The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 17 September 2023
A Sermon on Genesis 50:15-21 by Samuel D. Zumwalt, STS

Genesis 50:15-21 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles

15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” 16 So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: 17 ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? 20 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. 21 So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.


Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

A word before the Word. The Bible, as many others have said more eloquently, is a metanarrative. It is a grand overarching story explaining everything. When it is reduced to an almost random series of pericopes, as is the case with Old Testament readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, the Bible as one story can become like a pile of Legos turned into whatever the scholar or preacher intends with leftover pieces tossed aside as so much garbage. This is particularly true if reading with the Church across space and time is disdained from the outset as simply the hermeneutics of power. There is a reason creeds became necessary. God’s story is not ours!

The Blessing of Birth Order

Joseph was the eleventh of twelve brothers by four mothers and one father. As the oldest, late born son of Rachel, the favorite wife, and Israel, as Jacob was now known, Joseph was favored by his father and mother above the older ten. Ten sons, six from Rachel’s older sister Leah, two each from the maids Zilpah and Bilhah, were born before the LORD God opened Rachel’s womb. Yet, though Israel already had ten sons, it was Joseph who was his delight. It was Joseph to whom Israel gave the coat of many colors. It was Joseph to whom the LORD God gave dreams of what would be. His brothers despised Joseph precisely because he was Daddy’s favorite. Leah, the mother of six sons, despised her sister to whom her husband had first given his heart. We can only imagine what Zilpah and Bilhah thought. They were breeders and not wives.

When Genesis is read as a whole, as one story and the beginning of the metanarrative, God’s creation brings order out of chaos with intentional design. Male and female bodies are made for each other, so that they naturally become fruitful and multiply. Monogamy between a man and woman is good and right, and Genesis shows what happens when God’s creation and God’s design become the willy-nilly playthings of the creatures. Choosing other stories brings death. Sibling rivalry leads to murder. Sexual chaos leads almost to the extinction of every living thing. The desire to storm the heavens in a prideful attempt to make a name for themselves leads to the utter inability for humans to understand each other. The history of a new servant people begins with God’s call to an older couple from what is now Iraq. But the very human unwillingness to delay gratification while waiting on the LORD God leads to polygamy with all the sibling rivalry that must result from children having only one common parent and with parental favoritism.

Joseph, the late born son of a favorite wife, is blessed above the others but not without a curse.

The Curse of Birth Order

When you are one of ten older sons, and four aren’t even the sons of wives, the very sight of Joseph must have increasingly stoked dislike into murderous hatred. Each of the ten wanted his father’s love. Each loved his mother. Each had his own dreams beyond the death of parents. Each had to see with deep concern his future narrowing because Jacob loved Joseph more. If Daddy would give Joseph a coat of many colors, how much more would Joseph get when Daddy died?

Fathers and mothers warn daughters about being alone with a group of men. Fantasy and desire, when mixed with the alcohol- or drug-induced loss of inhibitions and the animalistic instinct of the pack, can lead to heartbreaking, unforgettable trauma and a lost sense of security. Scott Peck wrote about evil and its ability to turn a pack of men into murderers. Joseph’s brothers are more than characters in a psychological thriller. They are the face of the evil lurking in human hearts.

So, Joseph, whose whole life was one blessing upon another as the eleventh son and first born of Rachel, the favorite wife, suddenly discovered the curse of birth order. He had not chosen to be born eleventh. He had not chosen to be most loved by Jacob or the first born of Rachel. He was born into a story that was moving like a five-hundred-mile-an-hour freight train. So much had gone before that Joseph could not grasp or understand. He had not chosen his strange dreams. He seemed utterly unaware just how dangerous it was to be Joseph, the eleventh of Israel’s sons. He could not imagine what hatred his very existence and his very personality evoked in the ten.

Thrown into a pit. Sold into slavery. Presumed to be dead by his father. Success undone by an accusation of adultery. Then, jailed. Joseph had lonely hours to reflect on the curse of birth order.

The Grace of Birth Order

When his brothers came to Egypt begging to buy food, they had mostly forgotten Joseph. Regret for one’s past misdeeds grows with age, but Joseph was dead to them. They could not see that this powerful Egyptian was, in fact, the brother they had hated enough to throw away. They could not remember then or yet see Joseph’s strange dreams playing out before their eyes. Now, this was Joseph’s chance to get even. But instead he blesses them just as the very blessing the LORD God had promised Abram and Sarai that their descendants would be to all the nations. This is no prequel to The Godfather II where Michael has his jealous brother Fredo killed. Yet that is exactly what the older ten feared would happen when their common parent Israel died.

God’s strange mercy is underscored in today’s denouement of both Genesis and the Joseph saga. Joseph says, “… you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good….” Yes, the LORD God had chosen Joseph for this moment to be the one through whom God would bless the many. God chose Joseph for that moment, but it would be David, the descendant of Judah, the fourth of Leah’s sons, who would be Israel’s greatest king to whom the LORD God promised an everlasting dynasty (2 Samuel 7). Another Joseph, some 28 generations later, would be the legal father of God’s Son Jesus the Messiah (Matthew 1:1). At the end of Genesis, the first born of Rachel, was God’s instrument of blessing. But at this end of all the ages, it is the descendant of Leah’s fourth son, who is both blessing to all the nations of the earth and forever King and LORD.

Remember. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve and mercy not getting what we do deserve. So, Joseph comforted his brothers when they feared that revenge was a dish best served cold (as Sicilians often say). Instead, Joseph said to their fears, “Am I in the place of God?” Yes. Joseph reflected the grace and mercy of God in the forgiveness he offered to his brothers. Our Lord Jesus Christ is God in human flesh, a Hebrew descended from Abram and Sarai, a Judahite descended from Jacob, the King descended from David, and the only One who can be the true and eternal fulfillment of the blessing of birth order, the curse of birth order, and the grace of birth order. Born into our slavery to sin, death, and Satan, the Lord Jesus takes what was meant for evil, namely His death on the cross at the hands of us sinners, and brings eternal good beyond all imagining to all who receive Him in Holy Baptism through no effort or merit of our own.

Dear one, you may have sins of omission and commission that have haunted you for years… things done and left undone…things said and left unsaid… having chosen revenge on someone that hurt you. There may be sins that you have confessed generally in the public confession, in your private prayers, and even while kneeling at the altar, and yet, like Joseph’s older brothers, you have carried them always in fear of revenge or retribution. For such, the gift of private confession can finally convince you that Jesus Christ died even for the worst sins in your past.

Today, Holy Communion comforts troubled consciences as Joseph comforted his brothers and spoke kindly to them. For here, the Lord Jesus Christ, crucified for your sins and mine, offers the eternal life and love He has always shared with His Father and the Holy Spirit. He promises: “This is my Body. This is my Blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” Jesus means what He says. He delivers what He promises. The Lord Jesus, only begotten of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, and firstborn from the dead comforts troubled consciences, as only He can do, with the forgiveness of sins, eternal life, and salvation. Behold, He will make all things new at the last.

So, believe His promise is “for you.” Trust His promise is “for you.” Say to that devilish accusatory voice yammering in your ears: “I am baptized. I have a Savior, Jesus Christ, who died for me, and He has promised that I am His and that I will be His forever.”

Then, having received undeserved grace and mercy, share that comfort you have received.

In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

©Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Evangelical Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA

Bulletin insert

Holy Communion: Comforts


“O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 620-621).


Genesis 50:15 “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.”

Overview: “With Jacob gone, Joseph’s brothers have renewed cause for fear of him and beg to be his servants, which manifests the greatness of his virtue” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 12-50, 350).

Genesis 50:17 “… Joseph wept when they spoke to him.”

St. Ephrem the Syrian [4th century writer of devotional hymns]: “Do not be afraid of me, for although your father has died, the God of your father, on account of whom I will never strike you, is still alive. Because he turned the evil that you did to me to my good and he placed many people in my hands, God forbid that I do any evil to those who thus became the cause of life for many. But, just as I did not kill you in Egypt, do not leave my bones in Egypt” (350-351).

Genesis 50:18 “… also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’”

St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “See how great a thing virtue is, how powerful and invincible, and how profound the weakness of evil. I mean, look, the one who endured with suffering reigns as king whereas those who submitted their brother to such indignities beg to be slaves of the one given by them into servitude” (351).

Genesis 50:20 “…but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive,”

St. John Chrysostom: “Then to show how great is the favor he enjoys from God Joseph says, You acted against me with evil intent, but God turned everything to good for me. Hence Paul also said, ‘For those who love God all things work together for good. All things,’ he says. What is meant by ‘all things?’ Opposition and apparent disappointment – even these things are turned into good, which is exactly what happened with this remarkable man. In fact, what was done by his brothers had the particular effect of bringing him the kingship, thanks to the creative God’s wisdom transforming all their wickedness into good” (351).


1. Do I believe that my sins caused the death of Jesus?

2. Am I convinced that I actually receive Jesus at His table and He graciously comforts me?


The Ten Commandments


The Third Commandment

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy

What does this mean?

“We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it” (Luther’s Small Catechism).


• Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.

• Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.

• Commit yourself to the study of God’s Word at St. Matthew’s. New Sunday School classes for all ages begin this morning. The Crossways Bible Study continues this week with Unit 53 (of 60) on Wednesday at 6 p.m. and Thursday at 10 a.m. Newcomers and visitors welcome.

• Practice every day saying the third commandment and its explanation. Discuss with your family or a friend what God wants most of all when it comes to Sabbath keeping. How are you doing with that?

• Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. If you haven’t previously done so, please pick up a copy of the Portals of Prayer devotional booklet on the table in the narthex. Daily lectionary readings are on p.184 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Year One, Week of 16 Pentecost).

For Husbands and Wives

Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”