Genesis 42: Joseph’s Brothers Go to Egypt

By Mary Jane Chaignot

The famine that Joseph predicts isn’t just in Egypt; it is throughout the land. And it’s just a matter of time before Jacob and his sons will also be affected. Word gets out, however, that there is grain in Egypt. To date, Jacob and his sons are living in Palestine; their food supplies are dwindling every day, and they know that there is grain in Egypt. Finally, Jacob says to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other? ... 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.” Isn’t this an interesting commentary on the brothers? They are sitting around all day looking sad. Is it that they don’t know what to do or maybe thoughts of Egypt are too painful?

At least ten of the brothers are mulling this over. Benjamin is not part of this group. He is not a small child; perhaps he is in his teens or early twenties. But only ten brothers will go down to buy grain from Egypt. Maybe Jacob does not send Benjamin because he is afraid that some harm might come to him. Maybe he’s replaced Joseph with Benjamin. So if the sons have hoped they would be treated more fairly with Joseph out of the way, it’s safe to assume that hasn’t happened.

To anyone’s knowledge, the brothers never rebel against their father; they never stand up to him; they never complain to him. But surely they are not at all happy with the way Jacob dotes on Benjamin. Probably the one thing they want most of all from their father is a sign of love, of recognition, of satisfaction that he cares about them. Earlier, he devoted all of his attention to Joseph and now, by default, to Benjamin. This is not a good family situation.

By now, back in Egypt, Joseph is the governor of the land, and he is the one people come to when they want to get grain. When his brothers arrive, they bow down and put their faces to the ground because he is the Egyptian steward. He, of course, recognizes them right away because they probably don’t look that much different. He, on the other hand, looks very different. If he was 17 when he came to Egypt, he’s now close to forty, since they have already had the seven years of plenty, and he is thirty when he starts working for Pharaoh. If he’s forty and dressed in all his Egyptian finery with his new Egyptian name, it is not too hard to understand why his brothers don’t recognize him. As so often happens when someone is completely out of place, people don’t even question who that person might be. That’s surely the way it would have been with Joseph. They don’t recognize him, but he recognizes them.

He pretends to be a stranger and a superior, and he speaks harshly to them. He asks, “Where do you come from?” No doubt his voice rings with authority. His brothers are quaking in their shoes. Realistically, they are not the first group from Canaan to come to him asking for help. They stand before him as supplicants, but they aren’t even living in Egypt! Technically, he has no obligation to feed them; and both parties know it. They are coming from someplace outside of Egypt, asking for food from Egypt so they can live.

They say that they are from the land of Canaan, and they have come to buy food. Again, the text repeats that Joseph recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. And then suddenly, Joseph remembers his dream — the dream in which they all bow down to him. And here they are with their faces to the ground bowing down to him. The significance of this moment does not escape Joseph. The irony is sharp. One fateful day Jacob sent Joseph to his brothers, and he was at their mercy. Now Jacob has sent the brothers to Joseph, and they are at his mercy. Vindication is sweet, and he decides to press them a bit.

First, he accuses them of being spies, saying they have only come to the city to espy out where the land is unprotected. This isn’t quite as unusual as it sounds. There are ten of them. How many people does it take to come and get grain? Jacob could have sent one with a couple of donkeys; there are ten. (Although it could be that grain was rationed on the basis of numbers. If only one or two had gone, they might not have been given enough grain to feed everyone.) Perhaps there was another group of ten from another family that turned out to be spies. No one really knows how real a possibility this might have been. Ten brothers from one family could have been there for mischief. How hard would it be for them to split up — a few could get grain while the others scope things out? This could easily have been happening in Egypt. So this question is not out of line, even though in this case, Joseph knows his charge is false.

But they respond, “No, no, no, my lord. We have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man.” And for once, they are telling the truth. They, of course, claim to be very honest, but Joseph challenges them further. In their nervousness they begin to tell him about their whole family. At one time they were really twelve brothers, but one stayed home and “one is no more.” Joseph does not solicit any of this information. They do not have to say any of this, but it is important that these words are said because it will influence later events. And of course, they forget to mention their role in anything that happened to that “one who is no more.” Upon hearing their explanation, Joseph says, “I knew it, you’re all spies. And this is how you’ll be tested.”

“As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place, until the youngest brother comes here. Send one of you to get the brother and the rest will stay in prison so that we might know that you are telling the truth. And if you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies.” “As surely as Pharaoh lives” has the sanctity of an oath. That’s how he is going to know. So “go back and get that younger brother.” In the meantime, he puts all of them in custody.

Suddenly, the brothers are sitting in an Egyptian prison. It is dank, dark, and a horrible place to be. After three days, Joseph changes his mind. Perhaps he intended only a three-day stay all along; perhaps he’s hoping to bring extra pressure upon them. In either event, he says that one has to stay, but the rest can go home. They will also get the grain that they have come for, but one of them has to stay behind. The plan is still that they will have to bring Benjamin to retrieve the last brother. Why does Joseph do this? He knows he has a brother, Benjamin. Benjamin is born before he is sold, but he hasn’t seen him for over 20 years. He just wants to see his brother. They, of course, don’t know that.

The brothers begin to talk 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 on us.” And they are saying this to each other right in front of Joseph. They presume he can’t understand them because they are speaking in their own dialect, and he has been using an interpreter to talk with them. Unbeknownst to them of course, Joseph knows exactly what they are saying. And this is where Reuben says, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the lad…Now we have to give an accounting for his blood.” Again, it appears that he still doesn’t know that they had sold Joseph. He really thinks that he has died. Isn’t it interesting that the brothers have this horrible secret even against one of their own? This is another indication of how fractured this family is.

Because they are speaking freely, Joseph has to turn away from them because he is close to being overcome. He starts to weep. It is likely that upon hearing Reuben’s impassioned speech, Joseph passes over him and chooses Simon, the second eldest brother. He is the one that will have to stay behind. Simon will be held hostage until they bring Benjamin. To that end, Simon is taken from them and bound before their eyes. Joseph never gives any reason why he wants Benjamin. He just says, “Bring him.”

After this, Joseph gives orders to fill their bag with grain, and unbeknownst to them, he instructs the steward to put all their money back into the sacks. The grain is loaded on their donkeys, and they leave. The brothers came hoping to buy the grain and expecting to pay good money for it. But while they are filling out the paperwork, the money is put back into their sacks. At the place where they stop for the night, one of them opens his sack to get grain for the donkeys, and he sees the silver in the sack. He screams, “The silver has been returned; it is in my sack.”

The text reads, “Their hearts sank.” This is not good news, and they turn to each other trembling saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” Their feeling is obviously that God is going to get them. They have been holding this secret all this time, and now they are going to pay the price. God is on their case now; they are at His mercy. There is nothing to do but to return to their father and tell him everything that has happened.