Read Genesis 44:18–34
During the first visit Joseph’s ten brothers to Egypt, they claimed that they were “honest men” (Gen. 42:11). Joseph recognized them and remembered the dreams of his youth. He then proceeds to test them to see whether their claim to be honest men was true (Gen. 42:15,16). But Joseph’s interest is more than whether they were honest in their words at the present moment. What kind of men are they now, years after the tragic events in which they had plotted murder and then sold Joseph into slavery? Had they changed, or were they even more hardened in their sinful hatred and cruelty? Joseph overhears them say that God had exposed their guilt. But now the test that Joseph puts them through will reveal whether they are changed in terms of how they will act. Joseph secretly has planted his own silver cup in the grain sack of his brother Benjamin. Will the brothers defend Benjamin, or will they abandon him to his fate?
Joseph awaited the return of his official, the man sent out to stop the brothers on their way home. The plan is working out as he had anticipated. The cup was found in Benjamin’s sack of grain. The brothers are not prepared to fight back against the Egyptian authorities. They have torn their clothes in shock and grief, and they silently return to Joseph’s house where they throw themselves to the ground. Joseph stays in character as the harsh official, the man who has accused them, imprisoned them, released them, and also feasted with them. He roughly accuses them again, suggesting that he knows more than an ordinary mortal might know.
Judah faces this harsh man with no plea, pained by the knowledge that they are all innocent. How can their innocence be proved? On the other hand, the evidence against them was clearly found in Benjamin’s sack. “God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves” (verse 17). This is the situation in Judah’s mind. In other words, we will all suffer the sentence together.
Joseph counters with a kind of bargain for the brothers to take, and, on the surface of things, a bargain that is truly merciful: only the guilty man, Benjamin, should pay for the crime and not the entire group. This is quite a merciful offer from such an important Egyptian official, from the same man who had accused them of being spies before. He is showing the ten brothers an open door that will allow them to escape slavery in Egypt. No money to bribe the official. No “community service” to perform in some Egyptian city. Just go home!
Again, from a truly selfish vantage point, the picture presented by Joseph is clear. Self-interest would whisper in the fearful, anxious hearts of the brothers, “Let’s get out of here! The man is prepared to let us go. Let’s get out while the ‘getting’ is good, before this guy changes his mind.” They have now every opportunity to abandon Benjamin. They could now all get away now with their lives. Will they take this opportunity to save their own skins? Here is the test.
Judah recalls the events to this point (44:18–30)
Genesis 44:18–34 is a very moving and passionate defense of Benjamin. It is as moving as the following scene in Genesis 45 in which Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. Judah and his brothers cannot argue justice, but only mercy. Judah is almost eloquent as he begins with words that border on flattery. Joseph is addressed repeatedly as “my lord” while the brothers are referred to as “your servants.” All of this is in line with the language style of the ancient Near East. He seeks to soften up the harsh official. We the readers, however, must be clear as to what Judah’s purpose is here. He is not seeking to have the harsh Egyptian lord release him and his “non-guilty” brothers. Joseph has said that he may go! Rather, Judah is trying to have Benjamin set free. That is the sole issue that Judah must address.
Judah’s emotional address to Joseph reveals to him what the “official story” had been about his death earlier: he had been torn to pieces. Furthermore, Judah’s appeal contains a few minor differences with what we have read earlier. For example, Judah says that Joseph had asked about a father and a brother. But in Genesis 42:13 we read that the brothers had mentioned their father and brother, apparently unasked. Also, earlier the brothers had said that one brother is “no more.” In Genesis 44:20, Judah says that he is “dead.” (Quite a surprise: Joseph knows that reports of his death are greatly exaggerated… but Judah does not yet know that!).
In this speech of Judah, Joseph learns about the painful reaction of his father Jacob to both the demand that Benjamin come along as well as Jacob’s reaction to the loss of Joseph, 22 years earlier (verses 24–29). We can read of Jacob’s earlier reactions in Genesis 42:36-38; 43:6; and 43:11–14. In the speech, Judah mentions his father 14 times! Jacob had loved Joseph, and Joseph knew it. They all knew it!
There are three points in Judah’s most moving intercession, as he pleads to suffer in Benjamin’s place. Judah recalls the facts leading to Benjamin’s coming to Egypt. We learn (again) the facts that led to the present situation, we hear what effect there will be on father Jacob if Benjamin does not return, and we hear of Judah’s firm vow to take the younger brother’s place.
Judah details the possible effects on Jacob (44:30, 31)
Judah spells out how the father’s love for Benjamin is like two lives that have become intertwined. If the one is gone, the other will fade away in grief and sorrow. Joseph must have heard these words and remembered Jacob’s love for him in earlier years. Thus Joseph knows that Jacob has transferred that same love and affection upon Benjamin. Losing Joseph had been hard enough; losing Benjamin will be fatal, according to Judah.
What has gotten into Judah to say all this? He has really changed! Judah accepts God’s ways in exposing their guilt (verse 16). Compare this with the earlier Judah (Gen. 37:26,27). Joseph now knows that the brother who sold him into slavery has become a brother willing to assume slavery rather than cause the death of his father. Once an enemy, Judah has become a true “brother.” This point is critical for all that happens next. Clearly Judah emerges now as an intercessor who is willing to assume the fate of his brother. Compare this with what Christ did (Phil. 2:5–11) when He emptied Himself of heavenly glory and assumed servant form and willingly died a cursed death in our place.
Clearly, Judah has accepted the fact that Benjamin has replaced Joseph as his father’s favorite son. No bitterness, no jealousy, and no hatred against Benjamin are evident. This is quite remarkable, but it is something for which we readers can give God alone the glory. The emphasis should not be first of all on Judah, his honesty or even his bravery. Rather, such a transformation of heart and attitude in Judah comes about only through the quiet yet powerful working of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ.
Judah vows to take Benjamin’s place (44:32–34)
Judah is being true to his word, since he had vowed that he personally would act to defend the safety of Benjamin (see Gen. 43:9,10). There is some irony here in that it was Judah who had earlier proposed selling Joseph into slavery (see Gen. 37:27). Now Judah stands before that same brother, only now Judah is offering himself as a slave to Joseph. The tables are turned!
By nature, we are selfish, considering “number one” (“Me, myself, and I”) to be the center of the universe and therefore the focus of reality. By nature, we are absorbed in ourselves, and the concerns of others are not our primary concern. Judah, like his other brothers, hated Joseph and was prepared to kill him. But he has changed: now he is fully prepared to give up his own life for Joseph’s younger brother, Benjamin. This change comes by God’s amazing grace!
The character of Judah’s offer of himself stands in stark contrast with what Reuben had earlier proposed. Reuben had earlier offered his two sons, proposing that they die if Reuben failed to protect Benjamin (Gen. 42:37). That is, “let me—Reuben—live, but you can kill my two sons.” That is a rather sorry offer! Jacob could not bear to lose Benjamin and watch two grandsons also be put death. But Judah does not offer anyone else—just himself.
A later son of Judah, Jesus Christ, would do something like that. “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His only begotten Son…” (John 3:16). That verse, which we all know and love so much, puts before us the great reality that God sent His own and only Son, not someone else’s son. For there was no other because there could be no other to accomplish what needed to be done in order to rescue and redeem those who were under a death sentence. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God their Father in the Garden of Eden, the entire world and all of mankind stood under a death sentence. Humanity was condemned to death. But the gospel announces that God the Father sent God the Son into this world, not to condemn it, but to redeem it by His blood (see John 3:17). He gave His life as a substitute for us, purchasing all those whom God had chosen in electing love before the foundation of heaven and earth (see Eph. 1:3ff.).
“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Judah refuses to leave Benjamin to a future of slavery and thus watch his father die in soul-crushing grief. Judah declares that he will trade his life for his half-brother. Judah’s speech shatters Joseph. His demeanor breaks, for he hears the very words that only come from a man changed by something far greater than human “niceness.” Judah has been changed by the Spirit of his even greater descendant, his Son Jesus Christ.
Lesson 13: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Why does Judah take the lead here in speaking to Joseph? Why do Reuben and the other brothers seem to fall silent?
2. Judah and his brothers experience a kind of “judgment day” when they appear before Joseph to give an answer for the accusation of stealing a special silver cup. They throw themselves on the “mercy of the court.” Hebrews 9:27 says that man is “destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.” What is the only hope for believers in that great day of days when we must all appear before God in judgment? How can God be merciful to us then?
3. The dilemma the brothers face when Joseph offers them an escape—but in the process they would abandon Benjamin—is one Christians often face. It is easy to confess love and loyalty to Jesus Christ on Sundays when surrounded by fellow believers, but how do we confess him in the areas of life outside of the comfortable church circles? What kinds of challenges do you face at work or in school in which it is very difficult to confess Christ?
4. Judah is prepared to defend Benjamin from slavery. Later, Peter in the upper room was prepared to die for Christ. But he wilted later when he stood in the courtyard of the high priest, and people pointed at him as a follower of Christ. Why did Peter’s faith falter at that point? From where does true Christian courage come?
5. The Apostle John writes in 1 John 4:16, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” This suggests that our love for one another should be prepared to go as far as martyrdom. But, since most of us will not be confronted with that extreme sacrifice, how do we show the same kind of love today to brothers and sisters in the faith?