Friday, December 21, 2012

Why does Joseph Forgive his Brothers?

This is the first of a series of posts on the portion of the Bible that Jews read weekly in synagogue.

This week is Vayigash, in which Joseph famously forgives his brothers. The basic story: Joseph, the arrogant favorite son, is cast into a pit by his eleven envious brothers, whence he's snatched by Midianite traders and sold into slavery in Egypt. Joseph, though, ascends to power in Egypt and ends up saving the kingdom from famine by means of an ingenious food-storage scheme. The brothers are later forced by famine to go to Egypt to find bread, where they find themselves at the mercy of an imperious Egyptian vizier. This vizier turns out to be Joseph, who explains that he's not angry at them; that, in fact, since he had the opportunity to save so many Egyptian lives, it's for the best that they hurled him into the pit.

This story is often presented as the paradigm of forgiveness: Joseph, having been left for dead by his brothers, finds the humanity not to have them cruelly and unusually punished. Nor, we learn, does he forgive them out of calculating deference to their father Jacob: there's no Godfather-type vengeance after Jacob's death. So it seems like this is an excellent example of humane and unadulterated forgiveness. But on a closer look, that's not what's going on here.

The ingredients of forgiveness as we ordinarily understand it are a) an accusation of wrongdoing and b) a release from hard feelings in spite of that wrongdoing. The classic example is God's forgiveness of sin: a Jew or Christian, before his sin is forgiven, needs to acknowledge the badness of that sin before being absolved in spite of that badness.

But this is the opposite case. Joseph doesn't forgive his brothers in spite of their wrongdoing: at least ostensibly, he forgives them because of it. The crucial verse (Gen. 45:5) is this:

וְעַתָּה אַל-תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל-יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם כִּי-מְכַרְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה: כִּי לְמִחְיָה שְׁלָחַנִי אֱלֹהִים לִפְנֵיכֶם

Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.


In other words, Joseph absolves his brothers because their wrongdoing gave him the opportunity to save human life. The brother's being absolved, then, comes not from unconditional love but from the happy result of their actions. So Joseph cannot in fact forgive his brothers, because there is nothing to forgive. They did nothing wrong that caused any real harm.

File:Joseph Forgives His Brothers.jpg
Don't be deceived!

I can think of two explanations for Joseph's faux-forgiveness. First, he is genuinely glad that God caused his abandonment and enslavement; so glad, in fact, that he doesn't even begrudge his brothers' betrayal in the slightest. I shouldn't speak for Joseph, but this seems to me unlikely. Even if it was for the best, it's hard to imagine Joseph's having no hard feelings whatsoever against his brothers.

Second, and I think more likely, Joseph actually forgives his brothers in the classical sense but covers it up with his consequentialist explanation. Though it seems strange, we actually do this all the time: "Don't worry that you kept me waiting! You gave me an opportunity to read some Plato." Or: "Thanks for breaking my vacuum cleaner! I had been meaning to replace it for a long time." We engage in this kind of cover-up for two reasons. First, there's a suspicion that we won't be trusted if we simply say that we forgive the other person. Because everyone is cynical, we feel compelled to provide an explanation for our benevolent behavior beyond simple human goodness. Second, it puts a person in an awkward position to accuse him of wrongdoing, even if we forgive him of it. So Joseph's pseudo-forgiveness may actually be a mask of real forgiveness.

Either way, it's clear that on the surface, Joseph cannot be said to forgive his brothers in the common sense of the word.

By the way, a much better example of forgiveness comes earlier in Genesis, when Esau forgives Jacob for robbing him of the birthright and of their father's blessing. Esau doesn't claim that anyone was better off because of Jacob and Rebecca's deceit. But he openly forgives his brother, because he loves him.