Joseph & His Brothers: A Study in Forgiveness and Reconciliation

by Keith McCoy

The topic before us concerns the great reconciliation which occurred between Joseph and his brothers after the terrible wrongs which occurred. We also will discuss why this restoration needed to occur.

Please turn in your Bibles to Genesis 37:1–4: “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the genera- tions of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report. Now Is- rael loved Joseph more than all his chil- dren, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.”

Here we see the root of the prob- lem. Jacob had shown favoritism. Remember that Rachel was Jacob’s first love, and Joseph was the first born of Rachel. Even before the coat of many colors, the older children, especially, realized that once Joseph came along, their father loved him more than he loved them. Imagine the hurt. Imagine the consternation.

Of course the coat of many colors frustrated them more. Every time they saw that coat, they were reminded: “Daddy loves Joseph more than me.” So they envied Joseph. They wanted their father’s love — his full love, his best love. So, envy led to hatred, and hatred to bit- terness. Look at verse 4: “And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.”

I am told that the Hebrew could also be translated “could not speak peace to him.” 1 Samuel 25:6 says: “And thus shall ye say to him that liveth in prosperity, Peace be both to thee, and peace be to thine house, and peace be unto all that thou hast.” In ancient times in Eastern so- ciety, and perhaps even today, it was part of social etiquette to greet each other and wish each other peace. They couldn’t even wish him peace. It showed the level of animosity that they felt towards their brother.

Look at verse 18: “And when they saw him afar off, even before he came near unto them, they conspired against him to slay him.” Remember that they are out in the fields, and Joseph hadn’t been able to find them. He finds out where they are, and they see him coming from afar. Verse 19 says: “And they said one to another, Behold, this dreamer cometh.”

We don’t know of any sin as- cribed to Joseph, but when he was a young man he wasn’t completely thoughtful and circumspect in what he said to others. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to have told his brothers that he had a dream that they were going to bow down to him.

“Here comes the dreamer again. What’s he going to tell Dad this time?” He was even wearing the coat of many colors. That might be how they spotted him “afar off.” We see that things went down a bad path. They conspired to slay him. Instead of appropriate speech toward their brother, they said, “He’s not going to be around any more to be loved more than anyone else. We’re going to kill him.”

In verse 20, we see the conspira- cy: “Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into some pit, and we will say, Some evil beast hath devoured him: and we shall see what will become of his dreams.”

Of course, Reuben was the old- est and his job as the oldest was to protect the family — all the family, including Joseph. He should have protected the brothers from them- selves. Reuben should have been able to say, “You are going to stop this nonsense right now. I’ll have none of it!” He didn’t do that. He was his fa- ther’s son. He connived.

Beginning in verse 21, we see his plan: “And Reuben heard it, and he delivered him out of their hands; and said, Let us not kill him. And Reuben said unto them, Shed no blood, but cast him into this pit that is in the wilderness, and lay no hand upon him; that he might rid him out of their hands, to deliver him to his father again.” He had a plan. “I’ll trick them, and come back later and rescue him.” It would have been much better for all if he had said, “This is going to end right now!” His was the role of responsi- bility and leadership. He could have done that, but at least he kept them from killing him. Joseph apparently learned of that.

So we go from hateful speech, to plotting and conspiracy to mur- der, and we go from there to as- sault. Verse 23 says: “And it came to pass, when Joseph was come unto his brethren, that they stript Joseph out of his coat, his coat of many col- ours that was on him.” I don’t sup- pose they came up to Joseph and said, “Hi, take off your coat and sit a spell. Let us hang that up for you.” No, they grabbed him, they jostled him, they pummeled him, and they stripped him of his coat. So assault and theft were the next area of their crimes. Why? Because that coat was the symbol of their resentment.

Verse 24 says: “And they took him, and cast him into a pit: and the pit was empty, there was no water in it.” Here we see another sign of their cruelty — heartless cruelty. Verse 25 says: “And they sat down to eat bread: and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a company of Ishmeelites came from Gilead.…” So, they sat down and ate a meal. Here’s Joseph in the pit with no wa- ter and no food, probably bruised and maybe bleeding. Can you imag- ine him crying out to his brothers, begging to be let out. They’re sitting there enjoying their food. The Bible doesn’t tell us, but you can imag- ine them saying, “This food’s good, Joseph. Are you thirsty, Joseph?”

We don’t know exactly what they were doing, but we know they were cruel to him. Later we find out that they knew that they were cruel to him. They had no compassion for him, and they had no compassion for their father either. Remember, they were going to tell their father that his beloved son had been killed, slain by an animal. “Do you know who’s coat this is, father? We think it might be Joseph’s. Look at this coat. It’s soaked in blood.” They would think, “We didn’t lie. Father is just jumping to the wrong conclusion.” So, Jacob the deceiver, is himself de- ceived.

We know that Joseph winds up in Egypt, and becomes a slave. How- ever, he prospers. God prospers him. He is thrown into jail. All sorts of horrible things happen to Joseph. But, we see that something else is happening in Joseph’s life as well.

We see that for restoration to occur, the one who is aggrieved, the one who has been harmed, has to forgive those who have harmed him. We have to take the lead in restora- tion. Galatians 6:1 says: “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.”

The sinner is not going to come and ask forgiveness, unless he’s brought. How did we come to the saving knowledge of Christ? We couldn’t come unless the Father first drew us to Him. God was the ag- grieved party in our lives, and is so when we sin.

We see that Joseph had forgiven his brothers and all the others who had sinned against him. We see that in the naming of his children in Gen- esis 41. Joseph is now second in power only to Pharaoh himself. He was a rich and powerful man.

Genesis 41:47-52, says: “And in the seven plenteous years the earth brought forth by handfuls. And he gathered up all the food of the sev- en years, which were in the land of Egypt, and laid up the food in the cit- ies: the food of the field, which was round about every city, laid he up in the same. And Joseph gathered corn as the sand of the sea, very much, until he left numbering; for it was without number. And unto Joseph were born two sons before the years of famine came, which Asenath the daughter of Potipherah priest of On bare unto him. And Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: For God, said he, hath made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house. And the name of the second called he Ephraim: For God hath caused me to be fruitful in the land of my afflic- tion.” Joseph forgave and forgot the pain and bitterness of the offense.

So, in so naming his sons, he is openly proclaiming that God made him forgive and forget his troubles, and that God had made him pros- per in a land which had brought him nothing but trouble. He received multiple blessings.

We see also in this naming of his sons that Joseph had a humble spirit. For us to be able to restore others, we have to have humble spirits. Oth- erwise, our back will be up and we will not want to restore; we will not want to forgive. We’re tempted to seek revenge for the Reubens, the Ju- dahs, the Dans, and the Potiphars in our lives. Hurtful words and deeds can lead to bitterness. It was Reuben who said, “Let’s not kill him! Throw him in the pit!” Judah became moti- vated by the profit. “If we kill him, we get nothing. Let’s get something out of our brother, this Dreamer!” So, they sold him as a slave.

Their actions were rooted in bit- terness. Joseph could have remained bitter and ready for revenge. Hurtful words and deeds can lead to bitter- ness, but we can ask for God’s help — just as Joseph must have done. God will help us to overcome any root of bitterness within us, and he’ll bless us superabundantly. Remem- ber that God is “able to do exceed- ing abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us” (Ephesians 3:20).

So, the famine strikes through- out all of the Middle East. Jacob is an old man by now. His sons were out and about, and certainly would have heard before Jacob that there was food in Egypt. It should have been their idea to go to Egypt, but Jacob had to tell them to go. Why do you think that was? I think that the guilt — 20-some-odd years later — was still eating away at the brothers.

Why is it most of the time when someone offends us, they don’t come to us and ask for forgiveness? The guilt is driving them as well. They don’t want to face what they’ve done. They don’t want to face us. It is the same with us and the Lord. Why does God have to be the one that draws us? We don’t want to face our guilt. We don’t want to admit that we are sinners in need of a Sav- iour.

We see in chapter 42:6 that Joseph has the chance for revenge. “And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their fac- es to the earth.” Ah, the dream came true, didn’t it? They didn’t know it at the time, but the dream had already come true.

We know this because verses 7-10 say: “And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Ca- naan to buy food. And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come. And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come.” They thought, “How can we convince him?” So, they added more detail to their story.

In verse 11, they tell him: “We are all one man’s sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.” They were making the point that they were not coming as agents of a foreign power. They were all from one family. One family wouldn’t come to spy on the land. That would be a big risk for one family to take for another nation. They could all be wiped out at once.

Joseph has the chance for re- venge. He could have revealed him- self to them and pronounced vic- tory: “Here you are bowing down, you cowards! Now you’re going to pay! You’ve fallen into my hands at last!” He could have had them tor- tured. He could have done all sorts of things to them.

But no, instead, he devises a test to see if they could be reconciled and to gather more information. In the process, they reveal something to him — that his father is still alive. He finds out also that Benjamin is still alive. Joseph could have imagined: “If they went after me, who’s logical- ly next? Benjamin is logically next. Benjamin might have been dead, but he finds out that he is still alive.

Joseph is going to continue to test them, to give them a means to re- alize their sin, to realize their crime, and to turn from it. If we don’t turn from our sins, our Father will take us out to the woodshed, won’t he? He’ll chastise us. Well, Joseph gives us a picture of that here. He gives them a taste of their own medicine. But, even in that, he is merciful. Instead of throwing them all in jail, Simeon is shackled in their midst and thrown into prison.

He puts Simeon in jail for three days. But, he assured them, “for I fear God.” He assured them that he feared the same God that they wor- shipped, and that he was going to treat them honestly and fairly. But, he also forces them to return with his little brother, Benjamin. He told them: “You are not going to see my face again, unless you bring your brother with you.” He wanted to see how they were treating Benjamin. He wanted to see what was going on in their lives.

Well, we see in Genesis 42:21- 24 that the brothers have a break- through. They seem to pronounce their own guiltiness to Joseph, un- knowingly. Remember that Joseph was speaking to them through an interpreter. They had no idea that he understood Hebrew. In verse 21, they say: “We are verily guilty con- cerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” This is where I get the idea that Joseph cried out pitifully for aid when he was down in the pit. The brothers recognized that they were guilty, that they were responsible be- fore God, that there was no one else to blame.

Isn’t that what we have to do to be reconciled to God? We have to admit that we are sinners, we are re- sponsible for our actions. For there to be reconciliation, we have to admit what we have done. When we wrong someone and do not go through the necessary process to make things right with them and God, we often become subject to the very distress we have put them through — by our own guilt, by God’s chastisement.

The brothers are saying that they were feeling the same distress that Joseph had felt, and that they had seen in his face. Imagine, as they pulled him out of the pit, Joseph might have had a look of hope: “Fi- nally, they are going to let me go.” But, what did they do? They said, “See you, Joseph. You’re gone.” He was put in chains and sent away.

What’s amazing is who is the one making this declaration for all the brothers? It’s the same one who had said, “Let’s not kill him. Let’s get a profit by selling him.” It’s Judah. There is an amazing transformation going on here. There has been a real change in heart and attitude. Of course, that is what God does for us. We have to admit our sinfulness and guilt to be saved, forgiven, and re- stored to fellowship. When we as Christians sin, we know that “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

The Prodigal Son is another Bib- lical example. He is the picture of a Christian, who goes off, backslides, away from his Father. What was his father doing the whole time he was away? He was looking for his son to return, wasn’t he? When he saw him afar off, did he say: “Ah, that lousy son! Tell my servants to make him crawl and kiss my feet”? No, the father said, “It’s my son!” He ran to- ward him.

The Bible says: “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you” (James 4:8). That should be how it works horizontally as well. If we restore someone, they are going to “draw nigh,” make a move towards us, and we can then pull them in.

So, Joseph becomes a picture of grace. Starting in verse 25 we see that all the brothers but Simeon are allowed to leave. Instead of revenge, there is amazing grace, despite the brothers’ great cruelty. Not only do they have food, but they find their money restored. But, instead of be- ing happy at the surprise, what is their reaction? They are frightened. “What’s God done to us?” Very of- ten, guilty people are frightened by good things happening to them, es- pecially from those whom they have affronted.

Matthew 5:44 says: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and per- secute you.” That’s what we are sup- posed to be doing. That’s the stand- ard which Christ holds us to, and that’s where we can see restoration. Often lack of restoration is our fault.

Romans 12:17,19-21: “Recom- pense to no man evil for evil. Pro- vide things honest in the sight of all men.… Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Venge- ance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hun- ger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

That’s exactly what Joseph was doing. He didn’t know these verses, but he was “heaping coals of fire” on his brothers’ heads, and it was changing their perspective and their hearts.

1 Peter 3:9 tells us: “Not render- ing evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.” When we do that, there’s a promise involved, isn’t there? We will be blessed, just as Joseph was.

Going back to our passage, we see in Genesis 42:28 the first ex- plicit mention of God by the broth- ers: “And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?” This is the first time they mentioned God. They are being reconciled to God as well. God is working in their lives. They have been in frightening cir- cumstances. They have been accused of being spies. It was a matter of life and death.

So, they travel back to Jacob, and tell him the story. They still don’t know that Joseph is alive. They want to go right back. That is a pret- ty amazing change in heart attitude as well. The old brothers would have said: “Tough luck, Simeon. We’ve got our food. Hope you do OK in prison. We’re not telling our father anything. We’ll just make up a sto- ry about Simeon.” But, no, they go back and they tell the truth to their father. Pretty amazing, isn’t it?!

The deceivers are beginning to tell the truth. They wanted to go right back to Egypt, but Jacob said, “No way! Joseph is lost from me. You lost Simeon from me. You’re not going to lose Benjamin from me too!”

Then, Rueben makes a foolish offer. He says, “Well, if you let us go back and I lose Benjamin, you can kill my sons.” Jacob wisely refused that offer. But, Rueben has now lost the credibility to be a leader. It falls to Judah. We see a change. Instead of indifference to the cries of Joseph, we see loyalty to the brother and in- tegrity in dealing with the situation. Jacob finally gives in after Judah’s intervention and allows Benjamin to go. This shows more change in Judah and his brothers. Jacob says, “You can go, but you’re not going to take Benjamin. Judah responds that the others might as well not go either then, because without Benjamin they would not be given any food. Finally, Judah tells his father that he would offer himself as surety for Benjamin. That finally convinces Jacob, and off the brothers go.

We see that they go back to Egypt and bow again. Both dreams are ful- filled. The first time they bowed in submission. This time they bow in homage, with gifts to Joseph.

We see here that Joseph now restores social etiquette. Turn with me to chapter 43:26-27: “And when Joseph came home, they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house, and bowed themselves to him to the earth. And he asked them of their welfare, andsaid, Is your father well, the old man of whom ye spake? Is he yet alive?” He’s asking about them. He’s of- fering them peace, in a matter of speaking. Social etiquette has been restored.

In verse 29 we see that he has a special greeting for Benjamin, and the second test begins. Verse 29 says: “And he lifted up his eyes, and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and said, Is this your younger brother, of whom ye spake unto me? And [speaking to Benjamin now] he said, God be gracious unto thee, my son.” We see the beginning of the second test in that he’s starting to show what towards Benjamin? He’s showing favoritism towards his brother. We know what happens. He sits them down to a feast. They all get an abundant amount of food, but Benjamin gets five times more — right in front of these brothers who resent and envy those who get more than they do!

Just imagine! You are invited into a royal home and fed a feast. And, lo and behold, Simeon is there, and he’s not in chains! And look! He has sent the other Egyptians out, and has sat them at a special table! Their fear gradually changes, and they are starting to enjoy themselves. They notice that they are seated in order by age. “How did that happen?” Joseph’s grace freed everyone up. They were able to relax. No more anxiety; no more dread. They are be- ing treated as guests of honor. They are able to relax in the joyful pres- ence of royalty. That’s what we are going to have in heaven, isn’t it?

They had done nothing to earn his kindness, and he did not remind them of their wrongs, or make them pay for their cruelty and injustice. “As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our trans- gressions from us” (Psalm 103:12). When we get to heaven and are at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the Lord is not going to call us aside and say, “You enjoy this meal, but you just remember what you did.” No, God has buried your sins and my sins as deep as the ocean.

Joseph is a picture of grace. Joseph is a picture of unmerited fa- vor. He didn’t wait for them to ask for forgiveness. He showed grace prior to that.

Well, there is still another test. He wants to see if this apparent heart change is real. Remember that Joseph was Rachel’s oldest son, and Jacob’s favorite son. Now, Joseph is about to create another situa- tion where Rachel’s other son, and Jacob’s current favorite — Benjamin — is threatened with slavery. Well, the brothers have a choice. They can take great personal risk, or they can abandon Benjamin for personal gain. They could profit again. The trap is sprung.

The brothers joyfully go on their way home. Imagine their conversa- tions as they discussed all that had happened. But, suddenly, they were stopped by Joseph’s steward who asked them: “How dare you steal my master’s cup — his silver cup — after all the kindness he has shown you?” Imagine their reaction: “What are you talking about? We have done no such thing! Why would we do that after such kindness? Go ahead and search!” Imagine their growing sense of vindication as each sack af- ter sack was checked: “See, there’s no cup there.” But, horror of hor- rors, there in Benjamin’s sack was the cup. Imagine their consternation, their shock.

Before the search began, they had made a foolish pronouncement: “Whoever’s sack you find it in, you just kill him.” What are they going to tell their father now? Their own words could be used against them. They could have abandoned Ben- jamin, but they went back to the city, back to Joseph’s house, and told him, “We’ll all be your slaves.” The implication was that they were asking for Joseph to let Benjamin go. Joseph replied in chapter 44:17: “God forbid that I should do so: but the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my servant; and as for you, get you up in peace unto your father.” What happens? Profit- loving Judah, hateful Judah, offers himself as a substitute for Benjamin!

Didn’t Jesus do that for us? Ju- dah is a picture of Christ here. Judah and his brothers show self-sacrificing love. They passed the test with fly- ing colors. Now Joseph knows that he can fully restore his relationship with his brothers. They were con- cerned about their brother and what this would do to their father. They weren’t concerned about that before, were they? What a change of char- acter!

Joseph had been modeling sub- mission to God, and reconciliation. He had another tempting chance to kill them. But, no! In chapter 50:20, Joseph says: “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.” He told them that their evil deeds were all part of God’s plan.

We know Romans 8:28, which says: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

Acts 2:23 states: “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain.” Even the most wicked devices of evil men, in slay- ing our Lord — and we would have done the same — were overturned and used by God for His purposes, for our salvation. Yet, we often fight being restored to God or others, be- cause of guilt.

Philippians 3:13-14 says: “Breth- ren, I count not myself to have ap- prehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are be- hind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press to- ward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes we think: “God could never use me. I’m too terrible a sin- ner. I know I’ve been forgiven, but God can never use me.

The Apostle Paul was complicit in murder; he was a persecutor. He had a lot to feel guilty about. But, he said that he forgets “those things which are behind,” and “press[es] toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” That’s what we need to do.

Joseph cleared the room. He knew that, if he didn’t, the story would get out. He didn’t want his brothers to be humiliated in front of the Egyptians — for others to know the depths of their depravity. He weeps aloud, openly express- ing his emotion. Men can weep. In Genesis 45:4,5, Joseph says: “I am Joseph your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.”

We can see that our attitudes are critical in our Christian walk. Joseph models humility, supportiveness, mer- cy, grace, generosity and unselfish- ness. He tells them to go and bring their father. He knows them well and tells them not to fight on the way back.

We see that restoration is not normally going to be solicited by guilty parties. The injured have to make the first overture — just as the Father draws us; just as the Holy Spirit convicts us.

Even years later, when Jacob died, the brothers still realized the dreadful evil of their actions against Joseph, and could not fully compre- hend his forgiveness. They sent a messenger unto Joseph asking him to have mercy upon them, now that their father was dead, and Joseph did not have to fear bringing grief to him. And here, Joseph offers up these two little words: “BUT GOD.…” “But God meant it for good.… Now therefore fear ye not.” They had been restored.