We’ve already seen how Joseph had experienced some pretty serious trials in the book of Genesis. For example, we saw how Joseph’s brothers threw him into an empty well and left him for dead in chapter 37. Then we read about how they decided to change their minds and sell him as a slave instead.
Later on, Joseph had to deal with the unwelcome sexual advances of his boss’s wife in Genesis 39:7-9. That passage tells us that his employer’s wife said to Joseph, “Come to bed with me!” But we’re also told that, “… he refused. ‘With me in charge,’ he told her, ‘my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?'”
Unfortunately, this lady was not the sort of person to take “no” for an answer. She kept after Joseph but “…though she spoke to Joseph day after day, he refused to go to bed with her or even be with her” (Genesis 39:10). That situation eventually got Joseph thrown into prison on a bogus sexual assault charge.
Then while Joseph was in prison, Genesis chapter 40 tells us how Joseph interpreted the dreams of two high-ranking Egyptian officials who had been imprisoned with him. He told one official that his dream indicated that he would soon be restored to his former position. But after providing this official with the interpretation of his dream, Joseph made one small request: “…when all goes well with you, remember me and show me kindness; mention me to Pharaoh and get me out of this prison. For I was forcibly carried off from the land of the Hebrews, and even here I have done nothing to deserve being put in a dungeon” (Genesis 40:14-15).
So how did that turn out for Joseph? Well, not so good because the very last verse of that chapter tells us that this official, “…did not remember Joseph; he forgot him” (Genesis 40:23). And so Joseph was left to remain in prison for two additional years with the realization that someone who could have helped him had totally forgotten about him instead.
Each of these events represented a tremendous test for Joseph and his faith. But Joseph will soon be faced with a far greater test of a totally different kind in Genesis chapter 42.
Sometimes, the most difficult tests in life are the ones that are not easily recognized as tests.
You see, after Joseph successfully interpreted the dream of the Egyptian king named Pharaoh, we’re told that Pharaoh responded by saying this: “‘You shall be in charge of my palace, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only with respect to the throne will I be greater than you.’ So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt'” (Genesis 40:40-41). Although it may not seem obvious, these new responsibilities represented a tremendous test for Joseph.
Now it might be easy to read that and think, “Joseph is the number one guy in the country after Pharaoh. Instead of being a powerless slave in jail, he now has total authority over everyone and everything in the entire nation. What kind of test is that?”
Well, let’s think about that question for a moment. Let’s say that you had total authority over every other person that you came in contact with, other than the king himself. What would you do with that authority? If you could totally control the schedule of your life, how would you spend your time? If people had to honor you wherever you went, how would you respond?
Or let’s say that you had an unlimited credit card that never ran of out money. What would you buy with it? If you could travel anywhere you wanted in the best vehicle, where would you go? If you had the power of life and death over anyone who had hurt you, lied about you, made fun of you, or had forgotten about you in the past, what would you do with it? What if you had the ability to take revenge against a group of people who had once tried to kill you when you were a teenager. How would you handle that ability?
There’s an important reason for asking these questions. You see, Joseph was given all of these things by Pharaoh when he was told, “‘I am the king—and no one in all Egypt shall so much as lift a hand or a foot without your permission'” (Genesis 41:44 GNB). In Genesis chapter 42, we’ll get to see what Joseph does with this new power.
Even though Joseph faced some real tests earlier in his life, his power to respond to those tests was very limited. But now we’ll get to see how Joseph treated others when everyone was powerless to stand against him. That’s the new kind of test that Joseph will face in Genesis chapter 42.
“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'” (Genesis 42:1-2).
Jacob’s comment to his sons almost sounds like something that many fathers might say to their sons even today: “Hey, we’re about to starve here, remember? Don’t just stand there staring at each other- go down to Egypt and buy us some food.”
So with that, Jacob’s sons went into action…
“Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt” (Genesis 42:3).
Jacob family lived about 250-300 miles (402-483 km) away from Egypt during this time. At an average walking speed of 2 miles per hour (3 kph), it would haven taken approximately two weeks for Joseph’s brothers to make this trip. But notice that were specifically told that ten of Joseph’s brothers left to go on this road trip. So which of Jacob’s sons didn’t get to go along for the ride? Well, here’s the answer…
“But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him” (Genesis 42:4).
If you’ve been following along with the story of Jacob’s life, then you know that favoritism has been an ongoing theme in his family. You see, Jacob’s father showed favoritism toward his brother Esau while his Jacob’s mother showed favoritism towards him– and you remember what happened with them. Then when he was older, Jacob’s favorite wife Rachel gave birth to his favorite son Joseph– and you remember how that worked out. Now this cycle of favoritism was being repeated once again, this time in the life of Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin.
So why was Jacob so determined to “play favorites” with Benjamin? Well, remember that Benjamin was Jacob’s final son and the youngest in his family. But Benjamin was not only Jacob’s last son, he was also the son that his favorite wife died giving birth to. This meant that Benjamin was the last remaining link to the only woman that Jacob ever really loved- and Jacob apparently was determined that nothing was ever going to happen to him. Since Joseph had now been missing and presumed dead for 20 years, Jacob apparently decided that he was not going to take a chance and allow the same thing happen to Benjamin.
“However, Jacob wouldn’t let Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin go with them, for fear some harm might happen to him [as it had to his brother Joseph]” (Genesis 42:4 TLB).
Although Jacob continued to “play favorites” with his youngest son Benjamin, the problem was that Benjamin was not a little boy anymore. At the time that his brothers left for Egypt, Benjamin had grown to become a young man in his 20’s.
Now it’s possible that Jacob prevented Benjamin from leaving with his brothers because he didn’t really trust his other sons with Benjamin’s safety. It’s also possible that Jacob just wasn’t willing to take the risk that something bad could happen to his youngest son. But whatever the reason, it’s clear that Jacob didn’t want to let Benjamin out of his sight.
“So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also. 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” (Genesis 42:5-6).
While it might be tempting to speed past these few verses, they actually give us some good information about the political realities of this situation.
You see, it would have been impossible for Joseph to have a personal meeting with everyone who wanted to buy food in Egypt during that time. Remember that Egypt was (and is) a large country and there was no way that Joseph could travel throughout the entire nation and personally sell grain to anyone who wanted to buy it. So when it says, “…Joseph was the ruler over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land” (NASU), the most probable meaning is that Joseph was in charge of a group of people who handled this work and reported to him.
This situation would be similar to the way that a head coach or manager works with a sports team today. While a head coach or manager has the ultimate responsibility for the way that his or her team performs, that person usually has assistant coaches who work with the players and handle the everyday operations of the team. In the same way, it’s likely that Joseph was ultimately responsible for selling this grain, but he probably didn’t work personally with every single purchaser.
Now there’s a reason why this background information is important and we’ll take a look at that reason next.
“Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (Genesis 42:6 ESV).
This passage tells us that Joseph’s brothers somehow got a personal meeting with Joseph after they arrived in Egypt. And it appears that they received this audience with Joseph fairly soon after they arrived. So why would their group be allowed to go directly to a face-to-face meeting with Joseph just to buy some food?
Well, Joseph would have had some definite reasons for speaking with a group like this- and those reasons had nothing to do with the fact that these men were long-lost members of his family (at least not yet). The key to answering this question is found in the very last verse of the previous chapter where we’re told, “People came to Egypt from all over the world to buy grain from Joseph, because the famine was severe everywhere” (Genesis 41:57 GNB).
So let’s say that you were the leader of a foreign nation that was affected by this famine during that time. The citizens of your nation were beginning to starve, and as the top government official, everyone wanted you to do something about it. So as soon as you hear that food is available in Egypt, what will you do? Well, you might send someone there to buy it or… you might send someone there to try and take it.
You see, if you were a foreign leader who wanted to take Egypt’s resources for yourself, the first thing you might do is send a spy to check things out and determine the best way to come in and take over. And a good way to do that would be to enter the country under the pretense of buying some food when all you really wanted to do was find the best way to invade the country and take what you wanted.
But it appears that Pharaoh was ready for that possibility. You see, it’s likely that the Egyptian government required that any foreigners who wanted to buy food had to meet with Joseph first so he could check them out. This makes good sense when you think back to something that Pharaoh said to Joseph earlier: “‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God? …Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you'” (Genesis 41:38-39).
“…Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground” (Gen 42:6 NASV).
If you were a leader like Pharaoh, then you definitely wanted Joseph to check out anyone who came in from outside the country to buy food. That would help allow you to identify a possible spy or someone who was looking to come in and take over.
That’s one reason why Joseph’s brothers treated him so respectfully after they arrived. They also knew that their lives depended on their ability to purchase food from this high ranking Egyptian official. Because of this, they made sure to treat Joseph with the utmost respect by bowing so deeply that their faces were right near the ground.
But if all this sounds a little familiar, then it may be due to the fact that we saw a preview of this scene in two dreams that Joseph had experienced many years earlier…
“Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.’ His brothers said to him, ‘Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?’ And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?'” (Genesis 37:5-10).
This meeting with his brothers represented a fulfillment of those dreams that Joseph experienced as a teenager. But how would Joseph now respond to these men? Remember that Joseph had decades to think about the injustice that his brothers had committed against him. He had many long years to think about what he would do if he ever got the opportunity to pay them back- and now that opportunity had arrived.
Joseph held the power of life and death over the same men who had once wanted to murder him. Would he respond by using that power to execute his revenge or would he use it to save his brothers and the rest of his family?
After Jacob’s sons arrived in Egypt, they met with the Egyptian governor to negotiate the sale of some food that they could use to feed their starving families. But as it turned out, the governor was none other than their younger brother Joseph, the same man who they had earlier sold as a slave to a group of traveling merchants.
This meant that Joseph now held the power of life and death over his brothers instead of the other way around- and the way he chose to use this power would reveal a lot about who he was as a person. The early American President Abraham Lincoln once summed up this kind of choice by saying, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
So here’s how Joseph responded…
“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” (Genesis 42:7-8).
Now it’s possible to look at this passage and think, “How could Joseph’s brothers not recognize him?” Well, there are a few reasons to explain why Joseph’s identity remained unknown to his brothers during this meeting.
First, remember that 20 years had passed since these men had last seen Joseph. Joseph had been about 17 years old at the time when his brothers sold him into slavery and now he was approximately 37 years old. This meant that Joseph’s physical appearance had changed a lot since the last time his brothers saw him.
Besides the fact that Joseph was now a grown man, he also spoke the language of Egypt, dressed in the clothing of a high-ranking Egyptian official, and had taken on the cultural appearance of an Egyptian man of that time. That would have made it difficult enough for his brothers to identify him, but there was something else as well- Joseph’s brothers certainly didn’t expect to find that their long lost brother had now become the second most powerful person in Egypt.
Joseph also held another important advantage over his brothers during this meeting: he recognized them, but they didn’t recognize him. That allowed Joseph to act like he didn’t know his brothers when they came to appear before him. But why would Joseph do something like that? Well, there were a few things that Joseph needed to find out before he could reveal his true identity to his brothers- and the interrogation was about to begin.
When Jacob’s sons appeared before the Egyptian governor (not knowing that he was actually their brother Joseph), they had no idea that they were speaking to the same man they had wanted to kill so many years earlier. Were they still the same kind of ruthless individuals who had once left Joseph to die and then sold him into slavery?
Well, Joseph had a plan to find out…
“Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, ‘You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.’
‘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'” (Genesis 42:9-12).
One of Joseph’s responsibilities probably involved checking out any foreign representative who wanted to purchase food from Egypt. That would help him identify a possible foreign agent who was posing as a business person from abroad. But Joseph knew that his brothers weren’t foreign spies, so why would he examine them like this? Well, Joseph was using an interrogation technique that was designed to extract some important information from his brothers.
Remember that Joseph’s brothers were a tough group of individuals. For example, two of Joseph’s brothers once deceived the entire male population of a town into following a religious custom just so they could wipe them all out in a revenge killing. Another one of Joseph’s brothers broke a promise to his daughter-in-law and then had sex with her while she was disguised as a prostitute. Later on when she was found to be pregnant, he tried to have her killed for adultery until it was proven that her child actually belonged to him.
So these men were not the kind of individuals who were likely to respond with honest answers to polite questions. Since Joseph was determined to get to the truth about his family, the best way to accomplish that was to use the advantage he held over them by insisting, “…’No. You’re spies. You’ve come to look for our weak spots'” (Genesis 42:12 MSG).
Now if you were someone who was a foreign spy, you would not be likely to show up in the governor’s mansion with most of the rest of your family. A good spy would not be someone who would call attention to himself in this manner- and Joseph’s brothers will try to remind him of that next.
So Jacob’s sons had left for Egypt on a critical mission to purchase some life-saving food. But when they met with the Egyptian governor to arrange this purchase (not realizing that he was actually their brother Joseph), they were told, “‘You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected'” (Genesis 42:9). This was not the way they wanted to begin their relationship with this important official, but things were about to quickly go from bad to worse…
“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!'” (Genesis 42:13-14).
This is where Joseph’s strategy in dealing with his brothers really began to pay off. Notice that once Joseph began to accuse his brothers of spying, they immediately responded by providing him with their family background to verify their story. But in doing this, they also provided Joseph with some important information.
You see, their explanation told Joseph that his father Jacob and his brother Benjamin were both still alive and living back home. It also told Joseph how his brothers explained his sudden disappearance 20 years earlier: “…one of our brothers is dead” (Genesis 42:13 CEV). So having now learned this critical information, Joseph quickly shifted into the next phase of his plan…
“‘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'” (Genesis 42:15-17)
When Joseph’s brothers attempted to verify their story by telling him about their father Jacob and their youngest brother Benjamin, Joseph responded by basically saying, “So what? That doesn’t prove anything- I still think you are spies.” What they needed was a way to prove that they were telling the truth- and here’s how Joseph decided to find out: “‘This is how I will test your story. I swear by the life of Pharaoh that you will never leave Egypt unless your youngest brother comes here!'” (Genesis 42:15 NLT).
So Joseph laid out his plan but here’s a question: why would a God-honoring person like Joseph take an oath in Pharaoh’s name? Well, we’ll look at that answer next.
“‘This is how you’ll be tested: I solemnly swear, as surely as Pharaoh lives, that you won’t leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here'” (Genesis 42:15 GW).
Was it right for a God-honoring person like Joseph to take an oath like this? After all, Joseph basically said to his brothers, “I swear by the life of Pharaoh” (NLT) as if Pharaoh was some sort of god. For a man who was seemingly concerned about honoring God, this appears to be a very inappropriate thing for Joseph to do.
Well, this act would be a real concern except for one thing. Remember that Joseph was carrying out a plan to see if his brothers were still the same kind of men who had once wanted to kill him. Part of that plan involved allowing them to believe that he was nothing more than a high-ranking Egyptian official. Because of this, Joseph accurately played the role of an Egyptian governor in front of his brothers and used this oath as part of his disguise.
In taking this oath in the name of Pharaoh, Joseph made sure to do exactly what his brothers would expect someone in his position to do. If Joseph had taken this oath in the name of God, his brothers could have become suspicious as to why this Egyptian governor followed the same God that their father Jacob also believed in. If that happened, then Joseph’s plan to get the truth about his brothers could have been ruined.
The truth is that a God-honoring person like Joseph would never actually swear by the life of Pharaoh as if he was some sort of god. But for Joseph, this was all a necessary part of the act. Unfortunately, the big difference between Joseph and most people today is that swearing is not “a part of the act” as it was for him.
For instance, how often have you heard people use the words, “I swear…” in a sentence without really thinking about it? The truth is that this happens all the time in everyday conversations, but the fact that it happens a lot doesn’t make it right. The reality is that swearing is much more serious than many people think.
You see, whenever someone says, “I swear,” that person is actually taking an oath and making a promise to do whatever it is that he or she is swearing to. We’ll take a closer look at some examples and see why swearing is more serious than most people realize next.
“‘…I swear by the name of the king that you will never leave unless your youngest brother comes here'” (Genesis 42:15b CEV).
The word “swear” is a word with two different meanings. The first meaning involves someone who uses profanity or bad language. The second meaning refers to someone who makes a serious promise or a vow. It’s this second meaning that the Bible talks about in James 5:12…
“Above all, my friends, do not use an oath when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven or by earth or by anything else. Say only ‘Yes’ when you mean yes, and ‘No’ when you mean no, and then you will not come under God’s judgment” (GNB).
You see, the words “I swear” refer to an oath and an absolute promise to do whatever that person is swearing to. This is why witnesses are put “under oath” and swear to tell the truth when giving testimony in a court of law. It’s also why government officials are “sworn into” office. So when someone says, “I swear,” he or she is making a very serious promise.
Now someone might say, “Yeah, but ‘I swear’ is just an expression- people know that I don’t really mean it.” If you feel this way, then you should consider something that Jesus once said to the religious leadership of His day…
“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (Matthew 5:33-37).
While its common for people to back up their statements by swearing to them, Jesus said, “…let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one” (emphasis added). In saying this, Jesus indicated that a person who swears as part of his or her everyday language is someone who actually takes the same kind of attitude as the devil.
This means that swearing should not be part of a Christian’s regular conversation with others. Remember, a person who consistently tells the truth will not have a need to back up his or her word by swearing to it.
So Joseph’s plan to see if his brothers were the same ruthless men he knew as a teenager was in full operation- and it was now time to execute the next phase of his strategy…
“‘One of you go and get your brother! I’ll keep the rest of you here, bound in prison. Then we’ll find out whether your story is true or not. If it turns out that you don’t have a younger brother, then I’ll know you are spies.’ So he threw them all into jail for three days” (Genesis 42:16-17 TLB).
Even though Joseph brought up the possibility that these men were foreign agents, his real question had nothing to do with spying. After all, Joseph knew that his brothers weren’t really undercover operatives. Joseph’s real question was whether they had a change in attitude- and three days in jail was part of his plan to help find out the truth.
But how could putting his brothers in jail help Joseph determine the truth about them? After all, its possible to look at what Joseph did and say, “Isn’t that a little extreme? Why did Joseph have to punish his brothers by putting them in jail?”
Well to answer that question, let’s use a quick analogy. Let’s say that you have a younger brother that you really dislike. Would you be willing to dig a hole, throw your brother into it, and leave him to die just because you don’t like him? Or would you be willing to go on the internet, find someone to buy your little brother and then sell him to a total stranger? Well, that’s not unlike what Joseph’s brothers did to him.
As was said earlier, Joseph’s brothers were a tough group of ruthless individuals. Remember that two of Joseph’s brothers once deceived the entire male population of a town into following a religious custom just so they could wipe them all out in a revenge killing. Another one of Joseph’s brothers broke a promise to his daughter-in-law and then had sex with her while she was disguised as a prostitute. Later on when she was found to be pregnant, he tried to have her killed for adultery until it was proven that her child actually belonged to him.
Joseph knew from his own experience what his brothers were capable of and that’s why he made sure to arrange some jail time for them. This aggressive, merciless approach was something that Joseph’s brothers could easily understand it was designed to help them realize that Joseph was really serious about finding the truth.
“On the third day, Joseph said to them, ‘Do this and you will live, for I fear God'” (Genesis 42:18).
So after spending three days in a foreign prison, Joseph’s brothers (who were still unaware of his real identity) were summoned to meet with him once more. While its likely that this jail time helped put Joseph’s brothers in the right frame of mind to listen to him, notice that Joseph also made sure to tell his brothers about his real motivation for meeting with them: “Since I respect God, I’ll give you a chance to save your lives” (CEV).
Now we saw earlier how Joseph made sure to carefully conceal his relationship with God and hide his real identity by taking an oath in Pharaoh’s name. But Joseph must have seen something in his brothers’ behavior that led him to conclude that it was no longer necessary to keep up this part of his act. You see, it appears that none of Joseph’s brothers thought to ask how or why this high-ranking Egyptian government official came to fear and respect the very same God their father followed.
If Joseph’s brothers had listened a little more carefully, they might have realized that Joseph was telling them that he had to answer to God for his actions and that he couldn’t just treat them however he wanted. But it seems that these men were so spiritually insensitive that none of them realized what Joseph was actually saying. Because of this, Joseph was free to reveal his relationship with God in his conversation with them while continuing to move forward on the other parts of his plan.
So instead of leaving his brothers to stay in jail forever, he decided to make them the following offer…
“‘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'” (Genesis 42:19-20a).
This was a great plan when you stop to think about it. By placing one of his brothers in jail, Joseph gave the rest of his brothers an incentive to return to Egypt with their youngest brother Benjamin. But even if they weren’t willing to return for their brother who was left in prison, Joseph still knew that they would eventually have to come back to him anyway. We’ll see why next.
“To prove that you are honest, one of you will stay in the prison where you have been kept; the rest of you may go and take back to your starving families the grain that you have bought. Then you must bring your youngest brother to me. This will prove that you have been telling the truth, and I will not put you to death” (Genesis 42:19-20a GNB).
By keeping one of his brothers in jail, Joseph provided his siblings with a built-in incentive to return to Egypt with their youngest brother Benjamin. But even if his brothers didn’t care enough to return for the brother they left behind, Joseph knew that they would eventually have to come back to him anyway.
Why? Well, Joseph knew that the famine predicted by Pharaoh’s dream was going to continue for seven long years. Even if Joseph’s brothers didn’t want to return for the man they left behind, they would definitely have to come back to buy more food eventually. And just to make sure they knew that he was really serious, Joseph added one more incentive- if Benjamin wasn’t with them on the return trip, it would mean death for all of them.
So not surprisingly, Joseph’s brothers quickly agreed to his offer. But before they could even leave Joseph’s presence, twenty years of guilt over what they had done to him suddenly began to rise to the surface…
“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'” (Genesis 42:20b-22).
An author from an earlier generation once said, “A guilty conscience needs no accuser or tormentor but itself” (1) and that comment clearly sums up the attitude of Joseph’s brothers in this passage. You see, its not wrong to feel guilty about something if you have something to feel guilty about- and these men did. They looked at what had happened and said to each other, “This is our payback for what we did to Joseph.”
In a situation like this, the first step on the road to making things right is admitting that you’ve done something wrong- and that’s the direction that Joseph’s brothers were now heading. But what they didn’t know was that someone was monitoring this part of their conversation without their knowledge.
(1) Matthew Henry Exposition of the Old and New Testament, Volume 3
“Speaking among themselves, they said, ‘This has all happened because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his terror and anguish and heard his pleadings, but we wouldn’t listen.’ ‘Didn’t I tell you not to do it?’ Reuben asked. ‘But you wouldn’t listen. And now we are going to die because we murdered him'” (Genesis 42:21-22 TLB).
Joseph’s brothers were tough men. They had shown themselves to be men who had no difficulty with killing other human beings if they felt it was justified. But now they had finally reached the point where they were willing to admit that they had done something wrong in leaving Joseph to die and then selling him off into slavery. This was an important change for this group of men who had previously been so indifferent to human life.
But as they spoke among themselves in the presence of the Egyptian governor (who was actually their brother Joseph), they were unaware that he could understand every word they said…
“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” (Genesis 42:23-24).
So Joseph had his brother Simeon tied up and taken away to prison. But why did Joseph choose Simeon specifically out of this group? Well, its possible that Simeon had been the driving force in their earlier decision to try and kill Joseph and then sell him off as a slave. Joseph may have selected him because he held the greatest accountability. Or Joseph may have recognized that his oldest brother Reuben really didn’t agree with what they had done to Joseph. Since Simeon was the next oldest brother, he was simply the next in line to take the place of responsibility.
But whatever the reason, Joseph’s next step involved something completely unexpected…
“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” (Genesis 42:25-26).
We’ve been watching how Joseph has carefully executed a step-by-step strategy designed to see if his brothers were still the same kind of ruthless individuals that he had once known as a teenager. And now it was time to execute the next phase of that plan. This next step involved giving his brothers something they didn’t deserve, and we’ll talk more about that next.
“Joseph then ordered his servants to fill the men’s sacks with grain, but he also gave secret instructions to return each brother’s payment at the top of his sack. He also gave them supplies for their journey home. So the brothers loaded their donkeys with the grain and headed for home” (Genesis 42:25-26 NLT).
Why would Joseph decide to return the money that these men brought? Well, Joseph returned this money as an act of graciousness towards his brothers. Remember that the word “grace” refers to receiving something good even when we don’t deserve it- and what Joseph did in returning his brothers’ money illustrates a principle that God would later inspire the Apostle Paul to write about…
“Instead, feed your enemy if he is hungry. If he is thirsty give him something to drink and you will be ‘heaping coals of fire on his head.’ In other words, he will feel ashamed of himself for what he has done to you. Don’t let evil get the upper hand, but conquer evil by doing good” (Romans 12:20-21 TLB).
So Joseph’s brothers headed out on the long journey back home but it wasn’t long before they found out what Joseph had done…
“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?'” (Genesis 42:27-28).
Its interesting to see the reaction of Joseph’s brothers as they discovered the fact that their money had been returned to them. This passage tells us that “Their hearts sank…” when they learned that their payment had been given back. The idea behind this reaction seems to be, “Oh no. Its bad enough that this Egyptian governor already thinks that we’re spies- now he’s going to think that we’re thieves as well!”
But that wasn’t their only response to this discovery- they also said, “What is this that God has done to us?” This represents the first (and only) time that Joseph’s brothers mention God in this chapter. That was bad enough but Joseph’s brothers’ also jumped to the conclusion that God was the source of their problem when the reality was that He had graciously arranged to keep them from starving to death during this famine.
So after spending weeks on the road back from Egypt, Jacob’s sons finally arrived in Canaan, the home of their father Jacob.
Now its certain that Jacob had been anxiously waiting for his sons to return for two very important reasons. First, Jacob was surely concerned for their safety during this trip. Remember that food was in short supply during that time and anyone who was desperate to get something to eat may have seen his sons’ caravan as a potential target. Secondly, Jacob and the rest of his family were in desperate need of the grain that he sent his sons to buy, a purchase that would help them all survive the devastating famine that had swept through that area.
But now his sons had returned with the news that their mission had been a success. And while Jacob was undoubtedly relieved to find that his sons had successfully purchased some life-saving food, the other news they brought was not so good…
“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.’
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” (Genesis 42:29-35).
Now you may remember that one of Joseph’s brothers had discovered that his payment had been returned to him on the return trip back to Canaan. While this could have easily been a mistake, what Joseph’s brothers apparently didn’t know was that all of their money had been returned to them as well. This discovery had a very depressing effect on Jacob and we’ll look at his reaction (and what we can learn from it) next.
“‘…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….’ (Genesis 42:33b-34a GW)
“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!'” (Genesis 42:36).
Have you ever reacted to a circumstance in life by saying, “Everything seems to be against me””? Well, that’s exactly how Jacob felt when his sons told him that Simeon was in jail and Benjamin had to return with them to Egypt to release him.
Now its certainly not unusual for people to sometimes feel as if everything is going wrong in life. That happens to everyone from time to time. However, there are some important things that we can learn and apply from the way that Jacob responded to this situation. First, notice that Jacob responded to this situation by criticizing his sons and placing the blame on them by saying, “You have deprived me of my children.”
In saying this, Jacob clearly allowed his emotional pain to control his response to this situation. In other words, this situation upset Jacob so much that it caused him to lash out against his sons in a way that they didn’t deserve- and people today may also respond in a similar way as well.
Next, Jacob exaggerated the problem and wrongly assumed the worst by saying, “You have already taken my sons Joseph and Simeon from me. And now you want to take away Benjamin!” (Genesis 42:36 CEV). So what’s the problem with that? Well, Simeon wasn’t gone- he was just stuck in jail back in Egypt. But as far as Jacob was concerned, Simeon might as well have been dead. This tells us that Jacob imagined the worst-case scenario for his missing sons and automatically assumed that this was what had happened to them.
Finally, Jacob expressed his feelings of hopelessness about the situation by saying, “Everything is against me!” Now its clear that this was a difficult and challenging situation, but it certainly wasn’t hopeless. This was especially true for someone like Jacob, a man who had personally experienced the presence and power of God in his life. So based on what he already knew about God from his personal experience, Jacob should have realized that no circumstance or situation is beyond God’s ability to help (see Jeremiah 32:27).
“Their father Jacob said to them, ‘You’re going to make me lose all my children! Joseph is no longer with us, Simeon is no longer with us, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything’s against me!'” (Genesis 42:36 GW).
Like Jacob, its sometimes easy to lapse into feelings of hopelessness as we face the difficulties and challenges of everyday life. But it is possible avoid falling into this same trap of despair that Jacob fell into here in Genesis chapter 42.
One good way to avoid this snare is to try a change of perspective by looking at the problems of everyday life as tests in disguise. You see, tests don’t always come on a piece of paper or a computer screen. Sometimes they come through the circumstances and situations of daily life.
For example, you can choose to respond to the challenges of life like Jacob and say, “everything is against me.” Or you can look at each problem as an opportunity to exercise faith. The advantage of this second approach is simple: the person who can look at his or her problems as opportunities to exercise the kind of faith that pleases God is someone who is much less likely to give in to those feelings of hopelessness that Jacob did here.
Now before we continue, we should be very clear on something. This does not mean that we should ignore the problems that we experience in life or pretend that they don’t really exist. This also doesn’t mean that we can’t be honest and recognize a problem for what it really is. What we’re really talking about is a change in viewpoint that will help transform a bad response into a good one.
When you are faced with a problem, difficulty, or challenging situation in life, you can choose to respond by saying, “Why did God let this happen to me? Everything is against me.” Or you can respond by saying, “This is my opportunity to exercise the kind of faith that is pleasing to God. I’m not going to lash out at other people, I’m not going to exaggerate the situation and I’m not going to fall into hopelessness and despair. I’m going to ask God to help me respond to this situation in a way that honors Him.”
Remember that Romans 8:28 tells us, “…all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” The person who sees his or her problems as an opportunity to exercise faith is sure to be someone who puts that Scripture into practice.
“Their father Jacob said to them, ‘You are robbing me of all my children. Joseph is gone, Simeon is gone, and now you want to take Benjamin away, too. Everything is against me'” (Genesis 42:39 NCV).
Perhaps Jacob had forgotten about his earlier experiences with God; those times when he received God’s protection as his father-in-law sought to cheat him or injure him (see Genesis 31:41 and Genesis 31:29). In both of those instances, God worked behind the scenes to protect Jacob and help him. If Jacob had only realized that God was also working behind the scenes to help him in this situation as well, then he would have never taken the attitude that everything was against him.
” 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'” (Genesis 42:37-38).
While its good to see that Reuben was determined to protect his brother Benjamin, he was also guilty of making one of the most thoughtless and foolish statements in the entire Bible: “‘You may put my two sons to death if I don’t bring him back to you'” (Genesis 42:37 GW).
Now think about that statement for a moment: how could Jacob possibly be comforted by the thought of killing his own grandchildren if Benjamin didn’t return from Egypt? This brings to mind the Biblical Proverb that says, “Good people think before they answer, but the wicked speak evil without ever thinking” (Proverbs 15:28 CEV).
So this chapter ends with Jacob saying, “‘I won’t let my son Benjamin go down to Egypt with the rest of you. His brother is already dead, and he is the only son I have left. I am an old man, and if anything happens to him on the way, I’ll die from sorrow, and all of you will be to blame'” (CEV). Apparently, Jacob didn’t care very much about the fact that Simeon was still in prison back in Egypt. In fact, it seems that Jacob was prepared to let Simeon spend the rest of his life in a foreign prison rather than let Benjamin go.
Unfortunately for Jacob, the famine that originally caused him to send his sons to Egypt wasn’t going away for a long, long time- and that will eventually cause Jacob to rethink his priorities concerning Benjamin.