In this passage there are three themes that will consider: God strikes the land with famine, God strikes Joseph with tenderness, and God strikes the brothers with guilt.
God Strikes the Land with Famine
In the opening verses of Genesis 42 we are met by Jacob and his sons back in Canaan. The famine has become so severe that it has stretched to them. Jacob, upon hearing that there is grain in Egypt for sale, sends his sons to Egypt. He of course, in typical Jacob fashion, doesn’t allow Benjamin, his youngest son, and last son (or so he thinks) from his late beloved wife Rachel, accompany the other brothers on the journey.
Again, notice the famine, that has so stretched to Canaan. This is not merely natural causes, chance, or random acts of nature. The hand of God has struck the land with famine. But God did not strike the land with famine without purpose or wisdom. There are those who accuse God of being absent when disasters occur; but they fail to realize that it is God’s hand behind the disaster.
But notice here how providence works itself out through the use of means. It is due to a famine that God pushes Joseph’s brothers to Egypt (though we aren’t to the full family reunion yet). Note as well, it was by way of famine that God did this; not the most pleasant of circumstances. Yet, it was God’s hand, His loving hand, behind it all. Therefore when famines are brought upon us, let us not moan and complain; but consider that it is our Heavenly Father’s hand pushing us to some other end, though it be through difficult means.
From a spiritual perspective we can also see how God sent famine upon Jacob and his sons to teach them to seek the better country, that is the heavenly places and the promises of God, beyond the material, beyond the flesh. As Matthew Henry says, “We have need of something to wean us from this world, and make us long for a better world.”
So maybe it is that when God sends us famine, it is to cause us to hunger for something better; or it is to remind us that this world is not our home, things are not as they ought to be, or will be; or that Jesus is our daily bread.
God Strikes Joseph with Tenderness
Verse 6: Remarkably, Joseph’s dream comes true all these years later! It is also interesting to note that the brothers were represented by sheaves of wheat in Joseph’s dream (Genesis 37), and here they have come for that very thing – grain. Joseph was rejected by his brothers, unjustly accused by Potiphar’s wife, thrown down to the grave so to speak, raised up again to life, ascended to the throne in Egypt, now he reigns, and now his brothers bow prostrate before him. All unbeknownst to the brothers, I might add.
Verse 8: While Joseph recognizes his brothers and remembers his dreams, his brothers don’t recognize him. This is easily explained as it had been at least 20 years since they had last seen him; and Joseph would’ve also now been shaven and dressed like an Egyptian. I imagine as well that they were not expecting him to be a governing official in the Egyptian government. That possibility probably didn’t even cross their minds.
Verse 11: The brothers claim to be “honest men.” They certainly have changed some in the last 20+ years, and are changing; but the last we saw them in Scripture, they could not be described as honest in the least. I wonder if this angered Joseph, or if it drew pity out of him. We’ve got to imagine that there must’ve been a wide range of emotions that swirled around inside of Joseph.
Joseph imprisons his brothers for three days. He then comes back and makes a deal to them: one brother stays in custody, the others go and bring back their youngest brother, to show whether or not they are truly honest men. Joseph makes a significant statement in verse 18, saying, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God.” This phrase certainly puts the fear of God upon the minds of the brothers, if it wasn’t already. But also in this, Joseph positions himself before his brothers, as a ruler who will rule justly, according to the fear of God. Essentially, he is saying, “you are at the mercy of God.” This certainly sets up the rest of the passage.
Though some of this may seem harsh, Joseph clearly acts with mercy. With his power, he could have easily just locked his brothers up for life, or enslaved them, in order to get his revenge on them. Instead, he extends mercy. We learn here that those rulers who fear God, knowing Him to be the true and righteous judge and ruler of all the earth, will deal most justly with men. The opposite is also true. Where there is no fear of God, there will be no justice. This is why we have such wickedness in our land such as the legal murder of unborn babies. There is clearly no fear of God for those who have the power to change such wicked laws in this land.
In verse 20, Joseph continues to show that he has been struck with tenderness by God. He tells his brothers to bring back their youngest brother, so he can see if they are telling the truth or not. It is likely the case that Joseph wants to see whether or not his brothers have done something similar to Benjamin as they did to him. Joseph clearly displays a care and concern for the well-being of his family.
Verse 23: Joseph, listening to his brothers talk about what they did to him, keeps his cool, and keeps up his disguise.
Verse 24: Joseph, unable to restrain himself no longer, turns away from his brothers and weeps. Pouring out from Joseph is his tender heart, his desire for reconciliation, and his hopefulness that his brothers have changed. What love for his brothers do we see from Joseph toward the very ones who beat him and sold him to foreign slave traders.
Oh what love we only see perfected in Christ, when for the very ones who nailed him to the cross, He prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Oh what love from our Savior Christ, who, for the very ones who rejected him, despised him, and rebelled against him, he died to save.
Might we strive to display this kind of tenderness and compassion toward those who have wronged us. We will not find the power to do so within ourselves; but we can find it in Christ. Christ can supply the power to love those who despise us, because He did it for us.
Verse 24: Joseph takes Simeon, and binds him up, while the others are permitted to travel home to retrieve their brother. We don’t know why he chooses Simeon, but I think it was probably because Simeon was the oldest who willingly participated in selling him. Reuben, the oldest, had planned to save his life, but was gone when the others sold Joseph. But here we find a little picture of the gospel: Simeon was bound in the place of his brothers, so that they would go free. Though it is not the main point of this passage, we often find wonderful gospel gems scattered throughout the narratives.
Verse 25: We continue to observe Joseph’s tenderness and care for his brothers as he makes provision for their journey. He provides for them, not wishing to see them perish or become unable to return for lack of money or sustenance.
God Strikes the Brothers with Guilt
As we begin now to consider the guilt that the brothers are struck with, let us call to mind that the brothers are much older at this point. We know that Joseph is at least 37 years old, if not a few years older. That would make his brothers probably in their 40’s, 50’s, or 60’s.
Verse 21-22: Joseph’s brothers are stricken with guilt over what they did to Joseph years earlier. They are fearing death for what they did. Yet they still have no idea that this is their brother whom they are speaking to. Verse 21 is startling to me. How could the brothers have been so cold as to ignore and be so callous toward their little brother’s pleading to them? It is sick and twisted. Clearly this memory that is etched on their brain haunts them to this very moment.
The guilt and fear continues in verse 28 and also verse 35. Upon discovering money in their sacks, they are afraid, and think that God is punishing them. They are obviously afraid of being accused of being thieves, or maybe they think the Egyptians purposely put their money back in their sacks so that they could have a reason to imprison or enslave them. Either way, their fundamental recognition is that God has done this.
This is what happens when sin is not dealt with. It eats away at the conscience and demands to be dealt with. But this is a blessing for a tortured conscience over sin is a gift from God because it pushes one to find comfort and peace. The only rest for a tortured conscience is Christ. But the tortured conscience is important because without it, how would anyone ever be pushed to find rest and peace in Christ?
A burdened conscience is a gift from God because it means that you know right and wrong, you know your sin, you know that you’re a sinner, and you know you deserve punishment. Those are prerequisites for coming to Christ and having your conscience soothed.
Dear reader, have you been burdened by your sin? Are you burdened by your sin? If you have and have found peace in Christ, praise God for what He has saved you from. If you have not found peace and rest, go to Christ! What are you waiting for? How long do you want to live a tortured life? Go to Christ! It if you have never been burdened by your sin, how can you know you have been saved from it? How can you know you have found peace and rest in Christ if you’ve had nothing to rest from? Beg God to burden you, that you might know what it is to have your burdens removed by Christ!
When we look out at our society we see open rebellion toward God, flaunting of sins, all without a care or concern that anything is wrong or dangerous about it. As the brothers trembled in the fear of the Lord, I am reminded that we need more trembling in the fear of the Lord. No one seems to be afraid that God will punish them for their sin. Maybe it’s because we have removed that part of the gospel presentation to the world? We love talking about the love and mercy of God; but without the foundation of a Holy God, whom we have rebelled against, and who is angry with us, there is no need for the good news of Christ! Let us pray for boldness to speak the truth.
For the brothers here, we begin to see slow change in them. Slow progress and character development in them. The fact they they feel their guilt and fear God, are signs of growth and progress. We can’t imagine them acknowledging these things in earlier chapters.
On top of this, do you see what God is doing here with the brothers? God is bringing the brother’s sin out of them. He is bringing it out to be dealt with. Not to harm them, but to bring them to reconciliation and peace.
God doesn’t just sweep our sins under the rug. He brings them out to be dealt with. Sometimes it takes some discomfort to remove them from us. Sometimes its painful. But when our Heavenly Father wounds us, it is not like the blade of a dagger in the hand of an enemy intended to kill; but it is like the blade of a scalpel in the hand of surgeon, intended to heal. As Matthew Henry puts it, “Note, God in his providence sometimes seems harsh with those he loves, and speaks roughly to those for whom yet he has great mercy in store.”
Final Gospel Applications
The brothers were afraid of retribution, or reaping what they sowed. They are afraid that God will punish them for the blood on their hands. But in the gospel, those fears are calmed for us. In the gospel, God doesn’t pay us back the punishment that we are owed. He put it on Christ and pays us back for the righteousness of Christ that is imputed to us.
The brothers were overcome with guilt over what they had done. But in the gospel, Christ removes guilt and shame that may hang over us for things we’ve done. Christ already died for it; don’t climb back up on the cross.
As we learn from the brothers, and as Matthew Henry says, “Time will not wear out the guilt of sin.” And contrary to popular opinion, time does not heal all wounds. But Christ does. Christ wears out the guilt of sin, because He wore it on the cross. Christ heals our wounds, because He was wounded for us.
At the end of the chapter we see Jacob overcome with sorrow, refusing to let Benjamin go, for now, anyway. Jacob declares that all these things have come against him (v36). It is evident that he is despairing of the promises of God, unable to see how they will work out, be rue, and come to fruition. He is at the end of himself and he despairs. And he despairs unnecessarily so. Hear Matthew Henry’s comments on the matter, “…all these things were for him, were working together for his good and the good of his family; yet here he thinks them all against him. Note, through our ignorance and mistake, and the weakness of our faith, we often apprehend that to be against us which is really for us.”
Jacob thinks all these things to be working against him, but in reality, as we see and know the story to unfold, they are working for him, and for his good, beyond what he could possibly comprehend. This is the great Romans 8v28 promise.
How often is this us? When trials befall us, do we despair, thinking our good is being worked against? Oh my friends, there is a peace that we can have in times of trouble, a true joy, knowing that our troubles are not working against us, but for us, in Christ. In those moments we can call to mind that the greatest evil in the entire universe, the crucifixion of Christ, was worked for us, for our great good, and joy. How certain we can be that much smaller things will also be worked for our good.