The food runs out in Canaan and the brothers have to go back to Egypt and face the ruthless ruler again. This time they take Benjamin – grudgingly allowed to go by Jacob – and the encounter with Joseph goes more smoothly – at first. From Joseph’s standpoint, the appearance of his full-blood brother after more than 20 years is almost overwhelming, but it doesn’t stop him from continuing to test his brothers. Chapter 43 is a transitional chapter that moves the story closer to the time when Joseph will reveal himself to his brothers. Before he does, he needs to know if they’ve truly changed from the selfish group who sold him into slavery.
The grain the brothers brought from Egypt runs out for Jacob and his family and he tells his sons to go back to buy more. Judah reminds him that they can’t go back unless they take Benjamin. He tells Jacob that if he won’t let Benjamin go, there’s no reason to make the trip as the ruler in Egypt expressly told them they won’t see him again without Benjamin.
It’s telling that only now that the food has run out is anyone thinking about going back to Egypt. Apparently no one is too concerned about Simeon. Simeon has been incarcerated in Egypt this whole time – however long it’s been – but no one in the family has tried to go back to get him. For Jacob it’s likely a matter of valuing Benjamin over Simeon. If they go back they have to take Benjamin, and he’d rather leave Simeon in Egypt than endanger Benjamin.
Notice too that Judah is the one who speaks for the brothers instead of Reuben. This could be a sign that Reuben is truly no longer considered the firstborn and the leader. Judah assumes the mantle Reuben forfeited when he slept with his father’s concubine (35:22) and – perhaps – came back from the first trip without Simeon. And though Judah is the fourth son, he perhaps takes leadership over Simeon (who isn’t here) and Levi because of their roles in the massacre of the city of Shechem (34:25-31).
Jacob responds to Judah’s words about Benjamin with consternation. Why did they have to mention Benjamin to the ruler at all? Why bring him up? If they wouldn’t have mentioned him they wouldn’t now have to take him.
Judah responds in a somewhat less-than-honest way. He says the ruler specifically asked them about their family and if there was another brother. This isn’t exactly true. They actually brought up their brother as a way to prove they weren’t spies. The outcome of the conversation is essentially the same either way – they have to take Benjamin back – but Judah definitely tries to duck any responsibility for endangering his father’s favorite son (and it’s interesting that Judah and the brothers openly acknowledge that Benjamin is their father’s favorite – since everyone knows it’s true and since Jacob is so open about it, there’s no reason to act as if it isn’t the case – a bizarre situation from our perspective on family, isn’t it?).
Judah goes on to guarantee Benjamin’s safety. He tells Jacob to entrust Benjamin to him and if he doesn’t bring the lad (note that Benjamin is likely in his early 30s at this point) back, then Jacob can hold Judah responsible forever. This is a much more reasonable proposal than Reuben’s offer to Jacob that he could kill Reuben’s two sons if any harm came to Benjamin (42:37). Judah doesn’t grandstand or offer something that would make things worse. He simply puts his own reputation on the line and says he will be personally responsible for Benjamin.
In trying to convince Jacob, Judah also acknowledges their desperate situation. He says Benjamin has to go so all of them won’t die of starvation. He reminds Jacob that not only will he and the brothers die, but our little ones. At the end of the day there’s really no choice – they have to go, they have to take Benjamin, or all of them will die in Canaan.
Jacob gives in. He tells them to take Benjamin and take a gift for the ruler. For the gift, he says to take balm, a little honey, aromatic gum and myrrh, pistachio nuts and almonds. Interestingly, these are the same items the traders carried who took Joseph down to Egypt (37:25). It’s also interesting that they have these things in the midst of a severe famine.
When Jacob tells them to take Benjamin he includes a prayer for their safety. He asks that God almighty grant them compassion in the eyes of the Egyptian so he will return Simeon and Benjamin both to them. Notice that he refers to Simeon as your other brother but names Benjamin. Even here Jacob betrays his true feelings about whose safety he’s most concerned about (“Hopefully you can get what’s-his-name and Benjamin back”).
Jacob ends his statement with what appears to be a fatalistic statement. He says, “And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” He seems resigned to his fate but perhaps he’s also expressing faith. He knows what he wants God to do and what he’s asked God to do – bring everyone back safely. But he also knows that God will ultimately act according to His wisdom, and he’s willing to accept that. Esther will later express a similar sentiment when she asks for prayer before going before the king of Persia to save Israel (“…and if I perish, I perish” – Esther 4:16). In both cases the one making the plea expresses both that he doesn’t know the outcome of his request and that he’s willing to accept God’s answer regardless of what it is.
There’s a lesson on prayer here. We often pray without knowing God’s will or direction. So we ask for God to act in a specific way according to what we think is best, but we acknowledge that God’s will may be different and we pledge to accept His will whatever it is. We don’t hesitate to ask; but we ask always with the understanding that God is omniscient and we’re not, and that we will accept whatever He does as a result.
Thus the men leave and travel back to Egypt. They take with them Benjamin; double the money to reimburse the ruler for the money that was returned to them on the first trip; and the gift of nuts, honey, and spices.
When the men come to Joseph – apparently before they actually are granted an audience with him but after he sees them and sees that Benjamin is with them – Joseph orders his house steward to bring them to his house and prepare a meal for them. This makes the brothers suspicious. It doesn’t make sense that the man who was so rough with them before now wants them as guests for a meal at his house. Something has to be up. They worry that he’s going to accuse them of stealing the money that was in their sacks and then enslave them as punishment. That he could easily do this without bringing them to his house apparently doesn’t occur to them. And of course the irony of Joseph enslaving them doesn’t come to mind since they don’t know it’s Joseph they’re encountering.
When they come to the house they appeal to the steward (before actually going into the house – it’s as if they don’t want to enter the unknown without first making their appeal). They explain what happened with the money and how they discovered it in their sacks on the trip home. They also tell him that they’ve brought the money back to show they’re honest men. They didn’t steal it – the money just ended up in their sacks without them doing anything.
The steward – who apparently anticipates their plea and perhaps has been coached on what to say – tells them to relax. He tells them that their God – and the God of your father – returned the money to them. He actually has the money they paid on the first trip so God must have miraculously put it in their sacks. Thus they’re not in trouble because their grain was paid in full. There is nothing more about this exchange in the text but it’s probably not too much of a stretch to assume the brothers are dumbfounded by this explanation. They might also wonder at how the steward knew to mention God in terms of their father (how does this ruler and his people seem to know things about them?).
When the steward explains that he has their money he also brings Simeon out to them. This officially shows that they aren’t in trouble. They’ve kept their end of the bargain and the ruler now keeps his. Benjamin is with them so Simeon is released. It would be interesting to know if Simeon sarcastically thanks them for coming back now that they’re hungry.
When Joseph gets to the house, the brothers give him the gift and bow down before him (thus accounting for all eleven stars in his second dream – 37:9). He asks them about their welfare and specifically asks about their father. Joseph wants to know if Jacob is still alive and healthy.
Joseph sees Benjamin – who was likely a small boy the last time he saw him – and asks if this is their younger brother. When he hears that it is in fact him, he pronounces a blessing on him. Again, we don’t know how anyone reacts to this but it’s likely that the blessing catches the brothers off guard and confuses them.
Seeing Benjamin overwhelms Joseph emotionally. Benjamin is his full-blood brother and the only connection to his mother (note the description in verse 29 – his mother’s son). He quickly excuses himself and goes away and weeps. The emotions of the last 20 years come over him and he likely thinks about all he’s missed while being away from his family.
After regaining his composure and washing his face, Joseph rejoins the group and the meal is served. The people at the meal are seated at three different locations. Joseph sits by himself presumably because of his high rank. The other Egyptians sit separately from the Hebrews because they consider non-Egyptians barbaric and refuse to eat with them. And the brothers then sit by themselves as a group.
The brothers aren’t seated randomly at their table. They are positioned according to age, oldest to youngest. This amazes the brothers. How does Joseph know their birth order?
This is not the only strange thing. When the food is brought to them from Joseph’s table – he is of course served first – the servants give Benjamin five times more than any other brother. This is done without explanation. The combination of the seating arrangement and the food allocation deepens the mystery of all that’s happened to them on their trips to Egypt.
Regardless of their confusion, they enjoy the food and drink. There’s a severe famine everywhere in the land, so the opportunity to eat and drink freely is not taken for granted. They eat their fill and drink until they forget why they were suspicious of the Egyptian’s motives (the original Hebrew reads, “they drank and became intoxicated”).
As the chapter ends, the brothers likely feel that all their worries about seeing the Egyptian were unfounded. He’s been cordial and hospitable, the total opposite of what he was before. Benjamin is safe, Simeon is back, and they’re all having a great time with lots of food and drink. And no one in Egypt thinks they stole money on the last trip. Now all they have to do is to buy food and head back to Canaan. What could possibly go wrong?