Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Coming at the end of the Joseph narrative, this episode in which Joseph’s brothers seek his forgiveness is not as straightforward as it seems.

September 11, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

Coming at the end of the Joseph narrative, this episode in which Joseph’s brothers seek his forgiveness is not as straightforward as it seems.

Leon Kass sees the brothers’ petition as one last act of deception and Joseph’s answer as an artful dodge.1 Asking first in their father’s words and then in their own, the brothers throw themselves on Joseph’s mercy, abjectly declaring, “we are your slaves!” At one time they had bowed to the Prince of Egypt, ironically fulfilling Joseph’s childhood dream; now they do so in full recognition of his identity, and their crime.

The brothers’ continuing sense of guilt is striking. Have they been reconciled to Joseph, or not? With this scene, have we come to the end of the fratricide and familial deception running throughout Genesis? If the story of Joseph is any indication, family wounds continue to fester; those who do the hurt often wound themselves, and the healing balm of forgiveness may need to be applied more than once. And often, the words of forgiveness are not the words we want to hear. Capping off this story is Joseph’s insight: where we see hurt, God sees good (50:20). How the brothers, or we, respond to that good news, remains an open question.

When Joseph first revealed his identity, he sought to allay the brothers’ fear of retaliation. “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me here to preserve life” (45:6). Joseph has already forgiven them, and there would seem to be little reason to include a second reconciliation scene. But much has happened since then.

All through chapters 37–45, the narrative focuses on the brothers: how much they hate Joseph, scheme to be rid of him, cover up their crime, yet find themselves speaking about their broken family to this strange Egyptian prince. However, once Jacob and Joseph are reunited, the brothers recede from view and the story reminds us in so many different ways that Joseph had always been the favorite son. Even when Jacob dies, it is Joseph who undertakes the embalming and burial rites, while the brothers blend into the vast Egyptian multitude accompanying Joseph to Canaan.  The brothers have good reason to be concerned. With Jacob dead and buried, Joseph is now in a position to retaliate, and perhaps he has been nursing a grudge all along.

The brothers frame their petition as if they are simply conveying their father’s instructions to Joseph: “I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you” (50:16-17).  Herein lies one of the great ambiguities of this episode. Not only do we not know whether Jacob actually issued these instructions, we do not know whether he ever knew what the brothers had done. Jacob did accuse his sons of bereaving him of children (42:36); but the sons never told him as much, and we can’t be certain that Jacob ever learned how Joseph ended up in Egypt. Thus it is fair to ask: Are the brothers not “honest men” after all (42:11)?

Have they learned nothing from their long years of reflecting on the harm they had done to Joseph and their father?

Whether or not the brothers are lying, their words betray lingering guilt. Joseph has already forgiven them; yet they do not appeal to Joseph as their brother, or, for that matter, as sons of the same father, but only as slaves of their father’s God. “Now therefore forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father” (50:17). The brothers’ awareness of their guilt appears to have fundamentally changed their perception of family relationships; it may also have changed the relationships themselves.

Just as ambiguous as the brothers’ petition is Joseph’s response. Does he forgive them? Joseph’s first response is to weep, which is a good thing, because weeping indicates Joseph’s deep love and attachment to his family (46:29). Now, with these brothers, and even with what has come between them, Joseph weeps. Can we trust his weeping as a sign of forgiveness and reconciliation? Perhaps, but it does nothing to alleviate the brothers’ guilt. Unable to accept Joseph’s weeping as a sign of his love, they abase themselves, “We are your slaves.”

And so Joseph shifts the question of forgiveness to the only relationship the brothers claim. They are God’s servants; is it not therefore God’s business to forgive them? “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. The implied answer being no, the next question, then, is, how does God see the matter? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (50:20).

When Joseph forgave them the first time, he spoke of concrete acts, the brothers’ “selling” Joseph and God’s “sending” him; now he speaks of the underlying meaning of their acts. NRSV’s “intend” translates a Hebrew verb whose multiple nuances are rooted in its concrete meaning “to weave.” Just as one might plot a pattern by laying down different colors and textures of yarn to run across warp and woof, so might one devise a plan.

By the same token, one might view the finished work and see something other than the weaver’s design. What the weaver intends as the mane of a ravening lion might therefore appear to the viewer as a glorious rose. The narrator may have intended such a play of meanings. Joseph thus acknowledges that the brothers have done him wrong, but he also says God sees something else in the brothers’ design. Since God has construed the brothers’ deed as a means of achieving good, it is not Joseph’s place to judge or, for that matter, to forgive.

What does forgiveness mean, anyway? Behind NRSV’s abstract “forgive” is a Hebrew verb conveying a concrete action, to take or lift up. The brothers ask Joseph to “take up” or “lift off” their guilt. The Hebrew verb is, in effect, a metaphor; to forgive is to remove a heavy burden, like taking a dead weight off someone’s shoulders. Joseph does not forgive them, but he does urge them to see their guilt as God sees it. They devised evil, but God saw good. Perhaps we should be reminded of all those heavy sacks of grain the brothers carried up from Egypt. All the while they carried those sacks, they fretted; discovering money and treasures in the sacks only made matters worse. Yet all the while those same sacks of grain preserved their lives.

Joseph thus throws the question back on the brothers, since this business of forgiveness is a matter between themselves and the God they serve. So perhaps Leon Kass is right; Joseph does not forgive his brothers. But does that mean they are not forgiven? We are left with a sense that their crime continues to haunt them, and we wonder what it will take for them to forgive themselves. Doing so does not change their evil into good; what they intended was still evil. Will their burden become lighter once they see their design as God does? The story does not say. Perhaps it is up to the brothers to decide.

1Leon R. Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis (New York: Free Presss, 2003), 656-657.