16 And they sent a messenger unto Joseph, saying, Thy father did command before he died, saying, 17 So shall ye say unto Joseph, Forgive, I pray thee now, the trespass of thy brethren, and their sin; for they did unto thee evil: and now, we pray thee, forgive the trespass of the servants of the God of thy father. And Joseph wept when they spake unto him. 18 And his brethren also went and fell down before his face; and they said, Behold, we be thy servants.
Joseph’s brothers still did not believe that he had truly forgiven them, and they were afraid that he would take his vengeance upon them now that Jacob was out of the picture. In this they show a lack of faith, but it is worth noting that they have at least improved from the men that they were before.
Earlier they had felt threatened by Joseph, specifically by their father’s favoritism of him and his visions, and at that time their response was to try and destroy him. Another time they had felt insulted by the people of Shechem and had destroyed the men of that land. Today, though, there is no violence in them whatsoever. Today they are willing to humble themselves, fall before Joseph’s face, and beg for mercy instead. There is faith to believe in the forgiveness that we have been given, but lacking that there is at least the faith to ask for it.
What of their claim that before Jacob died he expressed that Joseph should forgive them? If they mean that Jacob said this only to them, intending for them to convey the message secondhand to Joseph, that seems highly suspect. We know that Jacob met Joseph shortly before his death, to bless him and his sons, so why would he not have just told Joseph his wishes directly then? This claim of theirs seems entirely made up.
Unless, of course, they mean that Jacob did express such a wish at that final gathering, with all the brothers including Joseph hearing it, in which case the brothers are simply reminding Joseph of that request. In either case, the fact that the brothers are invoking these wishes of Jacob, whether real or fabricated, supports my theory that Jacob was at some point made fully aware of how Joseph’s brothers had sold him into Egypt.
As for Joseph, he is moved to tears by their pathetic plea. Those tears are not explained, but they could be tears of pity for his brothers’ fear, or perhaps tears of frustration that they still think they have to fear in the first place.