Genesis 42: 1- 9 “When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you just keep looking at each other?’ He continued, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.’ Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. So Israel’s sons were among those who went to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also. Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. ‘Where do you come from?’ he asked. ‘From the land of Canaan,’ they replied, ‘to buy food.’ Although Joseph recognised his brothers, they did not recognise him. Then he remembered his dreams about them” (and on to the end of the chapter, v.38).
When Joseph had interpreted the dreams that God had created in Pharaoh’s mind their meaning was clear to all, that there would now begin a seven year period of great plenty, perfect climatic conditions for bumper harvests, rain at the right time, not too much, winds not too strong and scorching, one year of mammoth harvests and then another, and then another and so on for seven full years, so that there was no starvation whatsoever in the middle east; all would have a redundance, and this, you remember, would be taking place in a world under the curse, as God had announced to rebellious Adam and Eve, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Gen. 3:17-19). It was almost as if the curse would be temporarily lifted for those seven years so that Joseph and also his Jehovahist family back in Canaan could speak plainly to their family and close servants witnessing to them, “Our God is doing this. It is God who gives us all things richly to enjoy.” That is our testimony in the affluent society in which we live, just as Paul told the philosophers of Athens, that it was his God, the Creator, who “gives all men life and breath and everything else.” If you’ve had a richly blessed life then the author of all the best gifts you’ve ever enjoyed is the living God. What grace! How good is God! How long-suffering and patient he’s been with you.
Of course, during those seven plentiful years the people of Egypt still worshipped the river Nile, and cats, and sacred crocodiles, and the Sun god. They exposed their unwanted babies overnight to die, and hung their uppity servants so that the vultures pecked their eyes out, but God was still longsuffering towards them and he gave them seven years of plenty. The Egyptians during that time all went through a strict regime of gathering up a percentage of their corn, commissioners having been appointed over the land, requiring a fifth of the harvest of Egypt from the people during all the years of abundance. They gathered large quantities of the food during those good years under the authority of Pharaoh and they kept it safe storing it in the cities where it could be guarded. It was to be used only when those seven good years came to an end.
- THE COMING OF THE SEVEN YEARS OF FAMINE.
The reasons for the 20% deduction of their grain had to be explained to the people. “Seven whole years of plenty are ours now, but then they’ll come to an end. Then this is what will happen we face another seven years of famine,” and if the people questioned this prediction, and the fact that a fifth of their harvests were being taken from them, then they were told of the new man leading the country under the authority of Pharaoh. He was a Hebrew and his name was Zaphenath-Paneah and Pharaoh had given him the hand of Asenath the daughter of Potiphera, the priest of On, in marriage. His God, the God of the Hebrews, was the one who had told Pharaoh through him that this would happen, and, “Do you know that every dream he interprets comes true.” It was an extraordinary testimony to all of Egypt of the truth and power of the living God; years of abundance would change the way of life for all the people for seven years bringing prosperity to the whole nation. One year of bounty followed another; wave of blessing upon blessing; all of it the gift of the God of Joseph, the man who was now the most powerful man in the world alongside Pharaoh. You might think that this would draw many Egyptians to put their faith in Joseph’s God, or that the long years of famine following this prosperity would have the same impact, turning people away from materialism to cast themselves on Jehovah the great I AM, the God of history, the God of the future, the God who ruled from heaven – you might imagine that such a large scale turning to God would occur during those 14 years, but we have no evidence that anything like this happened. Prosperity can make people contented without God, and famine can make people bitter against God. What we do know is that Joseph survived at the top throughout all those years unchallenged in his authority and in the trust placed in him by Pharaoh. He was unbought by the gratitude of those who benefited in the seven good years, and unintimidated by the anger of those who suffered the withering blast of the hot winds from the Sahara for the seven long years of famine stalking the nations.
Those years of want, when God dealt with rebellious mankind as they deserved, were not confined to Egypt, but there was distress throughout the Middle East, and once again Egypt was the bread basket of the whole region. “Famine was in the land of Canaan also” (v.5). What should the line of Abraham do? Weren’t they a hopeless group; when the brothers got together for a family discussion about the crisis all they did was keep glancing at one another (v.1). They were paralyzed! They were brothers without leadership, without motivation and in despair. What a bunch! Simeon and Levi had tricked and then brutally slaughtered all the men of Shechem and enslaved the women and children. Reuben, the oldest son, had committed incest with his father’s own concubine, the mother of a number of his half brothers. Judah had a child by his daughter-in-law. People today would dub them ‘a family from hell.’ Yet in the last book of the Bible, can you believe that when the Holy City comes down out of heaven from God it is the names of these brothers that mark the twelve gates of the heavenly city. What happened, what did God do, to change these unpleasant fleshly men? If there is hope for such people then there could
be hope for you too. What occurred in their lives?
On this occasion we are told that it was their father Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, who took the lead and galvanized them into action; Jacob had heard that there was food in Egypt. So he exhorted his sons to go south and buy grain. Ten of them were to go together because there was safety in numbers and they could bring back more food in a large caravan of their donkeys. But he would keep Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother. Moses explains the reason, that Jacob was afraid that harm or accident might befall him. It’s a vague term; the old man was afraid that what had happened to Joseph would also happen to Benjamin. There was still some prior affection for the children of Rachel, and it seems some suspicion of the other brothers, but this time they gave no negative reactions. They carried enough guilt as to what they’d done to Joseph, and off the boys went to Egypt.
We know something of what God was doing and it was far more than making sure one family in Canaan survived. He was drawing his brothers into contact with Joseph once again. He was setting up the whole machinery of reconciliation. He was going to protect the line of Abraham, the promised seed to be born one day, the line of Joseph’s brother Judah from whom Jesus Christ would come in the fulness of time. Almighty God was determined to protect that line that was now facing extinction by those years of famine. How far do you think was God prepared to go to bring blessing to all the nations of the earth through the coming of the promised Messiah? Apparently God would go as far as it takes. He’d been prepared to send Joseph into exile, to live far from home, against his will for twenty tears in slavery, in prison and amongst the temptations of the royal palace. God was now prepared to create an international crisis with seven years of drought and famine, children crying, animals dying by the thousand in the fields; he would go that far so that the Christ should come. More than that, God was prepared for his own Son to be that seed of Abraham, to become incarnate and live in the darkness of this world and then be whipped and nailed to a cross and put to death. The one true and living God has been prepared to do all that in order that every nation of the earth be blessed with the gospel of Jesus Christ. So how important is the coming of the Seed of Abraham? It is cosmically crucial. It is of life and death significance. It is eternally important to your never dying soul. There is redemption from the curse that is lying on the cosmos only through this promised son of the line of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Judah, only by his safely coming to the world. There cannot be redemption in any other. Only in him; he alone is the way that the world can be de-cursed and be regenerated.
- THE COMING OF THE TEN BROTHERS TO EGYPT.
At last the dreams of Joseph begin to be fulfilled as they arrive with other non-Egyptians to purchase grain but unknowingly they encounter their long lost brother. Now God’s wrath against the brothers for their wickedness to Joseph their brother and Jacob their father begins to be revealed, and one blessed result is that they will be led to repentance. You see here first of all . . .
i] God’s earlier revelation to Joseph in both his dreams was fulfilled. After Joseph had been sold into slavery, and barely spared from death in the pit, if we didn’t know how his history ended, we’d have wondered how in the world such dreams as he had had of dominion over his family could ever come true. Now we begin seeing God keep his word of prophecy to the very letter. “It is going to happen,” the Lord had said. You can trust God! Remember also how the second of those dreams had a stalk of grain bowing to Joseph and here we see the connection which Joseph himself had never imagined. He had been told twenty years earlier that one day he was going to have some sovereignty and authority over his family. He didn’t have a clue that he would be the one ordained by God to spare their lives from starvation in the midst of a famine. Now it is clearer – the significance of the full head of grain is understood. We see it here in a passage which is all about ten brothers desperately needing grain for their survival, and Joseph the only one who could provide it for them.
ii] Joseph recognized his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him (vv.7&8). Joseph’s brothers came to him and they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground as the dreams had said. He immediately recognized them, but we are told that he pretended that he was a stranger, that he’d never seen them before and they certainly didn’t recognize him (you see that word ‘recognize’ repeated in verse 8). It is the same word these brothers had used when they brought Joseph’s coat of many colours, covered in sheep’s blood, and they asked Jacob if he recognized it. It is the same word used at the time Tamar was accused of being a prostitute. She asked Judah if he recognized the pledges he had left behind him for her sexual favours. The theme of recognition is very important in these stories, and it is important in our lives because the person who has knowledge of truth and recognizes what is happening and why it is happening has the power to think aright and cope with providences peacefully.
The brothers had last seen young Joseph as a gangling 17 year old adolescent, and now he is in his late thirties. He has an Egyptian name, Egyptian clothes, is probably clean shaven, maybe all the hair has been shaved off his head while the Hebrews were all bearded. What a scene lies before us, of all the brothers kissing the dirt at Joseph’s feet, quite ignorant of the fact that this man is their own younger brother, the man they’d once decided to kill.
We are not told what Joseph’s state of mind was when he first saw his brothers. All we know is that the last time Joseph spoke, he was thanking God. He was grateful that he’d forgotten his household (Gen, 41:51). That’s the last time we heard Joseph speaking about his family. He was thanking God that he had removed the memory of his own wretched household – his brothers and his father’s house – from his mind. Now he’s face to face with them again, and who dares speculate what was going on in Joseph’s mind? Certainly commentators and preachers are all divided.
Let’s look at the big picture. No matter what you think Joseph is feeling we do know that then he thought again of the dreams he’d had when he was a teenager (v.9). He became very conscious of God’s faithfulness and that it was God’s providence that he was seeing, and that fact is one reason that he pursued the puzzling course of action that he was about to take. Gripped by the memory of those dreams of his whole family bowing down to him Joseph now sets about planning to bring his whole family to Egypt. He’s not satisfied with the ten brothers alone. Where’s his father? Where is his other full brother? Josep
h doesn’t want to exult over them, but because God has kept his word in the great events in the history of the world – a world famine – and in smaller events, a dream of a full family bowing before him, then God’s revelation, God’s plan, must come to fruition. So some might say that what Joseph was about to do was being vindictive and petty and vengeful, but his goal in doing it was to convict them of their sin, because without conviction there could be no confession, and without confession there can be no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there can be no reconciliation. So Joseph set out on this course of action which was going to result in these wayward, wicked boys repenting of their sin. And I ask what God must do to you in order to make you repent? How will God use us as a congregation to effect contrition and godly sorrow in your life? Will he use my accusations and searching words? I’m often saying, “Can you be a Christian and behave as you behave? Can you be a true disciple while believing the errors that you believe? Where is the Spirit of truth in your life? Are you taking the members of Christ and joining them to a prostitute? Do ten brothers murder another brother or sell him into slavery? Does a Christian live like that?” In other words I am making accusations in the light of what the Scripture describes concerning how mere believers live and what they believe. What are you going to do about it? Will you run from probing preaching to find a pulpit under which you will be lulled to sleep each Sunday? Then there is no hope for you. You are self deceived. So . . .
iii] Joseph makes accusation of his brothers. He begins the testing by accusing them of being spies. Now you may wonder what’s the source of that accusation? Apparently it is this. Ten brothers, ten men claiming to be brothers, all together leaving another land, and coming to Egypt, this is a little suspicious, isn’t it? Would any father send ten of his sons? That’s almost his entire legacy. I am asking whether a father from another country would send all ten of his sons (or even most of his boys) on a long journey at a dangerous time of international starvation in order to gain food. Three could do it! So Joseph has a little credibility in acting suspiciously towards these men. He says, “Why in the world should I believe that you are ten brothers? You are spies who have come to the border lands to find out where our defenses are weakest” (v.12). “No,” they say getting afraid, “We’re honest men. We are brothers, the sons of one father. We’re not spies” (v.11). And so in order to defend themselves, they speak accurately, “Well, wait a second, actually we are twelve brothers. One of them is back with our dad, another of them is dead.” They begin to give him more information about their family background in order to establish the credibility of their story.
That gave Joseph his opportunity: “‘It is just as I told you: You are spies! And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!’ And he put them all in custody for three days” (vv.14-17). Over and over again the test of the truthfulness of their words is pressed. These are the brothers who had once all stood in the solidarity of deceit, lying to their father that his dear son Joseph had been killed by a lion or a bear, while knowing all along that they had sold him into slavery in Egypt. Joseph is testing them about their honesty. This test devised by Joseph is designed to convict them of their sin and accelerate the process of repentance, and Joseph actually had them put in prison for three days for the first time in their lives. He gave them a taste of the horrors of incarceration.
Don’t think that Joseph is vindictive, for there’s actually a great deal of generosity on Joseph’s part. They stay in prison a mere three days. He’d been there for at least three years, and if he’s wanting to get even, this doesn’t look like the way to do it. At first he tells them that one of them can go back, while the rest of them remain in prison (v.16). Think of that possibility, one of them alone making the hazardous journey back and fore! That fear sinks in, but when he comes out with his plan, he lets all of them except one go back (v.19). “You must bring your youngest brother back to me.” Then his kindness and care for them shows itself in that he supplies them with food for their journey and on top of that he gives them all their money back. This is not the way that a person who’s trying to get even acts. So you can see Joseph’s own concern as to whether the hearts of his brothers have changed at all. Joseph has experienced life with these boys. What good is a physical coming together if there is no godly sorrow and no new nature? Joseph is not very interested in re-engaging in this relationship if it’s going to be the same as it was, with the same jealousy and hatred and deceit that it has been, to his great hurt and the hurt of his father, then Joseph says, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
iv] Joseph’s plan begins to accomplish a new spirit in the brothers. Joseph’s scheming is used in the plan of God to convict their hearts and achieve the beginnings of a spirit of repentance. It took all this to do it! You remember they’d heard his cries to spare him, and take him out of the pit into which they’d cast him, but his cries hadn’t touched their hearts. They’d seen their father convulsed in tears, mourning for weeks after they’d told Jacob that Joseph was dead, but his mourning hadn’t changed their hearts. Now God had waited twenty years and still no repentance, and so he picked up his rod, and his rod was Joseph and he really brought the rod down upon them in his righteous indignation in order to bring this message home, “No repentance, no salvation; no repentance, no heaven.” Do you see that message hitting home: “They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.’ Reuben replied, ‘Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood’” (vv.21-23).
These brothers had never forgotten in twenty years what they’d done, the monstrous wickedness of their action, to a brother and to a father! This man speaks to them with his irresistible authority, puts them in jail and keeps their brother there and demands that they return with Benjamin, and their considered response is that all this was God’s wrath against their old sin. Just as with ourselves when we are continuing in a course of sinful action, we find that whenever we get on our knees and try to pray God is saying to us, “Well, what about this . . .?” And one of the fruit of Joseph’s intervention is that for the first time in their lives his brothers were talking o
penly to one another of all that their consciences had always been convicting them about. There is no peace for the wicked. They mention the distress of Joseph’s soul crying to them from the pit (v.21) when they were having a meal together and here, for the first time, they admit what they once had done to their brother whom they imaged was dead. They’d caused distress to his soul, but now this distress is being visited upon them. They could see the hand of God in it. At long last!
So in an overwhelming way their sin hit home; God can do this. They were seeing with heart conviction what they’d done. They acknowledged that what they were receiving was a just dessert. Even Joseph was weeping at their words and all the memories it brought back, though hiding his tears from them, because of course he’d heard everything that they’d said. They’d been talking with him through an interpreter. As part of his disguise he’d not spoken to them in their language. He’d used an Egyptian-Hebrew interpreter, and whenever they spoke amongst themselves, they thought he couldn’t understand what they were saying. But he’d known everything they’d said, and it had made him weep and he had to leave the room to regain his composure. God was there in that encounter. He was beginning to do his extraordinary work, convicting of sin and reconciling estranged men, a work that Joseph couldn’t have anticipated, a work that his brothers couldn’t have anticipated.
When we experience an unusual providence, then we have to ask ourselves what God is teaching us. When we hear sermons on providence we have to ask ourselves what is God teaching us. My point is that we often want to look at providence and ask what is God teaching others, him or her. But I say when we look at providence, and dark providences in particular, it’s not inappropriate to ask what is God teaching me. “Is it I? Is it I?”
3. THE COMING HOME TO JACOB.
i] They told their father the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Why am I making a song and dance about that? Because the last time these ten brothers came to their father from a strange land they told him the most cruel lies. They told him that wild animals had killed his dear son Joseph and they even produced his coat which they had dipped in an animal’s blood as proof of their deceit. Now, as painful as it was going to be for them to tell him exactly what had happened, they had no alternative. Again a son was missing, Simeon, and now if they are to get him back alive they must return to Egypt with his darling son Benjamin. Maybe in our lifetimes the whole truth about how we have lived our lives will never be made known, but God has kept a record of it, and he knows. We must all appear before him and what we’ve done and said must be evaluated. This is a moral universe and it must be so. You cannot kill and betray and rape and steal and lie and abuse and there not be any reckoning. God knows the man who took the little child Madeleine from her hotel bed in Portugal and what has happened to her. He will call the man to account, and he will call me to account. He will call you to account. Let’s speak the truth to our own cost.
ii] It is not easy to read providences. Jacob looks at these boys of his, and he must have rued the day he begat them. He says to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” (v.36). In fact Joseph was alive and was working hard and wisely that they all might be reconciled as a family and be fed and be protected. Simeon was being well looked after in Egypt and soon they would see him, and Benjamin would live to old age. Everything in fact was working for Jacob, but he couldn’t see it. It is not easy to interpret providences. You ask, “Why is God dealing with me in this way? Why has he brought this trouble into my life?” You write off your car in an accident. You are ill and need an operation. Your boy-friend writes you a ‘Dear Mary’ letter and ends the relationship. There is trouble in the congregation. Now what is God saying to you through testing providences such as those? I don’t think I can help you if you asked me what was the precise meaning of these things happening to you. Why did God permit it? It can be an uncertain business reading providences. Go to God! You would have to say to God, “It is good that I have been afflicted that I might learn your commandments.” You would ask God to teach you his ways.
You can see how difficult it was for this whole family to understand what was going on. They only had part of the information. They were seeing through a glass darkly. They didn’t know that God was in this Egyptian stranger and that he was in fact their merciful brother working all things together for their good. At one place it is very clear that Moses believes that the brothers of Joseph were right to think that God is visiting his punishment on them (v.21). The rod of chastening was upon their backs and justly so, but in another place in this same chapter it seems they’re confused; they are getting paranoiac.
When they opened the bags in their father’s home they found all the money they taken to buy the grain returned to them. Joseph, in his kindness, had given them back their silver. Joseph had no intention of taking money from his own family for food to survive on. You see the heart of this man Joseph? He’d absolutely no intention of receiving anything from them for their subsistence. He would bless them rather, and prosper them. So he’d put the money back in their bags, but apparently one of his servants had made a mistake doing this. In one of the bags of food to be used on the actual journey home – for them and their donkeys – the servant had hidden one of the bags of money. So when one brother opened the grain in order to feed the mules, the brother found his own silver (v.27). Then they got home and found all the rest of the money.
Did they understand God’s providence? Did they say, “That lovely Egyptian has given us all this grain free of charge”? Not at all. That was the real explanation of the providence but none of them believed that to be the case. What was their immediate response? It was not to rejoice; they were scared still (v.35). It was a flashing warning of danger. The Egyptian had set them up as men who had taken the grain and not paid for it. He would convict them when they returned of being thieves. Then when they told their father everything then Jacob was frightened too (v.35) and he read that providence as another evidence that God was against him. I’m saying again that providence can be a tricky matter to interpret because we only have some of the facts at hand. Some things we get right, new conviction for our sins, for example, we can understand that, but we fail to see God’s hand for good in his providences.
iii] Let’s not say wild things when tough providences come. I am thi
nking of foolish Reuben here. Reuben had committed incest with his father’s concubine, and now Reuben speaks up again, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him (Ben) to my care, and I will bring him back” (v.37). His heart has changed; there is no doubt at all about that. He’d broken his father’s heart on more than one occasion, but he doesn’t want that to happen again. He wants to protect Benjamin, even with his life, and bring him back to his father, but with such a wicked oath. How utterly stupid and cruel, as if the possible loss of a second of Jacob’s sons could somehow be compensated for by killing Reuben’s two sons, as if his two sons were not also Jacob’s grandsons! Reuben had no skill to advise or guide the family in its deep dilemma, but he wanted to help.
The chapter ends where we often find ourselves, temporarily, in Christian deadlock. God can bring us to a situation and we are at loggerheads, a husband and wife, two brothers, the elders or even the congregation. What is God’s will? Where do we go from here? The boys are anxious that they return to Egypt and parade before its leader their youngest brother Benjamin and then get Simeon released from prison and all had for home in a hurry. The brothers want that but Jacob is adamant, “My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow” (v.38), and with that impasse the chapter ends.