Number 1.1       
October 2006      


Sight, Obligation, and Forgiveness in the Joseph Text

by Michael Kelley Shepherd, Jr.

In the Joseph story, and specifically the scene presented in the forty-fourth and forty-fifth chapter of Genesis during which Judah pleads to the "Egyptian Ruler" for Benjamin's life, only to have that "Egyptian Ruler" ultimately confess to being the younger brother, Joseph, that the Patriarchs had sold into slavery many years earlier, the reader is given a picture of two facets of the moral life: the nature of obligation to one another and why one person knows that obligation while another does not; and how it is one is able actually to forgive another for failing to uphold it. The interplay between Joseph and his brothers provides an example of knowledge and ignorance, of sight and blindness; these metaphors play out to teach the reader lessons in the moral life.

The Genesis passage begins with Judah's explanation of both the structure of Israel's family as well as the position of the brothers with respect to the Egyptian ruler to whom they are speaking. Judah recognizes their position: having been caught with an item that belonged to a (hitherto) benevolent authority from whom they had procured grain necessary for the survival of their family, they are afforded no bargaining power. They are guests in this land, though their guest status could quickly turn if the ensuing exchange goes awry. But they are also sons of a fragile man, one still shaken by a tragedy that befell his family some years before. Judah understands the weight on his shoulders: the burden of ensuring that Benjamin, Israel's youngest son, arrives safely in Canaan is his to bear. And behind that is the obligation to uphold the life of Israel himself, understanding (as Judah does) that Benjamin cannot ultimately "leave his father; if he were to leave him, his father would die."[1] After all, Benjamin was Israel's favorite son, the only living son of Rachel, the wife for whom Israel suffered fourteen years of labor, the wife he endured trickery and bad blood to hold. To lose Benjamin would mean losing the very "son of my [Rachel's] suffering" (Gen. 35:18), the son for whom his beloved died. Israel had already lost the first of Rachel's two boys (Joseph), purportedly killed by a wild animal while out in the field; he had already lost Rachel herself, and to lose the final member of that beloved trio would be catastrophic. Judah understands all of this and genuinely wants to prevent such an outcome. He makes clear to the Egyptian the damage that their failing to return with Benjamin would do: it would "send my [Israel, their father] white head down to Sheol in sorrow" (Gen. 44:29). As such Judah would "stand guilty before my father forever" (Gen. 44:32), and be rendered guilty of failing the man unto death.

Though noble, how much can one say for a man who once sold his brother into slavery? Where was his moral obligation then? Perhaps his actions may be explained not by his failure to uphold a known moral obligation but by a failure to know that obligation at all. Indeed, during Joseph's enslavement, the highest obligation most of his brothers show is expressed by their response to Ruben's advice not to take his life. They understand only that they ought to "shed no blood" (Gen. 37:22). They express no qualms about casting him "into that pit out in the wilderness" (Gen. 37:22) so long as they did not actually lay hands on him to cause his death. They understand that shedding their brother's blood was wrong, but they do not understand that this is really an injunction against harming him at all. They do not understand that their obligation toward him is not a legalistic "thou shalt not do this or that" but something far greater, something holistic, nor do they fully understand their obligation to their father. Selling the original "child of his [their father's] old age" (Gen. 37:3) into slavery and then telling him that the child had been devoured by a wild beast bears no reflection of the sort of ethical mandate that Judah claims in Egypt. Not one of the brothers understands this mandate, not even the high minded Ruben, who does "try to save him from them"(Gen. 37:21) but who never bothers to inform Israel of his sons' deception after they show him the bloody tunic and allow him to believe that "Joseph was torn by a beast!"(Gen. 37:33).

Saint Ambrose's commentary on the story in his sermon entitled Joseph helps add a layer of depth to the reader's understanding of the situation. He notes that when Joseph went out from Israel to find his brothers and initially could not find them at all, "it was right that he wandered about, for he was seeking those that were going astray."[2] He was not seeking those that had gone astray, but Joseph was acting as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah: hunting a prey he sought to redeem, a prey that nonetheless ran and ran to escape him. They had not gone astray and sat, waiting for someone to find them; the image that Ambrose paints is of the brothers going astray, actively moving away from the very source of their redemption. And why? Because hitherto they are angered by Joseph's dreams, because "he had a dream that when he was binding sheaves with his brothers...his sheaf rose up and stood straight, while the sheaves of his brothers turned and bowed down to his sheaf,"[3]and they see his supposed arrogance and violation of the order from which they come. They are unable to know an inkling of the truth: that "in this [his dream] the resurrection of the Lord Jesus that was to come was revealed"[4]; that Joseph is dreaming both of his future and the future of the world, a day in which the lost would bow down to Jesus. They are unable to see that their salvation is to come from their younger brother and so (all that much more egregiously) they try to kill him. Joseph arrives to meet them when they are actively engaged in rebellion against the moral law.

The brothers were like one "in a deep corporeal sleep," that cannot "open his eyes to the mysteries of God."[5] They were not at all able to see their brother for who he really is, let alone understand their obligation to him, only understanding their jealousy and their anger. They are like the aforementioned man as he "supposes that...worldly power is of some importance,"[6] when the person of faith who can fully see the truth knows full well that it is of no importance at all. They live in a dream world they do not actually inhabit. The reality of their brother has completely escaped them. Perhaps they are blinded by the awesome light that shines forth from Joseph, "the splendor of grace (which) is bright like a companion to his chastity."[7] Perhaps they close their eyes because, bright and beautiful as it is, they are unable to bear the truth and beauty they see in him. Perhaps they never notice a hint of light emanating from him as one blind at birth, so to speak. Whatever the case might be, the Patriarchs do not understand the situation: they owe their brother all the help he needs in order to preserve his life, not only because he is their brother but because he represents something far greater than that.

By the time the brothers speak to the Egyptian ruler they are not so blind as they once were. At the very least one may safely say that they have changed with respect to their obligation to their father. The acceptance of the fact that by leaving Benjamin in Egypt Judah would stand "guilty before my [his] father" is no minor realization. Perhaps the grief of their father at the loss of Joseph brings this realization upon them, perhaps it is a divine revelation, or perhaps it occurs in a far less dramatic fashion. No matter how the amendment of their consciences occurs, it is one that plays an important role as the scene unfolds. This newfound nobility of mind is one that propels Judah to greater moral heights as he exclaims "let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father" (Gen. 44:34) at the loss of his son!

With all this talk about the brothers' obligations to their father, what about Benjamin? Do the brothers owe him anything? Might they not stick up for him when he is accused of stealing the Egyptian goblet, might they not actively try to protect their own brother when foreign authorities want to imprison him? In all of the rationales that Judah gives for not leaving his youngest brother in Egypt, not once does he offer to take his place in order to prevent harm from befalling the boy. Judah's primary concern is Israel's welfare, but Benjamin does not even appear as a secondary concern. Even the pledge that Judah makes to Israel, the one in which he vows to take care of the boy and keep him safe, is one directed not toward Benjamin but instead toward Jacob. Judah tells his father, "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my care, and I will return him to you"(Gen. 42:37). The welfare of Judah's children is not the primary concern nor is the welfare of Benjamin. The threat levied against the brothers by the Egyptian official is that "he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave" (Gen. 44:17) (emphasis added). The offer is not that the youth is left to become a houseguest of the Egyptian, but a servant. Judah is "defending" Benjamin, but he gives scarcely a hint that he might be defending the boy for the boy's own sake and not solely for the sake of his father.   Though the brothers may indeed grow to such a point that they understand their duty toward their father, they still fail to recognize their duty to one another.

In one crucial respect, they are still blind and still unable to see the depths of their obligation to Benjamin and to each other. They are deeply concentrated on their father, deeply worried for the sake of the old man. There remains another obligation, however, that when they worry for their father, they cannot see. Again Ambrose adds an interesting wrinkle to the story when he juxtaposes the situation of the Patriarchs with that of the Jews during the time of Paul. "The Hebrews are seen now and they are seen by Christ, who is the true Joseph, when they come with the figure who symbolizes Paul."[8] And just as the Jews of Paul's era fail to recognize Paul and Paul’s teaching, the brothers fail to recognize the significance of Benjamin. Thus, Judah's excessive interest in his father may be seen as all the more damning because Benjamin represents something truly special. Benjamin is not just the little brother, but the youngest—and presumed only surviving—son of the wife, or, as Jacob refers to her "my wife" (Gen. 44:27) (emphasis added). She was not "a wife," or "Rachel," or "Leah's sister," but "my wife," "the wife." Yet Judah cannot understand his obligation toward the boy, special though Benjamin is. Judah is not able to see the significance of Benjamin's life for its own sake; he only appreciates its significance through the lens of his father's life.

As a result, Joseph's tears as he reveals himself to them could mean a myriad of things. They may be tears of joy as he watches his brothers uphold their father and their father's interest, but they may also be tears of sadness that after all these years and all they have done the brothers still do not understand the obligation they owe each other. First they sell him into slavery, and then they worry not about their youngest brother's fate in a strange land but about their father's health. They still lack the moral vision to truly understand the situation. Judah misses the point: it is wrong to do harm to one's father, but it is also wrong for its own sake to allow one's own brother to be forced into slavery in a foreign country!

Even at the very end of Genesis it is readily apparent that the brothers have little concept of the obligation each owes the other. Fearing that Joseph might use power and influence as a means for reprisal upon the death of their father, they send Joseph a phony message "from their father" urging him to "forgive the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly" (Gen. 50:17). Joseph might as well cry again here, because his brothers yet again fail to understand what is meant by the simple statement that "I am your brother Joseph." The brothers understand that they are subject to a moral obligation to their father that they believe keeps Joseph's anger at bay for many years, but they are still blind to the truth of the larger obligation that stems from his being their brother.

Joseph still forgives them, and this pronouncement of forgiveness of his brothers presents a truly remarkable picture for the reader: forgiveness being pronounced not out of resolution or "superiority" of the transgressed over the transgressor, but out of weakness and humility. It is pronounced because "Joseph could not longer control himself...and he cried out" (Gen. 45:1) in pain so loudly "that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace" (Gen. 45:2). This is not a civilized cry. Joseph is not the picture of a man fully in control of himself, but he is a man with the extraordinary capacity to respond to the pain and hurt of his situation who humbles himself before those who had humiliated him years earlier. Despite Joseph's understanding that he holds all the bargaining power, his pain overcomes him, and he forgives them through his tears.

Why such pain? Though the one pronouncing forgiveness may be the less strong of the two, and as is the case here the one previously violated, the notion that such a person thereby ought to be weeping loudly as that forgiveness is pronounced seems more than a little counterintuitive. But this is exactly how forgiveness is doled out here; it is pronounced not over the bowed and humbled heads of those being forgiven once they understand all that it signifies, for the brothers here are incapable of fully understanding why they are being forgiven over the ignorant and the blind. It is pronounced out of the depth of Joseph's hurt to persons wondering why he is crying! When Joseph makes himself known to his brothers, telling them "I am Joseph. Is my father still well?...His brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him" (Gen. 45:3). When they send the boy away so many years ago he is, as far as they can tell, gone for good. They do not literally kill him, but figuratively they do. They never expect to see him again, and they never know the full extent of what they had done wrong. And now that they are confronted by the extent of the pain they have caused they can neither speak nor even really see.

It is clear that Ruben understands that they never should have harmed Joseph, as he notes in a prior scene that their misfortunes on their trips to Egypt must have come "on account of our brother, because we looked at his anguish, yet paid not heed as he pleaded with us"(Gen. 42:21), but even Ruben is unable to respond when that very brother falls upon them weeping, telling them "do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you" (Gen. 45:5). Even Ruben, the one who partially understands his obligation to his younger brother then and now, does not know what to say and plays a part in the confused final chapter, which indicates just how shallow his understanding is. All of a sudden their punishment is taken away wholly and completely. All of a sudden the brothers are told that their misdeeds are somehow a part of the divine plan for Joseph, that in fact Joseph has to go down into Egypt in order to "ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Gen. 45:7). All of this emerges from a man who comes to them not in superiority but in sadness.

Here again Ambrose's commentary helps the reader understand the Patriarchs.   Joseph is the model that represents their savior, an image of Christ to the Brothers. He shows himself to be their lord, and his grace provides for them an image of things to come. If Joseph is such an image of Christ as Ambrose says he is, that "mirror of purity" from which the "splendor of grace is bright,"[9] and if they are unable to see him and recognize him for what he is, then it is impossible for them to see the moral obligation they owe him. As a result, they are dumfounded when the Egyptian ruler falls to his knees and starts weeping before them; even once they realize who that Egyptian ruler is, they cannot fully appreciate the significance of the happening. Of course they, like fools, implore his forgiveness or try to use false means to secure his forgiveness after their father's death. By virtue of their inability to truly see, they cannot also forgive.

Joseph forgives them because he understands that God is always with him. Saint Stephen's retelling of the Joseph story in Acts makes clear that it is not by happenstance that anything in the story happens, because it is God who "rescued him [Joseph] from all his afflictions"[10] after his brothers, in their jealousy of him, sold him into slavery. It is God who "enabled him to win favor and to show wisdom when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt" (Acts 7:10), which subsequently leads to Joseph's being appointed one of Pharaoh's second in command. And from that position of power and influence he is able to save many lives, even the lives of his own family. In spite of the evil that the brothers attempt to do him, Joseph is God's vehicle over which the brothers have no control. Acts places Joseph alongside both Abraham and Moses as an instrumental character in the story of God's redemption of the world and fulfilling of his promise, made to Abraham, to give him land and descendants. It is ultimately Joseph's knowledge of at least a part of this plan that enables him to forgive his brothers.

Furthermore, Acts makes an analogy between the rejection of Joseph, the Israelite people, Moses, and the rejection of Jesus and the newly founded Church; Acts makes clear that the rejection of God's vehicle by those unable to see that what is really occurring was built into the plan. God knows that the story of the redemption of the world will cause his people to suffer trials and that the descendants of Abraham "would be resident aliens in a country belonging to others who would enslave them and mistreat them" (Acts 7:6) before they would finally see peace and rest. This Covenant with Abraham laid out in Acts 7:5-6 is the point of the matter. St. Stephen shows this to be the dominant promise throughout the story of God working with his people during the days of the patriarchs. Yes, many of them reject him, but he chooses one and works through one to ensure that the promise he makes to Abraham is fulfilled. And it is the knowledge of that promise and the ability to see that plan that enables those involved in that same covenant both to see their moral obligations and to forgive those who fail in theirs.


[1] The JPS Hebrew-English TANAKH, Second Edition (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society) 2003, Gen. 44:22.

[2] Ambrose, "Joseph" in Bernard M. Peebles, ed, Seven Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.:The Catholic University of America Press) 1972, 3.10.

[3] Ambrose 2.7.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ambrose 6.30.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ambrose 1.2.

[8] Ambrose 9.46.

[9]Michael P McHugh, trans., Saint Ambrose: Seven Exegetical Works (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic U of America P. 1972) 191

[10] The New Oxford Annotated Bible—New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2001, Acts 7:10.

© 2006 Society for Scriptural Reasoning

Return to Title Page