What does Genesis 45:3 mean?Finally, Joseph pulls himself together enough to say words he has been holding back. His estranged brothers (Genesis 37:24–28) have not recognized him through several extended encounters (Genesis 42:7–8). After Judah's impassioned speech (Genesis 44:18–34), he is ready to uncover the truth. After sending out everyone but his family (Genesis 45:1), it takes him a moment to control his intense reaction (Genesis 45:2).
At last, Joseph says something his brothers probably didn't understand at first: "I am Joseph!" This is quickly followed with an urgent question. "Is my father alive?" This is a poignant moment, as Judah had already claimed Jacob—their mutual father—was living. Joseph's question reveals that he is deeply interested in a conversation with his brothers. He is urgent to save Jacob after Judah had described the sorrow that would literally kill him.
As one might expect, Joseph's brothers cannot immediately answer. They are described using the Hebrew term nib'halu', meaning they are shocked and disturbed to the point they can't move or think. English words like "dumbfounded," "flabbergasted," and "staggered" carry similar meaning.
First, the reader needs to understand that it has been more than twenty years since these men last knowingly saw Joseph. At that time, he was a seventeen-year-old Hebrew shepherd (Genesis 37:1–2). The last time they saw him, he was begging not to be sold into slavery (Genesis 42:21). Now, Joseph is nearly 40 years old, dressed in Egyptian finery (Genesis 41:42), married to an Egyptian priestess (Genesis 41:45), and wielding immense power (Genesis 41:40). They never would have imagined this outcome.
Second, these men would immediately be terrified for their lives. The person they maliciously sold into slavery now commands an entire nation. Of Joseph's eleven brothers, only Benjamin was not involved in his enslavement. Those ten men already know they bear God's judgment for what they did (Genesis 42:21–23; 44:16). The most natural assumption would be that their lives are over: that Joseph is about to enact terrible revenge.
Fortunately for them, this has never been Joseph's intent. He will explain his perspective (Genesis 45:7–8) and detail his plans to care for his family (Genesis 45:10–11).