Genesis 42:1-38

When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. [1]

The sons of Jacob/Israel – with the exception of Joseph and Benjamin – were a sorry lot. Simeon and Levi (sons two and three) connived to slaughter the unsuspecting Shechemites (chapter 34). Ruben, the eldest, committed incest with Jacob’s concubine in an attempt to establish his right of inheritance (35:22). All ten conspired harm against Joseph, leading to Joseph’s being stripped naked, tossed into a cistern, and sold into slavery (37:12-28). The fourth son, Judah, impregnated his daughter-in-law because he thought she was a fertility cult prostitute. That happened only after he refused her the right to marry his third son to produce a legitimate heir for his deceased first son as the law required. This lot of men were no stellar image-bearers of the Abrahamic Covenant. They were poor root stock for the covenant nation to come out of Egypt.

These ten sons needed to see their guilt and morn over their sins. They needed a day of reckoning and repentance. They needed a relationship with Joseph as their savior if they and their families could hope to live through the great drought and famine. God could have easily scrapped the lot of them and raised up new patriarchs of the nation Israel had he chosen to do so – if salvation depended upon human works rather than his sovereign free will. In fact, he will do so with the addition of Joseph’s two sons (48:8-22). Though they didn’t recognize it, the brothers were in desperate need of grace.

The “twelve” (vv. 13, 32) sons of Jacob are divided into two groups throughout the narrative. There are the “ten of Joseph’s brothers” (v.3) and then the “two” sons of Jacob by Rachel: Joseph and Benjamin. These two sons of Rachel are contrasted with the two sons of Leah, especially Reuben and Judah. Both Reuben and Judah play an important and similar role in the narrative, speaking on behalf of the other brothers. They are the catalysts in the resolution of the ploys instigated by Joseph. It was Judah, however, who saved the day by offering himself as a pledge (43:9; NIV, “I … will guarantee”) for the young Benjamin. And it was Judah who repeated Jacob’s own thematic words “that we and you and our children may live and not die” (43:8; cf. 42:2). Finally, it was Judah who spoke before Joseph and offered himself as a substitute for Benjamin, lest he cause any evil to come on his father, Jacob (44:33–34).[2]

The drought and resulting famine weren’t just Egyptian problems. They engulfed what Moses calls “all the earth (41:57) – meaning (at the very least) Central Africa, Palestine and the surrounding regions. Because of God’s warning and Joseph’s God-given wisdom as vizier, Egypt had stored enough grain to save anyone with the money to buy it. As the drought wore on in Canaan, Jacob’s sons were indecisive and angry – they who had been angry over Jacob/Israel’s lack of action at the rape of Dinah glare at one another but take no action.

When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you look at one another?’ [why do you face/stare each other down?]” (42:1). Jacob charged them with the duty of going to Egypt to buy grain. So, all the sons went with one notable exception. “But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him.” Maybe Jacob, knowing the character of his other sons, suspected Benjamin might not come back if left in their care. Did withholding Benjamin stir the other brothers’ consciences?


Thirteen years after Joseph made his enslaved, naked trek across the Sinai and down into the Nile Valley, so do the ten brothers who sent him there. They are clothed; but their consciences are enslaved. Egypt is a large and relatively-populous country, but the population only extends as far as the Nile. It’s not likely they expected to meet their brother the obscure slave in the capital city. They were no more than ten men in a vast sea of obscure starving foreigners scrambling to buy grain to sustain the lives of their families. Joseph’s brothers were probably seeking to buy a large quantity of grain, otherwise they would likely never have had needed to seek Joseph’s approval personally. But our story finds them standing in front of a clean-shaven, beardless (possibly bald) Egyptian-looking and Egyptian-speaking Joseph in his royal attire – wearing fine linen in the colors of Egyptian aristocracy, Pharaoh’s cartouche ring, and gold chain.

Like every other major buyer, the brothers “came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground” (6b). To them, this was a hateful gesture unbecoming of fiercely-independent Bedouins from Canaan. But they were starving, and the vizier had the only food around. Of course, Joseph recognized them instantly, they were bearded Semites speaking the language of their ancestor, Heber. There were ten of them and they were brothers, a little older and more grey but still recognizable. Yet, with absolute regal composure, Joseph kept his cool and said nothing to them to give up his identity.

The brothers had no idea who Joseph was, but he knew exactly who they were. He had the perfect advantage. He knew each one of them and all the hateful, horrible things they had done. Joseph wanted to know if his brothers were the same callous, murderous lot they were thirteen years ago. Were they still as heartless? Did they still hate him? Would they turn on each other when pressured? Would one of them sacrifice another to save himself? If Joseph revealed who he was immediately, he would never know the answers to such questions. Any immediate pardon he extended would never reveal the truth he sought. On the spot, Joseph hatched a plan that made use of his power and their ignorance – that of a fierce, unrelenting interrogation.

Remember these brothers had massacred all the men of Shechem’s city, plundering the loot and enslaving the women and children. They had plotted to kill Joseph but decided to sell him into slavery. Had they been arrested and tried for either offense, they would have been put to death. Now they and their entire families face the death sentence of starvation. One imagines a certain satisfaction came to Joseph as he hatched his plan and formed his accusation. He was hard on them:

…he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

Joseph remembered his two dreams of them bowing down to him, “the one in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed before him (his position of authority), and the other in which the brothers’ sheaves bowed before his sheaf (his position of provider).”[3] But his dreams were not yet entirely fulfilled since his father and younger brother were yet to come and bend the knee.  So, Joseph charged them with spying – looking for the land’s “nakedness” (defensive weak points). “Joseph’s use of the phrase “the nakedness of the land” may be a subtle play back to chapter 37, when his brothers stripped him of his cloak and placed him, nude or semi-nude, in a cistern.”[4]As they countered with fear-stricken denials, Joseph pressed his charges even harder:

12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies.

Joseph’s repeated accusations unnerved the ten. They revealed that there were really twelve brothers. They counted not only Benjamin among them but also Joseph! Were their consciences stirring? Joseph decides to press them harder. They had once accessed him of being a spy for daddy, now he openly accuses them. They had tossed him into a pit, now he tosses them into the pit of the royal prison – likely the same one in which he served his time under Potiphar. Most important of all he demands one of them return to Canaan fetch Daddy Jacob’s favorite boy. Look at the subtle parallels Joseph builds into his test:

15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days.

Three days in the pit was a brilliant plan designed to rattle their minds and hearts. It provided plenty of time for them to reflect on the “one who is no more” (v. 13) and how Joseph (as far as they knew) had come to be “no more” by their dirty hands. They had to discuss “who would be the one to go and inform their father that Benjamin must come to Egypt if they were to receive help. Probably most chose to wait in prison rather than be the messenger.”[5] Now Joseph decides to mess with their minds even more by appearing in the prison (again with an interpreter) and surprising them with two new things.

First, he stuns them with the mention of Elohim, “18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God….” During their stay so far, these ten visible members of the Abrahamic Covenant had yet to mention God; but the Egyptian vizier did. Not only did the vizier believe, he feared. The seemingly-pagan vizier of Egypt injected God into the conversation and it likely speed up their guilt trip. Second, Joseph changed his mind while they had been in the pit. Only one brother would remain imprisoned while the rest could carry back all the grain to the Jacob/Israel’s large household. The brothers had changed their mind about killing Joseph when he was in a pit. Now, he does the same thing (with less drastic consequences, as it will turn out). Will the other brothers again abandon one of their own to save the skins of the 9 others?

Joseph’s strategy now made their old guilt rise to the surface:

21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

Joseph, whom they had scorned as “this dreamer” (37:19), was now referred to as “our brother” and by the oldest brother Reuben as “the boy.” Joseph learned here that Reuben had not consented to his sale. Joseph learned too that his rash, unfeeling brothers were not as hardened as could appear — that his frantic pleas from the pit had been heard and had been haunting their souls during all the intervening years. And more, they believed that their distress had rightfully come upon them. Joseph’s brothers were experiencing the grace of guilt— bloodguilt. They knew that they were guilty and deserving of death.[6]

The brothers’ belief in a theology of retribution now comes into play. They are being punished with respect to one of their own for what they did to one of their own. It is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a brother for a brother. They ignored their brother’s distress, and now they are the object of distress. Only here are we told that Joseph did not passively accept the brutal treatment from his brothers. Chapter. 37 records no response by Joseph, but twenty years later the brothers remind each other of how callous and indifferent they were when Joseph besought or begged them. The form of this word is used when the subject is in real distress (e.g., Deut. 3:23; 2 K. 1:13).[7]

The brothers reflected the philosophy of Karma: do good, earn good; do bad, earn bad. The problem with that fundamental philosophy of life is that the covenant children of Abraham should know better. They are the ones who have maintained the word of the Promised Seed to come, the One who alone can do good and undo the works of the devil. They alone should understand their father, Adam, plunged all humanity into the condition of sin – every human does bad and had already earned bad. There is nothing anyone can do that will earn good. What can remind them of those facts? Only two things: guilt and grace. The brothers are halfway there.

Joseph is so wise here. 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept.” He was so moved by their guilt and remorse, he had to hide his response from them, or the game could well be over. No doubt he was also moved to be reliving the trauma they had caused him. The scabs were being pulled off his old wounds. More tears would flow when he first saw Benjamin (cf. 43: 30), and when Judah offered to take Benjamin’s place (cf. 45: 2), and finally when he met his father (cf. 46: 29). Joseph’s strategy was dredging up pain for everyone involved.

There was more to the vizier’s plan – one more test to give. He had to compose himself quickly and return to task. Verses 24b-25 tell us, “And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.” By binding Simeon in front of the other nine, he seeks to find whether they have any concern or sympathy for their still-imprisoned brother. Everything he does helps him to discover if they have been mistreating each other, and especially young Benjamin back in Canaan.

With this filling of their grain sacks, he tests them further by having their money slipped in along with the grain. Would they abandon Simeon for money as they once had done Joseph? How would they interpret Joseph’s actions once they discovered the money? Would they see it as a gift or as a set up to frame them as thieves?


Their answer was soon to come.

26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

The journey back to Canaan requires at least one overnight stop, requiring one of the brothers to open a grain sack to feed their donkeys. When he does, he sees the coins. This is the first time in this story that the brothers mention God. Because of their raging guilt and their view of karma, they see God in this event – albeit in a skewed way. They have regained a kind of Godly fear, at least. Joseph’s brothers realized that their sins were against God. Fear is one thing, but godly fear comes from sensing that a holy God is the hand behind the circumstances of your life to bring you to where you ought to be. The brothers trembled – at the hand of Joseph but at the hand of God.[8]

Fear alone (like the fear of the vizier and his prison) is of little use. It can be debilitating. But fear of God because of the awareness of our sins can the beginning of wisdom in the person and work of the Promised Seed. The brothers have been taught there is only one place to turn to have their fears replaced with assurance and it’s NOT to the theology of “do good, get good.” It certainly doesn’t feel like it to them in their situation, but good things were happening to them. Those who live with Godly fear ultimately find that God orders all things in their lives (even the hard) to his glory and their good.

When they completed their long journey back to Canaan, Jacob’s sons told him “all that had happened to them” (vv. 29-34). Except, in an effort to persuade him to send Benjamin to Egypt, they neglected to mention some minor details— like their being imprisoned for three days, and the viceroy’s threat to execute them, and the discovery of money in one of their sacks. But despite their tamed version of events Jacob remained unmoved and silent for a time. Then he spoke up:

35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

On the journey back, one brother had found his sack of money. Now, upon reaching home, all the brothers find their coins in their grain. Now their fear increases, and Jacob/Israel joins the worry party. His mention of his grey hairs is likely a reference to the emotional toll losing Joseph – and now Simeon – has taken on him. The possibility of losing his last idol, the only surviving son of Rachel, is more than he can bear. Jacob/Israel, like his ten older sons, must face his complete inability to manage his own life with his own fleshly wisdom.

Jacob’s mention of his gray hairs indicates the toll that his grief and sorrow had taken upon him in his loss of Joseph. The loss of Benjamin would cause him to die of sorrow. Jacob made it clear that his sadness was the work of his sons whom he believed were responsible for Joseph and Simeon being “no more” (v. 36). As the oldest, Reuben felt his father’s pain and made an absurd promise that Jacob could sacrifice Reuben’s sons if their mission failed.[9] But nothing could lessen the pain of the sins of Jacob’s ten sons.

And this where the end of this chapter leaves them – fearful, guilty, grieving. All they know is that God is involved in their stories. What they cannot know are the things you and I know about their stories. They cannot read the next chapters. They don’t get to read ahead in the script any more than you and I get to read ahead in our own scripts in our temporal lives in this sin-cursed world. Jacob and his family had the same promise that you and I have but with much less information about who the Promised Seed would be and what he would do. They could never know what the love of God looks like in the full and complete way that you and I can know it.

Perhaps, like them, you are in a place where it has become obvious that you have no control over your circumstances and no idea how to rationally plot the future course of your immediate life. Things may seem “very bad” to you, and your present circumstances are nothing like the story you would write for yourself. Maybe you would go so far as to say your situation is completely hopeless. Certainly, that is where Jacob and his ten older sons were as this chapter ends – left only with a bare knowledge of God and the dawning realization of the consequences of sin. “God can’t be with us because things seem so hopeless and miserable!” The grain they brought back – a temporary fix at best – would not sustain them for long. The vizier of Egypt held Simeon in chains in the pit. How could they possibly return to a foreign land with their father’s favorite son knowing they had not paid for their grain and been marked as spies? From their perspective in that moment, things were completely hopeless.

We know the resolution. They did not. We know how God would take their hopeless situation, their sins, their fears and draw Jacob/Israel and family to Joseph – the savior of Israel – and to a land of plenty surrounded by draught, famine, and misery. Note that Joseph, the savior, had a plan. The savior would not let them go. The savior showed them their sins and drew them to himself. Ultimately, they would be saved. Immediately, they would suffer a little while longer. So, the Apostle Peter would write to the scattered, persecuted followers of Jesus, the Promised Seed:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. [10]


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Ge 42:1–9.

[2] Sailhamer, 2:245.

[3] Hamilton, 2:519.

[4] Id., 520.

[5] Hughes, 496. Kindle Edition.

[6] Id.

[7] Hamilton, 2:526.

[8] Hughes, 498. Kindle Edition.

[9] Id. 498-500. Kindle Edition.

[10] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), 1 Pe 1:3–9.