December 19, 2016

Commentary on the Book of Genesis

By: Tom Lowe

 

PART IV: JOSEPH AND HIS BRETHREN (Gen. 37:1-50:26)

 

 

Topic #D: VISITS OF JOSEPH'S BROTHERS (Gen. 42:1-45:28)                                                                                                                                                      

 

 

Lesson IV.D.1: They Come and Are Imprisoned (Gen. 42:1-17)

 

 

Genesis 42:1-17 (KJV)

 

1 Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?

2 And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.

3 And Joseph's ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.

4 But Benjamin, Joseph's brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him.

5 And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

6 And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph's brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.

7 And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.

8 And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.

9 And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.

10 And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come.

11 We are all one man's sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.

12 And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.

13 And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.

14 And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies:

15 Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.

16 Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.

17 And he put them all together into ward three days.

 

Introduction

If you had read the previous lessons I think you could guess what is going to happen.  The famine is over all the earth, and all the earth is coming to Egypt to get grain.  Guess who’s coming for dinner?

The famine forces Jacob to send his ten sons to Egypt to buy food.  Why only 10?  Why didn’t he send Benjamin?  He didn’t want to lose Benjamin.  It would have killed him to have lost Benjamin.

Through the providence of God, Joseph and his ten brothers were brought together. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize Joseph.  Why not?  Well, there are several reasons.  First of all, they thought he was dead, so they were not looking for him at all.  They never expected to see him again, but he did expect to see them.  And, we must remember that many years had gone by.  He was seventeen when they sold him, and now he is thirty-seven years old, plus however many years the famine has been going on.  Let’s say it was one year; so they had not seen him in twenty-one years.  He’s almost forty and he is dressed like an Egyptian, speaks and acts like an Egyptian, and communicates with them through an interpreter.

The question has been asked, “Why didn’t Joseph immediately reveal himself to his brothers, which could have brought about “instant reconciliation?” True reconciliation, however, requires sincere repentance and humble confession of sin, and often it takes time for a person to get to that place.  I believe that Joseph dealt with his brothers in a patient, loving, and wise way, and that’s why his approach succeeded.  God had to bring Joseph’s brothers to the place where they admitted the evil things they had done to their brother and their father.  Shallow repentance leads to an experience that isn’t reconciliation at all. It’s only a fragile truce.

From a human point of view, Joseph would have been happy for “instant reconciliation,” because then he could have seen his father and his brother Benjamin much sooner.  But like a skilled Physician, Joseph was patient.  He spoke and acted in such a way that the thoughts of his brothers’ hearts were revealed and God finally brought them to true repentance.

 

Commentary

1 Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?

After the promised seven years of plenty, the years of famine came upon the Middle-Eastern world; but, thanks to Joseph, there was abundant grain in Egypt.  God had sent Joseph ahead (45:5; Psalm 105:17) to preserve his family so that one day the nation Israel could give the world Jesus Christ, “the Bread of Life” (John 6: 48).

These events took place during the first two years of the seven-year famine (Genesis 45:6).  It was a time when Joseph’s brothers had to experience several tests that were designed by God to bring them to repentance.

The passage begins on a rather sour note; Jacob and his eleven sons are at home having a serious discussion.  “Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?” They were down in the dumps and were looking at each other in a gloomy way, not knowing where to turn or what to do. The patriarchal family was caught up in the widespread disaster that had overtaken the world. God’s people have no unconditional guarantee they will escape the floods and famines, the tornadoes and earthquakes, the horrors of war and rebellion that descend from time to time on the world.

Jacob wants to know why his sons have not done anything to improve their situation.  Why, indeed, did the brothers hesitate to talk about the problem or even offer to go to Egypt to purchase food? Jacob was finally in charge of his family.  In the light of his sons, indecision (“Why do ye look one upon another?”), he took over.  Why, indeed, did the brothers hesitate to talk about the problem or even offer to go to Egypt to purchase food?

For one thing, the trip to Egypt was long (250-300 miles) and dangerous, and a roundtrip would consume six weeks’ time.  Even after arriving in Egypt, the men couldn’t be certain of a friendly reception.  As “foreigners” from Canaan, they would be very vulnerable and could even be arrested and enslaved.  If that happened to Jacob’s sons who would care for their families and their aged father? 

Perhaps too, the memory of selling their younger brother to traders going down to Egypt haunted Jacob’s sons. The brothers had done that evil deed over thirty years ago and by now were convinced that Joseph was dead (Genesis 42:13), but they hadn’t forgotten what they had done to Joseph and the pain they caused their father.  Conscience has a way of digging up the past and raising doubts and fears within us.

2 And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.

This is a first-rate illustration of faith. Some people say that faith is so mysterious to them and that they don’t know how to believe. But it is clear from what Jacob says here that Jacob believed God. Notice how he came to believe that God would provide, and they would not starve. He heard something: “I have heard that there is corn in Egypt,” and he believed it, believed that it would bring life to him and his family.  So he acted upon his belief: “Get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.” Dear reader, that is what saving faith is.  Some people ask, “How can I believe in Jesus?” Well, the way to believe it is to act upon it.  The Bible says, “. . .  Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shall be saved . . .” (Acts 16:31).  You hear something and you believe it.  That is what old Jacob did.  That is the way he got corn which brought life to his family.  And the way you and I get eternal life is through faith in Christ.

When disaster does strike, we should not set on our hands and expect God to do something on our behalf. We should look around for natural means for relief. At least, that’s what Jacob thought.

No doubt the chosen family was perplexed at the extent and severity of the famine. Why should it affect Canaan? Were they not in the Promised Land in obedience to the mind and will of God? Why did the Lord allow such things? They were soon to find out why. Their own sin, long since buried in their minds, covered up for so long, was about to be exposed and written up in banner headlines for all the world to read.

“That we may live, and not die.” This is why they were sent to Egypt.  Yet when they arrived there, the opposite seemed about to happen.  After they had been imprisoned and brought before Joseph, he said to them: “Do this and you will live . . .  and you shall not die” (42:18, 20).  Until then they surely had their doubts.

3 And Joseph's ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.

4 But Benjamin, Joseph's brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him.

Into Egypt they had come, to be directed at the frontier to the division of the Egyptian foreign office that dealt with the exporting of vital natural resources to aliens and foreign powers. There they had been referred to Joseph and, awed by his magnificence, had fallen prostrate on the ground.

“But Benjamin, Joseph's brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him”. The father’s reluctance to send Benjamin along with his ten brothers reveals both his painful memory of Joseph’s disappearance and a lingering, knowing fear that the others deeply disliked Rachael’s sons. Suppose mischief (harm) comes to the other ten boys, what then?  Well, for one thing they are older.  But if you want to know the truth, it wouldn’t hurt Jacob as much to lose the other ten as it would to lose Benjamin.  Benjamin and Joseph were Rachel’s boys, and Rachel was the wife he had deeply loved. And now he sends out all ten and keeps only Benjamin with him. Evidentially, Joseph’s fate had not come to light, but the brother’s characteristics were known to the old man. Perhaps they would harm Benjamin as well.

What Jacob and his sons didn't know was that the sovereign God was at work making sure the ten brothers went to Egypt and bowed down before Joseph.  In the accomplishing of His divine purposes, God can use a famine, a kidnapping (2 Kings 5:2-3), a royal beauty contest (Esther 2), a sudden death (Ezekiel 24:15), a dream (Daniel 2), a plague (Joel 1), and even a government census (Luke 2:1-7).  "Our God is in heaven; he does whatsoever pleases him" (Psalm 115:3).

5 And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

Now we come to this dramatic moment—

6 And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph's brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.

Joseph has been watching for them.  He knew they would have to come sooner or later.  There had been delegations there from all over the inhabitable earth of that day. The famine was worldwide.  So he watches, and lo and behold, here come the ten men.  They all bow down before him.  They got right down on their faces before Joseph.  Do you wonder how he felt?  By the way, what does this scene make you think of?  Here is the fulfillment of the dreams of Joseph.  Do you remember how he had dreamed as a boy that all the sheaves bowed down to his sheaf?  Here it is taking place—all his older brothers are down on their faces before him. In the providence of God, Joseph was on hand when his ten brothers arrived to buy grain and he recognized them.

As second ruler of the land, Joseph certainly didn't participate in each individual grain transaction because he had many important things to do.  Furthermore, the food supply was stored in several cities (41:46-49), and Joseph had commissioners assisting him (vs. 34-36).  No doubt he provided for the resident Egyptians in a routine manner, while the foreigners had to be screened carefully in case they had plans for invading the land (vs. 56-57). 

7 And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.

8 And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.

“And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them.” Do you know why he treated them roughly?  He is testing them, as he said he would (15), but in a way they did not realize.  We will find that he is going to test them all the way through.  He is going to ask them some stabbing questions. He wanted to discover if they were honest men and to humble his previously arrogant brothers. Unless they had changed from the selfish schemers of earlier years it was better for Joseph not to reveal himself to them, for worse situations would develop.

Joseph probably noticed immediately that Jacob’s youngest son, Benjamin, was not with them and he may have suspected that they had done away with him as they had attempted to do with Joseph. He had to know the truth, so he gave them opportunities to speak of their father and brother.

“And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.” Even if they had expected to meet Joseph, which they didn't, the ten men wouldn't have recognized their brother.  He was seventeen when they sold him, and in the ensuing 20 years he would have changed in appearance far more than his older brothers.  Furthermore, he was now clean-shaven like an Egyptian, he was dressed like an Egyptian, and he spoke to them in the Egyptian language through an interpreter.

9 And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.

10 And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come.

11 We are all one man's sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.

“And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them.” There is surely an element of sweet triumph for Joseph in seeing his grandiose dreams fulfilled so precisely, though it would be darkened by his recollection of what the report of his dreams led his brothers to do.

“and said unto them, Ye are spies” The accusation that they are spies is intended to bring out their purpose for coming to Egypt.

“The nakedness of the land” is better translated as “how defenseless the land is.”

The brothers regarded themselves as honest men—“we are true men—a claim that must have caused Joseph to laugh silently to himself.

Believe me, Joseph is pouring it on—He accuses them of being spies.

12 And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.

13 And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.

He is trying to get from them as much information as he can about his family without letting them know who he is.  He accuses them of being spies.

There are only ten men there before him.  They confess that they are really twelve brothers and that one is home with their father and the other “is not.” There it was! The reference to Joseph by subtle implication. They would not name him or acknowledge him; they would prefer not to think of him. But since they must, they would make only the slightest possible casual and passing reference to him. They would say nothing about what they had done to him, nothing at all about their rejection of him. Joseph was an awkward fact of history they would prefer not to face at all. Joseph however, had no intention of letting them off the hook that easily.

14 And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies:

15 Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.

16 Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.

“Joseph said unto them,” for the fourth time, “Ye are spies.” His purpose in speaking so harshly to his brothers and accusing them of spying is not motivated by bitterness, but by a desire to covertly discover information regarding the health and well-being of his father, Jacob, and his younger brother, Benjamin, who was at least twenty years old at the time. He also is testing their character—have they changed in how they care for each other.

Joseph swearing “by the life of Pharaoh” at first seems merely part of him playing his role as an Egyptian. Not until verse 23 do we learn that he is addressing them through an interpreter.

Joseph is attempting to make contact with his youngest brother—“Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother.” These men are really half brothers of his, but Benjamin is his full brother, and he wants to see him.  This is the way he attempts to accomplish this.

 “Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you.” Joseph’s demand that they send someone to fetch Benjamin was designed to uncover their real attitude toward his full brother, the other son of Rachel. 

“Or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.” The accusation that they were spies was intended to bring out their purpose for coming to Egypt.  “By the life of Pharoah” is a kind of oath meaning “as sure as the Pharaoh lives.”

When the 10 men bowed before him, Joseph knew that the faithful God was beginning to fulfill the promises He had revealed in the two dreams (37:7, 9).  It must have been difficult for Joseph to control his emotions as he spoke harshly to his brothers, because his natural desire would have been to speak to them in Hebrew and reveal who he was.  But that would have ruined everything, for he knew that all eleven brothers had to bow before him.  This meant that Benjamin would have to come with them on their next trip.  Furthermore, Joseph’s brothers had to be forced to face their sins and come to the place of honest confession, and that would take time.

Joseph’s manner, coupled with the numerous tests through which he put his brothers, gives the distinct impression that he was humbling his previously arrogant brothers. He wanted them to bring Benjamin down to Egypt so that he could make sure that Benjamin was still alive, that they had not killed him as they had tried to kill Joseph.

He accused them for the forth (9, 12, 14, 16) time of being spies, and each time the ten brothers affirmed their innocence as "true men." Their statement "one is not" must have moved Joseph deeply, but he rejoiced to hear that his father and younger brother were both alive and well.

17 And he put them all together into ward three days.

He confined them for only three days to teach them what it was like to be a prisoner, and to give them time to think.  The word translated here as “ward” (and sometimes “prison”) has a better translation—“in custody” would be closer to the original.  The word translated "prison" in Genesis 39-40, describing Joseph’s experiences, means a prison and not just being under guard or house arrest.  Joseph suffered as a prisoner in a real prison, while his brothers were only confined under guard. Their confinement was meant to impress them with the extent of his power over them. But it also taught them a lesson.  When they were released three days later, the 10 men were beginning to sense that God was dealing with them because of their sins (42:21).

Things look bad for them now, and they wonder what is going to happen. One can imagine their anxiety. They were deathly afraid of that person, that mysterious Egyptian, who was demonstrating what power he had over them.

 

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