When Joseph was seventeen, his ten brothers, motivated by envy and resentment, captured him, considered killing him, and ultimately sold him into slavery. They lied to their father, Jacob, leading him to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. In doing this, they conspired and carried out a great evil against their brother and father.
About twenty years later their sinful actions began to be uncovered when they went to Egypt to acquire food and unknowingly encountered Joseph, then Governor of the land. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. As the powerful ruler under Pharaoh, he could have dealt vengefully against them, but he did not. Analyzing his actions and what followed, we can see a pattern that discloses how God’s justice can work among humans who submit to him, and that justice can result in reconciliation between humans who have struggled with adversity in their relationships.
Considering Man’s Justice
Before we look into Joseph’s real actions, let’s consider what Joseph could have done as a human living in a humanly-governed world. Soon after he encountered his ten brothers, he could have confronted them for selling him into slavery, using his authority to impose a sentence on them – perhaps enslaving them, or even worse, punishing them ultimately to death.
In addition, he could have exposed their actions to their father Jacob, who could have imposed his own humanly-inspired penalty upon them for their evil against their brother and deceit of their father.
Neither of these occurred. Instead, Joseph, not feeling vengeful toward his brothers, took a different approach.
Without Hostility, Joseph Confronted His Brothers
Joseph’s actions toward his brothers involved no hostility. First, he kept his identity secret. He deliberately chose to act as if he did not know them, speaking to them through a translator, concealing his knowledge of their language. To put them on the defense so that he could wisely work with them, he accused them of being spies, although he knew that they weren’t. This went on for a while.
In the meantime, the brothers found that their efforts to acquire food resulted in some unforeseen outcomes; they received the food but were frustrated in the requirements imposed upon them, requirements that worked to remind them of their evil deeds in the past. Joseph’s careful and somewhat cagey method of confrontation worked with other conditions – notably Jacob’s demands – to force them to reconsider the guilt that increasingly haunted them.
Joseph Deferred Justice to God
He refrained from imposing judgment on them, and by doing so, left judgment to God. The narrative in Genesis does not say that Joseph was leaving vengeance to God for repayment, but in effect, that is what he did. Of course, God was fully aware of the evil actions of the ten brothers but seemed, at this point, to have withheld doing anything about them until that dreaded moment when the brothers became convinced that their sins had found them out.
Joseph Forgave His Brothers
At the moment that they were at his mercy, Joseph’s behavior showed no intent to repay his brothers for their actions, and he did not speak about them until they humbly brought them to his attention. His actions and words convey an attitude of forgiveness from his heart.
As a result of Joseph’s non-hostile, wisely-confrontational, non-judgmental, non-vengeful, and forgiving actions, as well as the circumstances explained in the story – circumstances that seem to be Providential – the ten brothers were convicted in their hearts of their evil actions and showed genuine remorse. When Joseph made plain his forgiveness, the family started a process that became full reconciliation.