1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 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.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
6 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. 7 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.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 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.”
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. 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. – Genesis 42:1-17 ESV
Moses now turns the reader’s attention back to Israel (Jacob) and his family, living in the land of Canaan. It has been years since Jacob received the devastating news of his son’s death. He had mourned the loss of Joseph but then had been forced to move on with his life. He was the patriarch of a large and rapidly expanding family. Many of his 11 remaining sons had married and started families of their own, but they remained a close part of the Israelite clan. So, when the famine spread to Canaan, Israel found himself with a crisis on his hands. There was no grain for purchase in the land of Canaan, which made it difficult for Israel to feed his family and livestock.
Upon hearing that grain was for sale in Egypt, Israel assigned his sons the unenviable task of making the long trip to the land of the Pharaohs and returning with as much grain as they could purchase. But Israel and his sons had no idea what awaited them in Egypt. Their objective was to buy temporary relief from their troubles. But God had something far more significant in mind.
Years earlier, God had told Israel’s grandfather, Abraham, that his offspring would end up living in a foreign land for four centuries. But God had also promised that He would deliver them from that land and return them to Canaan.
Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV
So, as Israel’s 10 sons made their way to Egypt, their only aspiration was to return with grain so that their clan could survive the famine back home. But they were about to play important roles in a divine drama that would preface the next chapter in the story of God’s chosen people.
Upon arrival in Egypt, the sons of Israel were ushered into the presence of the royal governor, who was responsible for the sale of all grain in Egypt. It just so happened that this dignitary was their long-lost brother, Joseph, but they failed to recognize him. He was years older and, most likely, dressed in Egyptian garments. And the last thing they expected to find in Egypt was their long-forgotten brother.
But Joseph had not forgotten them. And upon recognizing the faces of the very men who had sold him into slavery, Joseph decided to keep his identity veiled so that he could ascertain the state of affairs back home. He had no reason to trust his brothers and it must have concerned him that they had shown up in Egypt without their father and younger sibling. Had his father died while he was away? Did his jealous brothers do to young Benjamin what they had done to him? Joseph had so many unanswered questions, so he continued to portray himself as Zaphenath-paneah, the governor of Egypt until he could determine the trustworthiness of his brothers.
Moses indicates that Joseph kept up a convincing charade, speaking to his brothers in stern tones and displaying a suspicious attitude toward them.
…he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. – Genesis 42:7 ESV
A wave of emotions must have swept over Joseph as he stood staring into the faces of the men who had treated him with such disdain. Driven by nothing more than jealousy, these so-called brothers had conspired to kill him. And if it had not been for his brother Judah’s intervention, they would have left Joseph to rot in an abandoned cistern. But Judah had come up with the idea of selling Joseph to Ishmaelite traders. That way, they could be rid of him without being guilty of spilling innocent blood. And each of his brothers had been complicit in their betrayal of Joseph. Even Reuben, who had hoped to extricate him from the pit and return him to their father, had eventually caved into his brothers’ demands.
Now they stood before Joseph, like groveling slaves before their master. And the scene brought to Joseph’s mind the vivid images he had seen in his long-forgotten dreams. It was his sharing of these dreams that had turned his brothers against him.
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
And, while these dreams infuriated his brothers, “his father wondered what the dreams meant” (Genesis 37:11 NLT). Now, years later, they were all about to find out. As Reuben, Judah, and their eight other brothers kneeled before the powerful governor of Egypt, they feared for their lives because he was accusing them of being spies. They vehemently denied the accusation and swore that their sole intention was to purchase grain for their families back in Canaan.
“Your servants have simply come to buy food. We are all brothers—members of the same family. We are honest men, sir! We are not spies!” – Genesis 42:10-11 NLT
Their claim to be honest men must have struck a nerve with Joseph. How could these deceivers and betrayers dare to consider themselves to be honest and trustworthy? Nothing from Joseph’s memory could support such a claim. So, he continued to question the veracity of their story.
Desperate to convince the governor of their innocence, they reveal that they have a young brother who has remained at home with their father. But because Joseph knew his brothers to be liars, he was reticent to trust them. How was he to know if Israel or Benjamin were alive or dead? He knew his brothers were capable of just about anything, so he came up with a test to determine whether they deserved his favor or anger.
“This is how I will test your story. I swear by the life of Pharaoh that you will never leave Egypt unless your youngest brother comes here! One of you must go and get your brother. I’ll keep the rest of you here in prison. Then we’ll find out whether or not your story is true. By the life of Pharaoh, if it turns out that you don’t have a younger brother, then I’ll know you are spies.” – Genesis 42:15-16 NLT
Joseph was anxious to know that Benjamin was alive and well. After all, he and Benjamin shared the same birth mother, Rachel. And since Rachel’s death, Benjamin had become near and dear to Joseph’s heart. Yet, because of his brothers’ actions, Joseph had been denied the joy of watching his younger sibling grow up. So much time had passed and he longed to be reunited with his father and brother. And God was using Joseph’s desires to instigate a plan that would eventually fulfill the very words that God had spoken to Abraham.
“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years.” – Genesis 15:13 ESV
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