Forgiveness is always difficult. But when forgiveness involves family, it becomes even more difficult. Genesis 50 is the final chapter of a family story in which forgiveness is sought and secured–a story in which bitterness and betrayal are swallowed up by humility and grace.
The need for forgiveness
Jacob had twelve sons, ten of whom sold the patriarch’s favorite son, Joseph, into slavery. Instead of admitting to what they had done, the jealous and spiteful sons told their dad that Joseph had been killed by wild animals. What is worse, there is no record that these brothers ever expressed any remorse over their treacherous act; there was no time when they all agreed, “We should not have done that!” In short, they were cold-hearted, unremorseful liars–that is, until they discovered Joseph was still alive!
The occasion for forgiveness
Joseph’s odyssey had taken him from domestic service for the Egyptian Potiphar to government service for the ruling Pharaoh. When the long forsaken sibling and his brothers were reunited, Joseph was the architect and administrator of Egypt’s world-wide famine-relief operation. He had bread, and his brothers (who were famine victims) had unwittingly come to him for it. The epic reunion and relocation of Joseph’s family to Egypt saved their lives and most notably the life of their father, Jacob. But once Jacob died, a hidden truth became known. Joseph’s brother’s needed to experience forgiveness, a need which was apparent in at least two ways.
The steps to forgiveness
First, Joseph’s brothers were fearful. Once their dad died, they began expressing the concern that Joseph will “hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” This fear was a good thing because, after years of avoidance, the brothers were finally facing-up to what they had done. Even though Joseph had forgiven them seventeen years earlier, the brothers were unable to deal with it until now.
Second, fear led Joseph’s brothers to humble themselves. To begin, they confessed their sin to Joseph. Their initial admission was offered through a letter with a dubious lead-in. But once they were in Joseph’s presence and spoke in heartfelt terms, nothing was left to question. Furthermore, their manner of expression matched the depth of their confession. The men “threw themselves down before Joseph.” And as a man who was theologically-driven, Joseph’s response to his brothers was life-giving.
The granting of forgiveness
Joseph was convinced that the Lord was in charge of everything, even the hard things. So, instead of executing his brothers for their evil toward him (which Joseph had a human right to do), he saw to the heart of their awkward apology and comforted them by saying, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19). Joseph understood that vindictiveness would only result in more pain and hurt. Besides, since God was in charge, Joseph was convinced that the Lord had a greater purposes for his pain. This is why he could further comfort his brothers by saying, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20-21). Because Joseph was theologically-driven, he was able to extend God’s grace to those who otherwise deserved death. In fact, the future nation of Israel, which could have ended here at Joseph’s pleasure, was instead launched on to a sea of grace.
Forgiveness in Action
Do you need forgiveness? No matter how deeply you have hurt someone or put off asking for their forgiveness, it is never too late to do so. Joseph’s brothers teach us that the pathway to pardon is paved with honesty and humility. Do you need to forgive? No matter how deeply you have been hurt, forgiveness is possible. Joseph exemplifies what can happen when one’s behavior is shaped by his beliefs, especially belief in the God who forgives those who deserve otherwise.
“…God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)
“But this the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isaiah 66:2b)
“…if one has a complaint against another, forgive each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must for forgive.” (Colossians 3:13)