generated that, while there was no peace beforehand, now “peace could come into the world, with great joy above and below.”

How is that possible?

Fundamentally, Judah draws close to Joseph to say YES – he and his brothers see that an innocent brother is in peril, that it matters, and that he will act on his behalf. He tells of his aging father’s predicament and of his own promise to the father that he would never again let him down. Whatever befalls himself, Judah makes clear that he cares and that he will do what’s necessary and right, out of love and compassion, especially on behalf of those in pain and need.

This is the quintessence of penitence. Judah had made Joseph a slave and brought misery to his father. Now he is prepared to make himself a slave in order to prevent such things from ever happening again.

He sees Benjamin’s face. He sees in his mind’s eye Jacob’s face. He sees, though he may not recognize it, Joseph’s face. He sees need and pain and righteousness, all by going outside of himself to look into the faces of others. His interest is now invested in them. His turning is so complete and this tale so powerful that Judah will one day become an exemplar of God’s expectation that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

In response, Joseph weeps openly and publicly. Reconciliation is underway. Penitence has met righteousness, and all is possible in the world.

This is what Ezekiel is prophesying on behalf of God: where penitence and righteousness meet, people come together. Unity can be achieved. Those who have separated can be restored back to each other and God. This is how we live in peace. This is what gives hope to the world. This is where God dwells, and it is in such moments when we can best see and praise God’s sovereignty in the world.


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