Genesis 42 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
6 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. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”
12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days.
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 remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.
26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”
29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’ ”
35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Genesis 41 ended by letting us know that, just as God had forewarned through Pharaoh’s dream, a “famine had spread over all the land…” and therefore, “Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians… Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.”
Joseph’s family—his father and ten brothers, who were still in Canaan—were no exception. They too, it seems, faced the brunt of the famine and were running low on food. Not yet in dire straits, but with them in sight, Jacob and his sons were not sure what to do.
We’ve all been there on some level, haven’t we? We’re able to see that the trajectory of our lives is headed toward something very undesirable. To do nothing would be to all but guarantee that particular outcome, but we don’t know of any better alternatives. Sitting still is foolish, but everything else seems foolish too. Probably deeper still is the pull of the status quo. In situations like this, we’re often irrationally more afraid of losing our “normal life” than we are of whatever suffering the current trajectory is pointing at. That, I believe, is at the heart of Jacob’s question to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” (1). No one wanted to admit how serious their situation was and so no one wanted to take the lead in addressing it.
As the patriarch, however, Jacob felt responsible to not simply sit around and wait for his family to die. He knew they had to do something. That is where our passage for this morning picks up.
This chapter focuses on God’s greatness, the fulfillment of the first of Joseph’s (chapter 37) dreams, and the testing of Joseph’s brothers. There’s some trickiness to Joseph’s actions, but the heart of this passage is, once again, the miraculous work of God to bring about His plan of redemption for His faithful people. Above all, then, we’re meant to read this passage and be amazed by the mighty, saving hand of God and be glad for the new faithfulness of Joseph’s brothers—God’s covenant people. Let’s pray that God would use this passage to make us more amazed and faithful.
JACOB SENDS HIS TRUSTING SONS TO EGYPT (1-5)
With the famine crushing “all the earth,” Jacob somehow learned that there was food (grain) in Egypt. Rather than continue to sit around and wait to starve, he sent his sons—all of them except his youngest, Benjamin—to Egypt to buy food. The text tells us that Jacob kept Benjamin behind because “he feared that harm might happen to him.” Presumably Jacob’s fear came from what he expected but could not prove—that his other sons were responsible for Joseph’s death. Such is the nature of a corrupt character. Even when it is accompanied by a slipperiness that prevents prosecution, it produces an unmistakable stench that warns everyone around.
Nevertheless, dutifully, the rest of Jacob’s sons obeyed and headed to Egypt to purchase food; of course, with no idea of what was in store for them.
JOSEPH TESTS HIS BROTHERS (6-38)
Still in charge of the land, and still overseeing the famine management personally, Joseph was the one selling grain back to the Egyptians and anyone else who came to Egypt to get it. For that reason, when the brothers arrived in Egypt, without realizing it, they came before Joseph himself. Recognizing his authority, the “bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (6). In this moment, Joseph knew what his brothers hadn’t yet realized: the first of Joseph’s dreams was fulfilled. Their sheaves were bowing down before Joseph’s sheaves (37:7). V.9 makes this explicit, “Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamed of them.”
The key for us is simply that God’s purposes always come to pass. His goodness, wisdom and power are without limit and so God’s word is always perfect, and He always keeps it. When God communicates His will—whether through direct revelation, visions, dreams, prophets, writings, His own Son or anything else—it will never fail. At least twenty years had elapsed since God had given Joseph this dream, but it was as certain to come to pass when God gave it, as it was here in its fulfillment.
Grace, we can trust God in all He says. It will come to pass in His perfect timing.
I want to make one quick note before we move on to the main body of the passage. V.8 says, “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” How could that be? They were brothers. Perhaps part of the answer is that God kept them from recognizing him until the time was right. The text doesn’t tell us this is what happened, but God did that kind of thing several times in the Bible.
Or, perhaps, there’s a more “natural” explanation. Again, it had been at least 20 years since Joseph’s brothers had seen him last. We all change quite a bit from 17 to 40. On top of that, Joseph had clearly taken on a more Egyptian appearance and the context was all wrong. Just this week I had a woman I didn’t know ask me if I knew a Dan VanAcker. I immediately pictured some older guy and said “No”. As it turns out, though, I do know a Dan VanAcker. We just never call him that and it never occurred to me that the woman was talking about a kid—the context was wrong.
To be clear, we aren’t sure why the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph, but we do know for sure that they didn’t. And that turns out to be a key aspect of this story because what follows is a series of tests that Joseph put his unsuspecting brothers through. They were the chosen family of God, the fathers of Israel’s twelve tribes, but they had been anything but faithful to God. To be a light to the world, they needed to be walking in the light. But where they? Had they changed? Was there any remorse for their misguided hatred and enslavement of their brother? Again, Joseph’s (six) tests were meant to let everyone involved find the answers to those questions.
The Background Test (7)
The first test Joseph gave his brothers was a kind of background check. He “treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them,” asking a question he already knew the answer to in order to see if they would tell the truth. “Where did you come from?” This test was simple enough. To answer honestly would reveal very little. There was no conceivable reason to lie other than corrupt character. In this case they told the truth, we are from the “land of Canaan,” they said. So far, so good.
The Pressure Test (9-14)
The next test came in the form of a false accusation. Joseph said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land” (v.9). Joseph’s brothers told the truth regarding their homeland, but what would they do when he accused them of being foreign spies? Well, as can be expected, they vehemently denied the accusation, and reiterated that they were only there to purchase food. In the process of doing so, they also “revealed” a bit more about themselves. They “let Joseph know” that they were all brothers.
Unrelenting, Joseph continued to dial up the pressure. He insisted that they were indeed spies. In response, the brothers continued to deny the claim, and in the process “revealed” even more background information. This time, they told Joseph that they were ten of twelve brothers, with the youngest back home and one “no more” (13). In all of this, they passed another test, but insodoing, brought a third upon themselves.
The Retrieval Test (15-16)
The third test (and all of these seem to intentionally come in rapid fire to possibly throw the brothers off), began with a third accusation of being spies. This time, however, Joseph offered his brothers a specific way to prove their innocence. They could demonstrate beyond doubt that they were not spies if they were able to produce their younger brother. Nine brothers would remain in Egypt while one would travel back home to get their youngest brother. This was the first test that was truly verifiable and Joseph wanted to see what they would do.
Beyond that, God’s plan was to reunite His chosen family as a means of continuing to fulfill His covenant promises. Jacob and his clan had to be brought back together. The key, however, is that they had to come together not only in physical proximity, but also in faith. As strange as Joseph’s actions might seem on the surface, all of these “tests” were designed by God to make them a faithful people.
The Prison Test (17)
Before we find out the outcome of the third test, a fourth was introduced. Joseph, the imprisoned, became the imprisoner. In a remarkable twist and clear fulfillment of God’s dream-revelation, Joseph took his brothers in “custody” and put them in prison (17). Perhaps they would reveal some aspect of faithlessness while they were there. Being incarcerated by a powerful “stranger,” in a foreign land, for crimes they didn’t commit, would certainly shake loose any remaining character acting, right? With the pressure turned way up, how would they respond?
The Modified Retrieval Test (18-20)
After three days in prison, Joseph released his brothers and reintroduced the retrieval test—albeit in a slightly modified way. The brothers still needed to produce Benjamin as proof of their story, but instead of sending only one brother (with the rest remaining in custody), they would leave only one brother. The rest would carry grain back home to their families and return with Benjamin.
Embedded in this last test is a really significant statement. In v.18 Joseph declared that he was providing his brothers with a means of vindication because he feared God (18). The phrases, “Fear God,” “Fear the LORD,” and “The fear of the LORD,” occur nearly 100 times in the Bible (and there are a decent number of additional, similar phrases).
As Abraham was about to take his son’s life at God command, the LORD spoke up and said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (“Genesis 22:12). In this passage, it was a very good thing that Abraham feared God.
In Deuteronomy 6:1-2 we read, “Now this is the commandment, the statutes and the rules that the LORD your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, 2 that you may fear the LORD your God, you and your son and your son’s son…”. Again, the purpose of the God’s commands was to teach His people to fear Him. Again, clearly a good thing.
Similarly, Proverbs 1:7 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge.”
On the other hand, a continual refrain in the Bible is that both God’s people and His enemies commit a dangerous and often deadly error when they fail to fear Him.
But that’s OT stuff, right? Christians don’t need to fear the LORD, do we? Grace, to know God is to fear Him. If you do not tremble at the thought of the Almighty, you are not really thinking of the Almighty. God’s nature is such that the Bible describes Him as a “consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29) and a “dreaded warrior” (Jeremiah 20:11).
In simplest terms, every person on earth ought to fear God (albeit in different ways). For the unrepentant sinner, the fear of the LORD consists mainly of a well-placed terror that you stand condemned before God in your sin and therefore all of His infinite might is aimed at your everlasting destruction. But for the one hoping in Jesus, the blood of Jesus has reconciled you to God and there is, therefore, no more fear of God’s condemnation (Romans 8:1). In this way, the fear of the LORD leads to repentance, and the gospel is such that repentance leads to freedom from fear. Christians, then, are left to live in a different kind of fear—a reverential awe that restrains your sinful desires and drives you to obedience in the love of God.
With that, because Joseph knew these things about God, the fear of God was upon him. And the text tells us that his (right) fear of God compelled him to act justly toward his brothers. Even if some part of him wanted to seek vengeance, the fear of the LORD restrained it. Joseph’s brothers would get a fair test because Joseph knew that God does not tolerate unfairness from His people.
Again then, constrained by the fear of the LORD, Joseph was testing his brothers to see if they had changed. As to their response to the tests: At the very least, to this point, Joseph’s brothers seem far humbler and more deferential than they did the last time we encountered them. But being humble and deferential to the most powerful man around, the one who holds your very life in their hands, doesn’t necessarily signal a true change of heart. It’s one thing to be low around someone who is higher than you (as Joseph was at this moment), but it’s altogether different to be low around someone who is weak and vulnerable (as Joseph had been the last time they saw him). Similarly, it’s one thing to admit wrong doing, but it’s another thing altogether to be truly repentant. The brothers had yet to fail a test, but had they truly passed them or just put on a good show?
Before we move on to the answer, and the final section of the sermon, let’s quickly consider these things in our own lives. Are you marked by genuine, God-given, gospel-centered repentance, or are you just good at putting on a show when it’s advantageous? Let me give you four questions to help you diagnose the true nature of your sin-response.
- Are you allowing God’s Word to define sin for you? If you or someone else has created your understanding of sin, you lack true repentance.
- Do you understand your sin mainly in terms of rebellion against God? If you are most concerned about the earthly implications of your sin, you lack true repentance.
- Do you feel genuine grief? There is a kind of worldly grief that feels sad about your sin, but with a head down, woe-is-me attitude. That’s not true repentance. But there is also a kind of godly grief that feels sad about your sin, with a head-up, thanks-for-the-cross attitude. True repentance involves that kind of grief.
- Finally, do these things lead to a renewed fight against sin in light of the cross, in the power of the Spirit, and for the glory of God? Is the end result a genuine and renewed distaste for and battle against the sin (true repentance) or a wallowing or indifference (putting on a show)?
These are the things we ought to look for in ourselves and in Joseph’s brothers as the story continues. And that leads to the final question, that of the response of Joseph’s brothers.
JOSEPH’S BROTHERS’ RESPONSE (21-38)
A straightforward answer to the question of the true nature of the brothers’ response comes right on the heels of Joseph’s last recorded words in this passage. He said, “bring your youngest brother to me…so your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” In response, the text simply says, “And they did so” (20). There’s more to their response, but this is another positive sign.
The real key comes just a few verses later. After Joseph’s spoke, the brothers began to discuss these things among themselves. For reasons we’re not told, all of this triggered a genuine confession and expression of remorse within the brothers. For the first time, collectively, they acknowledged the treachery of their actions.
“Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen’” (21). And from that, they concluded, “That is why this distress has come upon us.” Grace, don’t miss the gift this is. The brothers had been guilty for decades, but only here did God grant them the ability to feel and lament their guilt. Recognizing and grieving over our sin is a gift from God!
Reuben dropped the big “I told you so,” even going so far as to call their actions “sin” (22) and their current circumstances “a reckoning for his blood.”
Importantly, we’re told (in v.23) that Joseph overheard this discussion. I say importantly because, once again, all of this was meant to reveal to everyone involved (Joseph, his brothers, their father, and even God), whether or not the brothers had truly forsaken the kind of unrepentant faithlessness that would disqualify them from covenant participation. More and more, the text gives us a picture of real transformation. As we’ll see, they were not perfect by any measure, but they were becoming faithful.
Hearing all of this, Joseph “turned away from them and wept” (24). Presumably, these were tears of both bitterness and sweetness. What a revelation and lesson this is for us. It is a revelation that whatever Joseph projected on the surface was a disguise for his true feelings. Through all of this Joseph felt pain to be sure, but the pain was wrapped in a warm affection for his brothers in spite of their treachery against him. The lesson, then, is that the unmerited favor of God in our lives is entirely sufficient for us to give unmerited favor to others.
Eager to restore fellowship at this point, Joseph bound Simeon and then sent the rest on their way. Before he did, however, there was but one more test Joseph needed to administer and one with the results still pending. The final test of the chapter involved selling grain to his brothers and then hiding their money in their grain sacks. How would they respond when faced with this injustice? And, of course, the test results still pending concerned whether or not they would return with Benjamin.
On their way home, one of the brothers discovered the money in his sack and the hearts of all the brothers trembled, fearing once again that God was punishing them for their earlier treachery. They wondered aloud among themselves, “What is this that God has done to us?” (28).
Back at home, they retold the entire ordeal to their father, Jacob (29-34), before realizing that the money hadn’t been returned to just one of the sacks, but to all of them. Upon discovering this, “they were afraid” (35).
Seeing and hearing all of this caused Jacob to recoil himself. He lamented again the loss of Joseph, felt certain of the loss of Simeon, and anticipated the pain of the loss of Benjamin should they carry out Joseph’s plan. “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.”
And yet, as further proof of the genuineness of the brothers’ new-found faith, Reuben sought to act faithfully and justly. He offered his own two sons up as collateral until he returned safely with both Simeon and Benjamin. However, this was not enough to set Jacob’s mind at ease. Understandably, he cried out, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol” (38).
While understandable, Jacob’s refusal effectively condemned them all—Simeon because he was still in captivity, and the rest, eventually, because they would no longer be able to purchase grain from Egypt.
We end, then, with two ungraded tests. What would the brothers do with the money in their sacks and would they be able to make good on their promise to return with Benjamin in light of their father’s objections?
Let me conclude with a quick restatement of the heart of this passage and a final challenge for us all. The whole of the chapter focuses on God’s greatness, the fulfillment of Joseph’s first dream, and the testing of Joseph’s brothers. Through it all we see, once again, the miraculous work of God to bring about His plan of redemption by making a faithful people. And above all, then, we’re meant to read this passage and be amazed by the mighty, saving hand of God and be glad for the new God-given faithfulness of Joseph’s brothers.
In the way of a challenge, I invite you to consider the simple fact that our lives too are filled with “tests” intended to reveal both the presence and maturity of our faith. We’re not saved by passing those tests. We’re saved by trusting in the One who did. What’s more, the same grace of God that saves us on the merit of Another, also continually and increasingly fills us with the character of the Meritorious one. In that way, I challenge you to consider the “tests” of your life. Consider the times that tempt you to walk in sin. Consider what happens when your appetites are contrary to God’s nature. Consider the trials and difficulties you are enduring. And as you consider these things, where you find an increasing appetite to honor God in them (even if it seems too small and too slow), you’ve found genuine proof of God’s saving and sanctifying work in you. This week, then, remember the great wickedness of Joseph’s brothers, remember the “tests” Joseph put them through, and then remember the greater grace of God that extended to them and to you through Jesus Christ.