We continue today our series of messages on the life of Joseph. Today we are going to look at the first 25 verses of Genesis chapter 42. Joseph is now the prime minister in Egypt. During seven years of prosperity, he has gathered and stored so much grain in Egypt that it cannot be counted. And now the seven years of famine have come. It is a famine that affects the entire Mediterranean region. The world hears that there is grain in Egypt, and people come from all over to Joseph for food.
In this chapter, Joseph’s ten brothers come to Egypt for grain and we have, not only the first meeting between Joseph and his brothers, but also the beginning of the road to reconciliation in Joseph’s family—a reconciliation not only between Joseph and his brothers, but also between Jacob and his sons.
Genesis 42 is very straight forward in its layout. There are three movements. First, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt for food. Then, second, there is the encounter between the ten brothers and the ruler of Egypt, who is Joseph their brother. And then third, the brothers return to Jacob their father and tell him about their visit to Egypt.
In this message we want to look at the first two parts of this story, but I want, not just to tell you the familiar story, but to see in it the beginning of reconciliation in this family.
Reconciliation in a family is sweet, but usually also very painful. When an estranged husband and wife are reconciled, we who look on rejoice, but the road to their reconciliation, especially for them, is very difficult. It requires the uncovering and confession of sin. Sometimes years of guilt or bad behavior are brought to the surface, and the process of working through such things is very painful. That is the kind of pain that we see here in Joseph’s family as they go down the road to reconciliation.
We see in this chapter, which takes us back to Canaan and the house of Jacob, the need for reconciliation. The real rift in this family is not between Joseph and his ten brothers who hated and sold him, at least not from Joseph’s point of view. No, Joseph is very ready to forgive for that. The real rift is between Jacob and his ten sons.
There are two things here, the grief of Jacob, and the guilt of his sons. These stand in the way of restoration in this family. You remember that, back in chapter 37, when they lied to their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast, Jacob refused to be comforted, and said, “I will go down into the grave unto my son, mourning.” After 20 years, nothing has really changed. The passing of time has not erased Jacob’s grief or the guilt of his sons. Instead, Jacob’s daily grief serves to keep alive the guilt of his sons, and their guilt makes it impossible for them really to comfort their father.
The chapter begins this way, verse 1. Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, he said unto his sons, “Why do ye look one upon another?”
What’s going on? This. From the last verses of the previous chapter we learn two things. 1) that the famine extended over the face of all the earth. Jacob and his sons experience this too. Each day, there’s less to eat. There’s no food for their cattle. Their children’s portions are getting smaller and smaller. And, 2) that all the countries came to Egypt to Joseph to buy corn. Everyone knew that there was food in Egypt. Jacob did, and his sons did too.
Now remember, these are grown men. Joseph, younger than all of them, is already at least 37 years old. But what do they do about the famine? Nothing. They sit around and look at each other because the last thing they want to do is go to Egypt. They have a previous association with Egypt, and they do not want to go there. They want to stay away from where they know their brother Joseph now lives. Do you not see here their guilt? It is still there.
Jacob does not know this, but listen to how harshly he speaks to his sons. “Why do ye look one upon another? Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt, get you down thither and buy for us from thence, that we may live and not die.”
Those words of Jacob reveal a strained relationship. Is this how he’s been talking to his sons for 20 years? It is very likely. “Quit staring at one another, get your act together and get down to Egypt, or we’re all gonna die.”
So, guilty brothers, and harsh father.
And then verse three tells us that Joseph’s ten brothers went down to buy corn in Egypt. Why ten? Well, because there is safety in numbers and because the more of them that went, the more food they could bring back for their clan of 70 people.
But why only ten? Why not 11, why not Benjamin? Verse four tells us that Jacob would not let him go, with this reason, “lest peradventure mischief befall him.” Understand, that is totally unreasonable. Benjamin is not a child. He is well past 20 years of age, the time that Joseph has been away. The real reason is that Benjamin has become to Jacob what Joseph was.
And so, for twenty years now, the brothers have been dealing with the same thing in their father. Selling Joseph did not take the favoritism and spite out of their family. No, it was all transferred from Joseph to Benjamin. And you see, Jacob has not changed. He is still the same man with a grief that he would not let go, and a favoritism that causes hatred between his children. There is no love in this family. They need reconciliation.
The story continues in verse 6. “And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.”
Let us pause here and remember that God is at work in this history, and of all the people involved, Joseph is the only one who sees it.
Joseph was the governor. Joseph sold the corn. Joseph knew about the famine over all the earth. Joseph had prepared for the famine. And I dare say, Joseph was not surprised to see his brothers. He expected that God would bring them to Egypt.
Verse seven tells us that Joseph saw his brethren and he knew them. Now you can imagine that they were easy to recognize. They stood out. Ten foreigners, dressed in shepherd’s clothes, maybe looking a little older, but unmistakably his brothers.
But verse 8, they knew him not. They did not recognize him. Why not? There are several things. For one, his attire. He was clean shaven, and wore the silk robes of a ruler, maybe with a head dressing of some sort. And, of course, he had matured. How many of you look, at 40, like you did when you were 17?
But, also, there was Joseph’s position. Perhaps when the brothers came to Egypt they were nervous that they might see Joseph, but they did not look up into the rulers eyes to see if that was their brother. Instead, they looked around at the servants and slaves. And then, too, Joseph spoke to them through an interpreter, so they did not know that he spoke their language or understood them.
Now what an encounter it is. God brings the brothers to Egypt and to Joseph, to bring their guilt to the surface, and to begin the road to reconciliation in this family.
That is what this meeting is all about—it is about the brothers admitting their guilt to one another, talking about it. Let us see how that unfolds.
Even though Joseph recognizes that these ten men are his brothers, he does not reveal himself to them. Instead, he is very harsh.
First, he accuses them of being spies who have come to see where the land of Egypt may be vulnerable. Then, when they tell him that they are all brothers, not spies, and that they have simply come to buy food, he will not believe them.
And so they go into a long explanation concerning their family. Thy servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And behold, the youngest brother is this day with our father; and the other brother is not.
Joseph retains his composure. You can imagine how difficult that was.
He replies. “No, you’re spies. You’re making this up. This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to put you all in prison, and one of you will go back and fetch your younger brother, of whom you speak, and when I meet him, then I’ll believe your story.” And then Joseph puts them all in prison together for three days, to think and to talk.
At the end of the three days, we learn what they have been thinking and talking about.
Joseph draws it out of them. He comes to them and says this. “I am a God-fearing man. Do this and you’ll live. Pick out one of your brothers to be bound in prison here, and the rest may carry food back to your family in Canaan so that they don’t die, and then, come back with your younger brother, and I’ll believe your story.”
And then it all comes out. What they have been hiding, and lying about, all comes out.
In their language, not knowing that Joseph can understand them, they say to one another, “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he cried out to us, and we wouldn’t hear him. This is why all this distress is happening to us.”
What they are experiencing is this: Numbers 32:23, “Be sure your sin will find you out.”
For 20 years they’ve tried to hide this. They thought it was done. They buried their guilt. But all through those years they had to watch their father’s pain. They had to see it all play out again in Benjamin. And they had to sleep at night hearing in their ears the echo of Joseph’s begging and pleading that they set him free, that they not hurt him or sell him.
You cannot bury guilt. It will come to the surface. Unrepentant sin will not leave you alone, it will plague you. It will visit you in your dreams. It will change your behavior. It will steal your joy. It will corrode your life and your relationships. It will put you on edge. See how sensitive these men are—in Egypt, they do not want to see Joseph, and now these apparently unrelated things awaken their conscience. They are on edge.
And then Reuben, the oldest brother speaks. It’s an accusation. “Didn’t I tell you not to hurt Joseph?” Remember, he saved Joseph from murder, and he was gone when the others sold him to the Midianites. Now, “I had nothing to do with it, and I told you.” And he adds this, “His blood is required.” In other words, this is justice, poetic justice. God is not going to let you, or let us, get away with what we did.
The brothers are beginning to see the hand of God awakening their consciences. If we look down to verse 28, where they find money in their bags of grain, and are troubled by it, they say, “What is this that God hath done unto us?”
And what a mercy that is. So many bury their guilt and go on in their life of sin. Oh yes, they do. I don’t say their conscience is not troubled, but they find a way to put it out of their minds. But you see, God will not let that happen to those whom He has determined to save. The guilt that He awakens in the conscience of His children is a mercy that brings them to repentance. That is what is happening here. And that is the road to reconciliation. Confession of guilt. The brothers are not there yet. They are not ready to come clean with Jacob. But God is beginning this work of grace in their hearts.
Now what about Joseph? Does he not seem vindictive and unreasonably harsh? Why does he not just tell them who he is? Why does he deal with them so roughly? Why does he throw them in prison? Why keep Simeon, when he knows this will cause pain to his father? Why?
The key is in verse 9. When his brothers first come and bow to him, Joseph remembers his dreams. That is the key here. Joseph remembers what God had said would happen. He remembers God’s revelation. We have seen all through his life that this was central to Joseph, that he lived before the face of God. And now he remembers that God had revealed in two dreams 20 years earlier that his brothers and his parents would bow to him.
And just as Joseph responded to the dreams of Pharaoh with a carefully laid out plan, so here, he has a plan.
There were two dreams. In the first, the sheaves of his ten older brothers bowed down to his sheaf. That was the first dream. That is what Joseph sees happening here. And instead of it making him swell with pride and saying to his brothers, “Told you so,” Joseph remembers that God had given him a second dream in which not only did his ten brothers bow to him, but there were eleven stars and the sun and moon, his father. And, you see, Joseph understands that this means that Benjamin and Jacob will also come and bow before him in Egypt.
And he comes up with a carefully devised plan to make that happen—to bring his entire family, peacefully, together, with him.
That was not possible right now. Imagine if he had simply told his brothers who he was. They would have bolted in fear and guilt. They were not ready yet to own their sin, or to face their father with what they had done. Joseph’s harsh response is a careful plan to bring them to repentance, and to bring reconciliation and salvation to his family, to his brothers. In love, Joseph is harsh.
Can you not see that love here? If he really wanted to be vindictive, he could have hurt his brothers much more. But in love, he sends them all back with food for their families. In mercy, he puts their money, and not rocks, in their food sacks. And when he hears them speaking of their guilt, he does not accuse them, but he turns and goes to weep in private.
I imagine the three days that his brothers were in prison, and the weeks and months that Simeon was in prison, were the toughest times of his life. How he would have longed to hear about Jacob and about Benjamin and about the 20 years that had transpired. But more important to Joseph is what God has said would happen, a reconciled family, together in Egypt. This is what Joseph wants, and it is because he so firmly believes in God’s revelation.
Jacob is tortured by grief. The ten brothers are tormented by guilt. And Joseph is transformed by grace. And it is that grace that will bring forgiveness and reconciliation in this family. Joseph won’t push things under the rug, but seeking peace in his family, peace with God for his family, he is used to awaken guilt and bring confession. That may be painful, but so necessary for reconciliation.
And that’s true also with regard to God. Sin, our sin, your sin, stands between you and God. Are you guilty before God? Yes, we all are. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. And with the God of justice, it’s blood for blood.
But now the question is, how do you deal with that guilt? Are you trying to smother it with your own works? Do you try to hide and conceal it with a front of kindness and morality? Are you in denial, trying to bury your guilt?
Oh, are you not weary of it?
There is only one thing that can overcome our guilt, and that is grace. Not the grace of a man, Joseph, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ. He says, to all who are weary and burdened with the guilt of sin, Come, come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Just as joy in your earthly relationships can come only through confession, repentance, and forgiveness, so it is with God. You come to Him through confession and repentance, and you find rest for your soul.
You cannot hide from God. He knows your sin. But His infinite grace is a grace greater than all our sins.
May you find peace, in Him.
Let us pray.
Father, we are grateful for Thy grace and Thy Word that pursue us when we wander in sin, and that do this with the goal of bringing us back into a life of joy and peace with God. Oh Lord, do not leave us, but preserve us by Thy grace. And Father, if there are any listening today who are hiding the guilt of their sins, work by Thy Spirit and Word in their lives to bring repentance and reconciliation. We pray it for Jesus’ sake, Amen.