GENESIS 37-50: THE CONTEXT
These verses conclude this lengthy story. The story began with Joseph’s dreams of greatness that offended his brothers (37:1-11). His brothers responded by selling Joseph into slavery to members of a caravan headed for Egypt (37:12-28). They then told Jacob that Joseph was dead. Jacob was inconsolable (37:29-36).
In Egypt, Joseph became a slave to Potiphar. Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, but he demurred on ethical grounds. In spite, she accused him of attempted rape, which led to his arrest and imprisonment (chapter 39). In prison, Joseph interpreted the dreams of two prisoners accurately (chapter 40), which led Pharaoh to ask Joseph to interpret his two dreams—one about seven fat cows and seven lean cows and the other about seven good ears of grain and seven thin ears. Joseph told Pharaoh that the two dreams were foretelling seven fat years and seven lean years. He advised Pharaoh to appoint a wise man to accumulate food during the fat years so that the nation could survive the lean years. (41:1-36). Pharaoh appointed Joseph to that position, which resulted in Joseph becoming the second most powerful man in Egypt (41:37-57).
When the famine hit, Jacob (Joseph’s father) sent Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy grain. When they got to Egypt they dealt directly with Joseph, but failed to recognize him. That led to a series of intrigues, where Joseph put his brothers in several uncomfortable spots (chapters 43-44). Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers, and invited his brothers to bring Jacob and his entire family to Egypt (chapter 45). Jacob brought his family, and Joseph settled them in Goshen, a fertile land in the Nile delta (46:1 – 47:12). The famine proved severe, and Joseph’s excellent management made it possible for Egypt to survive and for Pharaoh to prosper (47:13-26).
Then we have an account of Jacob’s last days (47:27-31), his blessing of Joseph’s sons (chapter 48), his last words to his sons (49:1-28), his death and burial (49:29-33), Joseph’s grief, and his part in the burial ceremonies (50:1-14).
GENESIS 50:15-17ab. FORGIVE THE DISOBEDIENCE OF YOUR BROTHERS
15When Joseph’s brothers saw (Hebrew: way·yir·u—seeing) that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully pay us back for all of the evil (Hebrew: ra·a—evil) which we did to him.” 16They sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father commanded before he died, saying, 17ab ‘You shall tell Joseph, “Now please forgive the disobedience (Hebrew: pe·sa—transgression) of your brothers, and their sin, because they did evil to you.”‘ Now, please forgive the disobedience (Hebrew: ra·a—evil) of the servants of the God of your father.”
“When Joseph’s brothers saw (way·yir·u—seeing) that their father was dead” (v. 15a). It isn’t that the brothers suddenly realize that their father is dead, but that the implications of his death suddenly hit them. Perhaps their father has been the only thing standing between them and Joseph’s wrath. Perhaps Joseph has been tolerating their presence out of consideration for his father. Now that the father is dead, will Joseph turn against them? It is an “eye for an eye” world, so Joseph would be well within his rights to retaliate. Also, as the second most powerful man in Egypt, Joseph is free to deal with his brothers in any way that he chooses.
“they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us, and will fully pay us back for all of the evil which we did to him'” (v. 15b). Earlier, the brothers hated Joseph and sold him into slavery. When Joseph revealed his identity to them in Egypt, he reassured them by saying, “Now don’t be grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life” (45:5).
Once Jacob and his family came to Egypt, Joseph gave them a home on some of Egypt’s best land. The brothers are aliens in the land of Egypt, and are therefore highly dependent on Joseph’s sponsorship. They know that they don’t deserve Joseph’s generosity. They also remember that Joseph demonstrated a capacity for deviousness when they first came to Egypt (chapters 43-44). Perhaps he was also being devious when he reassured them earlier.
What is really going on, of course, is that the brothers’ consciences are troubling them for selling Joseph into slavery. As is often true when people do something wrong, their guilt continues to haunt them. They live every day with the worry that they will suddenly be held accountable. In this case, that would be disastrous for the brothers.
The brothers also remember the cruel way that they treated Joseph when he offended them. They didn’t tell him that he had offended them. They didn’t give him an opportunity to change his ways. Joseph’s first inkling that he was in trouble was when his brothers stripped him of his robe and threw him in the pit. People who behave cruelly find it difficult to accept generosity at face value. For them, generosity seems so unbelievable that it generates suspicion rather than thanksgiving.
“They sent a message to Joseph” (v. 16a). To their credit, this time the brothers do not scheme in private, but instead take the initiative to go to him and solve their problem.
“Your father commanded before he died, saying” (v. 16b). They say “your father” rather than “our father” to give their statement as much emotional power as possible.
We have no way of knowing whether Jacob gave these instructions or not, but it seems unlikely. There is no biblical record of Jacob discovering the brothers’ treachery—or of him telling the brothers to make amends with Joseph.
• If Jacob didn’t know about the treachery, he couldn’t instruct the brothers to go to Joseph to make amends.
• If he did know of it, he would almost certainly have approached Joseph directly—understanding his unique authority and ability to influence Joseph.
“You shall tell Joseph, ‘Now please forgive the disobedience of your brothers, and their sin, because they did evil to you'” (v. 17a). These are, according to the brothers, Jacob’s words. If so, Jacob was aware of the brothers’ earlier treachery, but, as noted above, that is in doubt.
“Now, please forgive the disobedience of the servants of the God of your father” (v. 17b). These are the words of the brothers, who acknowledge their sin (for the first time) and ask Joseph’s forgiveness. The words that they use pull no punches. They acknowledge that they are guilty of crimes (pe·sa—transgressions), wrongs (hatta’t—sins), and crimes (ra·a—evil). We have to give them credit for not trying to diminish the significance of their sin against Joseph. Of course, it would be difficult for them to fool Joseph, who experienced their treachery first-hand. It would be difficult to persuade him that they had intended to do him a favor.
They identify themselves as “the servants of the God of your father.” Probably they intend only to identify themselves as servants of the God that Jacob served—and, by extension, that Joseph serves. But they could be implying that they were acting as God’s agents, however unknowingly, when they sold Joseph into slavery.
In his response (vv. 19-21), Joseph will not directly say, “I forgive you.” However, he has already forgiven them, and his actions have shown that. He will reassure the brothers that his actions will continue to do so.
GENESIS 50:17c- 21. GOD MEANT IT FOR GOOD
17cJoseph wept when they spoke to him. 18His brothers also went and fell down before his face; and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I in the place of God? 20As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save many people alive. 21Now therefore don’t be afraid. I will nourish you and your little ones.” He comforted them, and spoke kindly to them.
“Joseph wept when they spoke to him” (v. 17c). Joseph has often responded to emotional situations with tears (42:24; 43:30; 45:14-15; 46:29 50:1), so we should not be surprised that he weeps here.
Joseph has forgiven his brothers, and has assured them of his good will. He has explained to them that his going into slavery in Egypt was part of God’s plan to preserve life (45:5). He has provided for their welfare. He has done everything he can. Nevertheless, his brothers continue to worry about his intentions. Joseph’s tears signal his frustration—his grief—his memories of the events that led to this moment. If he believes that Jacob instructed the brothers to seek Joseph’s forgiveness, the memory of his father’s recent death would be part of his emotion—as well as concern that his father died doubting Joseph’s goodwill toward his brothers.
“His brothers also went and fell down before his face” (v. 18a). The Hebrew word means “went” but “the NRSV has eliminated the potential problem of where they were when they were speaking to him in verses 16-17 by emending the Hebrew to read, “the brothers also wept.” (The new reading requires only an exchange of one consonant of the Hebrew word with another consonant that looks very much like it.) “This correction is based on a modern scholarly supposition and not on any variant among Hebrew manuscripts…. Luckily, nothing of faith is endangered thereby” (Towner, 288).
“and they said, ‘Behold, we are your servants'” (v. 18b). Not knowing for sure how to interpret Joseph’s tears, Joseph’s brothers persist in their plea for mercy. They weep and fall down before him (thus fulfilling Joseph’s chapter 37 dreams). They acknowledge their subordinate status. They don’t claim to be brothers, but slaves. Later, Jesus will include a similar scene in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where the son intends to acknowledge his sins and to ask to serve his father as a hired hand—but in that story the father will interrupt before the son gets to the part about the hired hand.
“Joseph said to them, ‘Don’t be afraid, for am I in the place of God?'” (v. 19). Once again, Joseph reassures his brothers and tells them not to fear. His question, “am I in the place of God?” uses the same words that Joseph spoke to Rachel when she pleaded, “Give me children, or I shall die!” However, in the earlier instance, Jacob was denying that he had God’s power. In this instance, Joseph is denying that he has the right to exercise the kind of judgment that belongs only to God.
“Am I in the place of God?” makes it sound as if Joseph has no right to retaliate. By the standards of the “eye for an eye” culture in which Joseph lives, that is not true. However, Joseph is not a servant of the prevailing culture, but of Elohim—God.
“As for you, you meant (hasab—planned) evil against me, but God meant it for good “ (v. 20a). God’s plan superseded the brothers’ plan. The brothers’ purpose was evil, but God took their evil act and brought something good out of it—turned it to his merciful purposes. The fact that God transforms evil to good is a common theme throughout the scriptures. The cross is the most obvious example.
“to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save many people alive” (v. 20b; see also 45:5). God purposed to save not only Jacob and his family, but the people of Egypt and all those whom Egypt’s food was feeding during the famine.
Von Rad says:
“Joseph’s meaning here is that, in the remarkable conduct of this whole story, God himself has already spoken. He has included the guilt, the brothers’ evil, in his saving activity and thus justified them. Were Joseph to condemn them now, he would be setting a negative statement beside the one God had already spoken and would thus be putting himself ‘in the place of God'” (Von Rad, 427).
That might, indeed, be Joseph’s thinking. However, the Bible often tells of situations where God thwarts the plans of evil people by superimposing his will—but then punishes the evil people. We must be careful not to suggest that evil people will not be held accountable if God reverses the effects of their evil plans.
“Now therefore don’t be afraid. I will nourish you and your little ones” (v. 21a). Joseph again reassures his brothers and tells them not to fear. As noted earlier, he settled them on fertile land in Goshen when Jacob and his family first arrived in Egypt (46:1 – 47:12). He now pledges to continue providing for their material needs—and for their families.
God has plans for these brothers. They (along with the sons of Joseph) will become the heads of the various tribes of Israel. Joseph has a role to play in this plan by continuing to provide for their welfare in Egypt.
“He comforted them, and spoke kindly to them” (v. 21b). Joseph continues to seek the right words and tone to dispel the brothers’ fear.
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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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)
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Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Genesis, Vol. 1 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1967)
Mathews, Kenneth A., The New American Commentary, Genesis 11:27-50:26, Vol. 1b (Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005)
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Towner, W. Sibley, Westminster Bible Companion: Genesis (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001)
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Von Rad, Gerhard, The Old Testament Library: Genesis, (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1961)
Wenham, Gordon J., Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 16-50 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan