Last week we saw the fulfillment of God’s plan to bless Joseph as he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams and was placed in charge of the food of Egypt. He was second in all of the land next to Pharaoh himself. During the years of blessing Joseph collected 20% of all food harvested. There was so much food harvested that Joseph stopped making record of it as there was too much to count.
Genesis 42 picks up with Joseph nine years later. The seven years of tremendous harvests are over and in the second year of famine things are beginning to look scarce. Although Joseph has been placed where God had intended, God is not through with him or his family.
Our story covers four chapters in Genesis so we won’t look closely at all of the verses but do an overview of the events in each chapter.
When the famine begins to affect the land of Canaan, Jacob hears that there is food in Egypt and sends his sons to get food from there. Joseph’s brothers go down, all but the youngest, Benjamin. When the brothers arrive in Egypt, Joseph recognizes them but does not let on. When they bow down to him he remembers the dreams that God gave him of his brothers bowing down to him.
The first thing we should remember is that Joseph has not seen his brothers in a long time. He was seventeen when sold into slavery and thirty when he was given charge of the land of Egypt. This is now nine years after that so Joseph is 39, or 22 years older than when he last saw his brothers.
There are probably many reasons why the brothers don’t recognize Joseph. The most obvious is the fact that they are not expecting to see him. Beyond that, Joseph would look completely Egyptian from his dress to his speech. Although he understands his brothers, he uses an interpreter so that they do not realize he speaks their language.
Joseph does not reveal himself to his brothers but decides to test them. He also uses this as an opportunity to learn about his father and brother Benjamin. Upon hearing their story, Joseph accuses them of being spies and puts them into prison for three days. After three days he gives them a chance to prove their innocence by verifying their story and retrieving their brother Benjamin, but one brother is to remain in prison while the others return home.
18 On the third day, Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 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. 20 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.
21 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.”
22 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.” 23 They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.
24 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.
One can only imagine the fear and guilt that went through the minds of Joseph’s brothers. We don’t know if they have lived with the guilt concerning Joseph all of this time or if they have long forgot about their sin twenty two years before. But as they sit in prison it certainly crosses their mind and they believe that they are rightly being punished for their deeds.
The question must be asked if Joseph had any enjoyment in putting his brothers in prison and striking a bit of fear into their hearts in retaliation for what they did to him. I don’t believe that Joseph enjoys it at all or does it in retribution. I believe that Joseph simply wants to see if there is any regret over what they had done.
We see regret and supposed repentance all of the time by people in prison. There’s a woman on death row in Virginia who the governor just declined to pardon. She has a lot of regret and is certainly saying that she is sorry for her actions. I’m not in the position of God to judge her heart but it is easy to say that she is sorry that she got caught and sorry that she must pay the penalty for her deeds. If she was free, it is highly questionable whether she would be sorry for her deeds.
But Joseph’s brothers are not arrested and accused of anything they have actually done. Instead their hearts turn to their guilt over something they actually were guilty of, harming Joseph. When Joseph realizes that they are truly remorseful over their actions he must hide his own tears.
Simeon is kept in prison as essentially collateral to ensure that the brothers would return with Benjamin. Simeon may be a random choice but there could be some thought behind it as well. Reuben is the oldest son and he was the only one who wished to spare Joseph’s life. Simeon was the next oldest of the brothers and was therefore the most guilty so to speak as the leader of those who sold him into slavery.
When the brothers minus Simeon return to Jacob, they tell him all that took place and how they must return with Benjamin in order to free Simeon. Jacob will not let Benjamin leave him however, even if it is to free Simeon. Reuben offers to take personal responsibility for the safety of Benjamin but he is still not permitted to travel with the others to Egypt.
After some time the food brought back from Egypt is used up. The family has no choice but to return to Egypt for more food. But they cannot return without Benjamin. Finally Jacob agrees to allow Benjamin to travel to Egypt, realizing that there is no alternative. Judah offers to take responsibility for Benjamin this time.
When the brothers arrive, Joseph orders that a banquet be prepared for them. They are suspicious and worry that it is a trap. Simeon is brought out from prison and joins them however.
29 As he looked about and saw his brother Benjamin, his own mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother, the one you told me about?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” 30 Deeply moved at the sight of his brother, Joseph hurried out and looked for a place to weep. He went into his private room and wept there.
31 After he had washed his face, he came out and, controlling himself, said, “Serve the food.”
32 They served him by himself, the brothers by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves, because Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, for that is detestable to Egyptians. 33 The men had been seated before him in the order of their ages, from the firstborn to the youngest; and they looked at each other in astonishment. 34 When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him.
Joseph plays a trick on his brothers by seating them by age. Joseph has Benjamin served a portion five times larger than that of his brothers. This is another test, to see if his brothers resent Benjamin like they did him.
Joseph has one final test to determine if his brothers are truly sorry for what they have done and if they have changed their behavior. When the brothers leave with their grain, Joseph has his cup placed in Benjamin’s sack. Shortly after they leave, Joseph has his servants go after the brothers and accuse them of stealing. When the sacks are opened, they discover the cup in Benjamin’s sack.
14 Joseph was still in the house when Judah and his brothers came in, and they threw themselves to the ground before him. 15 Joseph said to them, “What is this you have done? Don’t you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?”
16 “What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.”
17 But Joseph said, “Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace.”
This is the ultimate test as to whether Joseph’s brothers have changed. They are free to return home without their brother Benjamin. What will they do in an attempt to return Benjamin to his father? Judah explains their situation to Joseph and how he has guaranteed his safe return.
Although Judah is far from the perfect example, he offers a picture of Jesus. He offers to pay a penalty that he is not guilty of and take Benjamin’s punishment upon himself.
33 “Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. 34 How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father.”
1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers it is a very emotional time. Understandably his brothers are stunned and terrified but Joseph tries to reassure them. God was using all that happened in order to accomplish His purposes.
What can we learn from this story? First of all, we have the conclusion of a long narrative about how God was with Joseph. Despite all of the troubles that he endured, God had not abandoned him. God used even sin to accomplish His purposes. Nothing can thwart what God has determined to do and we can rest completely assured of His promises.
The story of Joseph’s brothers is one of redemption however. It is proof that repentance can come from anyone. Even though they never carried out their plot to kill Joseph, his brothers had it in their hearts to murder him and left him as good as dead in their eyes when they sold him into slavery in Egypt.
The brothers acknowledge their guilt however. They know that what they did was wrong and accept what they face from Joseph as punishment for their past sins. But the brothers are not just remorseful over past sin, they are genuinely changed people. They are willing to sacrifice themselves in order to save their brother Benjamin. They care about his well being and that of their father who would be heartbroken to learn of Benjamin’s imprisonment.
If Joseph’s brothers can repent and change from a jealous and murderous attitude, any of us can change from sinful thoughts and reactions. Instead of waiting twenty years and suffering through years of guilt, now is the time for repentance however. Joseph’s brothers got it right in the end but not without a lot of suffering in the meantime.