Genesis 42: Joseph’s Challenge

As the famine weighs on the entire region, Jacob sends his sons to Egypt where he heard that there is food to be bought. All of the brothers except Benjamin went to Egypt; Benjamin stayed at home because Jacob feared that something would happen to him just as something had happened to Joseph.

At this time, Joseph retained ownership in Egypt of dispersing and selling the stored food. When his brothers come to him, he recognizes them and speaks harshly to them. His brothers do not recognize him. When he speaks to them this way, he does so in the context of the dream he had many years ago where he saw himself ruling over his brothers. This reaction may reveal some immaturity on Joseph’s part – the inclination to engage in petty revenge. Or, we could alternatively take the impression that Joseph is testing them to detect whether they have changed by accusing something that he knows they are innocent of (being spies in the land). His brothers persist in the truth that they come from Canaan to seek food and that they are all brothers, all present save for one that stayed home (Benjamin) and one that died in the past (Joseph, who of course did not die but is the one challenging them).

Joseph then tells them that he will keep them in prison until their youngest brother comes to prove that their words are true. However, after three days in prison, Joseph tells them to go back to Canaan with grain, and to bring their younger brother back as proof of their words. But before they leave, they come to believe that it is for the reason of the injustice they did to Joseph so long ago that they are being punished now. Reuben reiterates how it was he that suggested that they not treat Joseph so. Joseph, unbeknownst to his brothers, understood all they said and thusly took Simeon and bound him as he sent the other brothers back with food, with their money hidden in their grain sacks. Joseph still loved his brothers and his family despite what they had done to him. He wanted to be kind to them, yet also still test them. Simeon was left behind as the only one bound because he was the next oldest after Reuben (Reuben was overlooked because of how he had tried to prevent Joseph’s calamity).

Before the brothers made it back to Jacob, one of them noticed that his money was hidden in his sack of grain. By the time they each returned and recounted the events to Jacob, each brother discovered that their money had been hidden in their grain sacks. But the plan to take Benjamin back to Joseph did not sit well with Jacob for he feared for Benjamin’s safety.

This chapter compels us to look at Joseph’s character. Given the power and autonomy that Joseph had been blessed with, he could have taken the opportunity to torture and kill his brothers; a different man would have done just this. Joseph has negative feelings towards them that he has to work through, but he does not give these feelings free reign over his actions. Joseph instead chooses to test his brothers and bless them simultaneously. By requiring them to return with Benjamin, but also surreptitiously returning their payment for the food, he instills in his brothers a wary awe. He is asking of them a sacrifice that he will not require, he is testing their obedience and also putting fear into them just as they did to him. Joseph acts like a righteous man on a good day – he does not abuse his power but he uses it to perhaps teach a lesson to his brothers.

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