Hoping for Hate
To assuage their guilt, Joseph's brothers might hope Joseph takes revenge for their sins against him.
This week's portion, Vayekhi, focuses on the events surrounding Jacob's death. As he realizes he is dying, Jacob calls to his sons and blesses them (although some of the "blessings" are mostly recriminations) and instructs them to bury him in the grave of his fathers. After Jacob's death, Joseph's brothers fear that Joseph will now avenge their earlier mistreatment of him. They send a message to Joseph saying that their father Jacob had requested that Joseph forgive his brothers' sins.
There is a syntactical irregularity in the verse that records this exchange: "And Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, 'Lest (lu
) Joseph will hate us and repay us all of the evil that we have done him.' And they sent to Joseph saying, 'Your father commanded before his death...'" (Genesis 50:15-16).
The medieval commentator Rashi notes that elsewhere in the Bible, the word "lu" always means either "if only" or "perhaps." Here, though, "lu" must mean "lest." Otherwise, the verse would read, "If only Joseph would hate us," and surely Joseph's brothers do not want him to hate them. They go to great lengths to convince Joseph that their father had asked for forgiveness for them.
An alternate reading of the verses, though, could suggest that the brothers are feeling conflicted. Certainly, a part of them wants good treatment and absolution from Joseph. I would argue, though, that another part of them wants Joseph to hate them. In order to understand how this could be, we must look back at the history of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers.
In Chapter 37, overcome by jealousy and rage, the brothers throw Joseph into a pit and sell him as a slave. The brothers return home to face their father's tormented anguish over the loss of Joseph, and for 22 years they walk around with a crippling burden of guilt.
Their abuse of Joseph weighs heavily on them, and they interpreted even apparently unrelated events through the lens of their culpability. When the viceroy of Egypt--a disguised Joseph--treats them harshly and accuses them of spying, the brothers begin to talk about their home life and about the brother who is missing.
When the viceroy imprisons Simon, the brothers say to each other, "But we are guilty about our brother [Joseph] as we saw the suffering of his soul as he called out to us and we did not listen, this is why this trouble has [now] come upon us" (Genesis 42:21). Their blood guilt lies right beneath the surface of their consciousness, and at the slightest pricking it comes pouring out.