Joseph’s brothers were afraid of Joseph even though he had forgiven them
After their father died, the ten older brothers were afraid of Joseph’s anger. This post explores why. It also discusses the value of comprehensive horizontal confession: confessing in detail to the person we have hurt exactly how we sinned against them.
(Gen 50:14-15) After Joseph buried his father, he returned to Egypt with his brothers and all who had gone with him to bury his father.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said to one another, “If Joseph is holding a grudge against us, he will certainly repay us for all the suffering we caused him.”
They worried that Joseph had not fully forgiven them. They thought that perhaps Joseph had been concealing his grudge while their father was alive, but now that their father was dead there would be nothing to restrain him from taking vengeance on them.
Why were they so anxious about this? There is no indication in the entire Genesis narrative that Joseph had been privately nursing (let alone subtly emanating) resentment against his brothers. Everything Joseph had said and done had been godly.
It seems to me that the older brothers still had unquiet consciences about their abuse of Joseph even though twenty-two years had elapsed since their emigration to Egypt. I suggest that the brothers were anxious because they had accepted Joseph’s forgiveness and enjoyed the privileges he bestowed on them, but they had never confessed in detail all their sins to Joseph. Having observed and heard about the behaviour of many abusers, having studied the abuser’s way of thinking, this hypothesis makes sense to me.
At no time after Joseph had revealed his identity to them do we ever see them saying to Joseph anything like this: “Our consciences are gnawing at us. We did wrong — terrible wrong — when we hated you, mocked your dreams, were jealous of you, held you in contempt, plotted to kill you, threw you into a pit, sat beside the pit and ate food without offering you any, sold you to the Midianites, and concocted a lie to our father that you had been killed by wild animals. To make matters worse, we then hypocritically comforted our father in his grief. We let our father believe our lie for years. We repeated that lie to you when we came to buy grain. We kept on allowing our father to believe that lie until you compelled us to reveal our deception to him. Thank you for pressing us so hard that we had to tell our father the truth. Thank you for your great kindness to us; we did not deserve it.”
Nor do we see Judah saying to Joseph anything like this: “I have something particular to confess. It was my idea to sell you to the Midianites. I was more greedy than merciful. I wanted to make money out of you rather than simply leave you in the pit.”
On their second grain-buying trip to Egypt, when the silver cup had been found in Benjamin’s sack, Judah had made a confession of sorts to the Governor (Joseph): “What can we say to my lord? How can we plead? How can we justify ourselves? God has exposed your servants’ iniquity.” (Gen. 44:16) On the surface, Judah had been confessing about the cup and the money in their sacks. However, the ten older brothers privately knew the deeper meaning of Judah’s confession: God was harrowing their calloused hearts and exposing to them their old iniquities — their abuse of their brother Joseph and their deception of their father.
Now, years after that superficial confession, their father had died and they were anxious about Joseph becoming vengeful. One way the brothers could have dealt with their anxiety would have been to seek a face-to-face meeting with Joseph to confess their sins in detail. But rather than doing that, they sent this message to Joseph:
(50:16-18) So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before he died your father gave a command: ‘Say this to Joseph: Please forgive your brothers’ transgression and their sin—the suffering they caused you.’ Therefore, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when their message came to him. His brothers also came to him, bowed down before him, and said, “We are your servants!”
I wonder — did Jacob really command the ten older brothers to ask Joseph to forgive them? Or did the brothers make up Jacob’s deathbed speech? If they simply invented it, that would have been another lie to save their own skin. People who are reforming their character defects can sometimes slip back (even if only temporarily) into their old self-serving behaviours. (I know this from working on my own character reformation.)
On the other hand, if Jacob actually had instructed the brothers to humbly ask Joseph for forgiveness, why did the brothers repeat Jacob’s words to Joseph? Why not just send Joseph a message like this: “Please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father. Please forgive our sins against you. Please forgive us for all the suffering we caused you.” Was there any need for them to preface their request by quoting Jacob’s speech? Did they think that by introducing their request with Jacob’s words they would influence Joseph to be generous towards them?
On a related note, if Jacob actually did say those words to the brothers before he died, he must have had an inkling that their consciences were not wholly clear. Maybe Jacob was aware that the brothers were feeling anxious about Joseph paying them back for the suffering they caused him. The Bible does not narrate the episode where the brothers confessed to their father that they had deceived him about Joseph’s disappearance, but what transpired during that episode may have revealed a lot to Jacob about how the brothers were feeling about themselves and how they were feeling about their abuse of Joseph.
Jacob had been a deceiver in his youth. He had deceived his own father, thus obtaining the blessing which Isaac had meant to give to Esau. He knew how deceivers thought! He had fled from Esau’s wrath, spent years working for his uncle Laban in Syria, and on his way back to Canaan, he had wrestled with God. He had been very afraid that Esau would take vengeance on him, despite all those years having passed. As he grew old, he would have reflected on all this. And he wanted the best for all his sons.
Ideally, confession needs to be horizontal as well as vertical. Sometimes it is not possible to confess to the person I hurt — that person might have died, or I do not know how to contact them. But that was not the case with these brothers. The older brothers needed to confess and beg Joseph’s forgiveness from a place of complete humility and transparency. Not because Joseph had to hear this to be satisfied, but because a full confession brings cleansing.
The following two verses are about vertical confession but — by extension — they have some application to horizontal confession.
If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
For if you acknowledge with your mouth that Jesus is the Lord, and believe with your heart that God raised him up from death, you will be safe. For the belief of the heart justifies, and to acknowledge [confess] with the mouth makes a man safe. (Rom. 10:9-10)
Vertical confession needs to be accompanied by horizontal confession (if possible).
Therefore when you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has anything against you, leave your offering there before the altar, and go your way first and be reconciled to your brother; and then come and offer your gift. (Matt 5:23-24)
Horizontal confession — confessing to the person I hurt — helps me keep a clean conscience before God. If I resist the pricks of my conscience that tell me to make horizontal confession to someone I have wronged, my conscience gnaws at me. I know it is sinful to squash my conscience when it is instructing me rightly. (‘Rightly’ is a key word in that last sentence. Over the years of my recovery from abuse, I’ve been learning to differentiate false guilt from real guilt.)
Not that my acts of confession justify me. My works, whatever they are, do not justify me. Faith alone justifies. William Tyndale set this forth beautifully in his Prologue to Romans:
When I say that faith alone justifies, understand that only faith and trust in the truth of God and in the mercy promised to us in Christ Jesus, and him crucified, obtains this reconciliation with God, confers Christ’s innocence upon us so that we are pronounced righteous, and assures our consciences that our sins are forgiven, and we are in the full favour of God.
The words the brothers used when they sent their message to Joseph are illuminating: “And now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father.” Those words echo a phrase used by Joseph’s steward — “Your God and the God of your father…” (Gen 43:23). In saying ‘the God of thy father’’, the brothers were acknowledging that Jacob’s God was the right God. In saying ‘the God of thy father’ they were implicitly acknowledging that Joseph had never rejected God, whereas they had rejected God. So they were saying: You were right, we were wrong; we spurned the true God when we abused you, we were not true Israelites; but we now plead to come back. Their words acknowledged that they had gone into apostasy as abusers, which Joseph had implicitly accused them of when his ‘divining’ cup was missing.
(50:19-21 ) But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You planned evil against me; God planned it for good to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. Therefore don’t be afraid. I will take care of you and your children.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Here we see two things. Firstly, Joseph does not minimise or ignore their wrongdoing — he names it squarely: you planned evil against me. Secondly, we see Joseph’s forgiveness, his love for his brothers, and his longing to nurture them.
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Genesis quotes are from the Christian Standard Bible (CSB). NT quotes are from the New Matthew Bible (NMB).
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 3: Reconciled with his brothers
Part 4: Is this post
Related series: Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?