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. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”
He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 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.” But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 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.” And he put them all together in custody for three days. – Genesis 42:6-17 ESV
And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. That line should ring a loud bell in your mind. It acts as a link to the events that took place years earlier when Joseph was still his father’s favorite son, wearing his multicolored tunic and living in the land of Canaan along with his brothers. Those words are a not-so-subtle reminder of the two dreams Joseph had regarding his family.
One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!” – Genesis 37:5-7 NLT
Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT
It was these two dreams, at least in part, that had led to Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. The dreams had been the last straw, the final point of irritation that had caused their jealousy and hatred of Joseph to reach the point of no return. And yet, 21 years later, here they were bowing down before their brother. Granted, they had no idea it was their long-lost brother. While Joseph recognized them, they were unaware that the man before whom they knelt was the same individual they had sold into slavery years earlier. It would have been the last thing they expected.
But Joseph recognized his brothers and remembered his dreams. There must have been a host of emotions that welled up in Joseph as he looked at his brothers for the first time in years, recalling what they had done to him. All the memories of his childhood and the special relationship he shared with Jacob, his father, would have come to mind. Joseph was human, and like any human being, he would have felt pangs of anger and resentment, the desire for revenge, the temptation to gloat, and the longing for restoration. For the time being, Joseph decided to keep his identity hidden from his brothers and “he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them” (Genesis 37:7 ESV).
What happened next was a series of tests administered by Joseph in order to determine the hearts and attitudes of his brothers. It had been two decades since he had seen them and he needed to know if they were the same men who had sold him into slavery. Had their hearts changed? Were they the least bit remorseful over their actions? Could they be trusted? His last memory of his brothers was that of a scheming, disloyal band of individuals who let petty jealousy and envy so cloud their minds that they sold their own flesh and blood for 20 shekels of silver. And we must always remember that their original idea had been to kill Joseph. They had been willing to take his life, but had settled for selling him to the slave traders when cooler heads prevailed.
By this time, Joseph must have looked like an Egyptian. As the royal governor, he would have been wearing Egyptian garments and surrounded by the trappings of his office. All his brothers saw was a powerful Egyptian official to whom they must humbly bow if they hoped to walk away with any grain to take home to their father. So when this unknown official accused them of being spies, they were shocked and dismayed. Their pulse rates quickened and their eyes grew wide with fright. They were a long way from home and were in a hopeless position, falsely accused by one of the most powerful men in Egypt. So they denied the charges and told the governor their story. They let him know about their father and their younger brother, who both awaited their return. They even mentioned their brother who “is no longer with us” (Genesis 42:13 NLT).
But Joseph demands that they prove their story by sending one of their brothers back to Canaan to fetch their father and brother. In the meantime, the rest would remain under house arrest as spies. The Joseph had them put in custody for three days to give them time to think about what they would do. This allowed the brothers time to think about their precarious situation and to discuss their strategy. Would they be honest or would they concoct a lie in order to save their lives? They had no idea that this entire scenario was the sovereign plan of God and that the brother they had sold into slavery was the one before they bowed and to whom they owed their lives and those of their families back in Canaan. This tension-filled reunion was part of God’s plan to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their father. Even their immoral act of betraying their own brother would be redeemed by God in order to bring about His sovereign plan. The next weeks and months would prove uncomfortable and disconcerting for them. They would have to live with uncertainty and a growing sense of remorse and regret, wondering if their former actions were the reason for their current circumstances. Had their earlier sin finally caught up with them? Was this God’s payback for their mistreatment of Joseph? God was looking for a change of heart. He was desiring repentance in the lives of those whom He was about to fulfill His covenant promise.