Forgiveness and Freedom From the Brothers’ Perspective (Genesis 50.15-21)
15When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. 18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.19 But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Gen. 50.15-21)
Many of us know the story of Joseph and his dysfunctional family (Genesis 25 – 50). His father Jacob was a master deceiver (from birth!), and played favorites with his wives and his sons, leading to jealousy, hatred, talk of murder, and finally the brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery. We delight in God’s presence with Joseph, giving him success even in the midst of unfair setbacks in Potiphar’s household and in Pharaoh’s dungeon.
Joseph’s noble character is a model for us to follow. And how delightful it is when Joseph is elevated to second-in-command in Egypt, giving glory to God! We are amazed and thrilled at the poetic justice as the brothers come to Egypt and bow before Joseph (not recognizing him) in fulfillment of Joseph’s teenage dream some 13 or so years earlier.
Recently I led a Bible study which focused on a different aspect of this story—the issue of forgiveness and freedom from the brothers’ perspective. The words that stood out to me are in Gen. 50:17: “When their message came to him, Joseph wept.” Why is he weeping? Shouldn’t he be glad his brothers are still afraid he will punish them for their sins against him? After all, they treated him terribly and he suffered many years.
I marvel at Joseph’s faith and character. God shaped and molded him through the years of suffering and character-building to bring him to a place of great power, authority, and wealth. Yet Joseph saw all this as God’s plan to save his people (50:20). He wept to hear his brothers acknowledge their sin (42:24), he wept to see his brother Benjamin (43:30), and he wept when he was reunited with his brothers (45:14-15). Joseph longed for reconciliation with his family. His forgiveness is clearly seen as he welcomed them and provided for all their needs in Egypt.
For 17 years Jacob and his family lived in Egypt, prospering under the care of Joseph. The brothers, however, are still in bondage to guilt. When Jacob dies, they again fear that Joseph will punish them. How sad for Joseph! He weeps because after 17 years they still do not trust his mercy and forgiveness. They do not live in the freedom of reconciliation that flows from forgiveness. They cling to their guilt and fear of punishment.
I wonder sometimes how often God weeps when I confess my sins, receive his forgiveness, and then continue to live in my guilt as if I must pay him back for my sins, waiting for him to punish me in some way. That’s not freedom! In 2 Corinthians 5:15-6:2 St. Paul reminds us that Christ died for us and he implores us to be reconciled to God and “not to receive God’s grace in vain” (2 Cor. 6:2). No wonder Joseph wept! His arms were opened wide to forgive and receive his brothers, yet they refused to live in the freedom and reconciliation he offered them.
Isn’t that the picture of Christ? He was despised and rejected, suffered horribly, and was exalted to power by God his Father. We come before him, bowing in humility, confessing our sin. He graciously forgives and invites us into relationship with him—he longs for closeness with us. And how often do we say thanks for the forgiveness, but I’m not sure you could really want to be close to me, after all, I’m a pretty bad sinner. And how he must weep!
Lord Jesus, may I not receive your grace in vain. Purge me of my sin and guilt, and restore to me the joy of my salvation, that I may live in the freedom of your love and mercy. In You I am a new creation, cleansed and reconciled! Amen!
Guest Writer: Diane Bahn is a pastor’s wife in Texas and serves as the Director of the Partner (wives) Program of the Pastoral Leadership Institute (PLI).