ESV Genesis 50:15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”‘ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Sometimes, it’s very difficult to forgive someone who’s hurt you badly. We’re tempted to respond with avoidance, hate, or revenge.
A co-worker takes credit for your work and puts you in a bad light with your boss. Later, that same co-worker struggles hopelessly with a project due tomorrow. What do you do?
A fellow student bullies you mercilessly. Later, he’s accused of cheating on a test, but you know he’s completely innocent. What do you do?
Your sister talks your aging mother into giving her a precious family heirloom that she promised you many years ago, and then she sells it. Now your sister needs help with groceries for her family. What do you do?
A family member who is a non-believer believes that Christians are unloving and intolerant bigots full of hate, and constantly lets you know her scorn for you and tries to drive a wedge between you and other family members. What do you do?
Forgiving others who’ve hurt or offended you badly is an unnatural response for unbelievers, and it’s often difficult for Christians. The world tells us, “Don’t get mad; get even!” Yet the Genesis Narrative of Joseph and His Brothers Helps Us Understand Why and How We Can Forgive Those Who Have Hurt Us, even intentionally.
Our text today is actually the very end of a long story. Let’s go back thirteen chapters in Genesis and remember what happened between Joseph and his brothers.
As the eleventh of twelve brothers—and the most beloved by his father—Joseph was given a colorful coat by father Jacob and told dreams that made his brothers hate and envy him. Joseph spied on his brothers for their father, so his brothers conspired to kill him and throw him down a pit. Instead, Joseph was sold as a slave and taken to Egypt, where he was sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s bodyguard. The ten brothers of Joseph covered up their malicious act by dipping Joseph’s coat in goat’s blood and bringing it to Jacob to identify. Jacob imagined that Joseph had been eaten by wild beasts, and he grieved inconsolably for his beloved son.
Meanwhile in Egypt, God was with Joseph as he served Potiphar, but Potiphar’s wife was attracted to Joseph and often tried to seduce him. Once, while alone with her, he rejected her advances, leaving his coat behind in order to escape. Spurned by Joseph’s rejection, she lied about Joseph to her husband, telling him that Joseph had attempted to molest her, and she presented Joseph’s coat as evidence. Enraged, Potiphar had Joseph thrown into prison.
There, though, God enabled Joseph to interpret dreams for Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker, which soon came true. The cupbearer forgot to tell Pharaoh about Joseph, who languished in prison for two more years. Finally, one night, Pharaoh had troubling dreams that he couldn’t understand, and the cupbearer remembered Joseph. He recommended that Pharaoh ask Joseph to interpret his dreams, because earlier he had successfully interpreted his own and that of the baker. God gave Joseph the interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams: seven coming years of good crops to be followed by seven years of famine. Naturally, Pharaoh chose Joseph to oversee the fourteen-year plan to collect, save, and sell the grain.
Back in Canaan, also lacking food, Jacob sent ten of his sons to Egypt to buy grain. They found Joseph, who recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. After two trips, Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. So they went back and brought Jacob and all seventy members of his family to Egypt. Jacob was reunited with Joseph, and all of them lived seventeen years in Egypt before Jacob died.
With that background, our text today begins, “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him’?” (v 15).
For over twenty years, those ten brothers had lived in guilt about what they’d done to Joseph and to their father, Jacob. Every time they saw their father cry or hang his head grieving for Joseph, they knew they were to blame.
Now Jacob and all twelve of his sons, with the whole family, had lived together in Egypt for seventeen years. But somehow in that time, there had been no real reconciliation between Joseph and the ten brothers who’d sold him into slavery. While their father was alive, the brothers felt secure that Joseph wouldn’t harm them and cause their father any more grief. But now that Jacob was dead, they thought their brother Joseph would take revenge for their treachery. Had Joseph and his brothers never had a heart-to-heart talk about the past during the seventeen years they lived together in Egypt?
Sometimes, instead of talking in our families and relationships, we have the idea that past hurts and sins will just go away if we don’t ever bring them up again. They’re never actually confessed and forgiven, just forgotten . . . for a while. But if the topic ever comes up later, it tears off an unhealed scab, and the bleeding starts again as badly as it did before. Nothing was healed; nothing was changed. We have the attitude, “I can forgive but I can’t forget.” Instead of genuinely forgiving others, we sometimes just say, “That’s okay,” or “Don’t worry about it,” but that doesn’t actually heal the hurt or the relationship. Real confession and forgiveness need to take place.
To save their own skin, the ten brothers of Joseph “sent a message to Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this command before he died: “Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’?” And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father’?” (vv 16–17).
When we confess our sins to God and to one another and hear the words “I forgive you,” we know the sins are truly gone! Baking a cake for someone we have hurt is a nice gesture, but it doesn’t clearly articulate the wrong or declare forgiveness. We can’t make up for some sin by doing something nice in return, either to God or to a person we’ve wronged. That’s bribery. Hearing the words of absolution from the pastor in church, as well as remembering our Baptism and receiving Christ’s body and blood “for the forgiveness of sins,” is hearing the voice of God loud and clear who tells you that you’ve been forgiven by God, through the sacrifice, the cross, of our Savior Jesus.
Many adult siblings haven’t spoken to one another for decades, often due to some falling out that’s never been resolved. Children abused by adults often live with the physical or mental scars because they’ve never confronted them about the hurts, which could lead to a confession, absolution, and closure.
As we remember the events of 9-11, 2001 on its anniversary last week, we are sometimes filled with anger and desire for revenge. Again, it is often hard to forgive those who planned and carried out such a dastardly plot against thousands of innocent people. And yes, it is the duty of the government who wields the sword of justice on behalf of God, to punish the evil doer, still it is the duty of the believer in Christ to forgive and seek repentance in the evil doer and proclaim the gospel of God’s forgiveness for their salvation and this we do with our neighbors and by supporting the work of missionaries to those countries who sponsor terrorism.
After the brothers sent the request that Joseph forgive them, “Joseph wept when they spoke to him” (v 17). Joseph was deeply hurt that his brothers still thought he might want to harm them. Joseph had forgiven his brothers long ago and wasn’t under a burden of hate or revenge.
After the message was brought to Joseph, perhaps by his own brother Benjamin as a way to soften up Joseph, “His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants’?” (v 18). Did any of them have a sudden case of déjà vu? Many years ago, God had given Joseph two dreams about his brothers bowing down before him, and now it’s happening again, just as it had when the brothers first stood before Joseph, the ruler. But Joseph didn’t want servants who would fear him; he wanted brothers who would love him.
“Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’?” (v 19). By now, Joseph had had years of watching the mysterious plans of God unfold into a great blessing, and who was he to question God’s methods? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19). As our Lord’s parable in today’s Gospel tells us, we can and must forgive the debt of anyone who hurts us, because we are the servants who have had many great debts forgiven us by our Master.
Joseph explains to his brothers that God had a purpose in allowing evil things to happen to him. He says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today” (v 20). Joseph virtually repeats what he told his brothers when he first revealed himself to them seventeen years ago, but they either had forgotten or doubted him. Earlier he had said to them, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . So it was not you who sent me here, but God” (45:5, 8).
Joseph saw God’s hand for good in the many years of hurt that he endured. God turns evil around to make good come from it, always for God’s mysterious and divine purposes. Paul echoes this in Rom 8:28: “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Those who hated and killed Jesus meant it for evil, but God meant it for good, the saving of many souls! All the evil that was done to Jesus—persecution, unjust treatment by his brother Jews, thrown into a pit of humanity, having his clothes taken away, left in the prison of the grave for two days and emerging live on the third—it was all a part of God’s greater plan of ultimate good for you and me! Your sins are no more!
As Joseph speaks tenderly to his brothers, so does Jesus speak to us today: “?’So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them” (v 21). As Jesus’ brothers, we can forgive too. Amen.