Jacob is now dead and buried. The brothers are afraid their past will now come back to haunt them. One last plea for forgiveness that comes couched in a lie.
The first several times I read this passage I was fixated on the fact that the brothers felt it necessary to lie to garner Joseph’s forgiveness. They rightly judged that they had no right to his forgiveness and counted on his obedience to his father to sway him. I don’t believe Jacob ever made the statement that they send to Joseph. If so, he would have communicated it to him during either one of his final encounters with him. The brother’s fear of retribution and guilt led to a lie.
I want to go back and look at the hearts of the two sides of this story from the beginning. Let’s take the brothers first then Joseph. I know we don’t have ALL the everyday happenings that feed into this equation but I think we have enough to see where their hearts were leading them.
We were introduced to the brothers at their births. Each one was born into a contentious home life. The mothers were competing for their father’s affection. I’m sure that anyone would agree that this conflict had an impact on the children. The parent’s issues set up the favored son scenario to begin with.
I do not doubt that Jacob loved his sons. We are not told anywhere where he rejected any of them. We are shown that he held accountable FOR LIFE for their sins. I don’t know if Reuben, Simeon or Levi asked for forgiveness for their sins but we see that it impacted their lives and their tribes forever. Jacob’s blessings proved that.
But when Joseph was born ALL Jacob’s other sons’ positions shifted. Jacob’s favorite wife gave him a TRUE son of favor. His love for her transferred to her first born son. After Joseph was removed, that love transferred to Benjamin, her last son. Benjamin didn’t garner the same endearment as Joseph received but he was all Jacob had left of his precious wife Rachel. He held fast to Benjamin out of love for Rachel. The brothers saw and accepted this.
Another peak we have into the brother’s hearts is when Reuben brings his mother mandrakes. We know that they believed that mandrakes made one fertile but we don’t know if that was the reason Reuben brought them or not. What we do know is that he cared for his mother and wanted to see to her heart’s needs.
We don’t see the brothers’ hearts again until Joseph shares his dreams with him. They have had YEARS of their father’s favoritism to contend with. I don’t care how nice Joseph is, he could never make that up to them. Plus he has no qualms about reporting their misdeeds to their father. This fosters resentment in them and their hearts are full of bitterness towards Joseph. They couldn’t even speak to Joseph with anything but spite and anger.
The brother’s hearts were so hardened to Joseph that they wanted him dead. Reuben was the exception but it was only so he could win his way back into his father’s good graces. He was still suffering from the sin he had committed against him. He was able to “intercede” on Joseph’s behalf to move him from a death at the hands of the brothers to death at the hand of the elements, but we know Reuben had a plan for that too.
Judah’s decision to get rich off of Joseph sounds less cruel than killing him. However, this showed callousness to whatever the future held for Joseph. They knew he was being sold into bondage. They had never served as slaves but they had at least some inkling of what it might be like as a slave. But they didn’t care. For many, faced with the choice of immediate death or slavery, the former might have been preferable.
Their final callousness towards Joseph was revealed in their disguising the evidence of what they had done. They didn’t REALLY lie to Jacob about Joseph’s fate. They presented him with their manufactured evidence and let him draw his own conclusion. Jacob’s conclusion was exactly what they hoped it would be, but his depth of sorrow was unexpected.
I don’t believe the brothers realized how deeply Joseph’s absence would affect Jacob, but their own guilt kept them from speaking the truth. Could they have brought Joseph back if they had come clean? Would Jacob ever trust ANY of them again if the truth got out? We are pretty sure it didn’t because that knowledge would have altered Judah’s blessing on Jacob’s deathbed.
The brothers’ guilt stayed with them the rest of their lives. When visiting Egypt and things went wrong, they immediately thought they were being punished for how they treated Joseph. They KNEW that God KNEW of their deeds, even if their father didn’t. Their hearts were convicted.
Their final heart act is seen in today’s reading. They were guilt ridden and afraid. They KNEW they had sinned against Joseph and were undeserving of his treatment of them to date. They believed it was only on account of Jacob that they and their families had been spared. And now that layer of protection had been removed. They tried pulling that protection back over themselves by manufacturing evidence again. “Your father said for you to forgive us.” Then as a display of their true remorse, they offered themselves up as servants to Joseph. They really were sorry for their behavior and the only way to protect their families was to submit themselves to the SAME fate they had sold Joseph into.
Now we turn to Joseph’s heart. What prompted me to compare the two conditions is Joseph’s reaction. Joseph wept. Those two words bring another set of weeping eyes to memory; those of Jesus when he wept. We don’t have a specific cause of either set of tears but I want to examine some possibilities for Joseph’s tears. First though, I want to look at his heart up until that point.
We hear of Joseph’s birth, just as we did with his brothers, but we don’t meet him until his father gives him his special robe. Joseph accepted his father’s favoritism without question. Maybe it was because this was the only life he had known. He was the favorite since birth, now Jacob was putting that on display for all to see. Joseph wore his coat with pride. I don’t know if he only had one outer robe but he wore it regularly. Did he realize it was a sign to his brothers of his superiority over them? Did he wear it with a prideful heart? Or was it all he had that fit him? We know that he didn’t tell his father it was “too much” and ask for something simpler. He accepted the gift without question or regard to what his brothers would think.
Later we see that he has no trouble telling his father about his brother’s miss deeds. He was sent to check up on his brothers or to assist them. If they failed to meet his expectations, he reported such back to Jacob. I can tell you right now that a “tattle tale” does NOT engender fondness from those around them. But tell he did and he was sent repeatedly to do that very same task. Did he report back with reluctance or with relish? Was he only reporting the gross violations that could have resulted in harm to the flock or every little slight? He never shied away from the task or left it half done. He did his father’s bidding, no matter what his brothers thought of him. That job is what opened access to and led him to the pit and finally the auction block.
We encounter Joseph as he shares his dreams with his brothers and also his father. He did not spare them the details of his dreams. He had to know his brothers hated him. They never had a kind word for him. He had ensured their father learned of all their miss deeds. Yet he told them these two incredible dreams. Did he give any thought to the reactions these dreams would produce? Did he share out of pride, puzzlement, or conviction of the Holy Spirit? Did he feel commanded to share these dreams? Did he think his brothers NEEDED to know or did he want them to know? Was he reveling in his dreams or simply revealing them?
Next we cry for Joseph as he is captured, beaten, thrown in a pit, cries out for mercy, dragged out and sold by his own brothers, and finally taken by force from all he has ever known. I don’t believe Joseph was sitting in the pit thinking “Come on guys, this joke has gone on long enough.” I expect he was quaking with fear! He had no idea what his brothers had in mind for him. I wonder if he could hear them plotting his fate from the bottom of that pit. Was he calling out to God in those moments? Was he promising to be a better brother and to NEVER tell father what they were doing just then? I can’t imagine the terror he must have been enduring, waiting for them to make their next move. “Will they leave me here to die alone and forgotten?” As they raised him out of the pit what went through his mind? “Finally! I guess they have had enough of their little joke” or “What are they going to do to me next!” Did he consider making a run for it if an opportunity presented itself?
Whatever Joseph’s thoughts, I don’t doubt his heart was breaking as he was being led away bound by his distant relatives. He had learned at Jacob’s knee all his life. He had watched Jacob call out to God in times of trouble. He had seen his father’s faith in action. He had also witnessed God’s favor to his father on MANY occasions. Now those experiences and faith were all he had left to lean on. His fate was in God’s hands. I feel fear and faith struggling for priority in Joseph’s heart during that journey and on the auction block.
Faithfulness is one thing we see in Joseph’s heart that followed him from Canaan into Egypt. He served his masters to the very best of his abilities in EVERY situation he found himself in. Another staple in his heart is integrity. Whatever Joseph was entrusted with was used to the master’s success, not his own. From Jacob to Pharaoh, Joseph served the interest of the one over him with the intent to see them do well. His success was a reflection of that mindset, PLUS God watching over him.
The only deviation we see to Joseph’s “integrity of service” is when dealing with his brothers over the grain. He didn’t charge his family for any of the food they would receive. I would not doubt that he paid for it out of his own wealth though. This would be in keeping with his personal integrity. His family would receive his protection for the rest of his life.
Joseph had a servant’s heart. He cared for the needs of those around him. He wasn’t a “doormat” where everyone would take advantage of him though. He “tested” the intentions of the hearts of those he served. We see it spelled out with his brothers but I believe he tested the people of Egypt too. He watched as the stores were built up and also as they were depleted. I believe he kept record of who was faithful and who was holding back. I expect his transactions with them reflected their own actions back on them. I believe that those who gave abundantly, also received abundantly. I can see him playing hard ball with those who refused to contribute their share. I expect they would pay a higher rate reserved for outsiders if nothing else.
Above ALL else though, Joseph had a heart dedicated to God. ALL the idols in Egypt couldn’t take God’s place in his heart. He didn’t have access to the Person of the Holy Spirit living inside him like we do, but he knew God’s heart and he sought to please Him at all times. Growing up under Jacob’s special tutelage insured he had plenty of stories and examples to follow. He made the God of his fathers into his God. His personal connection to God was the only thing that sustained him in the hard times and made the prosperous times even more so.
So when Joseph’s brothers sent a messenger to him to request his forgiveness, he wept. Joseph had already told his brothers that he forgave them. To him, the past was finished; dead and buried. But his brothers were still under its weight.
Why did Joseph cry? Was it because he was thinking about their father because he was supposed to be the one Joseph would honor by forgiving his brothers? Was it because he recognized the lie in the message and it hurt to realize his brothers felt they needed their father to protect them from him? Was it because they felt unworthy to make the request on their own behalf? Was it because their guilt never lessened in those 17 years? They were still waiting for the other shoe to drop. Was it because they believed Joseph’s actions towards them for the last 17 years was all an act for the benefit of their father? Or was it because Joseph, having already forgiven them, realized that they hadn’t received that forgiveness, had withheld themselves from God’s forgiveness, and couldn’t forgive themselves.
I think it is probably the final proposed answer. Why? Because my heart hurts when I think about that possibility. Joseph released them from the bondage of their sin by forgiving them. But they refused to walk through the OPEN prison door. Instead, they refastened the chains and relocked the door. When Joseph unlocked the door he didn’t take the key with him so he could lock them up again at his whim. He left it where it lay. They could open the door any time they chose by accepting what had been given to them. Yes, they would have the memory of their sin but they were freed of the consequences of it. They didn’t have to live in fear any more.
I will grant you, that when it comes to us humans, saying you forgive someone is not always the truth or that forgiveness doesn’t stand the test of time. My forgiveness is no shining example to model by either. I have been known to “revisit the prison” and relock the door after promising that it would remain open. But Joseph showed by deed that he had broken the lock so he could never relock it. He forgave completely. He would not hold his brother’s sins against them EVER.
Why you ask. Because he too had been forgiven and knew the power of forgiveness. God had taken a proud young man and completely humbled him. But he hadn’t left him there. Instead, He took him step by step and day by day to the place He intended to use him. Joseph wasn’t ready for the palace when he arrived in Egypt. He needed the lessons from Potiphar and even from the prison first. He needed to see God’s hand at work. He even needed the years of plenty and the years of famine to illuminate his true path and purpose. Without his brother’s sin against him, Joseph wouldn’t have been in the place to save them and their whole family would have suffered; not to mention all the lives that would have been lost in Egypt.
Joseph also knew that GOD is the only one qualified to judge the heart and to exact punishment. Joseph left EVERYTHING in God’s hands. He would not exact revenge for something that God had so clearly orchestrated. He didn’t cause the hate in the brothers’ hearts but he used that anger to further His plans. He could have stood back as the brothers left Joseph in the pit to die abandoned and alone. Instead, He sent a band of traders along, in the nick of time. He never took His hands off Joseph the entire time. What more could Joseph ask for? Since God used Joseph’s circumstances for His purposes how could Joseph ever refuse them forgiveness.
He wept for the fact that they hadn’t forgiven themselves nor had they accepted God’s forgiveness. They hadn’t recognized God’s power over this portion of their lives. THAT broke Joseph’s heart. When would they finally see His love for them? When would they finally accept His forgiveness?
Father God, thank You for Your forgiveness. I’m asking for that forgiveness again to wash away my sins of unforgiveness. Help me learn to TRULY forgive as Joseph did. He didn’t just see the sin but what You did with it. You didn’t bless the act but You redeemed it through the path started by it. YOU provided the pit instead of the club. YOU sent the Ishmaelite traders. YOU brought Potiphar to the slave auction. YOU allowed the prison sentence. YOU brought Pharaoh’s servants in contact with Joseph. YOU provided the dreams and provided interpretations through Joseph. YOU brought Joseph to mind of the cupbearer at just the right time. YOU provided Joseph with Your wisdom which brought favor from Pharaoh. YOU were in control the whole time! He saw it clearly. I want to be able to see that clearly! I have a funny feeling he didn’t see the connection until his brothers showed up. But he forgave anyway. Did he forgive in that instant or did it come earlier?
Something else You let me learn from Joseph was that he didn’t pretend what his brothers did was anything but evil. He acknowledged it and forgave anyway! If he would have tried to play it off as a joke or a childish prank, his brothers wouldn’t have received true forgiveness. He saw it for what it was and made a choice to let it go.
I have that same opportunity for sins against me. I can see its wrongful intent but still offer forgiveness. I can also forgive before forgiveness is requested. Joseph didn’t wait for his brothers to say they were sorry before he forgave them. He let go without any promise of an apology.
THANK YOU for this advanced lesson in forgiveness. I know it should be Forgiveness 101 but I feel You have taken me even farther today; Forgiveness 201. I’m sure there are more lessons to come and You know just when to enroll me in those “courses.”