Read Genesis 42:1–28
The famine strikes Egypt just as the dreams had indicated and just as Joseph had said. God had sent the dreams, gave Joseph the interpretation, and sent the famine, thus confirming Joseph in his role as a kind of prophet in Egypt. God had raised him from the pit of prison to the pinnacle of power and privilege. Joseph is a young man in his thirties, and Pharaoh tells anyone who is hungry, “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you” (Gen. 41:55). Egypt has food, and Joseph controls access to its supply. This now becomes important for the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, because the famine has also reached into Canaan, and it impacts the family of Jacob as well. This suggests that the famine is caused not only by poor flooding by the Nile, but also by insufficient rainfall in Canaan. So, the crisis spreads. It will be a crisis over food that will serve to bring the family of Jacob back into the life of Joseph, although his identity will remain hidden from them for some time.
This chapter can be divided along geographic lines: in Canaan (verses 1–5), then in Egypt (verses 6–28), and then back in Canaan again (verses 29–38). This lesson will focus on the scene in Canaan and then the events in Egypt. The next lesson will deal with the brothers back with father Jacob in Canaan.
Standing in the bread line (42:1–5)
Travel and trade between Egypt and Canaan were not unusual activities, and therefore we are not surprised to read that news reaches Canaan that Egypt is surviving the current famine rather well. Egypt becomes again the “breadbasket” for the eastern Mediterranean region. When Jacob hears that food is available in Egypt, he addresses his sons basically by saying, “Why are you sitting around just staring at each other? Get up and go buy food for us!” Apparently even the food resources of Jacob and all his children have fallen on hard times so that their pantries and food stocks are running low.
In sending his sons to Egypt, Jacob very deliberately keeps Benjamin from going along with them. It is not because Benjamin is too young: he is over twenty years old. He is afraid “that harm might come to him” (verse 4). It is somewhat unclear whether Jacob’s fears are concerned with some unfortunate incident that may happen to Benjamin while in Egypt, by Egyptians, or whether he harbors some fears about something happening to Benjamin from his ten sons. To father Jacob, Benjamin is not merely the youngest son, he is the only surviving son of Rachel, his beloved wife, and thus a replacement for Joseph. Shortly after Benjamin had been born, Rachel died. The last time Jacob had seen Joseph, that favorite son, he had left home with his special coat on a journey to find his brothers and their herds. Jacob is shown that very same coat, now smeared with blood, and he had concluded that “a wild animal” had devoured his son. But the reader wonders whether Jacob thinks that perhaps his ten sons know more about Joseph’s disappearance than what they let on. In any case, to be sure that Benjamin remains alive, Jacob keeps him home.
Hunger has reduced the family of Jacob (referred to as Israel in verse 5) to people who are no better than any other hungry folks. The covenant sons will have to go to the same “grocery store” called Egypt like everyone else, and they will have to stand in line to buy their share. This famine has not discriminated between the pagans and the family of God. But God has His saving purposes at work in all this.
Joseph arrests his brothers as a test (42:6–17)
Verse 6 summarizes what we had read earlier in Genesis 41:54–57. Joseph is revealed as a true prophet (41:54), as a potentate (a great ruler; 41:55), and an able provider (41:56). The result in verse 57 is that “all the earth” comes to Joseph for food. He clearly images what the Christ is today par excellence. Consider what this meant: Joseph now controls, directly or indirectly, the political and economic well-being of many peoples. And that will involve his family as well, although they will not know that for some time.
In reading narrative, the reader is always “all-knowing,” literarily speaking. But Joseph is also almost all-knowing, and this serves to heighten the dramatic tension in this story. He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. Of course not! They have assumed that he was dead (or, at best, slaving away in some house or field). Joseph remains hid from their eyes since he was dressed like an Egyptian, almost certainly clean-shaven (Semites were typically bearded), and he uses a translator to communicate with them.
We should not miss how the text arranges the details of the first visit. After reminding us in verse 6 that Joseph is the governor of the land as well as the distributor of food, then we are told that the ten brothers bow down to him as ruler and provider. Joseph recognizes them, but he pretends to be a stranger to them. In his recognition of them, coupled with their bowing down to the ground before him, he now recalls his dreams from years earlier. Some things are now coming together, but Joseph does not let on all that he knows. Although Egyptian policy allowed people to cross the borders to engage in trade, Joseph seeks to turn on them by accusing them of being spies. He is humbling them and testing what kind of men his brothers are.
But is this really a test? Is it not rather punishment? After all, these ten brothers are the very men who had first plotted to kill Joseph, only holding back because he was blood relation, but then selling him in order to make a profit from his disappearance. In effect, that sale to traveling merchants was the equivalent to murder in that Joseph was now out of their life, once and for all (or, so they thought). Murder is any desire that seeks to remove that neighbor whom God has placed next to you. And actions follow desires. This is the sin of the ten brothers, and they have never been held to account for their actions. As they stand before Joseph, he is in a position to administer justice to them. Did they not deserve judgment?
Joseph tests his brothers in a second way (42:18–28)
The ten brothers interpret these harsh circumstances as judgment for their cruel treatment of Joseph earlier. In verse 21 they literally say, “We are truly guilty.” Joseph’s pleas with them when he was in the pit (Gen. 37) and Jacob’s tearful grief have not moved them as these events have. Reuben (verse 22) states that Joseph’s blood is now demanded or required of them. The events of years before continue to trouble Reuben and apparently his brothers with him. Here is where we remember that it was Reuben, the oldest son of Jacob, who had planned to rescue Joseph from the pit and then send him back home. But Joseph was sold before Reuben’s rescue could be carried out. It seems that Reuben’s conscience has been vexed for all these years.
Reuben’s statement is an echo of Genesis 9:5, which says, “And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting… from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.” Sometimes we hear it said, “What goes around, comes around,” as if the world is governed by some kind of impersonal principle of (Hindu or new age) karma, that notion of rewards and punishments that govern what happens to people. Or, you may people say, “He got what was coming to him.”
But the world is not governed by impersonal forces. Our lives are not determined by mechanistic abstractions. This world is a moral universe, governed by a powerful, wise, and just God.
Joseph singles out Simeon for imprisonment. A likely reason may be that he has understood Reuben’s words to his brothers as a kind of exoneration of Reuben. Reuben did not want the boy to be harmed, but Reuben was not present when the brothers sold him to the traveling merchants. If age was a factor in terms of “who is in charge,” then Simeon as the second oldest would likely have been “in charge” while Reuben was gone. Joseph knows then exactly which of his brothers he will imprison. While we cannot prove that this is the reason, it is a plausible explanation. Simeon apparently had done nothing to stop the sale of Joseph into slavery. The brothers now watch as Simeon is arrested, bound, and taken away to prison. They are completely helpless to stop it.
But the picture is not completely bleak. They are given grain and provisions for the journey. They do not know that the money is waiting for its discovery in each man’s grain bag. On the journey back, one of them opens his grain sack and discovers that his money is there. They have escaped imprisonment in Egypt, but this new discovery does not fill them with joy. Rather, they are filled with dread. In the text of the Bible, this is the first recorded instance of the brothers referring to God (see verse 28). They interpret this event not as a chance mistake by the Egyptian officials, but as an event directed by God Himself. But their interpretation does not go any farther. They are not yet at the point where they would say something along the lines of the Apostle Paul, “God works in all things for the good of those who love Him” (cf. Rom. 8:28). They are men with guilty consciences, and now events take on a more ominous meaning.
Jesus Christ is the ruler over all creation, and He is the discerner of all hearts and consciences. As a father disciplines the children he loves, so Christ also disciplines congregations and Christian believers. Can we see the Spirit of Christ working through this “harsh lord of the land,” not for destruction, but for the kind of godly maturity that God seeks in all His children? Behind Joseph is God our Father in Jesus Christ.
Lesson 9: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Reflect on how much food is available in nearby grocery stores. “Give us this day our daily bread,” we pray, but in our hearts we would rather have a nice steak and pie with ice cream. How easy is it to pray for “daily bread” when food supplies in North America are available in such great abundance? What would our society be like if all food production were to stop tomorrow?
2. How does the bowing of the ten brothers to Joseph remind him of his dreams in Genesis 37? Is Joseph beginning now to put the prophetic “pieces of the puzzle” together in regard to what God has in store for him as a ruler over even his family? In other words, how do the two dreams of Genesis 37 put light on what is happening in Genesis 42? If you read into the next several chapters, how much bowing is done by the several characters in this story?
3. The consciences of Joseph’s brothers begin to speak in Genesis 42. Conscience is a God-given part of our own hearts and minds, and it is wonderful when that conscience operates according to what God wants for us as beings created in His image. What does it mean when a person has a “seared conscience?” What happens when a person’s conscience is sinfully twisted or even basically dead?
4. What kind of subtle message might Joseph be giving to his own brothers when he says in verse 18, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God.” Perhaps the ten brothers think that the Egyptian ruler is afraid of his own (Egyptian) god. But could it have awakened in them thoughts about what the true God would expect from them?
5. Joseph’s words and actions strike real fear into his brothers. Was this the right thing to do? Is it possible that there is a kind of perverse delight in Joseph’s heart as he watches his brothers squirm just a bit? How does verse 24 fit into the picture of what is in Joseph’s soul? If he really loves them, why does he not reveal himself to them, then and there, before they set off back to Canaan?
6. In what ways have you experienced God’s discipline in your life?