Long before Jesus wept in the land of promise, Joseph wept in the land of Egypt. The narrative arc of Joseph’s story in Genesis 37–50 unfolds with providence, sorrow, vindication, tears, and reconciliation.
The bare bones of the story are familiar: Joseph’s brothers sell him to traders who take him to Egypt (Gen. 37). He works for Potiphar and overcomes temptation from Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39). He goes to prison due to false accusations (Gen. 40). He rises in power and status when he interprets the Pharaoh’s dream (Gen. 41). And he encounters his estranged brothers when—unaware of his true identity—they approach him needing food (Gen. 42).
After postponing the revelation of his identity (Gen. 42–44), Joseph finally makes himself known in a moving reunion (Gen. 45). He calls for the family of his father to settle in Goshen so that they will survive the famine (Gen. 47), and there Jacob dies (Gen. 49–50). The reader is grieved in Genesis 37 when Joseph’s brothers conspire against him and deceive their father, yet the reader rejoices at the reunion of Joseph with his family.
But readers aren’t the only ones who feel emotions about these events. So does Joseph. In Genesis 37–50, there are seven scenes where Joseph weeps. As we read about Joseph’s emotions, they also stir our own.
Seven Scenes of Joseph Weeping
The biblical author doesn’t explicitly count the scenes of Joseph’s tears, yet we can number them as we note the statements about his weeping.
In the first scene, Joseph recognizes his brothers, though they don’t recognize him, and he instructs them to bring their youngest brother to Egypt (Gen. 42:8, 18–20). Thinking Joseph can’t understand them, they speak about what they’d plotted and covered up so many years ago. “Then he turned away from them and wept” (Gen. 42:24).
In the second scene, Joseph sees his brother Benjamin, who has just arrived in Egypt: “Then Joseph hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brother, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there” (Gen. 43:30).
As we read about Joseph’s emotions, they also stir our own.
In the third scene, Joseph prepares to reveal himself to his brothers. He orders everyone else to leave the room: “And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it” (Gen. 45:2).
In the fourth scene, a physical reunion takes place. Joseph explains God’s providence that has worked for his brothers’ deliverance: “Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. After that his brothers talked with him” (Gen. 45:14–15).
In the fifth scene, while Jacob’s father is journeying to Egypt, Joseph prepares a chariot to meet him. Then Joseph “presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while” (Gen. 46:29).
In the sixth scene, Jacob has died. His grieving son “fell on his father’s face and wept over him and kissed him” (Gen. 50:1).
In the seventh and final scene, Joseph’s brothers fear he will exact revenge upon them now that their father is dead. They share with some messengers a dying wish their father allegedly made, which the messengers then share with Joseph. And “Joseph wept when they spoke to him” (Gen. 50:17).
Joseph’s Chiastic Tears
When the reader counts these scenes, it’s significant that there aren’t six or eight but seven scenes of Joseph weeping. In the Bible, the use of seven is part of an author’s literary strategy. We can look more closely to see whether these seven scenes have an even more strategic design.
As the biblical author narrates the tearful scenes of Joseph, we can notice not only that the scenes are seven in number, but that they’re also chiastic in arrangement. A chiasm is a literary device that follows a pattern of: A, B, C, D, C, B, A.
Note that the first and last items match, the second and second-to-last items match, and so on. In this pattern, the middle item (D) is the unrepeated hinge and serves as the heart of the chiasm.
The scenes are not only seven in number, but also chiastic in arrangement.
Here’s how that looks in the Joseph narrative. In the first and seventh scenes (A), Joseph’s weeping takes place apart from his brothers (Gen. 42:24; 50:17). In both places his weeping is preceded by his brothers talking about the wicked deed they’d committed against him, and whether a reckoning would come (42:21–22; 50:15–17).
In the second and sixth scenes (B), Joseph’s weeping is prompted by one person in particular—by Benjamin in 43:30 and by Jacob in 50:1. Right before these verses, we learn in 43:28 that Jacob is alive, and in 50:1 that Jacob has died.
In the third and fifth scenes (C), Joseph’s weeping occurs as he presents himself to people from whom he’s been relationally separated—to his brothers in 45:2 and to Jacob in 46:29. In each scene there is language about Joseph’s father being alive (Gen. 45:3; 46:29).
In the fourth and central of the seven scenes (D), Joseph weeps as he reunites with his brothers both physically and emotionally. Highlighting the importance of this scene is the report that Joseph wept first on Benjamin (45:14) and then on his other brothers (45:15)—two acts of weeping in the same scene.
Fitting Central Scene
Isn’t it fitting that the central scene involves Joseph and his brothers with no space between them as they embrace and weep together? The central scene—the heart of all Joseph’s tears—is reconciliation.
There in the land of Egypt, far away from Canaan and the paths of his ancestors, the alienated Hebrew son and sibling found the embrace of those who had once stripped him of his robe and cast him into a cistern. A rush of emotion is what you’d expect.