Justice and Mercy: Joseph and His Brothers

Week twelve: Genesis 42–50

Life is often unfair. Strangers and family members sometimes treat us dishonestly, maliciously, and angrily. How do we respond? What do we feel in our hearts towards these people? President Uchtdorf pointed out “Strained and broken relationships are as old as humankind itself. …Since those first days the spirit of envy and hatred has led to some of the most tragic stories in history. It turned Saul against David, the sons of Jacob against their brother Joseph, Laman and Lemuel against Nephi, and Amalickiah against Moroni….I imagine that every person on earth has been affected in some way by the destructive spirit of contention, resentment, and revenge. Perhaps there are even times when we recognize this spirit in ourselves.”[i]

In Genesis chapters 44 and 45, Joseph had been reunited with his brothers, but his brothers did not know who he was. Joseph’s family were starving in the land of Canaan, and they came to him for food as an Egyptian ruler. Joseph was their Savior, keeping them from future starvation and the death of the tribes of Israel. The meaning of Israel’s name, “God will prevail,” was illustrated by God’s preservation of His people, even during times of extreme adversity.

Justice would have been satisfied if Joseph sought to kill his brothers after they tried to kill him. Elder Boyd K. Packer taught: “Justice is usually pictured holding a set of scales and blindfolded against the possibility that she may be partial or become sympathetic. There is no sympathy in justice alone—only justice! Our lives will be weighed on the scales of justice…. The law of justice can be fully satisfied and mercy can be fully extended—but it takes someone else.”[ii]

Joseph went through this charade of keeping his identity secret, hiding his silver cup and his brothers’ money back in their sacks of grain and asking for his younger brother to come before him, while pretending that he would make his little brother a slave for a crime that Joseph orchestrated as a test to find out if he could trust his brothers. Interestingly, the cup is a symbol of the Savior’s last supper. In Jewish tradition, the silver cup of Joseph was called by him his “divine cup” which he would put to his ear to reveal secrets to him. [iii] His brothers were amazed that he knew who was oldest and who was youngest among them.

After finding his cup in Benjamin’s bag, Joseph commanded that Benjamin would become his bondsman, but the rest of the brothers could leave to go home to their father. Judah vouched for Benjamin offering his life in bondage for Benjamin’s. Judah tells Joseph the if Benjamin does not return with them, their father would die “seeing that his life is bound up in the lad’s life.”[iv] “Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord and let the lad go up with his brethren.”[v]

Joseph was overcome by Judah’s response. When he revealed his true identity, Joseph told his brother, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.”[vi] Joseph found mercy in his heart for his brothers rather than justice. President Monson taught: “There are those among us who torture themselves through their inability to show mercy and to forgive others some supposed offense or slight, however small it may be. At times the statement is made, “I never can forgive [this person or that person]. Such an attitude is destructive to an individual’s well-being. It can canker the soul and ruin one’s life.”[vii] In this story, we see the balance of justice and mercy being played out through Joseph, whom God directed so that he would become the Savior of Israel. Joseph acknowledged God as the director of his life and forgave his brothers. What a great example Joseph is for us to rely on God, forgive others, and seek for God’s mercy.  By focusing on the Savior and moving forward, we can each find a positive outcome no matter how terrible the beginning of our journey may be.

Through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, we can find mercy for our sins. Our Savior took our sins upon Himself. He was able to “answer the ends of the law”[viii] because He subjected Himself to the penalty that the law required for our sins and “satisfied the demands of justice.” As we follow Him, He will extend mercy to everyone who repents.[ix] And, as we grow closer to the Savior, we can show that same type of mercy to others and, through the atonement, forgive them even when it is difficult to do so.

[i] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “The Merciful Obtain Mercy,” GC April 2012.

[ii] Boyd K. Packer, The Mediator, GC April 1977.

[iii] Jacob Isaacs, The Brothers Return to Egypt, Chabad.org, https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/246628/jewish/The-Brothers-Return-to-Egypt.htm

[iv] Genesis 44:30

[v] Genesis 44:33

[vi] Genesis 45:5

[vii] Thomas S. Monson, Mercy, GC April 1995

[viii] 2 Nephi 2:7

[ix] See Mosiah 15:9; Alma 34:14-16; Justice – Gospel Topics

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