Did Joseph’s brothers ever own up to their father about the crime they committed against their younger brother?


After Jacob’s passing, the brothers feared that Joseph would now take the opportunity to punish them for their misconduct. We read in Genesis (50:15-17):

Now Joseph's brothers saw that their father had died, and they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us and return to us all the evil that we did to him.” So they commanded [messengers to go] to Joseph, to say, “Your father commanded [us] before his death, saying, ‘So shall you say to Joseph, “Please, forgive now your brothers’ transgression and their sin, for they did evil to you.’ Now please forgive the transgression of the servants of the G‑d of your father.”

The Talmudic Sages teach that the brothers “altered the facts for the sake of peace.” In truth, Jacob had not left Joseph any such message.1

Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, known as Nachmanides, deduced from this episode that Jacob did not know that the brothers had sold Joseph. For if so, the brothers would have implored their father to speak to Joseph (before his death), and presumably Jacob would have done so in person.2

On the other hand, the classic commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, indicates that Jacob did suspect the truth, "They altered the facts for the sake of peace, as Jacob did not command so, since Joseph was not suspect in his eyes," implying that Jacob knew or suspected what the brothers had done, yet he did not fear that Joseph would seek revenge, knowing his good nature.

In Jacob's blessings to his sons, he said of Simon and Levi, ringleaders in the crime against Joseph (Genesis 49:6):

For in their wrath they killed a man, and with their will they hamstrung an ox.3

Rashi explains that the first phrase refers to the incident of “Shechem,”4 when the two killed off an entire community of men, and the second refers to the selling of Joseph.

Further, in Jacob's blessing to Joseph, he states (ibid 49:23):

They heaped bitterness upon him and became quarrelsome; yea, archers despised him.

Rashi interprets “they” as Joseph's brothers and Potiphar and his wife.

It is logical to assume that the brothers did not confess to their father. While they acknowledged their wrong-doings and repented, telling the truth to Jacob would only have caused him much heartache.

Did Joseph inform on his brothers?

In the Midrash, our sages point out that a messenger had to tell Joseph (Genesis 48:1), “Behold, your father is ill.” Joseph did not know about his father’s illness since he refrained from visiting too often, fearing that while they were alone Jacob would ask probing questions about Joseph's kidnapping, forcing him to tell his father the truth.5

Although Joseph had been severely wronged by his brothers, he forgave them wholeheartedly (Genesis 50:20):

Indeed, you intended evil against me, [but] G‑d designed it for good, in order to bring about what is at present to keep a great populace alive. So now do not fear. I will sustain you and your small children.” And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.

See Joseph and His Brothers: A Rift Extending Across History from our selection on Joseph and his Brothers.