Recall the dramatic story of Joseph revealing himself to his brother’ in Genesis chapter 45 (it was just last week), after he witnessed that their regret at having sold him. When Judah tries to prevent Joseph taking Benjamin from the family, Joseph can no longer be the viceroy Egypt, and he insists on alone-time with his family to identify himself to them.
It would seem after this climatic encounter between Joseph and his brothers that all is forgiven and they are starting fresh. By acknowledging and invoking God’s hand in the events that brought them to this specific moment in time, it seems that Joseph has forgiven his brothers because it was all meant to be. The story is over and presumably, after Joseph moves his whole family down to Goshen where there is food for their children and pasture for their animals, this story has come to an end.
Yet, the tensions and rivalries between Joseph and his brothers resurface after the death of the father Jacob. Jacob dies at the end of chapter 49 and chapter 50 describes his burial back in Canaan, as requested on his deathbed.
When one reads these verses, it is Joseph who drives the burial and none of his brothers is even mentioned by name, even though they all travel to Canaan together (50:1-13)
After Joseph and his brothers return to Egypt, the brothers confront Joseph again worried that now that Jacob is gone there is no longer reason for Joseph to remain courteous with his brothers and maybe Joseph as been harboring a grudge all along. The brothers raise the possibility that Joseph did not fully forgive them and that he was waiting for the right moment to punish them for their sin:
From: Genesis 50: 14-17:
וַיָּ֨שָׁב יוֹסֵ֤ף מִצְרַ֙יְמָה֙ ה֣וּא וְאֶחָ֔יו וְכָל־הָעֹלִ֥ים אִתּ֖וֹ לִקְבֹּ֣ר אֶת־אָבִ֑יו אַחֲרֵ֖י קָבְר֥וֹ אֶת־אָבִֽיו׃
“After burying his father, Joseph returned to Egypt, he and his brothers and all who had gone up with him to bury his father”
וַיִּרְא֤וּ אֲחֵֽי־יוֹסֵף֙ כִּי־מֵ֣ת אֲבִיהֶ֔ם וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ ל֥וּ יִשְׂטְמֵ֖נוּ יוֹסֵ֑ף וְהָשֵׁ֤ב יָשִׁיב֙ לָ֔נוּ אֵ֚ת כָּל־הָ֣רָעָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר גָּמַ֖לְנוּ אֹתֽוֹ׃
“When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!”
וַיְצַוּ֕וּ אֶל־יוֹסֵ֖ף לֵאמֹ֑ר אָבִ֣יךָ צִוָּ֔ה לִפְנֵ֥י מוֹת֖וֹ לֵאמֹֽר׃
“So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction”:
כֹּֽה־תֹאמְר֣וּ לְיוֹסֵ֗ף אָ֣נָּ֡א שָׂ֣א נָ֠א פֶּ֣שַׁע אַחֶ֤יךָ וְחַטָּאתָם֙ כִּי־רָעָ֣ה גְמָל֔וּךָ וְעַתָּה֙ שָׂ֣א נָ֔א לְפֶ֥שַׁע עַבְדֵ֖י אֱלֹהֵ֣י אָבִ֑יךָ וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ יוֹסֵ֖ף בְּדַבְּרָ֥ם אֵלָֽיו׃
“So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.”
What is the meaning behind Joseph’s crying in verse 17? Is he crying because he is saddened that even now with all the good he had provided for his brothers they still do not fully trust him to believe all is forgiven and in fact suspect that he would make them slaves (see verse 18). Or is he crying because he is moved by the lengths to which his brothers would go to correct their wrong by offering themselves as slaves.
The commentators on this verse offer different opinions but I think the text is purposefully vague. This acknowledges the complexity of forgiveness. One can forgive or even believe that what happened was meant to be but emotionally it may be difficult to forget the hurt and suffering caused by another person.
We see this in Joseph’s peculiar response to his brothers where he takes himself out of the equation and again as he did in chapter 45 declaring that this must have been God’s plan and therefore good:
From Genesis 50 19-21
וַיֹּ֧אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֛ם יוֹסֵ֖ף אַל־תִּירָ֑אוּ כִּ֛י הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי׃
“But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God?”
וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה אֱלֹהִים֙ חֲשָׁבָ֣הּ לְטֹבָ֔ה לְמַ֗עַן עֲשֹׂ֛ה כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּ֖ה לְהַחֲיֹ֥ת עַם־רָֽב׃
“Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.”
וְעַתָּה֙ אַל־תִּירָ֔אוּ אָנֹכִ֛י אֲכַלְכֵּ֥ל אֶתְכֶ֖ם וְאֶֽת־טַפְּכֶ֑ם וַיְנַחֵ֣ם אוֹתָ֔ם וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לִבָּֽם׃
“And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
What does Joseph mean that he is no substitute for God? Does that mean it is not his right to punish like God? Or is there a subtle hint that God may judge the brothers later and it’s not Joseph’s right to completely absolve them. Does Joseph choose to treat them kindly because he sees that ultimately his selling was part of God’s plan to save Jacob and his children.
Often we hold ourselves to a standard of forgive and forget. The story of Joseph and his brothers shows that while forgiveness is an ideal, forgetting for both parties may be more difficult.