42 When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” 2 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.”
3 Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. 5 So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for there was famine in the land of Canaan also.
6 Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the person who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. 7 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.”
8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.9 Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
10 “No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food.11 We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”
12 “No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”
13 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.”
14 Joseph said to them, “It is just as I told you: You are spies! 15 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. 16 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!” 17 And he put them all 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 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 on 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 came back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes.
(Genesis 42:1-24 NIV)
As we ended Chapter 41, we saw Joseph promoted from prisoner to prime minister, the number two position in all of Egypt. Joseph had interpreted the king’s dream, then offered a plan to save during the seven good years in order to survive the seven years of famine. And the famine was not just in Egypt, but throughout the known world.
As we begin Chapter 42, we see the far-reaching effects of the famine – even to Canaan, the promised land where Jacob and his sons lived. News spread throughout the region that there was food in Egypt, so Jacob sent his sons (minus Benjamin, the youngest) to buy grain so that they would be able to survive.
Because of the famine, Joseph was personally administering the sale of grain. When Jacob’s sons (Joseph’s brothers) arrived, Joseph knew them immediately. The last time Joseph had seen his brothers, he was seventeen years old (Genesis 37:2).
Joseph was thirty when the king promoted him, plus the seven prosperous years plus whatever time had elapsed into the seven years of famine. Now 20-plus years later, Joseph instantly recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.
Joseph then remembered the dreams the Lord had given him as a seventeen-year-old youth (Genesis 37:5-11). God’s promise had come true – and was coming true – right in front of him! Here were his brothers, bowing down before him, begging to buy grain!
Joseph knew that his brothers did not recognize him, so he kept them from recognizing him by speaking harshly to them, accusing them as spies, and speaking through an interpreter. Joseph was not being mean or vindictive for what his brothers had done to him; he was disguising his identity behind his role as Egyptian official.
The brothers insisted that they were there as honest men, and that they were not spies. They told their entire family history to Joseph, including their father, their lost brother (whom they were speaking to, but didn’t know it), as well as mentioning their younger brother Benjamin who did not come with them.
Joseph then used the mention of Benjamin as an opportunity to see his only full blood brother. He told his brothers that they must go back to Canaan and bring back their younger brother as proof that they were not spies. Initially, Joseph was going to send one brother back for Benjamin and hold the rest in custody, but instead held just one brother (Simeon) and sent the rest back to retrieve their youngest brother.
Throughout this ordeal, Joseph’s brothers came to the conclusion that this was their punishment for selling Joseph into slavery. Reuben, the oldest brother, did an “I told you so” on his brothers, reminding them that this was their idea, not his, and that he had told them not to harm Joseph.
Hearing all this back story some 20 years later, Joseph had a flood of emotions running through him. He excused himself and wept privately. He then composed himself and returned to face his brothers and finish their business.
How do we face those who have hurt us in the past? Are we vindictive and seek revenge for the wrongs done to us, or are we more like Joseph, with a tender heart toward those who have sinned against us?
May we forgive others as we have been forgiven by the Lord for our sins.