Genesis 42

Joseph’s dreams literally come true.  The famine he predicted comes to pass and is so severe his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain.  Their coming means Joseph sees them for the first time in over 20 years and his position causes them to bow down before him – just as the dreams said would happen.  That they don’t recognize him allows Joseph to test his brothers and see if anything has changed in the last two decades.  Chapter 42 is the story of the long lost and betrayed brother suddenly having complete control over the lives of his betrayers.  The interaction tells us much about how God has dealt with both sides of the transaction that brought Joseph to Egypt.

The famine is severe enough that it affects Canaan as well as Egypt.  Jacob sees that his family is about to run out of food and sees also that no one is doing anything about it.  His sons are either indifferent to or paralyzed by the situation.  So Jacob says to them, “Why are you staring at one another?”  He tells them he’s heard that Egypt has food, so they should go there and buy grain.

It could be that the brothers haven’t addressed the food shortage because it means a trip to Egypt.  Perhaps what they did to Joseph makes Egypt off-limits in their mind.  It’s not likely that they’ll run into him, but perhaps they don’t like even going near the place where they sent their brother into slavery.  Later we’ll see that their betrayal isn’t far from their minds – even after 20+ years.

Jacob tells them to go but doesn’t allow Benjamin to accompany them.  He’s afraid something might happen to the last son of Rachel.  As always, Jacob doesn’t hide who he loves the most.  He doesn’t want anything to happen to any of his sons, but the ten sons of Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah are definitely more expendable than Benjamin.

The brothers get to Egypt and are brought to Joseph.  The text says that he is the one who sells to all the people of the land.  Whether or not he sees all the foreigners who come to buy grain is difficult to know, but perhaps the size of the group from Canaan means they see Joseph personally.

Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers.  His brothers, however, don’t recognize him.  Verse 7 says he disguises himself, but it’s also been over 20 years since they’ve seen him and they obviously don’t expect him to be ruling in Egypt.  He also has an Egyptian name and he’s likely dressed as an Egyptian (and probably walks like one) and – as verse 23 will tell us – he speaks Egyptian when he talks to them.  All this to say, it’s not surprising that they don’t recognize him.

When the brothers come into Joseph they bow before him.  This immediately makes Joseph remember his dreams.  The message God sent to him in the first dream so long ago has finally come to pass.

Joseph speaks to them harshly and asks where they’re from and what they want.  When they reply that they’re from Canaan and just want to buy food, he accuses them of being spies.  They explain that they aren’t spies but brothers.  They call themselves honest men – the text doesn’t say whether Joseph has a coughing fit when they say this.

In trying to convince him that they aren’t spies they explain to Joseph that they are all sons of the same man and that they actually have two other brothers also.  There are twelve brothers in all.  One of the other brothers is no more; the other – the youngest – is home with their father.

It is interesting that throughout this scene the brothers get reminded of Joseph several times.  They’re in Egypt; they have to explain that they have a brother who’s no longer with them; and they have to defend their integrity when they know they have a huge secret sin in their past.  God makes sure to put the screws to their conscience throughout this episode.

Joseph reacts strongly to their claim to have a younger brother.  He tells them in no uncertain terms that the only way they can prove that they aren’t spies is to bring their youngest brother to him.  He tells them to select one of them to go back and get the brother while the others remain confined in Egypt.  To prove that he means business, he throws all of them into prison for three days.  The text does not say, but it would obviously be fitting if they’re put in the same prison at Potiphar’s house where Joseph was incarcerated.

At the end of three days Joseph brings them before him again.  He tells them he’s an honest man (to say, “I fear God” is likely a claim of honesty rather than a claim to worship the God of Israel).  He tells them he now will allow all of them to go back except for one who has to stay in prison.  The one brother will stay in prison until the rest come back with their youngest brother.  If they don’t bring back the youngest brother they’ll die.  He apparently knows they’ll have to come back to get more food.  If they come back without their brother, he’ll have them executed as spies.

The text doesn’t explain why Joseph changes from having nine stay and one go back to Canaan to having one stay and nine go back.  Perhaps he realizes they need enough men to carry all the food the family needs.  He may also want to see how much concern they show toward the unfortunate one who stays.  Do they care for one brother more than they cared for him?

With that in mind, it pays to step back and evaluate why Joseph treats the brothers as he does.  What is the point of going through this charade?  Why not simply tell them who he is and let them be terrified of what he’s become?  Is he just having fun with them?  There isn’t any way to know all the reasons for Joseph’s behavior but it does seem clear that he’s testing them.  He seems to want to know how much they’ve changed over the years.  Are they the same selfish and short-sighted and envious men they were 20 years ago?  Are they truly concerned for their families back in Canaan and for each other?  Do they love Benjamin enough to truly protect him even at the expense of their own well-being?  Do they regret what they did to Joseph?  His desire for answers to questions like those likely drives his behavior.  And, at the end of the day, he’s only human and so may enjoy putting them through some stress.

While still in Joseph’s presence, the brothers discuss amongst themselves what Joseph has just demanded.  Since he’s been speaking to them through an interpreter they assume he can’t understand them.  What they say to each other is telling.  They immediately reference their sin with Joseph and assume they’re now being punished.  They remember how Joseph pleaded with them (first we’ve heard of this) when they sold him and how they disregarded his cries.  Now his cries are coming back to haunt them as God is making sure they suffer for what they did.

That they immediately discuss this shows it hasn’t been off their minds for very long over the last 20 years.  Being in Egypt may also bring it to the surface more easily.  Even so, their consciences have clearly never gotten over what they did.  They know how brutal it was and how much it devastated their father.  They ruined two lives and they’ve never gotten over it.

Reuben doesn’t let them include him in their regret.  He reminds them that he warned them not to harm Joseph.  That they now suffer for what they did isn’t his fault.  He alone wanted to spare Joseph – don’t blame him if God now wants justice.

Joseph hears and understands everything they say.  He gets to see that they still feel guilty for what they did to him.  He also finds out that Reuben tried to spare him.  The emotions that come over him as he listens overwhelm him.  He has to excuse himself so he can weep.  After he regains his composure, he cleans himself up and returns to them.

When he returns, he takes Simeon from them and has him bound as they watch.  That he takes Simeon isn’t explained, but perhaps since he knows Reuben tried to intervene on his behalf he takes the next oldest brother.  He spares Reuben and takes the second-born son (perhaps if he knew Judah had the idea to sell him, he would’ve taken him).

Before the brothers leave, Joseph orders his people to fill their sacks with grain and to put their money into each of the sacks.  His reason for doing this is likely to scare them and make them think he’ll accuse them of stealing as well as being spies.

On the journey home one of them opens his sack to feed his donkey and finds the money.  This scares all of them and makes them cry out to each other, “What is this that God has done to us?”  They continue to see this as retribution for what they did to Joseph.  Notice that they don’t cry out about what the Egyptian ruler did – they see this as God’s hand.  Their understanding of justice and punishment is centered on God.  It’s not the ruthless and paranoid man in Egypt; it’s God.  This actually is a positive characteristic of the brothers.  That they see God’s hand more than man’s shows they have a correct perspective.

The brothers return home and tell Jacob what happened.  They explain their encounter with the Egyptian ruler and that they told him about Benjamin.  They also tell Jacob they had to leave Simeon and that for Simeon to be freed they have to take Benjamin back with them when they go.

When they empty their sacks they find that all of them have their money back.  It wasn’t just one sack and one brother – it was every one of them.  And if they were scared before they’re terrified now.  The Egyptian can accuse all of them of spying and stealing.

Jacob can’t believe what they’ve done.  Not only have they endangered their own lives and left Simeon in Egypt, but they’ve put Benjamin in a position to be a bargaining chip.  He rebukes them for their actions and shortsightedness.  He mourns what they’ve done – “You have bereaved me of my children; Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.”  That he mentions Joseph could mean that he now blames the brothers for his death.  He can’t know they sold him into slavery (or else he would presumably have gone to Egypt to try to find him years ago) so perhaps after all these years he blames them for moving the flocks so much that Joseph had to find them and get killed by an animal in the attempt.

Reuben again tries to set himself apart.  He tells Jacob that Jacob can kill Reuben’s two sons if anything happens to Benjamin when he accompanies the rest of them on the next trip to Egypt.  This seems to be an impulsive and desperate offer.  Jacob surely doesn’t want to kill two of his grandsons if anything happens to his favorite son.  He disregards Reuben’s offer.  He simply tells all of the brothers that Benjamin will never go with them.  He’s the only son of Rachel left – “If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.”

Closing Thought
Who would you rather be – Joseph or the brothers?  At this point in the story the brothers have starving families they need to feed and are totally at the mercy of Joseph, who’s the second highest ruler in Egypt.  But what about seven or so years ago?  Seven years ago Joseph was a prisoner in a foreign land and the brothers were wealthy shepherds comfortably at home.  Does your answer change depending on where in the story we ask the question?  It shouldn’t.  The answer is actually the same regardless of timing.  It’s Joseph.  Why?  Because Joseph lives with a clear conscience and walks with God – and this has been true for all of the last 20 years.

The brothers – on the other hand – clearly can’t put what they did to Joseph behind them.  Even so many years later it plagues them.  When they sold Joseph into slavery they may have actually received the worse end of the bargain – even with the money they obtained.  They’ve carried the guilt of that day with them to the point that when they face injustice here it’s the first thing they think of.  Their sin is never far from their mind and it likely colors every aspect of their lives.  They got the upper hand with their brother and got their revenge on the favored one of their father.  But the price they paid and continue to pay is enormous – and it’s likely they wouldn’t repeat the act for any amount of money or revenge now.

It’s better to be Joseph even in Potiphar’s house or in prison because God is with him and he knows he’s lived righteously before Him.

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord, than great treasure and turmoil with it.  Better is a little with righteousness than great income with injustice (Prov 15:16 & 16:8).

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