On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 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.” 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.” They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 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.
Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 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. 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?” – Genesis 42:18-28 ESV
Joseph determined to keep up his charade a bit longer. After three days of confinement, had his brothers brought into his presence once again. Using an interpreter, Joseph informs his brothers that he will allow them to go, but only under certain conditions. One of them must stay behind as a guarantee, and the rest must return with their youngest brother. They will be allowed to purchase grain and take it with them for their families, but each of them will be required to return in order to save the life of the one brother who will be left behind. Joseph is testing his brothers by placing a huge temptation right in front of them. He remembers full well how easy they had found it to get rid of him. So he provides them with another opportunity to reveal their true character. He is not going to dictate which brother will stay behind, but will leave that decision up to them. Would they take advantage of the situation to get rid of yet another less-than-favorite brother, choosing to never return and leaving him to deal with the governor’s anger?
The brothers, shocked and dismayed by the situation in which they find themselves, begin to talk among themselves. They assume that Joseph, who in their eyes is obviously an Egyptian, cannot understand them because he has been utilizing an interpreter. But he overhears their conversation as they begin to discuss and debate their dire circumstance. They immediately assume this is God’s payback for the sin they had committed against their brother, Joseph, more than 20 years ago. Reuben, utilizing a bit of revisionist history, reminds them that he was the one who told them “not to sin against the boy” (Genesis 42:22 ESV). Then he smugly adds, “But you did not listen.” The truth is, that is not exactly how it went down. What Reuben had actually said was, “Let’s not kill him. Why should we shed any blood? Let’s just throw him into this empty cistern here in the wilderness. Then he’ll die without our laying a hand on him” (Genesis 37:21-22 NLT). Now, in his defense, Reuben had planned to sneak back later that night and rescue Joseph from the cistern and return him to his father. But that part of the plan had never been revealed to the brothers. As far as they were concerned, he was also willing to let Joseph die. It was actually Judah who saved Joseph’s life by recommending that they sell him as a slave rather than kill him. But as the brothers bickered and debated, Joseph overheard their conversation and saw their fear and regret for what they had done. And he wept. He could sense their remorse. He could feel their pain as they struggled with what they had done and wrestled with the apparent divine justice that God was finally bringing on them.
So Joseph made their task a bit easier by choosing Simeon, the second oldest, as the one to stay behind. Then he had their sacks filled with grain. Not only that, he secretly instructed that the money each of the brothers had paid for their grain be put back in their sacks. And he provided them with provisions for the long journey home. This is a significant feature of the story. The brothers had come to Egypt to buy grain. The goal given to them by Jacob, their father, was to purchase what was necessary to save the lives of their families. He had sent them with the instructions, “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” (Genesis 42:2 ESV). They were to purchase their own salvation. The brothers, each guilty of selling their brother into slavery, were going to use their personal resources to try and escape the devastating and ultimately, deadly, effects of the famine. But when they had purchased their grain, Joseph saw to it that their money was returned to them. Their salvation would be based on his mercy, not their merit or resources. Joseph had every right to enact revenge, but instead he chose to show grace – undeserved favor. He gave them what they did not deserve. He provided them with salvation, when what they really deserved was justice.
On the way home, the mood must have somber. They would have had plenty of time to think about what they had done and regret their actions. When they stopped along the way to feed their donkeys, things took an even worse turn, as they made the shocking discovery that their money was still in their sacks. It is interesting to note that their conclusion was negative, not positive. They exclaimed, “What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:28 ESV). They saw this as another example of God’s divine payback for their previous sin. What they didn’t realize was that this was actually the merciful hand of God, providing them with salvation rather than condemnation. Joseph had given them the grain they needed as a gift. It was free. Their money was not necessary. They would simply have to accept it willingly and joyously. But their reaction was one of fear. They immediately saw the presence of their money as proof of God’s unabsolved anger with them. Little did they know that the salvation God had in mind was going to be far greater than sacks full of grain and temporary relief from a famine. He had bigger things in store for them. He was going to fulfill His promise to Abraham. He was going to give them a land. He was going to make them a great nation. He was going to bless the nations through them. What is this thing that God has done to us? A great thing. A divinely ordained thing. A good, gracious, merciful, kind and undeserved thing.