Genesis 42-44, Arousing the Conscience
With the exception of Rachel’s sons, Joseph and Benjamin, Jacob’s sons were a miserable sorry bunch. Reuben had committed incest with his father’s wife (Gen. 35), Simeon and Levi had planned and carried out genocide on an entire town in Genesis 34, Judah impregnated his daughter in law in Genesis 38, and nine of the brothers had beaten Joseph and sold him into slavery. Is there any hope for this sorry bunch? What do they need? God knew they needed an awakening of their conscience and accountability, and God was going to see that they got it. They no doubt think they have it made after they got rid of their brother Joseph, who was Dad’s favorite. With him gone, Dad will show us more attention, and we can run our own lives without that tattletale Joseph watching over us. Not so fast! In Genesis 41:57, we read that a terrible drought and famine was severe throughout the Middle East, and they were starving. The famine affected Egypt also, but because Joseph had wisely stored massive amounts of food, Egypt had enough stored up to feed that part of the world. Therefore, by the providence of God Joseph’s brothers would have to journey from Canaan to Egypt to try and buy food, and amazingly they would be brought before Joseph to give account of themselves. Just as Joseph’s dream predicted back when he was 17, his brothers would bow down before him and call him Lord. Joseph, in disguise, would engineer an awakening of guilt in his brothers by testing them multiple times. Would they humble themselves, admit their guilt, and repent? By God’s grace, they just might be transformed before Joseph’s eyes.
Test #1, The Masquerade and the Set-Up, Genesis 42:6-25
Starving, Jacob sent ten of the brothers to Egypt to buy food, but Jacob kept Benjamin his youngest and favorite at home. People and things had a way of disappearing when his other sons were responsible, and Jacob would not risk losing Ben. Since Joseph was Governor of Egypt and in charge of the storage food, the ten brothers were brought before him for examination. They did not recognize Joseph for he had been Egyptianized with a clean shaven face and head, different clothes, different language, and of course over 20 years had gone by. Joseph’s wise plan was to test them to see if they were still selfish liars. Would they sacrifice their brother like they did him? Don’t miss that Joseph put them through the same kind of harsh treatment they had done to him. He accused them of being spies, then he threw them in the pit. Then Joseph held Simeon as captive while he sent the rest back to Jacob with food. His order was that they had to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. Will they abandon Simeon to slavery as they had Joseph? Right off the bat their repressed guilt comes to the surface, and not knowing Joseph could understand them, they confess among themselves that their sins have found them out. Reuben even said that all this was a “reckoning for the shed blood” of their brother. Now Joseph knows that in the last 20 years the guilt and shame had virtually imprisoned his brothers. They were like the man who sent a check for $1000 to the IRS with a note that said “I haven’t been able to sleep at night because I cheated on my taxes, if I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the rest!” The brothers experienced a corporate admission of guilt, and begin to see the providence of God at work to convict them of their sin. One theologian wrote, “Guilt is a grace if it brings the guilty to seek forgiveness, and now wracked with guilt the brothers are in the way of God’s grace.” Furthering the test, Joseph sold them grain but secretly put their money back in their sacks so it would look like they stole it. In Genesis 42:28, they discovered the money after they left Egypt, and proclaim “What is this that God has done to us?” They see God in all this and their guilt and fear of God increases. They had been living their lives by their own rules as if God did not exist, but now they are being made aware that God was watching, and having sown the wind they were reaping the whirlwind. From this point on their consciences were awakened and sensitive. Their sorrow now paved the way for repentance. Amazingly, God was blessing them with guilt, with sorrow, and with fear. Question—Is repressed guilt a common and painful thing to the authors of the Bible? Ps.31:10 “My strength has failed because of my sin”. Ps. 38:4 “My iniquities are a heavy burden and too much for me”. Isa.6:5 “Woe is me for I am a man of unclean lips” Luke 15:18 “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son”. 1 Cor.15:9, “For I am the least of the Apostles, unworthy…because I persecuted the church”. 1 Tim.1:15, “Christ came to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost”.
Test #2, the Brothers Second Visit, Genesis 43
God was awakening the conscience of the ten brothers. They experienced the desperate material need, the pain of harsh treatment, and the humiliation of being in submission to someone else. Therefore all self-reliance was gone. God would continue to work in their lives to bring their hidden sin to light, and by doing so transform their lives. The famine continued to get worse so Jacob told his sons to go back to Egypt and buy more food, but Judah pleaded with him to let Benjamin go with them because the Governor had made that a condition. Judah even interceded to guarantee Ben’s safety saying, “I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him”. Therefore, Judah took Benjamin, the money, and presents for the Governor, and all the brothers returned to Egypt. When they got to Joseph’s house they were invited in, but were terrified it was a trap to kill them. In their heart they knew they deserved it—little did they know that God and Joseph still loved them and would forgive them.
Chuck Colson wrote in his book, “If we are very fortunate, very blessed by God, our problems, our adversity, and our failures will be used by God to change our lives and bring us to Christ.” Colson had a very successful military career in the Marine Core, had then gone to Washington University Law School, and then became the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he had founded a successful law firm. He joined the Nixon administration in 1969 as Special Counsel to the President. He had great success all the way to the top of the ladder, but as Nixon’s “hatchet man” he had crossed the line, and once said, “I would walk over my own grandmother to get things done”. He was indicted in the Watergate Scandal for obstruction of justice. Awaiting trial, a Senator who before was an enemy, led Colson to Christ before he was put in prison. Colson was humbled and his life radically changed. After prison he started a wonderful prison ministry, and went into full time Christian ministry. He later wrote “It wasn’t my successes God used to enable me to help those in prison—all my achievements meant nothing in prison. No, the real legacy of my life was my biggest failure—going to prison. My greatest humiliation was the beginning of God’s greatest use of my life”. Joseph’s brothers also thought God was hurting them, but like Colson they would find out it was for their own good.
In Genesis 43:15-34, the brothers of Joseph were very timid, still feeling the pangs of guilt and worried that the powerful Egyptian Governor would harm them. To their surprise the Governor’s steward speaks kindly to them, and Simeon is brought out to them. They were given water and food and treated as guests. Joseph (in disguise as the Governor), spoke kindly to them and had a feast for them. In verse 30 we can see Joseph’s great love for his brothers, as he got so emotional that he had to leave for a while and then come back. An even bigger surprise was that they were seated in order of their age—the oldest to the youngest, and then the youngest Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother, got five times more than anyone else. I think Joseph showed such favor to Benjamin to test the others, to see how they would react to such favoritism. Would they still be jealous and resent him? As students, we know that Joseph will forgive them and bless them and eventually restore his relationship with them. I think we can see this scene as typology of our own forgiveness and salvation. When we were alienated from God, God meant to awaken us to our guilt and move us to believe in Him. We were sinners in the same position as Joseph’s brothers. We had to humble ourselves, and come to the Lord confessing our sin and believing in Him. In spite of our sin, God loves us and He is gracious and forgiving, and our relationship with God is restored. The brothers of Joseph had responded very well to Joseph’s tests—they admitted their guilt and made restitution for the money in their sacks, they came back for their brother, they recognized the providence of God, and showed no jealousy when Ben got more than they did.
The Last Test of the Silver Chalice, Genesis 44
Joseph had one last test to see if they had fully repented. It was as if God never gave their consciences rest. On their first visit God graced them with guilt, fear, and sorrow. Then on their second visit God blessed them with unexpected mercy and forgiveness. Now in the climax of these tests, we will see the transformed brothers. Once again Joseph duplicated the temptation to which the brothers had originally given into when they sold Joseph into slavery. The temptation of the silver chalice was both a test and also a path to transformation. The next morning after the feast in ch.43, they arose and set off for Canaan. Little did they know that Joseph and his steward had set them up by placing an expensive silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. Would the brothers sacrifice Benjamin to save themselves? Joseph sent soldiers to overtake them and sure enough they found the cup in Ben’s sack. The steward delivered the words Joseph had instructed, “Why have you repaid evil for good?” Instead of giving up Ben, they all returned to face the music, and they confessed their past long-standing sins and showed the love they had for Ben. Judah stepped up and offered himself as a substitute hostage instead of Ben. A great transformation had taken place in the hearts of the brothers. Years ago they had sold out their brother Joseph, but now given the same opportunity to sell out Benjamin, they had changed. Judah as spokesperson had stepped up and confessed not to the cup, but to their previous sins that he knew God was aware of, and Judah affirmed their love for their father and their brother Benjamin. This story well illustrates the transforming grace that God brings into all our lives that victory comes from defeat, healing through brokenness, and you find yourself when you lose “self”.