As a young man of about seventeen Joseph, son of Jacob, was hated by his older brothers (Genesis 37). They sold him into slavery, misleading their father to conclude Joseph was dead. After many difficulties as a slave and then, even worse, a prisoner, Joseph, by then 30 years old, after years of godly behavior in all circumstances, was suddenly elevated by the Pharaoh out of prison and into the position of governor over Egypt. When Joseph had faithfully served in that position through seven prosperous years, a famine began that would last seven more years, a famine Joseph had carefully prepared the land of Egypt for during his entire tenure as governor. The whole region, including Canaan, where Joseph’s brothers lived with his aged father, was affected. Food shortages compelled Joseph’s older brothers to come to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain to survive. After more than twenty years of separation, with drastic changes in Joseph’s status and appearance, the brothers did not recognize him, but he did recognize them. In their interviews with him, conducted through an interpreter, Joseph was moved to tears by the brothers’ comments to one another as they fretted about what they had done to both Joseph and their father decades earlier. They blamed each other for the misery they had caused and their lack of compassion for Joseph in his distress. Joseph “turned away from them and wept” (Genesis 42:21-24). Perhaps Joseph might have wept in his previous distress, when sold by his brothers, when he lived as a slave and a prisoner, but we have no statement in the scriptures about that. Only as a man of authority, on the occasion of hearing his brothers bare their guilty souls, fussing with one another about the evil they had done more than twenty years earlier, do we read that Joseph wept.
Not trusting his brothers on that occasion, after weeping privately, Joseph manipulated circumstances in order to force them to bring their youngest brother to him in Egypt, probably intending to protect Benjamin from the caprices of the men who had already betrayed one younger brother and their own father. Eventually, the brothers were compelled to do as Joseph directed and return to Egypt a second time to purchase food, bringing their youngest brother along. For the second time, Joseph dealt with them as though he were a stranger, speaking through an interpreter, but when he saw his younger brother once again, now a grown man, Joseph went aside and “he entered his chamber and wept there” (Genesis 43:29-30). Joseph wept.
When Joseph had seen his older brothers guiltily fussing among themselves over old wrongs, he wept in anguish. When Joseph saw his younger brother Benjamin he wept, apparently in relief and gladness. Shortly after this, Joseph contrived a situation that would force Benjamin to stay behind in Egypt as an apparent prisoner while the other brothers returned to Canaan. Joseph still didn’t trust his older brothers, or completely believe their story. As Joseph’s plan was carried out though, his older brothers begged him for mercy, not so much mercy for themselves this time as mercy for their old father in Canaan who was waiting for the safe return of his youngest son. Joseph’s brother Judah not only pleaded for mercy, he offered himself as a prisoner or slave to purchase freedom for Benjamin to return safely to Jacob. When the brothers were begging Joseph and voicing their genuine fear for their father’s fate, Joseph “could not control himself” and ordered everyone except his brothers out of the room. Then Joseph “wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it” and he made himself known to his brothers (Genesis 45:1-2). This third time Joseph wept, most likely an emotional dam twenty years in the making broke open, spilling out the loneliness he had endured mixed with relief and joy and understanding and gratitude. The circumstances of his life, all the misery and loss and unfairness and hardships despite his own fidelity came together into focus as he was able to have what for him was a genuine reunion with his family. For the ten older brothers, it was confusing and frightening. Joseph wept in thankfulness and gladness as he hugged and kissed each of his brothers and openly talked to them (Genesis 45:14-15), and again later he greeted his father the same way (Genesis 46:29). Joseph wept.
After Joseph wept in reconciliation with his brothers, he welcomed his whole family into Egypt, with assuring explanations of God’s providence and good outcomes despite their evil intentions and effusive forgiveness. Seventeen years passed with the family secure in Egypt (an ironic bookend – see Genesis 47:28, 37:2), and then their father Jacob died. When Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers had their doubts, old fears surged as they felt powerless and dependent on the brother they had wronged, not quite believing that Joseph truly forgave them. In fear they concocted a tale, telling Joseph that their father made a deathbed request for continued mercy and good will toward the older brothers (Genesis 50:15-17). When Joseph heard this message, once more “Joseph wept when they spoke to him.” This is grief again, not relief or gladness or reconciliation, but terrible disappointment that his brothers were still carrying around guilt and shame that he had honestly, in the sight of God, forgiven. He forgave them, but they were still doubtful and afraid. Joseph wept.
Being a godly man, Joseph forgave as God forgives, as Jesus forgives, as Christians are to forgive (Colossians 3:13). Seeing others trapped in guilt and fear made him weep. Foreshadowing the Redeemer, Joseph’s message to his brothers was “don’t be afraid” (Genesis 50:19-21) and he “comforted them and spoke kindly to them.” Joseph wept, and offered forgiveness, solace and reassurance to the fearful and doubters.