After having a good time with the Egyptian ruler and getting Simeon back and loading up with food, the brothers begin their journey back to Canaan. Their return is short-lived, however, as the steward of the Egyptian chases them down and discovers the ruler’s cup in Benjamin’s sack. With Benjamin accused of theft and threatened with slavery, the group has to go back to Egypt and face the ruler one more time. What was a successful trip threatens to become catastrophic until Judah makes an impassioned plea on behalf of his father and offers himself in Benjamin’s place. In so doing he shows that he and his brothers – who haven’t deserted Benjamin – aren’t the same men who sold Joseph into slavery so many years ago. Chapter 44 brings Joseph’s testing to an end as he finally knows for certain that his brothers have changed.
After the night of feasting and drinking, the brothers load up their donkeys with grain and at first light start out for Canaan. What they don’t know, however, is that Joseph instructs his steward to put each man’s money into the mouth of his sack – just like last trip – and to put Joseph’s silver cup into the mouth of Benjamin’s.
We might expect the brothers to be more wary this time and perhaps look inside their sacks before heading home. However, they just had a very nice time at Joseph’s house where he treated them well and released Simeon back to them. Thus any fears or suspicions may have vanished in the midst of the food and fun. It also could be that they’re not feeling great after all the drinking on the day before, so they’re not thinking about anything other than getting home.
As soon as the group gets outside the city, Joseph instructs his steward to go after them and accuse them of stealing his cup. He specifically tells the steward to mention to the brothers that the cup is the one from which Joseph drinks and what he uses for divination. By telling them this, he likely wants to make them think they can’t hide anything from him as well as continue the charade that he’s a pagan Egyptian.
The steward catches up to the brothers and speaks to them as he was instructed. The men are shocked by his accusation and tell him they haven’t stolen anything. They remind the steward that they brought back the money they found in their sacks on the last trip, thus proving they are honest men. They go on to tell the steward that if the cup is found in the belongings of any of them, then that man will die and the rest of them will become the ruler’s slaves.
Their comments seem rash in light of what happened last time. The brothers don’t seem to think before speaking. Since they even refer to the last trip when their money showed up in their sacks, it seems they would at least think through the possibility that something is up again before vowing that the one who has it will die and the rest will be enslaved.
The steward responds that he’ll go along with their pledge but makes two fairly significant changes to it. He says that the man found with the cup will become a slave and the rest of them will go free. Since he knows what’s about to happen, he mercifully reduces the punishment. He also wants to put the brothers into a situation where only one of them will suffer loss.
Once the terms are acknowledged, the men lower their sacks and open them. The steward starts to look in each sack, starting with Reuben’s – the oldest – and proceeding by age to the youngest. At this point the brothers probably aren’t surprised the steward remembers their birth order. The text doesn’t mention anything about it, but presumably each man’s money is found as each sack is opened, adding to the stress and embarrassment of the situation. As they discover the money in each sack it would be interesting to know the effect it has on the brothers as they think through the stakes involved. Perhaps they start to regret making such a rash vow. This could be why the steward goes in birth order – it ensures he’ll see in every sack and won’t leave some unopened once he finds the cup. It also increases the dramatic effect of finding it last and with Benjamin.
Finally the steward comes to Benjamin and has him open his sack. To the horror of everyone, the cup is there along with his money. The brothers tear their clothes in response. They immediately make preparations to go back to Egypt to appeal to the ruler for Benjamin’s life.
The brothers’ reaction to Benjamin’s plight is notable from two perspectives. First, they probably give Benjamin the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t steal the cup, but they actually don’t know for sure. The narrative never records any of his words, but it’s very likely that he professes his innocence as soon as the cup is found. Still, his older brothers could have doubts. Second, remember who Benjamin is in relation to his brothers. He’s their father’s acknowledged favorite – just as Joseph was. Jacob has gone out of his way to make it clear to anyone who listens that Benjamin is the apple of his eye and by far and away the most important person in his life. Benjamin is basically Joseph without the dreams and the coat. With these things in mind, it would not be totally shocking for the brothers to wish Benjamin luck and pack up their donkeys and proceed to Canaan. What they do, however, is immediately – seemingly without hesitation – load up and go back with him to plead his case in Egypt.
When the brothers return they go straight to Joseph’s house. They fall on the ground in front of Joseph to show that they are at his mercy. Joseph asks how they could do such a thing and points out to them that he can practice divination – implying that he knew they stole his cup.
Judah responds for the group. He says they have nothing to say that will justify themselves. He then says, “God has found out the iniquity of your servants.” The statement is revealing since Judah knows that at least ten of them are completely innocent of taking the cup and probably knows all eleven actually are. Thus he can’t mean that God has found out their guilt for stealing the cup. What he must refer to is the same thing they all thought of when they appeared before Joseph the first time (42:21-22) – the sin of selling Joseph into slavery and ignoring his cries for mercy. Once again this shows how much guilt the brothers carry with them from 22 years ago. The burden of their actions has weighed heavily on them for over two decades and isn’t letting up. In Judah’s mind, they are in the predicament they’re in because of their actions against Joseph. God’s justice has found them.
When Joseph hears Judah’s response he likely understands what he means too. He heard them when they mourned their sin before him the first time. We don’t know his reaction, but this likely serves as another sign to him that his brothers have changed.
Judah’s words should make the New Testament believer fall down on his knees and thank God for Christ’s death and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Because of Jesus we can find forgiveness for every sin and because of the Holy Spirit we can find relief from sins that could haunt us for life. There is nothing beyond the effectiveness of the cross and there is nothing beyond the power of the Holy Spirit. If we confess our sins He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (I Jn 1:9). We can be forgiven because of Jesus and we can be free through the ministry of the Holy Spirit who reassures us and reminds us of our place in the gospel.
There is a big difference between the sons of Jacob and the conditions of I John 1:9 that we can’t overlook, however. They continue to live the lie they told to their father so many years ago. They continue to let him believe that Joseph was killed by wild animals. They’ve never confessed and made things right. Thus they have no relief. And every time something bad happens to them they assume it’s God paying them back for their sin. Unaddressed sin is an ever-growing burden that doesn’t go away. It’s like an untreated cancer that doesn’t stop growing just because it’s ignored. And as cancer can spread throughout a body so guilt from unconfessed sin can spread throughout a life. It touches everything. Nothing in the brothers’ lives is completely free from their guilt over Joseph.
Judah goes on to tell Joseph that all of them will become his slaves as a result of the cup. Joseph responds that he can’t accept that since it would be unjust. Only the one who stole the cup will be enslaved, the rest can go home.
Notice how Joseph tests them. It really goes back to their appearance before him yesterday. First he asked if the newcomer were Benjamin and then very publicly blessed him without saying anything to the others (43:29). Then he served him five times the food any of the other brothers received (43:34). With both actions he reinforced that Benjamin is special. He also knows that Benjamin is his father’s favorite and that all the rest know and acknowledge it. So when he had his steward place the cup in Benjamin’s sack his purpose was to see how the brothers would respond when given the chance to desert him. And in his response to Judah he again gives them the opportunity to save themselves at Benjamin’s expense. He puts them into the exact same scenario they had with him. In both cases they can turn their backs on a younger brother they may resent for being their father’s favorite and allow him to become a slave in Egypt. What will their choice be this time?
Judah responds with the longest speech recorded in Genesis. He pleads with Joseph not to enslave Benjamin. He asks Joseph to spare Benjamin not for Benjamin’s sake but for the sake of their father. He mentions their father fourteen times. He very clearly lays out that their father will die if Benjamin doesn’t return.
In making his plea to Joseph, he gives him a rundown of all that’s happened since they appeared before him the first time in Egypt. He tells him about his conversation with Jacob and how he convinced him to allow Benjamin to come. He also tells him about personally guaranteeing Benjamin’s safety. In telling Joseph all that happened he also mentions that his father thinks Joseph was torn in pieces by wild animals (vs 28) – the first time Joseph has heard this.
Judah ends his appeal by offering to stay in Benjamin’s place. He offers to sacrifice himself and become Joseph’s slave so Benjamin can go home to his father. He originally offered all of them but now he offers just himself. He meant what he said when he gave his personal guarantee for Benjamin’s safety. He will follow through by staying in Egypt and allowing Benjamin to go free.
As we read through Judah’s speech we have to read it in the context of who’s speaking. This is the brother most responsible for Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt. It was Judah who had the idea to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelite traders (37:26-27). When everyone else wondered what to do with the teenager in the pit, it was Judah who had the idea to callously profit by getting him out of their lives forever.
And yet here he offers his own life for the second of his father’s favorites. Instead of resenting Benjamin, he loves his father enough to sacrifice for him. He once lied to his father and watched the lie almost kill him. He’s now willing to give his life so his father won’t experience loss again. He and his brothers hated Joseph so much they were willing to sacrifice both Joseph and their father. Now they won’t desert Benjamin and Judah is willing to give himself for the sake of his father.
With his offer Judah becomes somewhat of an enigma and perhaps an example of the mercies of God. On the one hand he’s never come clean with Jacob and continues to allow him to think Joseph was killed by wild animals. But on the other hand, he’s clearly changed from the selfish and resentful man who sold his brother into slavery and lied to his father. We first saw a change in him when he treated his daughter-in-law with justice and compassion after she deceived him (38:26). Now we see a man so concerned for his father that he’s willing to give the ultimate sacrifice to spare him. The selfish and resentful man has become giving and compassionate.
That seems to mean that while God hasn’t taken away the guilt of the sin the brothers continue to deny, He has worked in Judah’s life. How else to account for the change in him? God has changed Judah even while not allowing him to escape the consequences of his own actions. It is perhaps dangerous to read too much into this passage, but it seems like God in His mercy continues to act in Judah’s life even as Judah resists confronting his past sin. Judah’s speech, therefore, is perhaps both an example of the dangers of unconfessed sin and an example of the great mercies of God.
So the testing is over. Joseph need do nothing more to know what his brothers are like. Joseph was his father’s favorite and the brothers resented him so much they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Twenty-two years later Benjamin is every bit as much his father’s favorite, yet the brothers won’t desert him and won’t allow him to become a slave in Egypt. No more proof is necessary. The brothers are changed men and Joseph can stop the charade. It’s time to reveal himself.