Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, “Make everyone go out from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
So Joseph said to his brothers, “Come near to me, please.” And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 45:1-8 ESV
After Judah’s long, impassioned speech and his expressed willingness to offer himself as a substitute for Benjamin and serve as slave in his place, Joseph could contain himself no longer. He lost it. And he finally broke down and revealed to his brothers his true identity. What a scene that must have been. Joseph had all the Egyptians leave the room and then he said those shocking words that left his brothers dumbfounded and speechless: “I am Joseph!” Of all the unexpected things that had happened to them recently, this was the most surprising of all. There had been no suspicion on their part. They were caught completely off guard and “were dismayed at his presence.” The Hebrew word translated “dismayed” is bahal and it means “alarm, terror, to be disturbed, be anxious, be afraid” (H926 – bahal – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV). They were already afraid when they had entered Joseph’s house, because they were being accused of theft. But now their fear reached epic proportions. They were standing in front of their long-lost brother, the one they had betrayed and sold into slavery. They could only assume the worst. He was probably angry and out for revenge. On top of that, he was powerful and capable of doing to them whatever he wanted to do.
During this entire ordeal in Egypt, the brothers had been repeatedly reminded of their sin against Joseph years ago. The first time, when they had been accused of being spies and were commanded to bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin, as proof of their story, they had assumed they were being punished by God for their sin.
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.” – Genesis 41:21-22 ESV
Now, their feelings of guilt were confirmed and Joseph could see the fear in their eyes. They were petrified and probably remained as they had been when they first came into his presence: on their knees before him. So Joseph simply says, “Come near to me, please!” (Genesis 45:4 ESV). He invites them to get up and come close. He extends a warm welcome when they were expecting well-deserved revenge. And then Joseph says something that had to have left them reeling. In the midst of all their regret, remorse, fear and guilt, Joseph tells them:
“I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.” – Genesis 45:4-5 ESV
Yes, they had heard right. He was their brother. And yes, they were guilty of having sold him into slavery. But the rest of their assumptions were wrong. While they were responsible for their actions, God was ultimately responsible for the outcome. He had used their sinful actions to accomplish His divine will. Joseph reveals to them the mysterious and difficult doctrine of the providence of God. “God sent me before you to preserve life.” They had sold Joseph, but God had sent him. They had betrayed Joseph, but God had commissioned him as his means of salvation for the people of Israel. Joseph clearly understood that his entire ordeal in Egypt had been God-ordained.
“God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” – Genesis 45:7-8 ESV
Joseph had had plenty of time to think about his life and circumstances. He had been able to revisit all the events of his life and see the clear hand of God orchestrating and determining his destiny. They say hindsight is 20/20. In Joseph’s case, nothing could be truer. He could look back and see what God had been doing, even in those dark moments of the soul, when he was lying in the pit, serving as a slave and sitting in a prison for two years. God had been there. God had been at work. Those moments were just as much a part of God’s divine plan as Joseph’s elevation to the second-most powerful position in the land of Egypt. And it had all begun with his initial betrayal by his brothers. It had been God who sent Joseph to Egypt, not his brothers. This does not absolve them of guilt or responsibility for their actions. It simply states that God’s will is greater than man’s capacity for sin. Later on in the book of Genesis, Moses records yet another conversation between Joseph and his brothers. Joseph will once again inform them, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people” (Genesis 50:20 NLT).
Their original intentions had been purely evil, motivated by jealousy and hatred. They had despised Joseph so much that they had been willing to kill him, but had settled for selling him as a slave. Their actions had been selfish and self-centered. But God had used their evil intent for their own good. He had taken their sinful actions and brought about something they had never intended and did not deserve: Their own salvation.
The apostle Peter reached a similar conclusion when he preached to the Jews after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:
“People of Israel, listen! God publicly endorsed Jesus the Nazarene by doing powerful miracles, wonders, and signs through him, as you well know. But God knew what would happen, and his prearranged plan was carried out when Jesus was betrayed. With the help of lawless Gentiles, you nailed him to a cross and killed him.” – Acts 2:23-24 NLT
They were guilty of Jesus’ death, but God was the one who had preordained it. What they intended for evil, God had ordained for their own good. Such is the mystery of God’s providence. And Joseph’s brothers were going to learn the unfathomable, unbelievable joy of God’s sovereignty over even their own sin. They had willingly sacrificed their own brother’s life for their own sinful, selfish gain. But God had trumped their sin with his plan of salvation for their lives. “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Genesis 45:7 NLT). “But God.” Two of the most powerful, encouraging, and hope-filled words in the entire Bible.