Genesis 42: Joseph’s Brothers Return Home

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The brothers get their audience with Joseph. He recognizes them, but they do not know who he is. Joseph gives orders to fill their bags with grain, and unbeknownst to them, he instructs the steward to put all their money back into the sacks. Perhaps he doesn’t want to take money from his family, but no reason is given for this magnanimous gesture. The brothers are unaware of it until they stop for the night. One of them opens his bag to feed the animals and discovers the money.

It says, “Their hearts sank.” This is a serious situation, and they turn to each other trembling saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” They have already attributed the harsh questioning from Joseph as punishment for their treatment of their brother. It’s a secret that they’ve been holding all this time, and now they feel as though God is extracting justice; they are at his mercy.

There is nothing to do but return to their father and tell him everything that has happened, minus of course the initial events regarding Joseph. Going forward they refer to Joseph as “the man who is lord of the country.” They tell him how “the man” in charge of the grain has spoken harshly to them and accuses them of spying on the land. They say to him, “We are honest men; we are not spies. We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.” At that point the man says one of them has to stay behind. They can take food for their starving household, but then they will have to return with that youngest brother. That’s how he will know that they are telling the truth and aren’t spies. Neither the brothers nor Jacob offer any additional comment on their Egyptian experience.

After giving an account of their time in Egypt, the brothers begin to empty their sacks. Then they realize that the silver has been returned to all their sacks. This frightens them even more. Jacob breaks into a lament, “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!”

It is such an unfair accusation. Which “children” is he talking about? Is it likely that he really is that upset about Simeon? It’s always possible, but his interests have always involved Joseph and Benjamin. Joseph is the one that is no more. Simeon is in jail, but now they want to take Benjamin. For that he bursts out, “Everything is against me!”

Taking a step back, just imagine being one of the other nine brothers. How do those words sound to them? True, Jacob doesn’t know about their previous misdeeds involving Joseph. Yet, his words bear a lot of truth, and the sons know it. Rather than rallying together as a family, Jacob blames them for their current dilemma. His words are inherently unjust in that he still favors two of his sons. And that must have been painful to hear. Yet the words also strike a chord with those sons who know they are indirectly responsible. There is such a chasm between Jacob and his remaining sons.

Still, Reuben steps up. He’s the firstborn, the oldest son. He says to Jacob, “You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring Benjamin back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back.” Reuben is offering two of his sons for Benjamin. “If I don’t bring Benjamin back, you get to kill them.” Are sons that expendable? Maybe not. We can understand Reuben trying to make the best case possible for his father. He’s trying to be very convincing. It could be that he loves his children more than anything in the entire world and making that offer wrenches his heart. But he wants his father to know how trustworthy he will be and how careful he will be with the life of Benjamin. So he says, “I will give you my two children that I love more than life itself, if I don’t bring Benjamin back to you safely.” (This, by the way, is the last time Reuben establishes a point of leadership within the family.)

Yet, Jacob is unimpressed. He says, “No!” “My son will not go down with you. His brother is dead, and he is the only one left.” His words indicate his true feelings as he refers to Benjamin as “my son” and Joseph as “his brother.” How dare Jacob say that “he is the only one left” when he has ten other sons, nine of whom are standing right before him! But that is exactly what he says. “If harm comes to him on the journey, you will bring my grey hair down to the grave in sorrow.” In other words, “I will die.” These are his exact words, spoken to his nine other sons. The discussion goes no further.

Not surprisingly, however, the original problem remains; the famine continues. When the grain is almost gone, Jacob suggests that perhaps they should go back to Egypt and buy some more. This is when Judah says, “That man warned us. You will not see my face again unless your brother is with you.” Of that they are certain. Judah continues, “If you send Benjamin along with us, we will go back and get some grain. But if you don’t, then we’re not going because the man said we would not see his face again until we had our youngest brother with us.” This is as close as they will ever get to saying “no” to their father. They have reached a standoff. But there really is no alternative. If they don’t go, the entire family will slowly starve to death. It’s only a matter of time. If Benjamin doesn’t go, they don’t go. If Jacob wants them to go buy food, he must give them Benjamin.

The brothers force him to choose because that is the choice. They can either all die, or Jacob takes a chance. Even though it sounds like a no-brainer, Jacob still refuses. He avoids making the decision. He’s angry because they mentioned to the man that they had another brother. He accuses them and says this whole thing is their fault. They were wrong to volunteer anything to him. They protest that the man had questioned them, both about their father and whether they had any other brothers. They say they just answered his questions.

And maybe that is how it happened, but according to the biblical story, they just blurt it all out. Perhaps it was anxiety; perhaps they regretted it. Nonetheless, Judah says to Jacob, “Send the boy along with me and we will go at once, so that we and all our children may live and not die.” Judah, then, says that he will personally guarantee his safety. He says, “I myself will guarantee his safety; you can hold me personally responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him here before you, I will bear the blame before you all my life.” These are legal idioms. If it doesn’t work, Jacob can hold him accountable the rest of his days. Judah has upped the ante. Reuben was willing to offer the life of two of his sons; Judah is willing to offer his own life. As it is, they are wasting a lot of time. They could have gone and been back – twice – by this time already.

Notice the lack of comment from Reuben; it is Judah who speaks on behalf of the brothers. Jacob finally has to relent. He says, “If it must be, then do this.” But he wants to insure the success of the endeavor. He tells them to gather the best products of the land and take them to the man as a gift – and to double the amount of silver. He thinks perhaps it was a mistake that the silver had been returned to them, notwithstanding this would be quite a mistake for everyone to have had their silver returned. The bottom line is that he wants them to “butter this man up,” to soften his attitude, to placate him in any way possible.

Among the gifts he wants to send are a “little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.” These are all products that are grown in Canaan. “Balm” is used for medicinal purposes; honey is very plentiful. “Myrrh” is used both as a perfume and a medicine. And the nuts are native to the land. Additionally, they will take twice the amount of silver, enough to repay the first amount and an equal amount for the current trip. He does not want them to go back empty-handed, just in case the man might be really upset about the silver. Plied with gifts they hope to convince the man of their integrity.

But realistically, does Joseph need any presents? Of course not. He lives in Pharaoh’s house. He has everything he could ever want. So at best, this is seen as a kind gesture—a good-will offering. This is letting him know that they aren’t greedy; they are not barbarians; they are a cultured and civilized people. They are a fair-minded, honest people who are trying to be as nice to him as they can possibly be.

Finally, after all these arrangements have been made, only now does Jacob tell them to go with Benjamin. This time, he refers to Benjamin as “your brother,” as opposed to “my son,” indicating his acquiescence to their demand. First however, he invokes a prayer for their safety. “And may El Shaddai (God Almighty) grant you mercy before the man so that he will let your other brother and Benjamin come back with you.” El Shaddai is oftentimes used to refer to God when His power, sustenance, or sufficiency is required. Here, Jacob wants this powerful God to be merciful towards his sons. He adds, “As for me, if I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” One might be tempted to read this as “whatever happens, happens.” He is willing to submit to the circumstances. He has resigned himself to the realization that the outcome is out of his hands. “If I’m bereaved, I will be bereaved.” There is nothing more he can do.

Without further ado, the brothers pack up, get ready for the journey, and go off down to Egypt.