Published June 30th, 2016 by Dirk Waren
A grossly false doctrine that’s prevalent in the body of Christ today is the teaching that believers are obligated to forgive everyone for everything all the time, no conditions whatsoever. (By ‘forgive’ I mean its literal definition—“to dismiss the offense” or “cancel the debt”). This erroneous teaching is so widespread that when the average Christian is exposed to the truth of what the balanced Scriptures actually teach on the topic they can scarcely believe it. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read the prerequisite article for details (it’s not overly long): Forgiveness—Should You Forgive EVERYONE for EVERYTHING ALL of the time?
No serious study on forgiveness can be complete without emphasizing the forgiveness Joseph offered his ten jealous brothers who were intent on murdering him, but settled for selling him into slavery at the young age of 17. These brothers covered up their wicked deeds by telling their father, Jacob, that Joseph was slain by a wild beast. They obviously never expected to see their younger sibling again but, in fact, they ran into him about 21 years later after a famine forced them to travel to Egypt in search of food. To their amazement, they ultimately discovered that Joseph ran the mighty nation and was second only to the Pharaoh. The story concludes with Joseph forgiving his brothers as shown in this powerful passage:
“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
The opening words “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” are renown as a Biblical example of the grace to forgive. And it truly is an awesome example of forgiveness, isn’t it? Yet many preachers who quote this passage fail to point out why Joseph was willing to so graciously forgive his brothers. He didn’t just automatically forgive them; he forgave them only after they displayed sincere remorse and repentance. We’re going to focus on the important details of this story that are usually omitted when ministers sermonize from the passage. The full story is relayed in Genesis 37-50 so, if you’re not familiar with this amazing biography, I encourage you to read it for yourself firsthand (skip chapters 38 & 49 as they are not pertinent to the subject). I will reference and quote from this section of Scripture throughout this article.
Joseph was a Type of Christ
The foremost thing we need to understand about Joseph is that he was a type of Jesus Christ. A ‘type’ is simply an illustration of some future truth; hence, Joseph’s experiences foreshadowed the life of Jesus Christ in seven ways:
- Joseph was the beloved son of his father, Jacob.
- He was sent by his father to his brothers.
- He was hated and rejected by them and sold for pieces of silver.
- He was severely tempted and overcame.
- He was “killed” and “came back to life” as far as his father was concerned.
- He graciously forgave his offenders when they repented.
- He subsequently provided them a new home that was a paradise compared to where they had been living, at least as far as sustenance was concerned.
The fact that Joseph was a type of Christ makes his example of forgiveness all the more pertinent to Christians since ‘Christian’ literally means “follower of the Anointed One.” Needless to say, it’s to every believer’s benefit to pay close attention to Joseph’s example since he exemplifies the very life of Christ.
Joseph Didn’t Automatically Forgive His Brothers
The first thing we need to grasp about Joseph’s conflict with his brothers is that he didn’t just automatically forgive them. Most ministers who teach on the subject give the impression that Joseph immediately forgave his brothers upon their arrival in Egypt to acquire grain, which wasn’t the case at all. Notice what took place when Joseph and his brothers finally met:
Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. (7) As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from? He asked.
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”
(8) Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. (9) Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
(10) “No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. (11) We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”
Verse 6 shows that when Joseph’s brothers came into his presence they bowed down to him. This was the fulfillment of the dreams Joseph foolishly shared with his brothers some 21 years prior, which made them hate him all the more, as detailed in Genesis 37:5-11.
Verse 7 shows that, although Joseph recognized his ten brothers, they didn’t recognize him. This was likely due to the fact that a person’s looks usually change quite a bit from their teens to their late 30s; but, more importantly, Joseph’s brothers never expected to see him again, let alone meet him as the governor of Egypt. They naturally imagined him to be an inconsequential slave somewhere performing menial tasks, if alive at all. Genesis 42:22 suggests the latter.
It’s important to note that even though Joseph recognized his brothers, even though they bowed down to him in submission and even though his dreams were finally fulfilled, Joseph still refused to automatically dismiss their great transgression of 21 years prior. Remember, Joseph is a type of Jesus Christ himself. How did he respond? He “spoke harshly” to them and accused them of being spies!
Joseph Didn’t Forgive, but He was NOT Bitter
This proves, incidentally, that Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers for their wicked actions over the course of the 13 or so years that he was a slave and prisoner in Egypt or the 8 years that he was governor. ‘Forgive’ means to dismiss the offense and it’s clear that Joseph hadn’t yet pardoned his brothers’ great offense. It’s also clear that, even though he refused to forgive his brothers, he didn’t allow their crime to ruin him in any way; he refused to allow their hateful actions to make him bitter.
How did he accomplish this? He continued his relationship with the LORD over the ensuing years despite the negative circumstances he experienced (slavery, false accusation and unjust imprisonment). This is supported by the fact that Joseph maintained God’s favor throughout these years, as indicated in Genesis 39:3,23 and 41:38. Hence, we can presume that he regularly prayed for his family, including the ten brothers who sold him into slavery. Any negative emotions he felt throughout these years—whether anger, frustration, injustice, depression or embarrassment—he wisely cast on the LORD (Psalm 55:22 & 1 Peter 5:7). No human can handle such negative emotional burdens, but God can because he’s our Creator and therefore the ultimate psychotherapist. Although the Genesis account doesn’t spell out these details we can soundly conclude as much since casting cares on God and praying for our transgressors are the two primary ways the Bible instructs us to keep severe offenses from making us bitter and destroying our relationship with God, not to mention our very lives.
The bottom line is that Joseph didn’t forgive his brothers and was under no obligation to do so, until or unless they repented. What he was required to do was maintain his relationship with the LORD no matter what (remember the first and greatest command?*); and not allow bitterness to take root in his heart, which would destroy him. We need to do the same when we face similar trials. And let’s not arrogantly think we’re above such hardships, because we’re not. Anyone who wants to be used mightily of God will have to face many challenging and humbling circumstances, like Joseph, Moses, David, Daniel, Jesus, Paul and numerous other Biblical characters.
* Matthew 22:34-40
Further Humbling was Necessary
Although it’s certain that Joseph’s brothers were humbled by their circumstances—a severe famine that forced them to go to Egypt where they had to bow to a foreign governor to acquire food—it’s also clear that they were in need of more humbling. This is seen in verse 11 of the text spotlighted above: They declared to Joseph (whom they didn’t recognize) that they were “honest men.” How do you think Joseph felt when he heard this? No doubt it stirred up his righteous anger. After all, these were the pathetically jealous siblings who plotted to murder him and only decided to sell him into slavery as an alternative because Reuben and Judah talked the gang into it (Genesis 37:21-27). They then lied to their father by saying that Joseph had been slain by a ferocious animal, hardly the actions of honest men.
Please notice that I said Joseph experienced righteous anger. Both the Old and New Testaments state, “In your anger do not sin” (Psalm 4:4 & Ephesians 4:26), which proves that a person can be angry and not in a state of sin. This was the type of anger Moses felt when he came down from Mt. Sinai and witnessed the Israelites worshiping a golden calf idol and engaging in sexual immorality, which prompted him to angrily throw down the stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments, breaking them to pieces (Exodus 32:19).
This was the type of anger Christ himself felt when—incredibly—the Pharisees objected to his mere intention of healing a man’s deformed hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6)! Can you imagine being so clueless and deceived to the point of opposing a miraculous healing of God? No wonder Jesus was angry. Such righteous anger is not sin but it must be handled and channeled properly or it can easily lead to sin because anger is such a powerful emotion.
What did Joseph do with his righteous anger? He productively channeled it in order to further humble his brothers and bring about their genuine repentance. This showed great wisdom on his part and befits his status as a type of Christ since Jesus is the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:30 & Colossians 2:3).
“Be Shrewd as Snakes”
Remember when Jesus instructed his disciples, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16)? “Shrewd” refers to skill or sly cunning in practical matters, like when Paul mischievously implemented “divide and conquer” tactics when held before the two sects of the Sanhedrin (Acts 23:6-8). Christians today are often too nice, naïve and gullible yet Jesus said we need to be shrewd while maintaining our innocence. He even gave an entire parable commending the shrewdness of a wasteful manager who was about to lose his job (Luke 16:1-9). Why would Jesus encourage us to be skillfully cunning? He explained it himself: because we’re amongst wolves. By all means, walk innocently before your Creator but sweetness and naiveté won’t cut it when you’re dealing with arrogant, hostile, deceitful people like Joseph’s brothers. Such wolves will automatically regard niceness and gullibility as marks of weakness and take advantage. In short, they’ll chew you up and spit you out! This explains why Joseph pretended to be a stranger to his brothers, spoke harshly, and accused them of being spies—he was being shrewd. Shrewdness was the only way to break them.
Believe it or not, this is in keeping with the very character of God, as seen here:
With the merciful You will show Yourself merciful; With a blameless man You will show Yourself blameless;
(26) With the pure You will show Yourself pure; And with the devious You will show Yourself shrewd.
(27) For You will save the humble people, But will bring down haughty looks.
Psalm 18:25-27 (NKJV)
This passage shows that God deals with us according to the way we choose to live and treat others. Don’t take this in the wrong spirit because verse 27 plainly shows that the LORD saves the humble so, no matter how bad we might miss it, if we’re willing to humbly repent God will respond with gentle forgiveness and restoration.
Yet, notice how the Lord deals with devious people in verse 26: He shows himself shrewd. This reveals that being shrewd toward crooked, wolfish people is actually a godly characteristic! The Bible instructs us to “be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). Consequently, if we’re dealing with devious people, like Joseph’s brothers, we need to imitate God by being shrewd, not nicey-wicey and lovey-dovey. How nice was Jesus with the Pharisees and other stuffy religionists? He openly rebuked them and called them “foolish people” who were “full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:39). Sometimes he would answer their devious questions in such a way that stunned them to silence (Luke 20:20-26) while others he’d refuse to answer their questions at all and asked them a question instead (Mark 11:27-33). You see, Jesus simply refused to be manipulated by these religious cons. Although this may not have been nice, it was certainly kind and good. After all, the kindest thing you can do for arrogant fakes like the Pharisees is openly rebuke them in the hope they’ll be shocked out of their deathly legalistic stupor. Although some devious people are incorrigible, like Judas Iscariot, shrewdness is the only way to break the ones who aren’t. This explains Jesus’ approach to the rigid religionists.
Joseph’s Shrewd Mind Games
With this understanding, Joseph employed a number of sly “mind games” on his brothers as follows:
- He didn’t reveal his true identity to his siblings (Genesis 42:7).
- He spoke harshly to them (42:7).
- He accused them of being spies even though he knew they weren’t (42:9).
- He put them in jail for three days (42:17).
- He made a threatening proposal: “Do this and you will live”; in other words, if they didn’t comply they’d be executed (42:18). Although it’s unlikely Joseph would have followed through with the threat, the proposal itself was indeed threatening.
- He tested the veracity of their words by insisting that one brother stay confined in Egypt until the others bring back their youngest sibling from Canaan, Benjamin, which was Joseph’s only full brother (42:19-20).
Joseph’s shrewd tactics worked as evidenced by his brothers’ reaction:
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother [Joseph]. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
(22) Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” (23) They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.
Joseph could see that they were starting to break and turned away because he couldn’t control his emotions (verse 24). It would’ve been unwise to allow his wolfish brothers to see him weep since they’d interpret it as weakness.
Despite his sensitivity, Joseph realized that more cunning tactics were necessary for his siblings to come to a place of full remorse and repentance; hence, the mind games continued:
- Joseph ordered that Simeon stay behind in Egypt while the rest traveled back to Canaan; Simeon was consequently bound and humbled before his brothers’ eyes (Genesis 42:24).
- Why did Joseph single out Simeon? Likely because Simeon, the second oldest, was the ringleader of the plot to kill him.* This would surely convince the brothers more than ever that they were being punished for their wicked deeds some 21 years earlier.
- In what prison do you think Joseph confined Simeon? Surely the very same prison he himself was held for at least two years after Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape. Joseph sought to firmly impress upon Simeon the Biblical lesson: You reap what you sow.
- Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain to be taken back to their families in Canaan, which proved his compassion for them and their kin, but he also slyly ordered that the silver with which they paid for the grain be put in the bags as well (42:25-26).
* Reuben, the oldest brother, actually talked the bloodthirsty group out of murdering Joseph with the intent of ultimately saving him and bringing him back to their father (Genesis 37:21-22); Judah was the only other brother who pleaded for Joseph’s life, convincing them to sell him into slavery rather than murdering him (verses 26-27).
While camping that night one of the brothers discovered that his silver was in his bag and their hearts sank. Literally trembling they asked, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:27-28). After returning home they discovered that all their silver was in their bags and they were even more frightened (verse 35). Joseph’s tactics were clearly working. I’m sure he was having a good laugh back in Egypt imagining their responses when they discovered the money.
When their father, Jacob, learned that Simeon was imprisoned in Egypt and that the governor insisted that his beloved Benjamin be brought back to Egypt in order for Simeon to be released, he flat-out refused to do it, likely because Benjamin was the baby of the family and the favored son of his beloved wife Rachel (verses 36-38).
So they stayed in Canaan and lived off the Egyptian grain until the food ran out. Jacob was then forced to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt since the famine continued and they’d all perish if he didn’t (Genesis 43:1-14). It took at least a year for them to travel home, use up all the grain, and travel back to Egypt.
- Simeon, the evident ringleader of the plot to murder or enslave Joseph, was imprisoned in Egypt for over a year. This was fitting since Joseph was in prison for at least two years. Simeon was certainly reaping what he had sown, wasn’t he?
- When the brothers returned to Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph still refused to reveal his true identity (Genesis 43:15-16).
- He ordered that they be brought to his home for dinner. This concerned the brothers and made them suspicious that the dinner was a ruse to enslave them and take their donkeys as possible recompense for not paying for the grain on their first visit (verses 17-18). In modern vernacular, they were freaking out. The mind games were working well.
At Joseph’s house the brothers, including the just-released Simeon, bowed down to him in humility and honor (Genesis 43:26-28). It had now been well over two decades since Joseph’s brothers apprehended him with intentions of murder and sold him into slavery, yet Joseph still refused to dismiss their heinous actions; in other words, he still refused to forgive them. Although his cunning tactics were obviously breaking them, it wasn’t enough. There’s a difference between breaking and broken, and Joseph was intent on bringing them to full repentance. Hence, an important test was in order to see whether or not they still possessed the same jealous hatred they illustrated when they sought to murder him, a test involving the youngest sibling Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother.
The sight of his beloved Benjamin, whom he hadn’t seen for over 22 years, moved Joseph to tears. Again, he wisely didn’t allow his brothers to see it, opting to cry in a private room and then return (verses 30-31).
- When they were seated to dine at Joseph’s house the eleven brothers were astonished to discover that they were seated in perfect order according to age (Genesis 43:33). They wondered how the Egyptians could possibly know their very age order and were freaking out more than ever.
- When they were served dinner, Benjamin received noticeably larger portions than the other ten brothers (verse 34). Joseph obviously wanted to test the siblings’ reaction to their younger brother’s special treatment. Would it stir up the same envious hostility they showed toward him over two decades earlier?
Although the ten brothers passed the test, Joseph still wasn’t satisfied. He had one final mind game in his arsenal, the coup de grace:
- Joseph had the brothers’ sacks filled with food to take back home but he also had his personal silver cup placed in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. After the brothers left to travel home Joseph sent a detachment to catch up with them and accuse them of stealing the governor’s treasured chalice. After the cup was discovered in Benjamin’s sack they returned to Egypt and threw themselves at Joseph’s feet. Continuing his ruse, Joseph asked them why they stole his silver cup (Genesis 44:1-15). Notice Judah’s utterly broken response:
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”
As you can see, the brothers were brought to a point of total brokenness. They admitted their guilt and saw God’s hand in the uncovering of their great transgression against Joseph over 22 years earlier. They even resolved themselves to slavery, the very fate they forced on their innocent brother. Joseph rejected this proposition, however, insisting that only the “guilty” Benjamin stay behind as his slave (verse 17).
Repentance Unlocks the Grace of Forgiveness
The rest of Genesis 44 shows Judah, in an extremely humble manner, explaining to the governor (Joseph) how beloved Benjamin was to his father and pleading that he himself remain in Egypt in place of Benjamin since he wouldn’t be able to bear Jacob’s misery if Benjamin failed to return (verses 33-34).
Judah was obviously the leader of the bunch and spoke for them all. What we see here is evidence of agape love, which is defined in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. Agape love is not a feeling; it’s love in practice. It’s selfless in nature and protective. Consequently, Judah wanted to protect his father and Benjamin, and was willing to give up his very freedom to do so. Self-sacrifice is the supreme expression of agape love as illustrated in Jesus’ crucifixion for the salvation of humanity because “God so loved the world.” Whether Judah was motivated by love for his father or for Benjamin, or both, is unimportant; what matters is that Judah, speaking for all the brothers, displayed this change of heart via self-sacrificial love.
Joseph was finally satisfied. He saw enough evidence of his brothers’ humble brokenness and so revealed himself to them, wailing. The brothers were stunned to silence and terrified (Genesis 45:1-3).
Joseph’s grace flowed generously as he assured them that the LORD, in his amazing Sovereignty, used the brothers’ hateful jealousy and wicked deeds to accomplish his own good purposes:
And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. (6) For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. (7) But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.”
(8) “So then, it was not you who sent me here but God. He made me the father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.”
Joseph was able to look beyond his brothers’ pathetic carnality and see the bigger picture: God reigns supreme even when it appears like wicked little fools get away with their devious, unjust deeds. This in no way excused the brothers’ transgressions, of course, as Joseph was led of the LORD to slyly break them and move them to genuine repentance. But it does show that God will accomplish his plans regardless of human transgression or interference. I find this very comforting. It also shows the radical forgiveness to which God calls us. Such forgiveness gushes life, mercy and pardon and will flow generously through anyone who’s experienced the Lord’s awesome favor. But this grace is not given unconditionally. There’s a condition, which is repentance. Some people seem to think that God’s forgiveness and grace flow unconditionally but this simply isn’t true. After all, why will all the stubborn fools who refuse to humbly repent be discarded in the lake of fire like garbage at the end of this present evil age? The only people who will escape this “second death” are those who humbly repent and receive God’s gracious forgiveness, reconciliation and eternal life (Revelation 2:11 & 20:11-15). Always remember: Humility unlocks God’s favor and confession stops prosecution (1 John 1:8-9 & James 4:6). These are powerful truths.
End of Story
Joseph’s father, Jacob, and all their kin then came to live with Joseph in Egypt where Jacob lived another 17 years (Genesis 46-50). After his death Joseph’s ten brothers were still concerned about Joseph holding a grudge for their great transgressions four decades prior. To ensure their pardoned status they fabricated a story:
So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: (17) ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to Joseph he wept.
(18) His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
Such deceit was unnecessary since Joseph forgave them 17 years earlier. It was a done deal. After all these years they still didn’t understand Joseph’s godly character or the grace of genuine forgiveness. They were unspiritual dullards, pure and simple. That’s when Joseph, at the age of 56, assured them:
You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. (21) So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
As you can see, Joseph didn’t just talk the talk, he walked the walk by following up his words with reassuring kindness and provision for his brothers and their kin.
I’m sure you now have a better understanding of Joseph’s profound words of forgiveness in this famous passage. Joseph didn’t offer this radical forgiveness to his devious brothers unconditionally; he only offered it after he shrewdly brought them to a place of brokenness and repentance. Just as important, before he forgave them he refused to allow their unjust actions to destroy him via bitterness, hatred and vengeance. He maintained his relationship with the LORD and overcame evil with good. Hence, the LORD continually blessed him regardless of the negative circumstances in which he found himself and ultimately promoted him beyond his wildest dreams. Or, should I say, according to his wildest dreams?
I encourage you to cultivate the same Christ-like spirit of Joseph. Increasingly implement the truths you’ve learned in this article and the prerequisite teaching in your life while being sensitive to the leading of Holy Spirit.
And, as my sister Jennifer once shared with me:
Never let the darkness in others take away your light.
This article was edited from Dirk’s 2012 book The Believer’s Guide to FORGIVENESS & WARFARE. You can pick up a copy here (just scroll down).
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