Have you ever noticed that the eyesight that leads you into sin is blind, but the eyesight to lead you out is presumed to be 20/20? This is the case with Joseph’s brothers. They have a plan to get out of trouble, but it’s shortsighted and poorly designed. What’s more, they don’t see the true remedy coming—even after it’s been telegraphed to them (Gen. 45).
The brothers are plagued by the guilt of the mistreatment of their Joseph decades before. If you don’t remember or are unfamiliar with what happened, let me briefly summarize. Joseph was a born into a big family. But it was as dysfunctional as it was large. With 11 brothers from four different mothers (two of which family servants), there was a fair amount of sibling rivalry. And Joseph was the favorite. His father, Jacob, was not bashful about lavishing praise on his special son. This compounded until one day when Joseph went out to meet his brothers in the field, the brothers plotted to kill him. They stripped him, beat him, and threw him into a pit, leaving him for dead. After listening to reason, they decided instead of killing him they should turn a profit and sell him to some random human traffickers that happened to come by. Instead of telling their father what they did they covered his clothes with blood and said that an animal mauled him. Joseph went to Egypt, and Jacob, the father, grieved for years.
After their father Jacob’s death, they feared retribution. Perhaps they believed that their father’s presence prevented the heavy hand of justice from their brother Joseph. Now, with him gone, they are scared. We read as much in verse 15: “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.'”
You’ll notice they don’t dodge the heinousness of it. They call it what it is, “evil.” In verse 17 they call it “transgression,” “sin,” and, again, “evil.” They are not ducking this. It is precisely the heinousness of what they did that incites their fear of retaliation.
And so they want to get word to Jacob that their father had made a special request. We don’t know if Jacob did make such a request; we just don’t have a record of it.
They are so scared, they can’t even talk to him themselves. They have to send a messenger to him with this command: “Say to Joseph, ‘Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” (Gen. 50:17)
And then further, in verse 18, his brothers also came and fell before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.”
What is this? It’s the haunting fear of retribution. They feel it. It is real. They regret it.
Put yourself in their shoes. Have you ever felt this type of remorse? Have you done something like this to someone where you have felt so deeply contrite and remorseful? Their pleading is the number one priority of their lives. They even appeal to the merciful and covenant-keeping God of, notice, your father. They are asking Joseph to be like God and forgive them, if not for their sake, at least for his father’s and for God’s sake. Finally, they offer themselves as servants of Jacob. Enslave us. We’d rather be free from guilt and enslaved to you.
Perhaps you have never felt this type of remorse towards another person. Maybe you have been spared from this type of relational casualty.
But I do hope you have felt this type of desperation. I do hope you have entered into this type of pleading. I hope this not out of a twisted desire for your suffering but a biblical desire for your joy. I hope this because their pleading looks remarkably similar to the posture of the sinner before a holy God.
Isn’t this the type of pleading we do when God’s law makes us aware of our sin against him? Each and every person who names the name of Christ has, by necessity, come to a place when they have seen their sin. You have to have seen your transgressions to be evil. And not in some general sense, but in a particular sense. Like Joseph’s brothers, “because we did evil against you.” Our sin is primarily against God. And it is the highest evil because God is the highest good.
Have you ever cried out to God like this? Has the law of God done such work upon you that it humbled you to a pleading priority before God?
Like Gideon who flayed the skin of the Succoth with the thorns and briar bushes (Judges 8:16) so to the law of God flays our self-righteousness and gets right to the core of the heart issue.
Have you seen your sin in light of God’s law? There is no hope without this.
They are haunted by the looming cloud of retribution. Their only hope is to fall before their brother.
So, too, for us. With the looming cloud of just retribution, we fall before a just and holy God and plead for forgiveness. Thankfully, the brothers are met with grace. And, even more, we are thankful that we too are met with grace before God Almighty.
Under the lingering and haunting fear of retribution, those pleading for forgiveness are met with the refreshing aroma of grace! And, we often don’t see it coming. But, praise God it is true, “Where sin abounded; grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20).
Editor's Note: This originally published at The Gospel Coalition.