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Joseph’s reunion with his brothers
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 1-5
When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.”
Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also.
Sin is a great wrecker, a fact often lost sight of in an age when most people have an easy conscience about sin. For 20 years Joseph’s brothers had lived with the knowledge that they had sinned—against God, against their father, against their brother. Over the years they had tried to dismiss the memory of their sin, perhaps by rationalizations (“What’s done is done; we can’t bring Joseph back”), perhaps by busying themselves with the nuts and bolts of making a living. To the casual observer, it might have seemed that their crime against their brother was a thing of the past.
But one can’t get rid of sin that easily. Sin is a wrecker. It had destroyed the relationship between the brothers and Joseph; it had destroyed a father’s happiness over his children. Worst of all, the brothers’ sin had destroyed the father-child relationship between them and God. Over the years they may have tried to forget, but God had not forgotten. The next four chapters of Genesis provide a detailed account of God’s persistent—and successful—efforts to lead the brothers to repentance and reconciliation with Joseph and with God.
Father Jacob had learned, perhaps from friends, that foreigners were permitted to purchase food in Egypt. The family’s supplies must have been running low, because Jacob asked his older sons to travel to Egypt for food, “so that we may live and not die” of starvation.
Jacob did not send Benjamin with his brothers. Benjamin, Rachel’s second son, was now the special object of Jacob’s love, and the aged father “was afraid that harm might come to him.” Perhaps Jacob told himself, “Twenty years ago I sent Joseph on a trip to Shechem to visit his brothers, and I’ve regretted it ever since.” That had been a trip of only 50 miles, a trip of only a few days, and it had proved disastrous. A trip to Egypt was over three hundred miles; it would take weeks. The danger was too great for Jacob to let Benjamin go.
From Hebron the best route south would have been along the Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, which followed the Mediterranean shoreline all the way to Egypt. “Israel’s sons,” sons of the covenant bearer, joined others from Canaan who were making the same trip for the same reason, since God had permitted the famine to spread into other areas of the eastern Mediterranean. The brothers’ chief concern on the trip was food for the family. But God had other concerns. These sons of the covenant had grown indifferent to the blessings that went with being members of that special family. If they were not to lose these blessings completely, God had some work to do on their hearts, and Joseph would be his instrument.
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 6-9
Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”
Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
Perhaps Joseph knew that eventually his brothers would have to come to Egypt to replenish their food supplies. Since Joseph was “the governor of the land,” he could not be present at each grain transaction. Perhaps he had asked his salespeople to notify him of any prospective buyers from Hebron, in Canaan. When the brothers finally did arrive, we might imagine the clerk asking them to wait while he notified Joseph. By whatever means, Joseph was present to deal personally with his ten brothers.
With the customary Near East sign of respect, they bowed with faces to the ground in front of this Egyptian official. Joseph’s thoughts immediately ran back to his dreams (about his brothers’ sheaves bowing down before his and the sun, moon, and 11 stars bowing before him, Chapter 37, verses 5-9). He recognized that God had just fulfilled those dreams before his own eyes.
But he realized as well that God had some more work that needed to be done on those brothers. Their consciences needed to be awakened. Before he could identify himself to his brothers and assure them of his forgiveness and his goodwill, he had to learn whether they had repented. For Joseph the important consideration was not where his brothers stood with him, but where they stood with God.
Joseph therefore “pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them.” It had to be that way. Before the surgeon can remove the cancer that threatens the patient’s life, he has to cut deep; he has to wound the patient. Joseph himself would have liked nothing better than to throw his arms around his brothers, but that would have interfered with God’s higher and better plans for them.
The brothers did not recognize Joseph, and this is understandable. He was the last person they expected to meet. Remember too that more than 20 years had passed since they’d last seen him, a frightened 17-year-old stripped of his robe, pale with fear as he was led off into slavery. Now they saw a 37-year- old Egyptian official apparently suspicious of their motives. The fact that Joseph spoke to them through an interpreter in a language they could not understand heightened the illusion.
“You are spies!” They couldn’t believe their ears. “Why would so many of you have to come down to buy food for one family?” Historically Egypt’s greatest danger of invasion had been from the north, the direction from which the brothers had come. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.” The extended famine might have prompted Egypt’s military leaders to pull back some of their defense forces from remote areas, perhaps on the fringe of the Sinai Desert, and station them closer to food storage areas.
There may have been irony in Joseph’s charge. Two decades earlier his brothers had considered him a spy sent by their father to check up on them and report back; now the same accusation was directed at them. Joseph’s charge was unjustified, and it stung the brothers. Shortly they were going to have plenty of time—three days—to reflect on how unfairly they had once treated Joseph.
Genesis Chapter 42, verse 10-17
“No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”
“No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
But they replied, “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.”
Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” And he put them all in custody for three days.
The brothers continued to plead their innocence, but the only answer they got from the stern-faced Egyptian was “I don’t believe you!” They had once refused to listen to the tearful pleading of a younger brother; now somebody who held the upper hand over them would not listen to their pleas.
By repeating his accusation and offering them repeated opportunities to defend themselves, Joseph was hoping to learn more about his father and his brother Benjamin. “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father.” So Father is still alive! And Benjamin too!” “. . . and one is no more.” So their consciences hadn’t let them forget. But had they confessed their action as a sin against God and man? And did they still harbor resentment against
the sons of Rachel, Jacob’s favored wife?
Joseph devised a simple test. One of the brothers would be sent home to bring Benjamin to Egypt. And to make sure he would return, the remaining brothers would be confined to prison. If Benjamin did not come, Joseph would know they were spies. To add a note of realism to his proposal and to underscore the seriousness of the situation, Joseph packed them all off into prison for three days. The bewildered brothers had time to think back to the awful treatment they had given their brother. They wondered, just as Joseph had, what was going to happen to them. This was harsh treatment, God’s shock treatment, to bring them to acknowledge their guilt before God and to repent of it.
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 18-24
On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” This they proceeded to do.
They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.
He turned away from them and began to weep, but then turned back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.
Three days later the brothers were led out of prison and, expecting the worst, were again brought before the Egyptian governor. “I fear God,” he announced. In other words: “You’re not dealing with a tyrant. I will not condemn you merely on suspicion of guilt. And I have reduced the demand I made of you three days ago. Instead of imprisoning all of you except one, I’ll have only one of you stay in prison, while the rest may go home to get your brother.
“But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die.” The implication was clear. “If you don’t wish to do this, the case is closed. We will deal with you as we do in this country with spies.” Even though Joseph knew what heartache his demand would cause his father, Jacob, Joseph had to see how they reacted to Benjamin.
Just coming off of three days in prison, and then hearing talk about a possible death sentence, the brothers bared their hearts to one another, not knowing that the stern Egyptian was understanding every word they spoke. “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We are bearing the consequences of our guilt.” Their consciences, long silent, were speaking now.
Joseph must have been happy to recognize that his efforts to help his brothers confront their sin were beginning to bear fruit. Reuben’s statement, “We must give an accounting for his blood,” shows he knew their present misery came from God, who held them accountable for a crime that in his eyes was the same as murder.
When Joseph heard this, he had to leave the room. His emotions overwhelmed him, and tears flooded his eyes. After regaining his composure, he returned and singled out Simeon. Simeon had been one of the ringleaders in the plot against the Shechemites (Chapter 34, verse 25). Had he also spearheaded the plot against his 17-year-old brother? Before their eyes Joseph had Simeon bound and led off to prison, to make sure the brothers would return with Benjamin.
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 25-28
Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man’s silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left. At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. “My silver has been returned,” he said to his brothers. “Here it is in my sack.” Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, “What is this that God has done to us?”
Joseph then issued two unusual orders to his salespeople. After the brothers’ sacks had been filled with grain, each man’s payment in silver was to be replaced in his sack. In addition, the brothers were to be given provisions for their long journey home. Joseph didn’t want them opening their sacks and finding their silver until a good portion of the return trip was behind them. Returning their silver seems to have been intended to keep the brothers bewildered, to strengthen their conviction: “There are things going on here that are not normal.” Joseph’s action may have also been intended to send a signal to the father that the Egyptian with whom the brothers were dealing did, after all, have a heart for the family.
It must have been with a feeling of relief that the brothers, a subdued lot, left Egypt. At the end of the day, they stopped off at one of the inns along the Via Maris. One man opened his sack to get feed for his donkey and found—his silver! The brothers could only look at each other and ask, “What is this that God has done to us?”
The name they used for God was an appropriate one. He is the Almighty, who as our Creator is also our Master and who doesn’t like it when his creatures tweak his nose, as it were. With their question the brothers were not only admitting that God exists; they were admitting that God was the author of everything that had happened to them. We will learn later that they were so frightened that the other brothers didn’t dare open their sacks for fear of what they might find.
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 29-34
When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them. They said, “The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies. We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.’ “Then the man who is lord over the land said to us, ‘This is how I will know whether you are honest men: Leave one of your brothers here with me, and take food for your starving households and go. But bring your youngest brother to me so I will know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I will give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the land.’”
It was a sober-faced group that perhaps ten days later reached Hebron and reported to Jacob their unbelievable experiences in Egypt. And it was a grim-faced father who noticed that Simeon was missing and who learned the Egyptian governor had demanded that Benjamin accompany them the next time down.
We miss something in the brothers’ report to their father. Although they had admitted their guilt to one another (verses 21 and 22) and although they recognized the hand of God in their predicament (verse 28), they were not ready to confess their sin to their father (verse 32).
Genesis Chapter 42, verses 35-38
As they were emptying their sacks, there in each man’s sack was his pouch of silver! When they and their father saw the money pouches, they were frightened. Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!”
Then Reuben said to his father, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.”
But Jacob said, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow.”
As the men were emptying their sacks of grain, each man found in his sack the purchase price in silver. Now they had additional reason to dread the return trip to Egypt. If they brought Benjamin with them, the Egyptian governor would know they were not spies. But now he could charge them with being thieves, and they would once again be at his mercy. The money pouches they held in their hands brought them as little satisfaction as the 20 silver pieces they had once received for selling their brother. Sin is a great wrecker.
Father Jacob was thoroughly dismayed by the report his sons brought back. From his words we can see once again the intensity of the love Jacob had toward Rachel and her two sons. Although two decades had elapsed since Joseph had been taken from him, Jacob still felt that loss deeply. That wound had not healed. His life had not been the same ever since. And if, in addition, Benjamin were now taken from him, he would not be able to bear up under it. He would die of grief.
The offer Reuben made to his father is not impressive. He apparently felt that he, the oldest, ought to be the first to try to persuade Jacob to let Benjamin accompany them on the next trip to Egypt. Jacob simply ignored the offer. Could the senseless killing of two of his grandchildren compensate a grieving father for the loss of his favorite son?
The way God dealt with the ten brothers is the way he deals with his erring children today. The curse announced by God’s law still frightens people, producing sorrow over sin, which is the necessary first step of true repentance. The hard words the brothers heard from Joseph, the accusation of being spies, their three-day stay in prison, Simeon’s continuing imprisonment these were not evidences of God’s anger raging against them but of his determination to convince them that the path they were following was leading them to certain destruction. Joseph was not playing God with his brothers. He was the Lord’s messenger there to transmit the harsh message of God’s holy law. When it became clear that the brothers were listening to this preliminary message and that the law of God had done its preliminary work, then God would let them hear another message—again through Joseph. Joseph’s arms around them would assure them of his forgiveness and God’s. True repentance, then, is first feeling the terror of God’s anger over sin and, second, trusting his offer of full forgiveness, all for the sake of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.