February 22, 2018

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

 

PART IV: JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN (Gen. 37:1-50:26)

      Topic #F: THE LAST DAYS OF JACOB AND OF JOSEPH. (Gen. 47:28-50:26).                    

 

                                                               Lesson IV.F.7: Joseph Comforts His Brethren. (Genesis 50:15-21)                                       

 

Genesis 50:15-21

15 And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him.

16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying,

17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him.

18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants.

19 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?

20 But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

21 Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.

 

Introduction

In spite of Joseph’s prominence in the Jacob genealogy, little space is given to his family affairs.  All that is left in Genesis is the “wrap up.” His brothers, thinking that surely his magnanimous attitude was feigned because of his father’s feelings (since they themselves were incapable of such forgiveness), now desperately begged for Joseph’s mercy, first through intermediaries, then on their faces in his presence.  The grief this triggered in Joseph had to do both with his anguish that they did not understand him, and this deep feeling of sympathy, now that he realized how they had been tormented all the while by the great wrong they had done him.

 

The Lesson (Genesis 50:15-21, KJV)

15 And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure hate us, and will certainly requite us all the evil which we did unto him.

 

One more incident is recorded in connection with Jacob’s death.  It is a sad addition because it shows how terribly the brothers misjudged Joseph.  And when Joseph's brethren saw that their father was dead, they said, Joseph will peradventure [perhaps] hate us, and will certainly requite [retaliate against] us [for] all the evil which we did unto him.” What a slander on the character of Joseph after all the kindness he had shown them.  Their suspicions must have been an arrow in his soul.  Yet how often we misjudge our own glorious Lord in the very same way.  What a grief our unbelief must be to Him.

 

Joseph’s brothers exhibit some negative and positive responses when their father dies.  Initially, they respond negatively due to guilt, fear, and paranoia.  They assume that Joseph has been simply biding his time out of respect for his father Jacob.  But now that Jacob is out of the way, they are gripped with the terrifying expectation of punishment for their sins; that Joseph will retaliate for the misery they caused him. But their apprehension is all for nothing.  They fail to see that Joseph is different, that he is compassionate and forgiving, and that he is unlike his brothers.

 

When did this event occur?  Was it after the family returned home from burying Jacob in Canaan, or was it during the period of official mourning in Egypt?  The position of the narrative in the text suggests that it happened after the return from Canaan, but it could well have taken place during the long period of mourning prior to that trip.  One day the eleven brothers became aware of the fact that their father’s death left them without anyone to mediate with Joseph, the second most powerful man in Egypt; and they were afraid.

 

We who read this account centuries later want to say, “Men, what’s the problem?  Didn’t Joseph forgive you, kiss you, weep over you, and give you every evidence of his love?  Didn’t he explain that God had overruled for good all the evil that you had done to him?  Didn’t Joseph make every provision to bring you to Egypt and take care of you?  Then why are you alarmed?”

 

The answer is simple: they didn’t believe their brother.  The gracious way he spoke to them and the loving way he treated them made no impact on their hearts.  But Joseph’s brothers are no different from some professed Christians today who are constantly worrying about God’s judgment and whether or not He has really forgiven them and made them His children. 

 

After all Joseph had done to encourage them, it was cruel of his brothers to say, “Joseph will perhaps hate us and pay us back for what we did to him.” (We often suspect in others what we would do ourselves if we had the opportunity!) When you doubt God’s Word, you soon begin to question God’s love, and then you give up all hope for the future, because faith, hope, and love go together.  But it all begins with faith: “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17).

 

What the men should have done was to sit down and calmly review all that Joseph had said to them and done for them.  In many tangible ways, Joseph had demonstrated his love and forgiveness and had given them every reason to believe that their past sins were over and forgotten. They really had nothing to fear. 

 

How did we know God loves us and forgives those who put their faith in Christ?  His unchanging Word tells us so.  “These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).  How we feel and what God says are two different things, and we must never judge God’s eternal Word by our transient emotions.  “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asked Paul, and then he proceeded to answer the question: Nothing―“Who will separate us from the Messiah’s love? Can trouble, distress, persecution, hunger, nakedness, danger, or a violent death do this? . . . For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor anything above, nor anything below, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is ours in union with the Messiah Jesus, our Lord.” (Romans 8:35, 38-39; NIV).

 

 

16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying,

17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him.

 

Sometimes it is harder for men who have sinned to believe that they are forgiven than it is for one who has been wronged to forgive.  Joseph had shown to his brothers the most moving and unmistakable evidence of the generosity of spirit with which he could put the past behind him, and of the old affection which not all the wrong they had done to him could quench.  Yet now that Jacob was gone they fell into a panic.  What if Joseph had spared them only because he did not want to distress his father?  What if he had no real concern for them?  Those were questions which could have been asked only by men into whose hearts the consciousness of guilt had entered so deeply that hardly anything could wash it clean.  That may be the deepest tragedy of evil.  It so affects the outlook of guilty men that it may become almost impossible for them to look at goodness and see it cleanly and clearly for what it truly is.  Even now the brothers thought they did not dare to plead directly for forgiveness; they chose instead to send a message to Joseph through an intermediary—probably Benjamin or Judah: Benjamin because he had not been involved in the betrayal, or Judah because of his former success as a mediator.  They had to claim that Jacob before he died had sent a plea on their behalf. It is only in verse eighteen that they are represented as coming before Joseph.

 

“Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren.” Nowhere in scripture is it recorded that Jacob gave this instruction to his other sons (v. 17).  Either the brothers are fabricating this, or they are recalling a legitimate message that did not make it into the Biblical record.  To that degree the brother’s quotation of their father’s words is unverified.  However, the possibility still exists that the brothers had gone to Jacob before he died and had expressed their fears regarding what would happen to them after he was gone.  They were afraid that Joseph would turn on them and be against them once the father was gone.  So Jacob had given them a message to tell to Joseph and he was sure that Joseph would not persecute them or attempt to get even with them.

 

What is the truth?  Did Jacob actually speak the words they quoted?  Probably not.  If Jacob had wanted to intercede for the guilty sons, he could easily have done it when he was alone with Joseph.  And he had 17 years in which to do it!  It’s likely that the brothers concocted this story, hoping that Joseph’s love for his father would give him a greater love for his brothers.

 

“And Joseph wept.” Why?—we ask.  Was it from sheer disappointment that these brothers of his had so misunderstood his intentions?  Was it from sudden pity for their torment of fear?  Was it some sort of tragic sorrow like that which Jesus experienced when He looked at Jerusalem and grieved because sin could be so hard to reach?  Whatever the reason for his weeping, the words Joseph spoke showed him at his noblest.

 

Notice that in the imploring language of their Pleas for forgiveness, they conclude by calling themselves not his brothers but the faithful servants of the God of Jacob.

 

18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants.

 

Joseph must have summoned his brothers to his home, for it’s not likely they would go there on their own.  The brothers offered to become servants and work their way to the place where Joseph could forgive them and accept them (Luke 15:19).  It seems clear to me that the appeal broke Joseph’s heart, as the brothers to a man prostrated themselves before him. But everything is not negative, for on the positive side the brothers acknowledge their sin against Joseph.  They beg for forgiveness (v. 17), bow down before Joseph, and offer to become his slaves. Once again Joseph’s dreams were strikingly fulfilled.

 

19 And Joseph said unto them, Fear not: for am I in the place of God?

 

Joseph asked, “Am I in the place of God?” His response shows that he recognizes that God is the only One who can judge the actions of men and forgive their sins. It is not that he would leave retribution up to God, whose wrath would be more terrible than his, but that he could not mistreat them after God had clearly indicated His forgiveness.  This godly man forgave his enemies, not so much because he had the depth of character to desire to do it, but because he knew that God had already offered them pardon.  To hate his brothers would have been to deny the love of God offered them, and to become a little god of hate.

 

Fear not: for am I in the place of God?  How different the world’s history would have been in many times and places if there had been more men like Joseph whose purpose toward those who had wronged them was to calm and restore, not to terrify and punish.  Too many suppose that they are in the place of God: that at all costs they must “see justice done,” make sure that the sinner is humiliated, mercilessly “balance the account,” when what they actually do is tilt the scales the other way—to vengeance that calls itself fair-minded virtue.  Joseph looked at the events of life from a point of view so high that it rose above the thick atmosphere of human passion.  He saw that what had been meant as evil God had turned into good.  Therefore he could be the instrument of God’s goodness now. 

 

20 But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive.

 

The selling of Joseph by his brethren had been a sinful affair, but through his coming to Egypt God had brought about a great blessing; the saving of many lives―the life of the Israelites, the Egyptians, and all the nations that came to Egypt to buy food in the face of a famine that threatened the known world. So He often brings good out of evil, but evil is not to be done in order that good may come.  At the same time, God showed by these events that His purpose for the nations is life and that this purpose would be accomplished through the descendants of Abraham.

 

Here Joseph sums up the great lesson of his career, so far at least as his brethren are concerned, when he says to them; “You meant evil; . . . God meant it for good.”  This is the theme of the Joseph story, and it is one of the clearest declarations of divine providence anywhere in the Bible.  It serves as an important reminder that while the evil of men may appear to be to the disadvantage of the saints, the purposes and plans of God will ultimately prevail, for God works behind the scenes, accomplishing His purposes.  Although His hand could seldom be seen in the affairs of Israel, if a backward look was taken, everything assumed a different perspective.  Joseph had not always believed this.  There were times in prison, when he felt like God had forgotten him even as Pharaoh’s butler did.  Now the overarching will of God was obvious to him and should have been to the brothers.  It was not that they were blameless; but if they would recognize the hand of God upon their contrary wills, they could now work with God and not against him.  This was the way of life to which Joseph summoned them—the consciousness of God at work in their lives.

 

Dear reader, God has a far-off purpose that you and I do not see.  I must confess how human I am about this because I can’t see any further than my nose when trouble comes to me, and I ask, “Why does God permit this to happen?” We need to remember that He has a good purpose in view.  He is not going to let anything happen to you unless it will accomplish a good purpose in your life. 

 

The best evidence of spiritual maturity in Joseph’s life is his ability to relate all the experiences of his life, good and bad, to the sovereign will of God.

 

21 Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones. And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them.

 

Behind the entire Joseph story lies the unchanging hand of God—the same plan introduced at the beginning of the book, when God saw that what He had created was “good” (1:4-31).  Through His dealings with the patriarchs and Joseph, God in his faithfulness had continued to bring about His good plan.

 

And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them,” saying, “’Fear ye not,” for all that had happened was part of God’s plan to bring about the fulfillment of the promised blessing (45:5, 7-9).  Joseph also promised again to provide for them (45:11).  From such a picture it is not a great distance to the standards proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount.  This is surely grace.  Such was Joseph.  Such is Jesus our Lord.  We can fail Him and disappoint Him as Peter did, but His love is always the same. 

 

Though Joseph possessed supreme human power to achieve vengeance, his soul was swayed by a greater influence, the readiness to forgive.  The one true God had overruled human hate and had “meant it unto good . . . to save much people alive” (v. 20).  The kindness of Joseph cast out the nagging fear, and the brothers parted truly united in mutual respect and love

 

Joseph and his family returned to Egypt and went back to work, Joseph serving in Pharaoh’s Court and his brothers caring for Pharaoh’s cattle.

 

Thus, on that note of “grace,” the story of Jacob ends.  All that remains is to record the death and burial of Joseph.

 

 

Who Can God Forgive?

 

The only people God can forgive are those who know they are sinners, who admit and confess that they cannot do anything to merit or earn God’s forgiveness.  Whether it’s the woman at the well (John 4), the tax collector in the tree (Luke 19:1-10), or the thief on the cross (23:39-43), all sinners have to admit their guilt, abandon their proud efforts to earn salvation, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Lord.

 

How does God assure His children that He has indeed forgiven them and forgotten their sins?  The same way Joseph assured his frightened brothers: He speaks to us from His Word.  Twice Joseph said, “Don’t be afraid!” he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.  This is what God does for His own if they will read His Word, receive it into their hearts, and trust it completely.  “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid” (Isaiah 12:2).

 

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