18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 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, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 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.” 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. 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.
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?”
29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’”
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.” – Genesis 42:18-38 ESV
Zaphenath-paneah (Joseph), the governor of Egypt, ordered the sons of Jacob to return to the land of Canaan, with instructions to bring back their younger brother, Benjamin. This would provide proof that they truly were innocent foreigners is search of food to survive the famine. But Joseph was seeking to ensure that they had not treated his younger brother with the same hatred and disdain as they had shown to him. He wanted to Benjamin with his own eyes. And to ensure that the men returned, Joseph help Simeon as collateral. This was likely a test of his brothers’ character as well. Would they return as ordered and spare their brother’s life or would they abandon him to his fate in Egypt?
When Reuben and his brothers heard the governor’s instructions, they were filled with guilt and regret. They couldn’t help but conclude that this was all God’s divine judgment for what they had done to their brother years earlier.
“Clearly we are being punished because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his anguish when he pleaded for his life, but we wouldn’t listen. That’s why we’re in this trouble.” – Genesis 42:21 NLT
And Reuben made matters worse by reminding them that he had been the one who had tried to talk them out of their ill-fated plan to get rid of Joseph.
“Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy?…But you wouldn’t listen. And now we have to answer for his blood!” – Genesis 42:22 NLT
This only added to their sense of guilt and shame. They freely aired their dirty laundry right in front of the royal governor, thinking him incapable of understanding their language. But as they bickered among themselves, Joseph listened in, taking note of every word they spoke. And upon witnessing the bitter acrimony among his siblings, Joseph was moved to tears. All the memories of his past came rushing in and overwhelmed his emotions. When he regained his composure, Joseph took Simeon as a hostage and ordered the nine other brothers to take their allotment of grain and return home. Their brother would be released as soon as they returned with Benjamin.
Joseph ordered Simeon be bound with ropes as his brothers looked on helplessly. This was meant to be a vivid and painful reminder of their callous treatment of Joseph so many years before. Simeon’s fate was in their hands. And, for the second time, the brothers found themselves returning home with devastating news for their father. But this time, rather than fabricating a lie, they would be telling the truth.
Before they left for Canaan, Joseph had the grain they had purchased loaded onto their pack animals, and then provided them with provisions for their journey. He also played a rather cruel trick on them, ordering that the money they had paid for the grain be returned in full, and secretly dispersed among the bags of grain. When the brothers stopped for the night, they each discovered the money had been returned to the sacks in which the grain was contained. This made them look like thieves. And they immediately concluded that this was a punishment from the hand of God.
“What is this that God has done to us?” – Genesis 42:28 ESV
Could things get any worse? Their brother was a prisoner in Egypt. They were returning to Canaan with grain they had not paid for, making them guilty of theft. And, on top of that, they were going to have to somehow convince their father to send his youngest son back with them to Egypt. It was all a never-ending nightmare.
When they finally returned home and told their father all that had happened, Jacob was beside himself with grief and fear.
“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.” – Genesis 42:36 ESV
It was more than he could bear. His sons had returned with much-needed food, but they had left their brother behind. To make matters worse, the Egyptian governor was demanding that Jacob send his youngest son back to Egypt if he ever wanted to see Simeon again. This put Jacob in the unenviable position of risking the life of one son or possibly both. If he refused to send Benjamin, he would never see Simeon again. If he agreed to the governor’s demands and sent Benjamin, he had no guarantee that either would ever return. In fact, he had to face the very real possibility that none of his sons would return if the governor accused them of stealing the grain they brought back from Egypt.
Sensing his father’s dilemma, Reuben promised to bring back Simeon and Benjamin, offering his own two sons as sacrificial substitutes should he fail to do so. He was putting his own family line in jeopardy by doing so, but he was willing to take that risk to guarantee Simeon’s release. Jacob reluctantly agreed to send Benjamin back to Egypt, along with his 10 older brothers. This decision must have been gut-wrenching as he considered the very real possibility that he might never see any of them again.
In reading this emotionally charged story, it’s easy to overlook a statement made by Joseph that establishes the tone for all the takes place. After placing his brothers in confinement for three days, Joseph had them brought before him. Then he said something that must have caught them by surprise. After all, they believed they were standing before a powerful Egyptian dignitary who was speaking to them through an interpreter. But as the translator relayed Joseph’s message, they must have been surprised and encouraged.
“Do this and you will live, for I fear God.” – Genesis 42:18 ESV
They must have looked at one another in astonishment as, out of the mouth of this Egyptian lord, came the name of ‘ĕlōhîm, the God of Israel. While hiding his true identity from his brothers, Joseph was not disguising his faith in God. He wanted his brothers to know that their fate was in God’s hands, not his own. If they would only obey his orders and return with their younger brother, all would go well. Their brother Simeon would be cared for while they were gone and be released upon their return. And it must have surprised these men to have someone whom they thought to be a pagan to encourage them to trust their own God. This Egyptian was showing more faith than they were. It seems apparent that Joseph could see God’s sovereign handiwork behind all of the events of the last three days. And, somehow, he knew that good was going to come from it all.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.