After a delay while I wrote a dialogue for Passover and addressed some family issues, I am back at work on my book on Genesis this week, considering the moral ramifications of Joseph’s version of pardoning his ten older brothers.
Joseph’s brothers make two attempts to get Joseph to forgive them for their shameful misdeed when he was seventeen and they sold him as a slave bound for Egypt. The second attempt happens in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.
Since their first attempt failed (see my recent post Testifying to Divine Providence )1 they try a ploy that they hope will be more persuasive; they pretend that before their father, Jacob, died, he left the following message for Joseph:
“Please sa, please, the rebellion of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you. And now sa, please, the rebellion of the servants of the god of your father.” (Genesis/Bereishit 50:17)
sa (שָׂא) = lift up! pardon! forgive! (From the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא= lifted, raised, pardoned.)
Are they asking Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s viceroy, to pardon them, or to forgive them? In English, pardoning means excusing someone who committed an error or offense from some of the usual practical consequences. A United States president can pardon someone who was convicted of a crime, commuting that person’s sentence, without having to list any extenuating circumstances. And the president’s feelings about the offender are irrelevant.
Forgiving, on the other hand, means letting go of one’s resentment against the person who committed an error or offense.
Biblical Hebrew, however, makes no distinction between pardoning and forgiving; it only distinguishes who is doing it. Soleach (סֺלֵחַ) means “forgiving” or “pardoning”, but it is only used in the Hebrew Bible when God is forgiving or pardoning one or more human beings.
Nosei (נֺשֵׂא) has several meanings, including pardoning, and it is something either God or a human can do. When God or a human is pardoning someone in the Hebrew Bible, the text says either nosei their head, nosei their face, or just nosei. The reader has to figure out from context whether it is a reference to forgiving/pardoning, or to one of the other meanings of nosei (such as taking a census for nosei their head, bestowing favor for nosei their face, or lifting and carrying an object for nosei by itself).
After Jacob dies, Joseph’s older brothers worry that Joseph might decide to take revenge on them after all. They are still carrying guilt in their kidneys.
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, discusses burning the kidneys of an animal slaughtered on the altar. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, human kidneys are the seat of the conscience or moral sense. (See my post on the subject by clicking here: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.) For example, Psalm 16 recognizes the kidneys as the source of a guilty conscience.
I bless God, who has advised me;
Even the nights my kidneys chastised me. (Psalm 16:7)
When your kidneys chastise you for wronging another human being, you long for your victim to lift your face in forgiveness.
- Genesis 45:4-8.