In his book. Lee: The Last Years, Charles Bracelen Flood reports that after the Civil War, Robert E. Lee visited a Kentucky lady who took him to the remains of a grand old tree in front of her house. There she bitterly cried that its limbs and trunk had been destroyed by Federal artillery fire. She looked to Lee for a word condemning the North or at least sympathizing with her loss. After a brief silence, Lee said, “Cut it down, my dear Madam, and forget it.” It is better to forgive the injustices of the past than to allow them to remain, let bitterness take root and poison the rest of our life. Sometimes, however, it is hard to believe that we really are forgiven. Joseph’s brothers have a hard time believing that Joseph has really forgiven them. What is true forgiveness, anyway? We have a very clear picture of it in our last sermon on Genesis.
In the first part of our passage, Jacob dies. This sets the stage for the drama that will occur between Joseph and his brothers one last time in chapter 50. But before Jacob dies, he gives a charge to his sons. That charge is that they would not bury him in the land of Egypt, but would carry him back to the land of promise, so that he could be buried in the same tomb as Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. This command the sons will obey.
Joseph has the Egyptians embalm his father Jacob. Embalming was a long process of many days. It was designed to preserve the body for as long as possible. The Egyptians believed in life after death. Part of that belief was that the body was part of that life after death. So they preserved it in amazing ways. A mummy was found recently, as a matter of fact, that had almost no decay at all, though being at least 2500 years old. Well, it is that embalming that the Egyptians performed for Jacob. In short, the Egyptians treated Jacob like a king. They wept for him for 70 days. Just 2 more days is the amount of time prescribed for the mourning for a Pharaoh. The Egyptians were surely being grateful here for all that Joseph had done for the Egyptian nation.
Notice an interesting detail here in verse 4: Joseph speaks to the household of Pharaoh, not to Pharaoh himself. Joseph, having touched the dead body, was ritually unclean in the eyes of the Egyptians, and so he could not come directly into the Pharaoh’s presence. So, he talks with the household, rather than to Pharaoh himself. Joseph asks and obtains permission to bury Jacob in the land of promise.
All this sets the stage for the last encounter of Joseph with the brothers where all is finally made right. As a matter of fact, the brothers had never actually asked Joseph for forgiveness for what they had done to him. Joseph had been very kind to them. But the brothers were thinking to themselves that Jacob being alive had been the only restraint on Joseph’s vengeance. They thought that now that Jacob was dead, Joseph would have free rein to exercise every last ounce of vengeance on them. That’s what they say in verse 15.
So the brothers do a bit of inventing. Jacob never gave such a command to Joseph via the brothers. There are several reasons why verses 16-17 are a lie. First, Jacob did not mention what the brothers did to Joseph in the blessings in chapter 49. Given the fact that he did mention Reuben, Simeon and Levi’s shortcomings, it would be very hard to believe that Jacob would not have mentioned what the brothers did to Joseph. Secondly, if Jacob had had such a command, he would have given it straight to Joseph, not given it through the brothers. It is clear that Joseph had the most access to Jacob. He was there when Jacob died. For these reasons, I believe that the brothers are making up this command that Jacob supposedly gave to them. They were afraid, and wanted Jacob’s protection one more time from their brother Joseph. What they did not understand was the power of forgiveness.
Let’s think carefully through the implications of this situation. The implications are startling. If Jacob never gave such a command, and did not mention in chapter 49 what the brothers did, then we can come to only one conclusion: Jacob never found out! But we must go one step further: if Jacob never found out, then it is equally true that Joseph never told him!! There is the power of forgiveness put on a billboard for the world to see. Not only had Joseph really forgiven his brothers, but he did not mention to his father what they had done. Is that not an amazing forgiveness? It is truly of God, truly a divine forgiveness. It was a true forgiveness.
The brothers, on the other hand, could not really believe that Joseph had truly forgiven them. That’s why they dream up this lie about what Jacob said. They forgot what Joseph had said before, or else they thought he didn’t really mean what he said. They appeal on the basis of this lie, but also on the basis of the fact that they serve the same God that Joseph does. Ironically, the brothers fall on their knees, just as they thought originally that they would never do. You might remember Joseph’s dreams where the stalks of wheat belonging to the brothers bowed down to Joseph’s stalk. The brothers were indignant, and yet here they are, bowing down to Joseph, just as they thought they never would!
Notice Joseph’s response. He says, “Am I in the place of God?” One writer has remarked about this statement that Genesis starts with Adam trying to take the place of God, and Genesis ends with a man in an amazing place of power refusing to take the place of God. Genesis ends with a redemption of a kind. However, that redemption is not final. We need someone in a far higher place of power who refuses to use His deity for his own advantage. Philippians 2 helps us out here: “Have the same attitude among yourselves as Christ Jesus, who, though being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking upon Himself the form of a servant.” Can we see then how Joseph’s divine forgiveness and refusal to take revenge points us to what Jesus Christ would accomplish on the cross? It is Joseph’s not-grasping after divine power that points us to Christ’s own humility that He showed during His entire life, but especially on the cross.
Do you really believe that God has forgiven you? Sometimes we doubt the Word of God, don’t we? We can see plainly enough that those who believe that Christ died for their sins are forgiven. However, we just have a hard time believing that sometimes, don’t we? We are just like the brothers of Joseph. Sometimes we think that our sins are too great for God to forgive. If that is so, then remember that Christ’s blood is more powerful than all sin. To say that God cannot forgive is to say that God is not God, and that He is not powerful enough to erase sin. It is to sin against Christ, because it is His blood that says “what you meant for evil, God has turned into good at the cross.” God has taken His vengeance out on His beloved Son that we might not have to face it. He did that so that He might speak words of comfort to us, just as Joseph comforted his brothers in verse 21.
We must always connect forgiveness of one another with our forgiveness from God. That is the point of the ungrateful servant, you remember. Joyce Baldwin puts it this way: “Only a deep sense of gratitude for the wonder of our own experience of forgiveness in Christ, and for the provision he has made for others to be forgiven, can break down the barriers we put up between ourselves and others, both those we have wronged and those who have wronged us.” If you are having trouble really forgiving someone else, ask yourself this question: “Do you realize that if you are not forgiving someone else, then you are taking the place of God?” It is idolatry of self not to forgive someone else. It is to take the place of God. That is something Joseph would not do. Jesus Himself would not take vengeance on those persecuting Him, but said rather, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Supposing you are the one who needs to ask forgiveness. Beware of putting the other person in the place of God. What do I mean? Matthew Henry explains: “When we ask forgiveness of those whom we have offended we must take heed of putting them in the place of God, by dreading their wrath and soliciting their favour more than God’s.” Don’t fear others more than God. Don’t make up a lie like the brothers did in order to solicit favour with the person of whom you are asking forgiveness. Tell the truth, and be humble. But ask for forgiveness. The brothers waited all this time, and never asked forgiveness. Such things should not be swept under the rug, but should be brought out and resolved. This is the unity of the body of Christ. This is true forgiveness.