Forgiveness, Reconciliation, and Grudges in the Joseph Story

Last week, I wrote about the beautiful symmetrical narrative elements in the story of Joseph forgiving his brothers.  The story is profound, however, in what it illuminates about forgiveness and reconciliation. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that this is the first place in the Bible where one human being forgives another.

Experts on the topic of forgiveness make distinctions that are useful for us in understanding the story. They make a distinction between unilateral forgiveness, bilateral forgiveness, and reconciliation. Forgiveness can be unilateral, i.e without any action on the part of a offender. We can decide on our own to forgive the other person, to let go of our anger, resentment, and perhaps hatred. Forgiveness however, can also be bilateral where both the offender and the victim are involved.

Joseph’s story may involve both unilateral and bilateral forgiveness. Over the years, Joseph may have unilaterally relinquished the cold emotion of unforgiveness as he came to realize God’s plan for him. However, the brothers’ behavior when he meets them many years later contributed to bilateral forgiveness. As the story unfolds, Joseph witnesses Judah and his brothers recognizing the wrongs they had committed; he hears them express out loud the harm they inflicted, “They said to one another, ‘Indeed we are guilty concerning our brother inasmuch as we saw his heartfelt anguish when he pleaded with us, and we paid no heed; that is why this anguish has come upon us’ “(Genesis 42:21-23).

When Judah asks to be enslaved in place of Benjamin, Joseph may hear a desire on Judah’s part for restitution, “So now let me remain as your slave in place of the lad. Let the lad go back with his brothers.” (Genesis: 44: 33)”.

Joseph’s belief that his brothers had changed may have contributed to the final stage of forgiveness, reconciliation. Reconciliation implies renewing a relationship. Not all transgressions that are forgiven result in reconciliation. Though a person may release his or her anger and hatred, trust may be so broken, that renewing a relationship is not seen in his or her best interest. The reverse may happen as well. A relationship is renewed, but the grudge still holds sway.

So common is lack of forgiveness, Dr. Roy Baumeister proposed a theory. He called it “grudge theory.” What value do people find in holding a grudge? Grudges allow one to nurse wounded pride. They allow one to hold something over the head of the person who has offended and perhaps get a concession from another. They may guard against being hurt again. They may be a reminder to the offender that they have compromised a moral transgression.

Joseph, however, goes to great lengths to convince his brothers that he does not bear a grudge. His brothers tried to obliterate him, and Joseph’s response is to sustain their lives.


Dr. Elayne Shapiro, Ph.D. is an associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of Portland and co- author with Dr. Carol Dempsey of Reading the Bible: Transforming Conflict published by Orbis Press.

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