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Commentary on Genesis 50:15-21

Anathea Portier-Young
Jacob showed special favor to his young son Joseph, the child of his old age (Genesis 37:3).
Ten older brothers hated the one who possessed the love they could not have (37:4). Joseph
had something else they did not have: the gift of dreams, visions into a future where he
would be their master, and they would fall down before him (37:7,9). Even his father knew
that such dreams did not bode well (37:10). Visions of mastery and service soon elicited a
murderous plot. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery.
Joseph rises from slavery to mastery over all Egypt, where he saves countless lives,
including his family's (47:12). But when Jacob dies, guilt begets fear (50:15). Perhaps
Joseph only sustained his brothers for the sake of their father. The powerful Joseph might
now seek vengeance for their crimes.
The brothers voice their anxiety. The ambiguity of their words speaks to the complexity of
guilt: "What if Joseph...pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?" (50:15).
The first word, l, translated here "what if," in fact means "if only," or "would that"--it
expresses a wish. Nowhere else in Scripture does this word introduce an outcome that the
speaker does not want to happen. We must ask: do the brothers hope for absolution through
punishment? If so, what grace is needed to move from the cycle of retaliation and abuse-abuse of self and others--to the place of true forgiveness?
Their next action again signals something out of joint: their bid for forgiveness begins not
with a confession, nor even a request, but with a command (50:16). NRSV translates "they
approached Joseph." The Hebrew states: "they commanded to Joseph." Many interpreters
suspect an ellipsis here: "they commanded someone to go to Joseph." To whomever they
issue the command, such an exercise of power--an insecure bid for mastery already denied
them--seems out of place. Their wound still festers.
Their command reaches Joseph: we do not know whether they speak to him in person or
through an intermediary. Their first words tell Joseph of another command, issued by "your
father" before he died. They have distanced themselves from Joseph. They do not make a
personal claim on him. In their guilt they take refuge behind the dead father whose
testament, they say, commanded his brothers to seek forgiveness and asked Joseph to give
it (50:17).

As the speech continues the brothers retreat still further away from Joseph. They beg
forgiveness for "the crime of the servants of the God of your father." They do not name
themselves. They do not call themselves his brothers. They do not invoke their common
bond by the language of "our father" or even "our God." They abase themselves as servants,
or slaves, of the God of Joseph's father.
We see in these layers of indirection the fear that prevents ten brothers from coming face to
face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their
appeal for forgiveness is awkward and complicated. They do not fully own their
confession. It is not "our crime." Their words and actions vacillate between command and
subservience, between acknowledging Joseph's freedom and attempting to constrain him by
appealing to powers greater than his own.
Joseph weeps, as he has done so many times before. What do these tears signal? As we
move backward into the story of Genesis, we witness Esau's tears at the loss of his father's
blessing (27:38) and again at his reunion with the brother he had forgiven (33:4). We hear
Hagar's weeping for Ishmael, when she is sure he will die (21:16), and Jacob's wailing
when he believes Joseph has already died (37:35). We find Joseph, confused in his pain and
longing, weeping even as he cruelly binds his brother Simeon into captivity (42:24). Later
Joseph is overcome with tears when he first sees Benjamin, his younger brother (43:30),
and when he embraces each brother in turn (45:14-15). He weeps when he is reunited with
Jacob (46:29) and when he embraces his father on his deathbed (50:1).
At each moment the fear, memory, or certainty of a loss--loss of a relationship, a dream for
the future, a loved one--is overwhelming. Equally overwhelming is the moment of
regaining, the barely hoped for possibility of a new beginning. The simple statement,
"Joseph wept when they spoke to him" (50:17), helps us to see the depths of emotion that
so often lead us on the path both toward and away from forgiveness.
The wounded penitents now fall weeping before Joseph and declare themselves his slaves
(50:18). The dreams are fulfilled, recapitulating harsh dramas of slavery and mastery. As I
read this verse, I ask again, what grace is needed to move from this abusive cycle to the
place of true forgiveness? Joseph's words pave the way: "Do not fear" (50:19,21). Fear has
been the obstacle to confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, and freedom.
Finally, Joseph can recognize and reveal that he is not in the place of God (50:20).
Punishment is not his to mete out. If Joseph has yet failed to acknowledge his own
wrongdoings, he points to God's will and ability to transform evil into good (50:20). God's

plans for good and for life trump the plots of fearful and wounded hearts. God's grace
creates the space for forgiveness that will break the cycle of retaliation and abuse, setting
slaves and prisoners free.