“Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh: ‘For God has made me forget all my toil and all of my father’s house.'” — Genesis 41:51(NKJV)
By the time Joseph had any sons to name, he had led rough life and suffered much injustice. It didn’t start out that way, of course. As the eldest son of his father’s favorite wife, Joseph became his father Jacob’s favorite son. He enjoyed such favor that his older brothers despised him. Then came the dreams, which earned a rebuke even from Jacob.
Why did Joseph stay home when Jacob sent the older sons out to take care of the cattle? Was Joseph too young for that work, or just another example of coddling a favorite? In any case, when Jacob sent Joseph to look after them and report back to him, they beat him up.
Most of them wanted to kill him, but Reuben, the eldest, already in trouble for sleeping with one of Jacob’s concubines, urged them to throw him into a pit instead. Reuben may have wanted to rescue him later, but Judah, figuring they might as well get some good out of the boy, persuaded the rest to sell him into slavery.
There is no need here to recount the story of Joseph’s diligence and faithfulness in slavery and how others took advantage of him until he came to Pharaoh’s attention. When he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and suggested that Pharaoh appoint leadership to plan for the coming years of plenty and years of famine, Pharaoh designated Joseph as his prime minister and gave him a wife.
Joseph had two sons, and named the firstborn Manasseh, which means “causing to forget.” God, he said, had caused him to forget both his slavery and his father’s house. But as the story unfolds from there, he obviously did not forget his father’s house or what his brothers had done to him. When they came for food, he recognized them immediately, and also recognized in their behavior the fulfillment of his youthful dream.
What, then, had he forgotten as he named his son? He forgot his pain, his anger, and his bitterness. Years later, his brothers were in his hand. He could have killed them. He did mess with their minds a bit, but he desperately wanted to see his father and younger brother again.
After Jacob’s death, the older brothers feared him, but he had forgiven them long before. Their nephew’s name could have served as a daily reminder that Joseph remembered what they had done, but forgotten how to be offended by it.