Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

An opportunity to address family dysfunction, failure, and resentment

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September 17, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

The inclusion of Genesis 50:15–21 among the gospel reading from Matthew 18-21-35 and the epistle to the Romans (14:1–12) is intended to link it thematically to the imperative to forgive those who sin against us and to refrain from judging one another since God not only forgives all our iniquities but also does not repay us according to our sins (Psalm 103:1–7, 8–13). Thus, headings in our Bibles typically have such titles such as “Joseph forgives his brothers.” However, a close reading of this pericope complicates that narrative.

Genesis 50:15–21 is part of a larger literary unit sometimes referred to as the Joseph cycle (Genesis 37; 39–47; 50). Due to its length and stand-alone content, Joseph’s story has been regarded as a novella or historical fiction. It is focused primarily on Joseph’s time spent in Egypt.

A two-year famine in the land forces Jacob’s sons to leave their father in Canaan to travel to Egypt to buy grain. They are unknowingly reunited with Joseph whom they didn’t recognize after having sold him twenty-two years earlier to a band of traders who were traveling to Egypt (Genesis 37:28). Joseph had been sold to an official of Pharaoh’s and eventually came to Pharaoh’s attention because of his skills at divination. When Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, Pharaoh promoted him as governor over all the land of Egypt (41:3–40). Once Pharaoh hears that Joseph’s brothers are in Egypt, he commands his officials to tell them to bring Jacob and all their families and possessions to Egypt to live. Jacob died shortly after he immigrated to Egypt. 

There was a period of weeping and mourning as would be observed in ancient Israel, along with entombing the body in a cave with the remains of their ancestors. Upon Jacob’s death, Joseph’s brothers’ guilt surfaced, and they feared that he would bear a grudge against them and repay them back in full for the evil they did to him when they sold him into slavery. As the second only to Pharaoh in the land, Joseph held the power to exact revenge on his brothers. 

This is a turn of events. The same brothers who repeatedly said that they hated Joseph and were jealous of him (Genesis 37:4, 5, 8) now feared that he held a grudge against them all those years. Their fears are reminiscent of Jacob’s fear, in anticipation of their reunion, that Esau would kill him in retribution for the wrong he did to Esau. 

Joseph’s brothers believed that while Jacob was alive, he stood as a protective barrier between them and Joseph’s wrath. Indeed, as Pharaoh’s overlord, Joseph used his power to deceive, imprison, test, and instill fear in them. Despite Joseph’s tears of joy when he finally revealed his true identity to his brothers, they could not be certain that upon their father’s death Joseph would not take vengeance against them for selling him into slavery. Therefore, they resorted to deceit by sending a false report to Joseph alleging that Jacob instructed him to forgive his brothers for their offense against him and the harm they caused him. The adage that time heals all wounds did not hold true for Joseph and his brothers. Both sides bore the weight of grief and trauma which that fateful decision of Joseph’s brothers to sell into slavery in Egypt inflicted.

Joseph wept at their words, not for the first time (Genesis 42:24). In what finally appears to be a genuine act of remorse on the part of his brothers, they were moved to tears by Joseph’s response and paid obeisance to Joseph in deference to his authority over them. Thus, Joseph’s youthful dreams of his brothers bowing down and serving him that were the source of their hatred of him came to fruition (Genesis 37:5–9).

Perhaps Joseph’s power of divination revealed his brothers’ true hearts because he responded by telling them not to fear what he might do to them. He asked, “Am I in the place of God?” (Genesis 50:19). Well, almost. In Egypt, Joseph had the power of life and death in the land. People came to him from near and far to buy grain to keep from starving. When they ran out of money, they traded their animals for grain. As the famine entered a second year, the people sold themselves to Joseph for food. If not for the benevolence of Joseph, his father and brothers would also have starved.

What follows is a theological statement that is often interpreted as Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers. In Genesis 50:17 the Hebrew verb nasah translated “to forgive” means to take away or carry off someone’s guilt or iniquity and the resultant penalty. Joseph acknowledged that his brothers caused him harm but rather than retaliate against them he assured that they need not fear him (see also Genesis 45:6). Instead, he told them that God turned their evil into good so that many people might live due to Joseph’s position in Egypt. Thus, it is ambiguous whether Joseph forgave his brothers. Was he saying that only God could forgive and therefore he was not in a position to forgive or that since God took their evil deed and turned it into good (Genesis 50:20), there was nothing to forgive? Yet, Joseph reassures them that he will provide for them and their families.

Joseph’s cycle began with a family torn apart by jealousy, lies, conflict, and violence and ended in reconciliation and inclusion. His story presents us with an opportunity to address family dysfunction, failure, and resentment, especially within the larger cycle of suffering and trauma in the ancestral narratives in Genesis 12–50. As one author noted, rather than their stories being defined by tragedy and grief, their narrative arc is the rebuilding of broken relationships by fallible, weak people, even the people of God.¹ Despite their bad acts, God’s plans still come to pass.


  1. Stephen Spector, “Abraham and Isaac: Human Frailty and Trauma in Genesis,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, 50 no. 4 Oct–Dec 2022: 211–220.