Time to pass on his legacy: Jacob blesses Joseph’s sons—Genesis 48:1-11

Having lived to see God’s extraordinary faithfulness in his own life, Jacob looks to the future with confidence in God’s promises that will be fulfilled beyond his own lifetime. Now he is ready to pass on his legacy.

In the previous scene, Jacob made Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan, in expectation of God’s promise. Now, in this next scene, Jacob is apparently on his deathbed (48:1). He responds eagerly to Joseph’s coming (48:2), ready to bless Joseph as Jacob’s father had been ready to bless his favorite son (27:2-4).

Here Jacob recounts God’s promise and call to him at Bethel (48:3-4; cf. 28:12-15), and expects that calling to be fulfilled partly in Joseph’s sons (48:5). Jacob says that Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh are now Jacob’s sons, just as his first sons Reuben and Simeon are his (48:5). He is not stealing Joseph’s sons away from him, but conferring on Joseph the right of the firstborn—the double portion. The firstborn son would normally receive twice as many shares of the inheritance as any other son; Jacob thus adopts Joseph’s two sons to give Joseph’s line the double inheritance.

Because one might well favor the son of a more loved wife over the son of the less loved wife, later Israelite law specifically prohibited giving this portion to later-born son of a favorite wife over the genuine firstborn (Deut 21:17). Rachel was clearly Jacob’s favorite wife, a favor that thus extends to her firstborn son Joseph (cf. in this context Gen 48:7). Jacob was not under later Israelite law, but how would this favoritism sound to Genesis’s audience once they knew the law?

Genesis, however, explains Jacob’s choice. It involves more than an arbitrary favoritism. Genesis elaborates how Reuben lost the birthright (Gen 35:22; 49:3-4; cf. 1 Chron 5:1); indeed, Genesis recounts the sins of Joseph’s brothers against Joseph without explicitly specifying whether Jacob learned of these sins (though cf. Gen 50:16-17).

This chapter, Genesis 48, is necessary to explain how Ephraim and Manasseh became tribes in Israel—Joseph received the double portion, so each of his first two sons was reckoned among the twelve (now thirteen) tribes of Israel. Any children born to Joseph after these two would be reckoned among these two tribes (48:6). (Lest we be concerned about how they would be divided, many peoples in antiquity, including Romans, had tribal divisions that later absorbed other members into their tribes.)

Joseph apparently had enough advance information to anticipate Jacob’s decision, and is ready to respond to his father’s question. When Jacob sees Joseph’s sons, he asks, “Who are these?” (48:8)—just as his brother Esau had once asked about Jacob’s own family (33:5). Joseph himself had been present at that incident, with his mother Rachel (33:7), but he had probably been too young to remember it (30:25). Nevertheless, he would have often heard the story, and thus responds appropriately in a way that would touch his father’s heart. When Esau asked Jacob, “Who are these who are with you?” Jacob responded, “The children with whom God has graced your servant” (33:5). Now Joseph responds in a manner similar to the way his father had once responded: “These are the sons whom God has given me here” (48:9).

Jacob now was ready to bless the sons of Joseph as his firstborn (48:9) the way that Isaac had once blessed Jacob with the blessing of the firstborn (27:27-29). (Jacob had not needed for Esau to bless him in Gen 33:5 because Jacob already had the blessing from his father.) Lest we miss the connection, Jacob’s eyes were heavy from age (48:10), just as Isaac’s had been (27:1). Isaac’s blindness had rendered him more vulnerable to deception, so that when he asked who was there (27:18, 24) Jacob had deceived him (27:19, 24). But Jacob was not completely blind, so he saw those with Jacob and asked who they were (48:8; cf. 48:11); Joseph, of course, told him the truth (48:9).

But Jacob also had spiritual insight that enabled him to know which son would be the greatest, subverting even Joseph’s own expectations (48:13-14, 17). As in the earlier cases of Jacob and Esau and of Joseph and his brothers (and in some sense Isaac and Ishmael), God subverted the expected right of the firstborn. God frequently subverts social conventions and human expectations, to which he is not beholden. He often exalts the lowly in the eyes of people and brings down the proud. This fits a pattern in Scripture of God using the weaker to show his own power, a pattern the New Testament writers find climaxing in the cross of Christ. (Jesus was, of course, a firstborn son; as a firstborn myself, I take comfort that there is nothing intrinsically bad about being firstborn!)

I will comment more about the blessing and Joseph’s dismay in the next post. Suffice it for now to say that many of us, too, have lessons learned that we can pass on to the next generation, whether they are our natural or spiritual heirs. Many of us, too, have much wisdom, spiritual insight and blessing that we can receive from those who have gone before us, and we should take advantage of that opportunity while we can.

Jacob’s faith for the future—Genesis 47:28-31

The future beyond us

Sometimes God’s promises are for the future, even beyond our own lifetimes. We can trust, however, in his reliability.

Two sets of seventeen years frame Jacob’s relationship with Joseph: the Joseph narrative opens when Joseph had lived with his father for seventeen years (Gen 36:2), and Jacob lived in Egypt after being restored to Joseph for seventeen years (47:28). In that time, Joseph has gone from being a beloved son dependent on his father to being a respected figure on whom his father depends.

Jacob thus prefaces a request to his son with language that might be considered odd for a father, but not so much when we remember the great rank in society that Joseph now held: “If I find favor in your eyes” (47:29). This is the language that Jacob had once used for Esau (32:5; 33:8, 10); this language has appeared in Genesis most recently as voiced by Egypt’s people toward Joseph (47:25).

As Jacob is preparing to die at the age of 147 (47:28), he makes Joseph swear to him in the same sort of solemn way that Abraham had once made his servant swear to him. In 24:2-9, aged Abraham made his servant swear to get a wife for Isaac from Mesopotamia rather than Canaan, and not to take Isaac back there. God had brought Abraham and Isaac to the land of promise, and there was no going back. Here the aged Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in Canaan, the land where his fathers Isaac and Abraham were buried (47:29-31). Like Abraham, Jacob looks to the future, recalling God’s promise that the land of Canaan would one day belong to his descendants.

That this request is an expression of faith in God’s future promise seems clear from Joseph’s own dying request, narrated after the events following Jacob’s burial. Joseph makes his people swear to bury him in the promised land someday, when God would bring his people back to the land of promise (50:24-25). As the author of Hebrews recognizes, this was an act of faith expressing his confidence in God’s promise (Heb 11:22).

How important is this matter to Jacob? “Swear to me,” he demands, and Joseph swears to him (Gen 47:31). But this is not the first time in Genesis that Jacob demanded that someone swear to him. In his youth (well over a century earlier, by Genesis’s chronology), Jacob made Esau swear to him to give him the birthright (25:33). When Jacob sought the birthright, he was looking to the future, considering God’s promise to the household of Abraham and Isaac. Toward the end of his life, Jacob again makes someone swear, honoring the expectation of the future that God had promised.

Joseph secures the people’s land—Genesis 47:18-26

This passage tells us a lot about Joseph. Joseph worked on behalf of both Pharaoh, his boss, and the people, selling them grain when they needed it and faithfully delivering all the profits to Pharaoh. He also exempted the Egyptian priests, following Pharaoh’s expectations. Joseph offers a positive model here. First, he is a worker with integrity, on whom his boss could depend. Second and third, he also is able to help the people in the time of need—and able to do so because he walked with God and understood what God was communicating in Pharaoh’s dreams. Fourth, God cares about feeding hungry people, and Joseph’s role as a public manager was no less important or God-led than more direct preaching ministries would be. And fifth, we see that Joseph also could work respectfully with those who held views different from himself.

Some of these points have come up before, so I will look at just a couple points here. First, what should we make of Joseph allowing the people and their land to belong to Pharaoh? Second, in multicultural and multifaith societies, we can learn from the honorable way that Joseph treats Egypt’s priests.

When Joseph bought the people’s land for Pharaoh (at their desperate request, 47:19), in practice he allowed the people to keep four-fifths of the produce, taking only one fifth for Pharaoh (47:24). Although a tenth was probably more common in that milieu (cf. 14:20; 28:22; 1 Sam 8:15, 17), Joseph had already been exacting a fifth in the time of prosperity, when it was little compared to the abundance (41:34); much of this grain might likewise be invested in their future. (Even today, most Western nations do not consider excessive a 20 percent taxation rate.)

In their own words, Joseph was to buy them and their land so that they and their land would not die (Gen 47:19); they are grateful for their lives being rescued (47:25). The taxation on their yield would not yet take effect anyway, however, since there would be no yield in the short run; Joseph instead gathered the people to the centers where food could be distributed efficiently during the remainder of the famine (47:21).

Today we might view Joseph’s accumulation of wealth for and loyalty to Pharaoh as harmful for later generations of Egyptians, but Joseph had access only to his own generation. He would not have known the long-range behavior of later Pharaohs, and we cannot control what subsequent generations do to our legacy. (Our forebears in many denominations and many nations would be horrified to see what has become of their legacy!) In fact, scholars often argue that Joseph entered Egypt during the Hyksos dynasty; a change in peoples ruling Egypt would obliterate the memory of how Joseph saved the people. Whether Joseph arrived in the Hyksos era or not, Scripture is clear that a ruler arose who did not know Joseph (Exod 1:8). Of course, in light of Christ we would hope for better things than subjecting a nation to Pharaoh; but overall, Joseph’s contribution was probably the most positive one possible in his situation. Had he not preserved the people, there would not have been descendants to oppress.

Joseph’s respectful relationship with the priests (47:22), the daughter of one of whom he had married (41:45; 46:20), offers a noteworthy model for God’s people working in a pluralistic society that welcomes us but includes a range of religious views. Moses married the daughter of a Midianite priest (Exod 2:16, 21; 3:1), in that case with perhaps even more concrete religious results! What God did for Israel ultimately convinced Moses’s already-wise father-in-law that YHWH was the greatest of gods (Exod 18:8-11). (Melchizedek, too, honored the highest God; Gen 14:18.)

Such examples are not limited to the Pentateuch. Daniel, trained in all the learning of the Chaldeans (Dan 1:4) served in a pagan court alongside pagan diviners (2:27-28; 4:7-8). Paul had friends (possibly sponsors) who were Asiarchs (Acts 19:31), members of the same class that produced priests of the imperial cult in Asia Minor. Scripture is clear that believers must not compromise with idolatry (1 Cor 10:7, 14-21; Rev 2:14, 20), even under duress (Dan 3:18; cf. 1:8; 6:10). But this does not mean that we should not associate with nonbelievers who practice it (1 Cor 5:9-10). As he illustrated perhaps most eloquently in the story of the Good Samaritan, our Lord Jesus calls us to love all our neighbors, not just those who agree with us.

Part of our witness as Christians is not just what we say (important as that is), but how we perform our work and serve the people around us.

Joseph’s further exaltation—Genesis 47:1-20

Now that Joseph’s family is reunited in Egypt, God blesses all of Joseph’s family through him. Pharaoh’s favor for Joseph’s family (47:1-6) continues the favor that God has given Joseph. Joseph himself bridges the Hebrew and Egyptian cultures, but it is good for these Hebrew herders to settle apart from the Egyptians. Otherwise, they would have become assimilated over the following generations, making an exodus back to the promised land inconceivable.

I treat the next scene—Jacob’s remarkable blessing of Pharaoh—in http://www.craigkeener.com/blessing-pharaoh-genesis-47/. That Jacob is 130 years old (47:9) would surely impress Pharaoh: age was respected, and in Egypt 110 (50:22, 26; Josh 24:29; Judg 2:8) was counted an extraordinarily ripe old age. That Jacob regards his lifespan as brief compared to that of Isaac and Abraham (Gen 47:9) would be even more impressive. Pharaoh respected this exotic family that had produced the gifted Joseph, but now he is impressed even further. Thus Jacob is permitted to bless the region’s most powerful ruler (47:10), even though the greater in status normally blesses the lesser (Heb 7:7).

God also further exalts Joseph himself in the eyes of the people. Administratively gifted Joseph, who had been sold for twenty pieces of silver, now gathers all the silver in Egypt and Canaan (47:14)! Moreover, the text emphasizes that he brought all the money to Pharaoh’s house (47:14). This emphasis recognizes that Joseph, unlike many of his contemporaries, was completely honest and avoided corruption. Pharaoh was right to trust him so thoroughly.

Why was Joseph able to make so much profit? Because of God’s plan and Joseph’s relationship with him, Joseph alone was able to see ahead, recognizing what God would do. But while he was making money and centralizing economic power for his boss, Pharaoh, he was also preserving alive people who would have otherwise starved. The next year they sell him their livestock (47:16-17), again strengthening Pharaoh while preserving the people.

Still, Joseph’s complete faithfulness to Pharaoh was preserving the people’s lives could raise a question about justice. Did Joseph actually seize all their livestock? It seems unlikely that he could have used everyone’s livestock; indeed, in that case he would have to provide grain for the animals even more directly and would need a new and massive infrastructure to house them. Much more likely, Pharaoh owned the livestock in principle but allowed the people continued use of the livestock, as with the land in the following year (47:24), a matter discussed further in the next lesson.

Joseph was loyal to his employer and also helped the people. This is not possible in every line of work; a hit man, for example, would have to quit his or her job when turning to follow God. But if Joseph quit his job, people could starve; corrupt officials could steal or hoard grain. (And as with a hit man, getting out of the job would not be a simple matter anyway.) Joseph acted prudently, saving the lives of many (50:20).

What’s so special about the list of names in Genesis 46:7-27?

Everybody loves to read lists of names, right? Not usually, but it’s different if those names bear a special meaning to us. This list symbolizes Israel’s heritage, their own ancestors whom God rescued from famine and brought to Egypt in a time when Egypt welcomed them.

Following are some thoughts about the list. The list is more interested in the ancestors than in precise chronology. For example, of those recorded as going down to Egypt, the timeline does not easily permit Pharez to be old enough to have already fathered Hezron and Hamul (46:12). But because the narrator has noted the deaths of Er and Onan (46:12), and because Pharez inherits Er’s line via Tamar’s exploitation of levirate custom (38:14, 25-30), Pharez’s first two future sons might count for Judah’s sons the way that Joseph’s first two counted as Jacob’s sons (48:5). (The firstborn always received a double portion of the inheritance.)

The narrator enumerates those who came to Egypt with Jacob. These were far more numerous than the one heir in whom Abraham found the promise fulfilled, yet also a far cry from “As the stars are, so shall your seed be” (15:5; 22:17; cf. 26:4). They remained few in number, but the numbers of those who would leave Egypt generations later would indeed dwarf these figures many times over (even if, as many scholars suggest, they include an element of ancient population hyperbole)—virtually innumerable, as the stars were thought to be (Deut 1:10; 28:62). (Undoubtedly there were also others who came with Jacob besides those in the list, but these are his “direct descendants” [46:26, NASB, NIV; cf. 46:6-8]; other workers may have been assimilated into the tribes at a later time, perhaps during Israel’s enslavement in Egypt.)

How does the narrator calculate? The grandsons listed in 46:8-15 total 25 (of whom two died in Canaan), plus two great-grandsons; to these we may add the six sons, bringing the total to either 31 or 33 (depending on whether one subtracts the two who died in Canaan and thus did not come to Egypt); Dinah is also named along with other daughters who are not named (46:15; cf. 37:35), but the total count remains 33 (46:15). The grandsons listed in 46:16-17 total 13, plus a granddaughter and the two sons, for a total of 16 (46:17). The grandsons listed in 46:20-21 total twelve, plus the two sons, totalling 14 (46:22). The grandsons in 46:23-24 number five, plus the two sons, totalling seven (46:25). The total of the totals yields seventy (46:27), or with Joseph and his two sons subtracted, 66 (46:26). Seventy minus three should be 67; the 66 figure could have subtracted Jacob himself, but he does not figure in the original count. Surely Jacob had other daughters besides the two named in the list; the sons’ wives are also not counted (46:26; we do not hear whether any of Jacob’s own wives remain alive at this point).

All of this suggests either that Genesis’s first audiences were very bad at math or, more likely, that seventy is selected as a rounded number. Why seventy? Recall the seventy nations of Gen 10. God started humanity over with Noah (http://www.craigkeener.com/why-would-god-send-judgment-genesis-6-9/), but promised not to again destroy the earth with a flood; this time he starts humanity over in a new way, through Jacob’s children and the promise that their seed bears for the future. Through them, God would restore the worship of the one true God to humanity, particularly to those who would become part of a new humanity of God’s true followers. Looking back at history, we can marvel as we see how God used Israel as an agent of his purposes for the world—a small people here, but with an immeasurable influence on the destiny of humanity as a whole.

Jacob’s faith renewed—Genesis 46:1-4

In the face of tragedy, we sometimes forget how much God is with us. Jacob didn’t believe that he had seen the great events reported in the stories of his father and grandfather (cf. 47:9), not knowing that subsequent generations would tell his story along with theirs. When we have come through the trials and look back, however, we often can see God’s faithfulness. If we do not recognize it in this life, it will be openly evident in the world to come; but it’s often there for us if we have eyes to see. News of Joseph’s survival and flourishing transforms Jacob. Broken by the loss of his wife and son, Jacob now gets new eyes to see.

Jacob sets out for Egypt, to be reunited with his son before Jacob dies (45:28). When Jacob reaches Beersheba, he sacrifices (46:1). The narrator deems this site important, reiterating it in 46:5; Jacob, his father Isaac and grandfather Abraham had all sojourned there (21:31-33; 22:19; 26:23, 33; 28:10), and both Abraham and Isaac had called the site Beersheba (“Well of the Oath”) because of covenants sworn there (21:31; 26:31-33). (Jacob sacrificed for a different covenant elsewhere, in 31:54.) This was one of the sites where Abraham had called on the Lord’s name (21:33). Of course, Beersheba appears here rather than other sacred sites such as Bethel because Beersheba is in the south, on the way toward Egypt. But it would also mark the southern border of the land of Israel (cf. e.g., 1 Sam 3:20; 1 Kgs 4:25), a place where Jacob’s descendants could also remember God’s works.

In the ancient Near East, people more often expected divine dreams when they slept in sacred places. Whether this is a dream or a vision while awake (cf. 15:1, 12), it is consistent with how God had often spoken through dreams, including to Jacob (28:12; 31:10-11) and to Joseph (37:5-10) and to those whose dreams Joseph interpreted (40:5; 41:1, 5). God here calls Jacob’s name twice (46:2), as he had when calling Abraham (22:11; at the sacrifice of Jacob’s father Isaac); Abraham also appropriately replied, “Here I am” (22:11). “Here I am” was an appropriate response to God or his angel (22:1, 11), and had been Jacob’s response earlier (31:11). (The same pattern holds mostly true in Exod 3:4; 1 Sam 3:10.)

God identifies himself to Jacob as “the God of your father” (Gen 46:3), just as God revealed himsef to Isaac as “the God of your father Abraham” (26:24) and to Jacob as “the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac” (28:13). God encouraging Jacob not to fear (46:3) also recalls earlier revelations. God had urged Abram not to fear, because God would defend him (15:1); the angel of God warned Hagar not to fear (21:17); in the closest parallel to this passage, when the Lord appears at night to Isaac and assures him that he is the God of his father Abraham, God urges Isaac not to fear, because God is with him and will multiply him (26:24).

Although God had earlier warned Isaac against going down to Egypt (26:2), this time Jacob should not fear to go down to Egypt, because God will be with him (46:4) and will bring him back up (46:4). That Joseph will close his father’s eyes (46:4) assures Jacob of his reunion with Joseph; it also hints that God bringing Jacob back to Canaan does not mean during Jacob’s lifetime. Not all of God’s promises are always fulfilled directly in our individual lives; sometimes they are fulfilled in the legacy that, by God’s grace, we get to leave behind. (That “Jacob” in ancient ideology included Jacob’s family seems implied even in 46:5, where not only Jacob but his sons’ children and wives ride the wagons sent to carry “him,” singular, i.e., Jacob.)

God’s promises are faithful. God is dependable.

Joseph lavishly welcomes his family—Genesis 45:16-24

Joseph realizes that his brothers are genuinely sorry for what they did to him, and he is now ready to trust them. Fully forgiving his brothers, he lavishes signs of his love on them, signs that should have assured them of his love and favor (though their regrets make this understanding difficult for them; 50:15-18). Had he exposed their past deeds to Pharaoh, they would not have dared settle in Egypt, but Joseph instead secures Pharaoh’s favor for them.

Just as Joseph’s earlier counsel regarding the crops had seemed “good in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants” (41:37), so also the coming of Joseph’s brothers seems good to Pharaoh and his servants now (45:16). Happily, even in the past, Joseph had clearly never informed Pharaoh of his brothers’ past behavior! (Not that even Pharaoh’s highest officials would treat Pharaoh as a confidante, but Joseph was probably one of the people closest to him.)

Pharaoh does not let Joseph simply invite his brothers to come to Egypt, or let Joseph merely provide resources for them on his own. Pharaoh provides wagons to carry Joseph’s father and his brothers’ families (45:17-21). Twice Pharaoh repeats that all the goods of Egypt will be at their disposal (45:18, 20); therefore they may leave many things behind in Canaan, because in Egypt they will receive whatever they needed (45:20). God had given Joseph great favor with Pharaoh, a favor that Joseph by this point knows that he can count on (cf. 46:31—47:12; 50:4).

Joseph shows special favor to Benjamin, his full brother, but his brothers, who had shortly before feared that they might lose Benjamin, are now in no position to complain. Given their father’s earlier concerns for Benjamin’s safety, they were no doubt glad when he earlier received five times as much as any of them (despite the double portion normally due the firstborn; 43:33). His fivefold changes of clothes (45:22) will hardly alarm them now. After all, Genesis probably implies their earlier jealousy about Joseph’s special clothing, a jealousy that had informed their hateful behavior toward him (37:3-4, 23).

In addition to clothes, which functioned as a form of wealth in antiquity, Joseph gives Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver (45:22). Joseph’s brothers had sold him for twenty pieces of silver (37:28); now Joseph offers far more as a gift to Benjamin. Benjamin was the only brother who had not mistreated Joseph, and the brothers who had once acted from their resentment of Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph have long since learned to regret such resentments. No doubt they also recognize that not only Jacob but God, too, has really favored Joseph, at least as an agent for preserving them all.

God’s people have had a habit of rejecting deliverers or acting jealously against those he raises up to help us, a habit of which we must beware. Certainly the history of rejecting deliverers or other agents of God, such as Joseph (Acts 7:9), Moses (7:25-29, 35, 39) and the prophets (7:52), climaxes in the rejection of Jesus (7:35, 37, 52) and continues in the rejection of true followers who speak for him (7:51, 57-60). I also suspect that some historic Christian anti-Semitism reflects not only arrogance but the tendency of jealousy against claims of chosenness (cf. Rom 11:18-21).

Whereas Joseph had sent the brothers with ten donkeys loaded with grain before, now ten donkeys will carry far more than what Jacob’s house will need for their journey to Egypt (45:23). Joseph’s signs of love do not stop with his material gifts, however. As Joseph sends his brothers away, he warns them not to quarrel en route (45:24). He had earlier urged them not to be angry with themselves for selling him (45:5); perhaps some brothers might wish to assign blame more to some of their group than to others. Joseph had certainly experienced firsthand their quarreling in the past (37:8, 11). By urging them not to quarrel, he shows his knowledge of their character but also his affectionate concern, again seeking to reassure them of his forgiveness and love. Apart from Benjamin, these were Joseph’s older brothers, but providence had now made him the one to look after them. Whatever role God places us in, we may follow Joseph’s godly example of forgiveness and love for those he has placed in our lives.

Reconciliation—Genesis 45:5-15

Joseph has finally revealed himself to his brothers (45:1-4), because he has finally found them sufficiently trustworthy (44:33-34). (This is good for Joseph, too, because it restores his connection with his father and the rest of the promised line.) Now, however, his brothers, wary because of where their relationship had last left off (45:3), must also learn to trust him. Joseph explains that the famine will continue for five more years (45:6)—meaning that Joseph’s brothers now have no choice but to depend on him.

But this new relationship was a major part of why God had sent him ahead—to preserve their family (45:7). If Joseph’s ways of testing his brothers leads any readers to question his heart, his thorough forgiveness and benefaction toward them here should resolve it. Years later, when his brothers again fear that only his love for his father has restrained his anger against them (50:15-18), Joseph again weeps and promises to provide for them. They meant selling him for harm, but addressing that was God’s business; God had meant it for good, to save many lives (50:17, 19-21).

It is thus not Joseph, but their own shame that prevents them from trusting and embracing his love for them. Although much was restored, sin still had a consequence for their relationship, obstructing intimacy. That is not to say that it always must do so, but it did so in their case, since Joseph remained in a position far over them and they remained dependent on him. The shame of those against whom we have sinned—God and others—still can hinder our relationships with them, unless we embrace the full forgiveness that God (and some others) offer.

This reconciliation goes further and demands more than most cases of ethnic and social reconciliation today. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, an action that under normal circumstances would have led to his death by this time (cf. 42:13, 32). The brother who proposed his enslavement proves he has changed not with mere words but by offering himself to be a slave instead of their father’s new favorite son (44:33-34). Joseph’s forgiveness was generous and free, but his trust did not come cheaply. We dare not underestimate how wronging others damages relationships.

Joseph’s brothers are not the only ones shocked. His message to his father would astonish him and surely would initially seem too good to be true (45:26). Not only is Joseph alive; he holds, next to Pharaoh, the highest position in that part of the world (45:13, 26); further, he loves his father and invites him to join him in prosperous Egypt (45:9, 13). Joseph falling on his brothers’ necks and weeping over them (45:15) recalls the reunion of Esau and Jacob attesting their reconciliation (33:4). Genesis may be offering a moral or an observation: siblings may quarrel in their youth, but they often grow to appreciate one another more as the years go by and they live apart in other settings.

That “his brothers spoke with him” (45:15) might sound anticlimactic, and it probably does reflect the awkwardness of the situation for them (despite them having proved themselves by defending Benjamin). But it reverses their inability to speak to him in 45:3; the restoration of trust has, at least to some extent, begun. No less importantly, it also revisits and reverses their earlier behavior recorded in 37:4: “they were not able to speak with him in peace” (i.e., “peaceably,” NRSV, ASV, WEB; “peacefully,” ESV; “on friendly terms,” NASB; “a kind word,” NIV; “kindly,” NET).

Behind the scenes, the gracious God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has worked to restore a terribly broken family.

Joseph reveals himself to his brothers—Genesis 45:5-8

Joseph had been “controlling” himself since 43:31, but he could not control himself any longer (45:1). Joseph sends everyone out as he is going to make himself known to his brothers. This reduces security, but at this point he believes that his brothers will not wish him harm; they have regained his trust.

Sending others out also allows privacy, so he can avoid shaming his brothers; questions of the past would undoubtedly surface, and it is no one’s interests for Pharaoh or others to know this past (47:1-2). Joseph may have also wanted to avoid the Egyptians hearing him weep; he had wept in private in 42:24 and 43:30 (although perhaps partly to keep the matter from his brothers). Genesis reports weeping for the dead (23:2; 37:35; 50:1), but also at emotional meetings or reunions (29:11; 33:4), as here (45:2, 14-15; cf. 46:29). If avoiding knowledge of his weeping is at all a motive, however, Joseph fails in this instance. Often sobbing was explicitly quite loud (21:16; 27:38; 29:11)—in this case so much that those outside heard him (45:2).

On revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph’s first question is whether his father is really still alive, a question he had pressed earlier in 43:27. Jacob was already old when Joseph was sold into slavery. Perhaps Joseph also could not be sure whether his brothers were telling him the truth about their father’s desperate anxiety over Benjamin or whether this was simply an emotional ruse to get him to free Benjamin. Conversely, Joseph knew Jacob’s special love for himself and his brother Benjamin, and Judah’s offer of himself instead of Benjamin suggested love for their father as well as for Benjamin. The clearest point here is that Joseph still deeply loves his father and longs to see him.

His brothers are too afraid to answer him, so Joseph summons them to come near (45:4; the command appears earlier in Genesis but in a very different situation, 27:21, 26). Their silence reveals their fear (of Joseph’s revenge) and/or shame (for their behavior), so Joseph addresses the issue openly. Yes, they had sold him to traders heading for Egypt (37:25). But he urges them (45:5) not to remain grieved or angry with themselves. (Genesis earlier uses these two Hebrew terms together, in 34:7, where they slaughtered an entire town for its prince’s abuse of their sister; this is their only use together in the Hebrew Bible, probably suggesting his brothers’ propensity for anger against someone who harmed a sibling—in this case, against themselves. That the leaders of the attack in ch. 34 were the victim’s full brothers rather than half-brothers may not minimize the comparison.)

They should not be angry with themselves because their motives were no longer an issue; God was the one who had sent him to Egypt ahead of them (45:5), thus making ready for them to be able to come (45:9). Genesis does not play off human disobedience and God’s action as mutually incompatible—God does not always prevent human sin, but God is so sovereign that, on a higher level, he has a larger plan that can incorporate even actions such as those to accomplish his long-range purposes in history.

God, who can work sovereignly even in the midst of human disobedience, had a larger purpose—to save lives (45:5). In saving the family God had a long-range purpose in history, but God also had a purpose in saving lives in Egypt and Canaan as well (45:5). Joseph’s words here illustrate God’s compassion toward all people. It is God’s ideal, all other matters being equal, to raise up those who will deal wisely and honestly, heeding his warnings, and provide for those who suffer from famine and other kinds of natural disasters.

Taking responsibility: Judah has grown up—Genesis 44:16-34

Joseph accuses his brothers of wrongdoing regarding his silver cup (the “you” in 44:15) is again plural. Not realizing that Joseph is their brother, or that the real issue of their wrongdoing is something more than a silver cup, the brothers are frightened.

Judah, however, speaks up. He does not try to show himself or his brothers in the right (44:16); indeed, the only other use of this verb in Genesis is when Judah earlier admits that Tamar was more in the right than he (38:26). Judah confesses that God has revealed their iniquity (44:16); if God is the one who had given them in their sacks (43:23) money, which they once valued enough to sell their brother Joseph, God is also the one who gave Benjamin this official’s cup. They are now facing the consequences of a terrible past sin. Although they could not hope to persuade the official, Judah in fact realizes that, regarding the real offense, Benjamin is the only fully innocent one among them!

Judah’s words undoubtedly stir Joseph’s emotions—and those of Genesis’s informed audience—more than Judah within the narrative can know. Judah pleads for compassion for their aged father, who still mourns the apparent death of Joseph and will die if Benjamin is not brought back (44:27-31). Jacob has never fully recovered from the trauma of losing Joseph, and is deathly afraid of anything happening to his other son by his “wife” (singular, 44:27). (The term that can be translated “harm” in 44:29 appears in Genesis only in Jacob’s fears for what could befall Benjamin in Egypt—elsewhere in 42:4, 38.)

Judah laments that if he and his brothers return without Benjamin they will precipitate their father’s death. Although such language could refer to their role as catalysts of his death, Judah’s words probably also suggest their more direct role—betraying their moral guilt. Had Judah and his brothers not sold their brother Joseph, their father’s life would not be in the same level of danger. Judah is not confessing what they did to their brother Joseph, but for the audience who knows the brothers’ guilt, his words reveal his heart. The sons who gave little forethought to how Joseph’s disappearance would affect their father have experienced his anguish ever since and cannot bear to see it again. Sometimes in our immaturity we act on impulse without considering the consequences; our culture today indeed invites us to follow our desires rather than to recognize that we can and normally should control them.

One might think that this danger for his beloved father alone would sway Joseph’s heart: out of love for his broken father, Joseph dare not keep Benjamin there. But Judah is not finished. He now bears responsibility before his father (44:32) in a way that he had not thought of doing with Joseph. Judah has narrated the setting and now climaxes with his plea: Let Judah himself be a slave rather than Benjamin (44:33), lest Judah have to witness his father’s death.

The one brother directly responsible for selling Joseph into slavery (37:26-27) is now the one who prefers his own enslavement to that of Joseph’s full brother Benjamin. Judah’s experience with Tamar made his own sinfulness impossible to evade (38:26); confronted with the selfish kind of person he had actually been, Judah has changed. Even dysfunctional families can change; God can heal relationships. Israelites who heard this story of their forebears would also recognize both the way people mature in different stages of life and God’s grace forgiving and working to unite their sinful people in the past. (Judah’s leading role also figures in 46:28; he has emerged as a major figure in the narrative, just as his tribe and Joseph’s Ephraimite tribe will be two of the most dominant tribes.)

Joseph had been “controlling” himself since 43:31, but he could not control himself any longer (45:1). He is now about to reveal himself to his brothers.