Joseph tested his brothers by falsely accusing them
In order to probe whether his older brothers had repented, Joseph falsely accused his brothers, raised a false report and uttered a lie. Yes — that’s the same saintly Joseph, eleventh son of Jacob, whose humility in suffering is held up as a model for how we ought to respond when we are mistreated.
The famine in the Middle East was widespread and people from other countries were coming to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph had doubtless been expecting his family to come on a food-buying mission sooner or later. He must have often wondered about them. Ever since his elevation to governorship, he would have been planning what he would do if he encountered them.
Joseph knew that reconciliation with his brothers would be disappointing unless they had really reformed. For reconciliation to be more than superficial, the brothers needed to have admitted their evil deeds, told the truth, humbled themselves and learnt to put their own egos second.
Joseph knew that character change of such dimensions could not be verified unless it was put to the test — not just the lukewarm test of verbally professed reformation, but a stringent test of conduct under pressure. If the brothers’ comforts, privileges, reputations or liberties were threatened, would they again be abusive? They had been corrupt in the past — would they behave selflessly now? Had they or would they allow God to convict them of their sinfulness and change their hearts and minds?
Joseph was in charge of the country; he sold grain to all its people. His brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the ground. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. (Genesis 42:6-7a CSB)
Joseph had been seventeen when they had sold him into slavery; he was now about thirty-eight. In all likelihood they wouldn’t recognise him, but to make sure he spoke to them roughly and through an interpreter. He didn’t reveal his identity: he wanted to ascertain the state of their hearts first.
The first false accusation
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan to buy food,” they replied.
Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Joseph remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies. You have come to see the weakness of the land.” (7b-9)
Joseph intentionally spoke what was not true. He knew that accusation that the brothers were spies was a false charge. He deliberately misconstrued his brothers’ intentions. “The sins forbidden in the ninth commandment [include] …speaking what is not true, laying a false charge, misconstructing intentions, words, and actions.” (Westminster Larger Catechism Qn 145)
You shall not spread a false report. (Ex. 23:1a)
Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD (Prov. 12:22a)
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Ex. 20:16)
The Bible doesn’t depict Joseph’s conduct here as sinful. On the contrary, the story shows that Joseph responded to his brothers with integrity, wisdom, shrewdness, temperance and benevolence.
The false charge was a clever ploy on Joseph’s part. In that political situation, the charge was not unreasonable; foreign kings might have been sending spies to reconnoiter Egypt before they invaded the country to plunder its grain stores. The false charge was a pretext for Joseph to waylay the brothers, subject them to examination and flush out the state of their hearts without their being aware of his real motives.
It was an ingenious charge because it had parallels with the way the brothers had reviled Joseph years before. “He spied on us and sent back a bad report to our father,” had been one of their bitter accusations. The parallel meant it was an ideal goad with which to prick their guilty consciences.
Unlike victims of domestic abuse in relation to their abusers, Joseph had every advantage in this encounter with his brothers. They couldn’t recognise him. He’d had ample time to prepare a game-plan. And he was able to call the shots in the meeting. He used these advantages to trigger their memory of their buried sin.
Then Joseph said to them, “I have spoken: ‘You are spies!’ 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 from among you to get your brother. The rest of you will be imprisoned so that your words can be tested to see if they are true. If they are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” So Joseph imprisoned them together for three days. (14-17 )
To see how his brothers would react under pressure, Joseph put them in a position of having to choose which brother they would send to bring Benjamin while the rest of them remained in custody. Would they fight each other for the privilege of being released from jail? In the past they had ignored his pleas and sold him into slavery. Now they had lost their liberty. No doubt Joseph reasoned that holding their feet to the fire might do them some good. They would have had no idea that he was intending to release them after three days. Perhaps they might start pondering how divine justice had turned full circle — as you sow, so shall ye reap.
After three days, Joseph announced that only one brother need remain in prison. The other nine could go back, with grain, on the condition that they returned with their young brother. This proves that Joseph hadn’t been vindictive in imprisoning his brothers. If revenge had been his motive, he would have kept them in jail far longer. Rather, he had been using tough love, causing them pain in order to flush out their guilt and provoke them to reformation.
Then they said to each other, “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us.”
But Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy? But you wouldn’t listen. Now we must account for his blood!”
They did not realize that Joseph understood them, since there was an interpreter between them. He turned away from them and wept. When he turned back and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and had him bound before their eyes. (21-24)
In this passage, the brothers admitted their sin. Their suffering in prison had begun a good work in their hearts. Unbeknownst to them, Joseph not only heard them confess their sin to each other, he was also apprised of how, on that fateful day so long ago, Reuben the eldest brother had managed to restrain the worst of their evildoing.
But Joseph did not declare his identity merely on the strength of their confession to each other. If his only purpose had been retribution, he could have announced his identity at this point, pounced on their confession, made them grovel, and then haughtily ‘reconciled’ with them. Instead, he wept in secret: tears of joy and relief at the prospect of a future reconciliation of equals (for which he could now hold out hope, given their confession to each other). Love rejoices in the truth (1 Cor. 13:6). He must have prayed for years that a moment like this would come. And he knew that the unity of his family was probably of especial importance, given God’s covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He did not waver for a moment in his program of continuing to test his brothers. He knew that the correct moment for reconciliation had not yet arrived.
Joseph’s next step was to set the brothers up for further embarrassment, anxiety and fear — emotions which are likely to stimulate a guilty conscience to examine itself further. He got his steward to place the money they’d paid for the grain back into their sacks. His benevolence for his family meant he wanted to give them the grain, rather than take payment for it. But he also intended that the unexpected return of their money would cause them consternation.
A wicked person often interprets the acts of others with suspicion and wariness, because he reasons that other people also operate underhandedly from evil motives. When the brothers got back to Canaan and discovered money in each of their sacks, they reasoned that the money in their sacks meant they had been set up for being charged with theft or fraud. They were afraid. Joseph had instructed them to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. Simeon would not be released from the Egyptian jail unless they came back with Benjamin! But now, if they returned to Egypt, they would most likely be thrown into prison for theft or fraud — and they were not guilty of those crimes! Such a fear was perfectly tailored to quicken their guilt about Joseph whom they had punished although he had committed no crime. Joseph had nicely pinched them in a dilemma. And he called all the shots!
Their father Jacob was made fearful too. Reuben offered to give his own two sons to be slain if he did not bring back Benjamin from a second trip. Jacob wisely refused this rather silly offer. If Benjamin suffered mischief on the trip to Egypt, how would Jacob’s grief have been assuaged by loosing his two grandsons as well as Benjamin? Thus, a stalemate ensued which was only broken when the famine pressed so sorely upon Jacob’s family that the vexed question of taking Benjamin down to Egypt became impossible to ignore.
Eventually, Judah persuaded Jacob to let Benjamin go back with them, by offering himself as surety for Benjamin. Carrying gifts to the Governor, the money that had mysteriously been returned in their sacks, and double money for new grain (they reasoned that probably the price had increased), the nine brothers and Benjamin took off for Egypt.
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 1: Is this post.
Part 3: Reconciled with his brothers
Related series: Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?