GENESIS 45:37-45. THE CONTEXT
I will summarize at length the background of this encounter between Joseph and his brothers, because understanding the background is essential to understanding the encounter. The story is familiar, which means that we think that we know it. However, a careful review will reveal details that we have forgotten—or, perhaps, never noticed.
This encounter has its roots in chapter 37, where we learned that “Israel (Jacob’s new name) loved Joseph more than all his children, because (Joseph) was the son of his old age, and (Israel) had made (Joseph) a coat of many colors. His brothers saw that their father loved (Joseph) more than all his brothers, and they hated (Joseph), and couldn’t speak peaceably to him” (37:3-4).
Joseph fueled the fire of his brothers’ hatred by relating a dream where his brothers’ sheaves bowed down to his sheaf (37:5-8) and another dream where “the sun and the moon and eleven stars bowed down to me” (37:9). He related the first dream to his brothers, who “hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words” (37:8). He related his second dream to his brothers and father (37:10). His father rebuked him for the obvious symbolism that the father, mother, and brothers would bow down to Joseph (37:10), but “his brothers envied him (Joseph)” (37:11)—and who could blame them.
The brothers, in their hatred, decided to kill Joseph (37:20), but Reuben, one of the brothers, persuaded them to throw Joseph in a pit instead—a pit with no water (37:21-24). Judah, another brother, persuaded them to sell Joseph to the members of a passing caravan and to deceive their father into believing that Joseph was dead (37:25-35). Then “the Midianites sold (Joseph) into Egypt to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard” (37:36).
This led to Joseph’s servanthood in the house of Potiphar, and the trumped up charge of attempted seduction by Potiphar’s wife—a charge that resulted in Joseph’s imprisonment (39:1-20). “But Yahweh was with Joseph, and showed kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison” (39:21)—”and that which (Joseph) did, the Lord made it prosper” (39:23).
It is worth noting that when Joseph attains great power after his prison term, there is no mention of Potiphar or Potiphar’s wife—no indication that Joseph seeks revenge for the two years—possibly more—that he spent in prison (41:1).
Then Pharaoh imprisoned his cupbearer and his baker “into the prison, the place where Joseph was bound” (40:3). Each of the men had a dream, which Joseph interpreted to mean that the cupbearer would be restored to his office, but the baker would be executed (40:5-19). These dreams were fulfilled exactly as Joseph interpreted them (40:20-23).
Two years later, Pharaoh dreamed about seven sleek and fat cows and seven ugly and thin cows as well as seven plump and good ears of grain and seven thin and blighted ears—dreams which his wise men could not interpret (41:1-8). When the cupbearer learned of this, he told Pharaoh about Joseph’s accurate dream interpretation, causing Pharaoh to send for Joseph (41:9 ff.). Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams to mean that there would be seven plentiful years and seven years of famine. He said, “The dream was doubled to Pharaoh, because the thing is established by God, and God will shortly bring it to pass” (41:32). He advised Pharaoh to appoint a discerning man over Egypt and overseers to gather food during the plenteous years so that they might be ready for the famine years (41:33-36).
“Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Because God has shown you all of this, there is none so discreet and wise as you. You shall be over my house, and according to your word will all my people be ruled. Only in the throne I will be greater than you” (41:39-40). During the next seven years, Joseph gathered and stored great quantities of food for use during the famine (41:46 ff.).
When the famine began, Jacob sent his sons to Egypt to obtain grain. “But Jacob didn’t send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers; for he said, ‘Lest perhaps harm happen to him'” (42:4)—Benjamin being Jacob’s youngest son and the son of Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel, who died giving birth to Benjamin (35:16-20). Rachel bore Jacob only two sons, Joseph and Benjamin (35:24). Joseph’s other brothers are half-brothers—the six sons of Leah—two sons of Bilhah, Rachel’s maid—and two sons of Zilpah, Leah’s maid (35:23-26).
Joseph’s ten brothers went to Egypt, and appeared before Joseph (42:1 ff.). Joseph recognized them, but they failed to recognize him. Joseph accused them of being spies, and ordered them imprisoned (42:17). Later, he offered to allow nine of them to return to their father with grain. He ordered them to bring Benjamin on their return trip (42:18-20), and kept Simeon as a hostage to insure their return (42:24). He then ordered his servants to fill their bags with grain and to put their money—their payment for the grain— into their bags (42:25). When the brothers discovered the money, they were distressed, because they thought that they would be accused of theft (42:28, 35).
However, the famine was severe and Simeon was still in Egypt, so the brothers persuaded their father to allow them to take Benjamin to Egypt. Judah attempted to guarantee Benjamin’s return, saying, “If I don’t bring him to you, and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever” (43:9). The brothers took the money from their bags to return it as payment for their original purchase and took gifts to placate Joseph, whose identity they still did not know.
When they returned to Egypt, Joseph had a big dinner for them, which frightened them because they thought that he would accuse them of stealing the money that they had found in their bags. However, when they told him about the money and tried to return it to him, Joseph said, “Peace be to you. Don’t be afraid. Your God, and the God of your father, has given you treasure in your sacks. I received your money” (43:23).
When the brothers were ready to return home, Joseph had his servants fill their sacks with grain and place their money at the top of the sacks. Then he had the servants place his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack (44:2). He then accused the brothers of stealing the cup, and used that as a pretext for taking Benjamin back to Egypt as a slave (44:3-13). Judah and his brothers returned to Egypt and pled for Benjamin’s release (44:14 ff.) Judah offered to stay in Egypt as a slave in Benjamin’s place (44:33).
It is at that point that our text begins.
GENESIS 45:1-3. I AM JOSEPH. DOES MY FATHER STILL LIVE?
1Then Joseph couldn’t control himself before all those who stood before him, and he cried, “Cause everyone to go out from me!” No one else stood with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2He wept aloud. The Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. 3Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Does my father still live?”
His brothers couldn’t answer him; for they were terrified at his presence.
Verses 1-15 are the key to the wider Joseph narrative. “The narrative reaches its culmination in 45:1-15…. Everything before this has pointed to this chapter. After this, everything is derivative” (Brueggemann, 343).
At this point, Joseph is in a position of total authority. As second in power to Pharaoh, he has no obligation to provide his brothers with due process of law. He has saved Egypt from the effects of a ruinous famine, and enjoys Pharaoh’s complete trust. If he chooses to enslave his brothers, he is free to do so. If he decides to imprison them in his old cell, he can do that. If he decides to have them executed, his servants will carry out his order without hesitation. However, he is subject to God’s authority, and it will be his relationship to God and his understanding of God’s providential care that will dictate his actions with regard to his brothers.
“Then Joseph couldn’t control himself before all those who stood before him, and he cried, ‘Cause everyone to go out from me!’ No one else stood with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers” (v. 1). As noted above, Joseph has had two previous encounters with his brothers in which he managed to keep secret his identity—although on both occasions he was overcome by emotion and had to leave the room lest his brothers see him weep (42:24; 43:30).
On this occasion, Joseph remains in the room with his brothers, but sends everyone except his brothers from the room so that he might encounter his brothers privately—so that this might be a family rather than a public affair.
“He wept aloud. The Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard” (v. 2). Even though he dismissed his retinue, they would not have gone far. Servants of rulers must remain nearby to respond to orders and/or to protect the ruler. Joseph’s retinue might be on the other side of a closed door, or they might simply be in an adjacent room with no closed door to shield the sound of Joseph’s weeping.
When Joseph began to weep so profusely, it must have thoroughly confused his brothers, who have had no hint that this great ruler is Joseph. Their relationship with him in Egypt has been confusing from the beginning. It would have been unusual for people coming to buy grain to be granted an audience with Egypt’s second-in-command, but this is their third appearance before the great man. On each of the other occasions, they had been frightened by Joseph’s accusation that they were spies—or by finding their money in their sacks—or by finding Joseph’s silver cup in their sack. Joseph had forced them to leave Simeon as a hostage on the first occasion, and had threatened to enslave Benjamin on the second occasion. Joseph has thoroughly intimidated his brothers, so his loud weeping in their presence is completely inexplicable. They must wonder what terrible thing he will do to them now. They might even wonder if he has become unbalanced.
“Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Does my father still live?'” (v. 3a). Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers. His first concern is his father. It has been at least 22 years since he has seen his father. He asks if his father is still alive. It is quite possible that his father has died during his long absence.
“His brothers couldn’t answer him; for they were terrified at his presence” (v. 3). Joseph’s brothers are stunned into silence. In their wildest imagination, they could not have guessed that their brother would become second only to Pharaoh in Egypt—or that he would exercise control over a food supply that would stave off starvation not only in Egypt, but in adjacent lands as well—or that he would sit before them in regal splendor as they came petitioning to buy food. However, Joseph’s dream in chapter 37 gave them a glimpse of the future—a glimpse that caused them to hate him and to sell him into captivity. They had chosen not to believe his dream, but now they find themselves exposed suddenly to its fulfillment.
GENESIS 45:4-8. GOD SENT ME BEFORE YOU TO PRESERVE LIFE
4Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.”
They came near. “He said, I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt.
5Now don’t be grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are yet five years, in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to save you alive by a great deliverance. 8So now it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God, and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
“They came near. “He said, I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt” (v. 4). Joseph repeats his assertion of verse 3—adding “whom you sold into Egypt.” It is clear that he has not forgotten their treachery. These words, “whom you sold into Egypt,” must have fallen on his brothers like a ton of bricks.
“Now don’t be grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here” (v. 5a). This is quite a dramatic announcement—the brothers’ first reassurance that Joseph will not hold them fully accountable for their treachery.
However, events are moving so fast that the brothers must be having difficult processing the dramatic turns of events. Can this great man of Egypt really be their brother? Is this some kind of torturous joke? If this is Joseph, how did he rise to such power? If this is Joseph, what will that mean for them? They must feel like a fly trapped in a sticky web—watching the spider approach.
“for God sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5b). This does not mean that the brothers are guiltless, as Joseph will acknowledge later when he says, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (50:20). The fact that God can give an evil deed a positive outcome does not remove the guilt of the evildoer. The New Testament does not absolve Judas for betraying Jesus, even though the cross was part of God’s plan that would lead to the resurrection. Neither does it absolve Pilate, Herod, or the religious authorities who were involved in the decision to crucify Jesus. Good Friday evildoers do not become saints because of God’s work on Easter.
“for God sent me before you to preserve life” (v. 5b). God did not cause the brothers to commit a sin, but simply turned the effects of their sin from bad to good. It is God’s actions that deserve celebration here—not the earlier sinful actions of the brothers. Joseph has every right to hold his brothers fully accountable for selling him into slavery, but chooses not to do so—chooses to turn his spiritual eyes from their evil deed to God’s good end. It is a moment of pure grace.
Fretheim says, “What God has done stands independent of the brothers’ repentance” (Fretheim, 646). However, the brothers have not failed to repent. After Joseph ordered them to leave Simeon as a hostage and to return with their brother Benjamin, they said, “We are certainly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us, and we wouldn’t listen. Therefore this distress has come upon us” (42:21). They said that in Joseph’s presence, not realizing that he could understand them, so Joseph is aware of their repentance. It is clear that their guilt has weighed on them all these years—a guilt that deepened each time they observed their father’s grief.
“For these two years the famine has been in the land, and there are yet five years, in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest” (v. 6). Joseph was 17 years old when he had his dream (37:2). He was 30 years old when he entered Pharaoh’s service (41:46). Seven years of plenty and two years of famine have passed since Joseph entered Pharaoh’s service. Joseph is therefore at least 39 years old, which means that it has been at least 22 years since his boyhood dream and, presumably, since his brothers sold him into slavery.
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to save you alive by a great deliverance” (v. 7). This word, “remnant,” has special significance in the Bible, and is “applied to three types of groups. The first is simply a historical remnant made up of survivors of a catastrophe. The second consists of the faithful remnant, distinguished from the former group by their genuine spirituality and true faith relationship with God; this remnant is the carrier of all divine election promises. The third is most appropriately designated the eschatological remnant, consisting of those of the faithful remnant who go through the cleansing judgments and apocalyptic woes of the end time and emerge victoriously after the Day of Yahweh as the recipients of the everlasting kingdom” (G.F. Hasel in Bromiley, IV, 131).
It is in the first sense (a historical remnant) that Joseph’s brothers constitute a remnant. They have not been faithful—quite the opposite—but God sometimes chooses people like Jacob, the schemer—and Moses, who tried to talk his way out of the honor—and these unworthy brothers. The faithful remnant will include “those who survived the wilderness wanderings to enter the promised land,” …the inhabitants of the former northern kingdom of Israel who escaped the Assyrian deportation, …(and) those who returned to Judah after the Babylonian Exile” (Myers, 879).
“So now it wasn’t you who sent me here, but God” (v. 8a). This is Joseph’s third statement that it was God who sent him to Egypt (vv. 5, 7).
“and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt”(v. 8b). The phrase, “a father to Pharaoh” means Pharaoh’s “chief adviser” (Wenham, 428). The brothers have no doubt been amazed to find Joseph on an Egyptian throne. How could that have happened? Joseph tells them that it happened at the hand of God.
GENESIS 45:9-15. GOD HAS MADE ME LORD OF ALL EGYPT
9Hurry, and go up to my father, and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says, “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me. Don’t wait. 10You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you will be near to me, you, your children, your children’s children, your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11There I will nourish you; for there are yet five years of famine; lest you come to poverty, you, and your household, and all that you have.”‘ 12Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my mouth that speaks to you. 13You shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. You shall hurry and bring my father down here.” 14He fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. 15He kissed all his brothers, and wept on them. After that his brothers talked with him.
“Hurry, and go up to my father, and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says, “God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me. Don’t wait”‘” (v. 9). Joseph, who has learned over the past nine years to command subordinates, issues commands to his brothers—but his commands are not onerous, but welcome. The analogy today would be a quiz show host who would command, “Come on down!”—meaning “Come and claim your prize!”
Joseph’s first concern is his father. Like any son who has done well, he wants his father to know of his success and to share its fruits.
“You shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you will be near to me, you, your children, your children’s children, your flocks, your herds, and all that you have” (v. 10). The land of Goshen is located in the Nile delta. This delta is located near where the Nile empties into the Mediterranean Sea—in the northern reaches of the Nile. The exact location of Goshen is uncertain, but it is probably a wedge-shaped area between two arms of the Nile running north and east from Cairo to the Mediterranean.
River deltas are formed by silt deposits from the river with which they are associated. In the Nile delta, these silt deposits are 50 to 75 feet deep—50 to 75 feet of good topsoil (Encyclopedia Britannica). A river delta is roughly triangular in shape, because the river fans out into multiple branches before emptying into the sea. Because of the silt deposits and availability of water for irrigation, deltas are among the most fertile agricultural lands in the world. The river also provides transportation, enhancing commerce. As a result, river deltas tend to be prosperous—their one problem being periodic flooding. The Nile delta is one of the three largest river deltas in the world. Suffice it to say that Joseph has chosen well by settling his family in Goshen. It is a prosperous land located near the seat of power—the place from which Joseph oversees Egypt.
“There I will nourish you; for there are yet five years of famine; lest you come to poverty, you, and your household, and all that you have” (v. 11). Even though Goshen is a fertile land, Joseph knows that his family cannot survive by farming it during the five years remaining in the famine. Joseph is responsible for the oversight of the great food supply that he stored during the time of plenty, and promises to provide for his family during the five lean years still remaining.
“Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin, that it is my mouth that speaks to you” (v. 12). Joseph’s brothers need no proof that this is Joseph. They failed to recognize him until he identified himself, because he has matured during his 22 years in Egypt and would be attired and groomed in the manner of a ruler. Also, he is the last person they expected to see sitting on a throne of Egypt, and people often see what they expect to see and fail to see the unexpected. Now that Joseph has identified himself, however, his brothers can verify his identity with their own eyes. They can recognize his voice and his mannerisms. They know that this is Joseph.
“You shall tell my father of all my glory in Egypt, and of all that you have seen. You shall hurry and bring my father down here” (v. 13). Joseph opened his speech with concern for his father (v. 9), and he now closes it with the same concern. He wants his father to know of his success so that his father will not hesitate to travel to Egypt.
“He fell on his brother Benjamin’s neck, and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck” (v. 14). Joseph and Benjamin are the two sons most beloved by their father. They are the only two sons of Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife. As noted above, Benjamin is Joseph’s only full brother.
“He kissed all his brothers, and wept on them. After that his brothers talked with him” (v. 15). “The previous picture of Joseph as a calculating imperial official, one who manipulates circumstances to control events, dissolves in the powerful passion of self-disclosure. It is not the calculating plans of the royal Joseph but the passionate self-disclosure of Jacob’s son that heals the family” (Roop, 272; see also Brueggemann, 345).
GENESIS 50: POSTSCRIPT
Chapter 50, the last chapter of this book, tells of Israel’s death and burial “in the cave of the field of Machpelah, which Abraham bought with the field, for a possession of a burial site, from Ephron the Hittite, before Mamre” (50:13). After the burial, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will punish them for selling him into slavery as a young man. They beg Joseph for forgiveness. Joseph responds:
“Don’t be afraid, for am I in the place of God?
As for you, you meant evil against me,
God meant it for good,
to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save many people alive.
Now therefore don’t be afraid.
I will nourish you and your little ones” (50:19-21).
The account in 50:15-21 sounds very much like that of 45:1-15. Both accounts speak of the brothers’ fear, Joseph’s reassurance that their actions were part of God’s plan, and his assurance that he will take care of his brothers in spite of their earlier sin. However, the later incident shows that Joseph’s brothers are not confident of his good will. They still bear their guilt and fear punishment now that they no longer enjoy their father’s protection. However, Joseph reassures them that they are safe and in his care.
In the earlier account, there was no mention of forgiveness. In the later account, the brothers’ specifically ask to be forgiven. While Joseph does not use forgiveness language, it is clear that he intends his reassurance to convey his forgiveness.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Brueggemann, Walter, Interpretation Commentary: Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982)
Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Fretheim, Terence E., “The Book of Genesis,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1: General Old Testament Articles, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994.
Hamilton, Victor P., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995)
Holbert, John C., in Van Harn, Roger, E. (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Newsome, James, in Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Roop, Eugene F., Believers Church Bible Commentaries: Genesis (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1987)
Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1972)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994)
Copyright 2006, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan