“But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’”
Read: Genesis 49:28-50:26
Devotion: The book of Genesis begins with God forming the creation and giving life to all of his creatures, and it ends with the deaths of two flawed but faithful saints named Jacob (Israel) and Joseph. Sandwiched between their two deaths is a small but extremely important exchange between Joseph and his brothers.
When Joseph was a young man, he was the clear favorite of his father, which made his brothers jealous. They let their jealousy fester until it had erupted into a complete hatred of Joseph—a hatred so strong that they planned to murder him. Thankfully, Reuben, the eldest brother, was not on board with the plot and was able to convince the rest of the brothers to throw Joseph into a pit instead. Though this doesn’t sound much better, Reuben’s hope was that he would be able to come back to the well later, rescue Joseph, and deliver him back shaken—but alive—to their father.
Things didn’t go according to Reuben’s plan, however. While Reuben was away, some traders passed by where the brothers and the pit were, and Judah had the brilliant idea of selling his younger brother to those traders for a small profit. This plan pleased the others, so they sold Joseph to a group of traders headed for Egpyt. There he would be falsely accused by his master’s wife and imprisoned for two years. But after interpreting Pharaoh’s dream, he would eventually become the second most powerful man in all of Egypt.
Years pass, and as Joseph correctly interpreted, a famine strikes the earth which causes Joseph’s brothers to travel to his doorstep, though they did not know that he was alive or that he was a powerful ruler in Egypt. After some wily testing by Joseph’s to discern the hearts of his brothers, he reveals his identity to them and they share a wonderful embrace, and they bring their father Jacob and their entire families to Egypt where they would be well taken care of. It’s a wonderful picture and story of God’s grace, providential care, and the restoration that occurs in a family that is rocked by grievous sin.
But when Israel finally dies, the brothers become concerned. “Now that dad is dead, will Joseph take vengeance on us for what we did” (Gen 50:15). Their logic isn’t flawed. The patriarch of the family is dead, they did cause tremendous physical and emotional harm to Joseph, and they currently live in a foreign country essentially ruled by Joseph. The brothers and their families are at Joseph’s mercy and, by worldly standards, Joseph has every right to avenge himself. “Kick them out of the country, Joseph! You don’t owe them anything! They don’t deserve mercy or love! Send the Egyptian army after them!” That’s what the brothers’ fear will happen, and in response to this fear they do a good thing covered in the shell of a bad thing.
They arrange a meeting with Joseph where they confess their sin against him and seek his forgiveness, but they wrap it up in a lie. They tell Joseph that before Jacob died, he told them to tell Joseph to forgive them (Gen 50:18). Joseph’s response to them isn’t one of anger, or vengeance. Usually, Bible teachers will focus on in Joseph’s response in verse 20, which reveals the sovereignty of God, even over evil acts. “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
However, what we want to focus on is verse 19: “But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’” He gives them words of comfort: “Do not fear.” Why shouldn’t they fear? Because Joseph is not in the place of God. Though Deuteronomy 32:35 has yet to be written (“Vengeance is mine, and recompense,”), nor the apostle Paul’s command, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (Rom 12:9), Joseph nevertheless understands the heart of these truths.
Maybe while Joseph was languishing in prison, he had similar prayers as many do when they suffer: “Lord, why has this happened to me?” Maybe he went through phases of anger toward his brothers: “If I ever see them again, we’ll see who gets thrown into a pit then.” And maybe those years of thinking about his life—God’s sovereignty and plan, God’s grace and provision in Joseph’s promotion through the Egyptian ranks—all crystallized when his brothers showed up on his doorstep, hungry and desperately looking for provision for the welfare of their families.
Instead of making up a story about a fake command to Joseph by their dead father, the brothers should have realized that if Joseph wanted vengeance, the perfect time to get it was during that first meeting when he held all the cards and knew nothing about their families and plight. It should have been obvious to them, but in Joseph’s question to them (“am I in the place of God?”), he tells them he trusts God’s judgment, faithfulness, and rule. Vengeance is God’s, not Joseph’s. If God wanted to punish Joseph’s brothers on earth for their sin against him, he would have done it. Instead, he saved them, and Joseph recognizes and trusts that judgment.
Do we likewise trust the Lord’s judgment? Do we trust his rule over his creation? Or do we try to take the place of God and seek vengeance on others for what they have done for us? Have faith in God, that if you truly need to be avenged, he will avenge you. And so, as Paul wrote, never avenge yourself, but “To the contrary, ‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21).
Discuss and Pray Together: Talk about why it is so hard for us to leave vengeance in the hands of God. What are some things that can help us to not seek vengeance when we are wronged? Finish by specifically praying for those in your lives whom you might consider right now to be your enemies.