Reading through the Bible together
We now begin the final climatic movements of the Joseph story. This climax covers Gen 42-44, after which Jacob reenters the picture, and Joseph becomes less central to the plot. For me these three chapters have some of the most exquisite irony found in scripture. Let us here focus on chapter 42.
In good dramatic and ironic fashion, Joseph's old dreams about the family bowing to him begin to be fulfilled. Joseph sends 10 of the 11 brothers to Egypt to get food. The fact that Jacob did not send Benjamin, combined with the fact that Benjamin was the son of Rachel and a full brother of Joseph, suggests that Benjamin is the new favored son, replacing Joseph in that role. Jacob may be hedging his bets, protecting the safety of Benjamin as the birthright heir. And, of course, the 10 brothers who kidnaped and sold Joseph now appear before him unwittingly.
No doubt they did not recognize Joseph due to differences of dress and the physical changes that would have happened to Joseph as he matured in to full adulthood away from their presence. But I think the brothers assumed that spoiled-brat baby brother would never survive the rigors of slavery. In Gen 44:20, Judah flatly states their belief that Joseph was "dead." Believing that he is dead, it never occurred to them to consider they could encounter him in Egypt. Hence the unwittingness of their interactions.
Joseph, instead of using his power to gain revenge, plays some mind games with them, imprisoning them for three days. He then invokes fear of God and releases them, though he kept Simeon as a prisoner. Joseph did not want to be morally responsible for destroying their families–and his relatives. The brothers were strictly charged, however, not to return without the "younger brother," as a test of their claim not to be spies. He then secretly returns the silver, which they discover enroute home, adding to their consternation. The ongoing sense of guilt over Joseph's supposed death still haunted them, and they quarrel over how they mistreated Joseph. They feel God is calling them to account for "his blood" (another indicator they thought Joseph had died).
Joseph's actions here, are the first of a series of tests that will tell him what his brothers have become. Joseph is setting up a redemptive plan to restore the unity of the family, but the brothers do not suspect a thing.
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Southern Adventist University
Collegedale, Tennessee, USA