Forgiveness: More than a Pious Act 

4587918704_6f8610de8e_wWhen Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” So they sent messengers to Joseph, saying, “Before your father died he commanded, saying, ‘Thus you shall say to Joseph: “I beg you, please forgive the trespass of your brothers and their sin; for they did evil to you.”’ Now, please, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also went and fell down before his face, and they said, “Behold, we are your servants.” Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? “But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, in order to bring it about as it is this day, to save many people alive. “Now therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21)

7062538975_3933031e0e_wThe narrative of Joseph’s brothers fearing him after their father’s death is a powerful story. They had betrayed him and lied about the betrayal to their father to cover up what they had done. Now they are afraid that they are going to get their comeuppance. Even though Joseph has not shown true hostility towards them (though he did fake some anger and displeasure with them by hiding their payments to him in their feed bags and also by hiding his ‘royal’ cup in his brother Benjamin’s sack). As I noted in other posts, they don’t ask him to forgive them, they tell Joseph their father left instructions for Joseph to forgive them. It is a bit manipulative and lacks the true apology one might expect of them. Joseph is again hurt by them and brought to tears. Joseph, unlike his brothers, understands the nature of forgiveness and fully forgives them as he recognizes ultimately God is the judge, not us. The brothers don’t understand forgiveness and so feel all they can do is grovel before their brother whom they don’t really understand. All they can think about is that rightfully he should make them pay for their wrongdoing and so they are afraid of him. They have some sense of justice but almost none of mercy, which is why they sold Joseph into slavery to begin with. They have not changed at all, whereas Joseph has grown in godliness.


Here are a couple of thoughts on forgiveness from biblical scholar N.T. Wright in his book, EVIL AND THE JUSTICE OF GOD, which might help us better comprehend Joseph’s forgiveness as well as what is needed from us to full forgive others:

… forgiveness means that we are equally determined to do everything in our power to resume an appropriate relationship with the offender after evil has been dealt with. Finally, forgiveness means that we have settled it in our minds that we shall not allow this evil to determine the sort of people we shall then become. That is what forgiveness is all about. It is tough: tough to do, tough to receive—and tough also in the sense that once it’s really happened, forgiveness is strong, unlike a soggy tolerance which merely takes the line of least resistance.  (p 152)


Shall I forgive my brother seven times?’ asks Peter. ‘No,’ says Jesus, ‘not seven times, but seventy times seven’ (Matthew 18:21-22)  For any first-century Jew who knew the scriptures, the echo would be clear. Daniel asks the angel how long the exile in Babylon will go on.  Will it be seventy years, as Jeremiah had foretold?  No, says the angel, not seventy years, but seventy times seven (Daniel 9:2, 24). This is how long it will take—note this— ‘to  finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity; to bring in everlasting righteousness.‘ . . .  What Jesus is saying is that the new age is here, the age of forgiveness, and that his people are to embody it.   (p 155)