Joseph reassures his brothers. 50:15-21
The book of Genesis concludes by recording the last days of Jacob and Joseph, 48:1-50:26. The central scenes are the deathbed blessings and instructions of both Jacob and Joseph. Central to the blessings is the reiteration of the promises made to Abraham, the promises of a land and a people. In the deathbed scenes and in the return of Jacob's body to Canna, the author of Genesis points to the fulfillment of this promise. In the second last scene, our passage for study, Joseph reassures his brothers of his friendship. The author of Genesis uses this scene to repeat the central theme of the Joseph story, namely that though Joseph's brothers intended evil, God intended good, such that God's purpose of salvation was fulfilled. This intention of God to preserve a people for himself, despite the evil intent of others, links with the promise to Abraham of a blessed people ultimately consisting of the families of the whole earth, a blessing which is fulfilled in Christ.
v15. Joseph's brothers knew well the family history and so naturally assume that since Jacob was dead, Joseph would act like Esau and seek revenge.
v16-18. Joseph's brothers ask for his forgiveness. The commentators are divided on whether their approach is genuine, or a "desperate fabrication", Sternberg. The brothers certainly go to great lengths to seek forgiveness: they send an intermediary; they say Jacob desired reconciliation; they twice ask for forgiveness; they admit their wicked deeds and describe them as "sins", "wrongs", (crimes), "treating .... badly" (evil); and as they had done when they first came to Egypt, they finally appear in person before Joseph and "threw themselves (fell) down before him" and call themselves his "slaves." In response, Joseph bursts into tears. Is he upset by the continued fear and mistrust of his brothers, or is he overcome by their desire for reconciliation?
v19-21. Joseph tells his brothers, "don't be afraid" (your fears are groundless). Joseph's response is in much the same terms as when he first revealed himself to his brothers, 45:5-7. He touches on three Biblical principles, the second being central to the Joseph story.
i] "Am I in the place of God?" The righting of wrongs is best left in God's hands, or as Jesus put it, "judge not, lest you be judged."
ii] "You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good." In the providence of God, even the free actions of those with evil intent cannot frustrate a divine purpose. "Even when no man could imagine it, God had all the strings in his hand", Von Rad. This purpose was to one end, "the saving of many lives." The nub of the promise to Abraham and his seed was the gathering of a people such that "the families of the earth found blessing", cf. 12:3. In the face of evil, God's "good" furthered the fulfillment of this blessing. As Paul puts it, "in all things God works for the good of those who love him."
iii] "I will provide for you and your children." Joseph responds with practical forgiveness. In line with a God who brings good out of evil, Joseph repays evil with good. As Paul quotes from Proverbs, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him" and he goes on to say, "do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
With these words Joseph emphatically declares that he will "supply you and your children", and so he "consoled" them and "spoke reassuredly."
More than conquerors
Joseph had long understood that although his brothers had intended him evil, "God intended it for good to accomplish .... the saving of many lives." The problem is that although this truth inspired Joseph's forgiveness of his brothers, his brothers had never asked forgiveness for themselves and so their guilt remained. Now that Jacob was dead and buried, they feared that Joseph would turn on them and so finally they ask for his forgiveness. Joseph's capacity to forgive is grounded on his understanding of the sovereign grace of God. Evil does its worst, but mercy prevails with the "saving of many lives."
It is not easy to believe that God's good intentions, his eternal purposes, are present in the worst of circumstances, just as they are present in the best of circumstances. That's not to say that God's hand is guiding those circumstances, or has initiated them. God didn't send a plague on the city so that those remaining would turn to the Lord, or give the husband cancer so that the wife would find faith again. Such notions demean our Lord. No, our God is a sovereign God, he works out his eternal purpose of "saving many lives" despite the actions of evil persons, or the blind rush of fate. Joseph's brothers intended their actions for evil, yet God used those actions for good. The crucifixion of Jesus is the classic example of God's eternal intent, realized in the evil intent of wilful human beings.
Joseph's response to the outworking of God's plan is a sobering lesson. His brothers are guilt-laden and may well be less than honest in their desire for forgiveness. Joseph, on the other hand, recognizes the gracious hand of God in his brothers' evil and so forgives them. A personal horror is less horrible when we realize that God's gracious purpose of gathering a people to himself progresses through bad times, as well as good. An awareness of God's gracious intentions, of his eternal kindness, can melt our anger, grief and hate.
Discuss Romans 8:28 in light of this passage.
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