The second test Joseph gave his brothers

Joseph, as Governor of Egypt, had begun testing his brothers by falsely accusing them of being spies. He had retained Simeon in custody and instructed the other nine brothers to return home and come again to Egypt bringing their youngest brother Benjamin with them. (see part 1 of this series)

Their father Jacob was very reluctant to let Benjamin go to Egypt with the older brothers. But the famine intensified. By promising on his life to bring Benjamin back after the expedition, Judah persuaded Jacob to let Benjamin accompany his brothers to Egypt on another grain buying expedition.

Judah was the fourth oldest brother. It was Judah who, twenty years before, had proposed selling Joseph into slavery rather than killing him. He justified his proposal with covetous and pseudo mercy —

Judah said to his brothers, “What do we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come on, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay a hand on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh,” and his brothers agreed. (Gen 37:26-27 CSB)

Now, years later, Judah was promising to lay his life on the line to protect Benjamin:

Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy with me. We will be on our way so that we may live and not die—neither we, nor you, nor our dependents. I will be responsible for him. You can hold me personally accountable! (Literally: you can seek him from my hand.) If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I will be guilty before you forever. If we had not delayed, we could have come back twice by now.” (43:8-10)

Judah’s offer was good, but promises are only words — it is action that counts. And what about the other older brothers? Were they showing evidence of genuine reformation?

The older brothers and Benjamin set off for Egypt. They took gifts for the Governor, the money that had mysteriously been returned in their sacks, and double money for new grain (thinking that probably the price had increased).

When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to his steward, “Take the men to my house. Slaughter an animal and prepare it, for they will eat with me at noon.” (Gen 43:16)

Joseph assessed the evidence. The fact that Jacob had allowed Benjamin to go with his older brothers suggested that Jacob’s trust in his elder sons must have increased in the years since Joseph had disappeared. What was more, Benjamin seemed to be in good shape and displayed no fear of his brothers.

Joseph was satisfied that his brothers had passed the first test satisfactorily. He was confident that his brothers had not become more wicked. Therefore it was time to examine them more closely.

The brothers were aghast that the spotlight was on them again! By instructing them all to dine with him, Joseph was shrewdly intensifying their anxiety without actually hurting them.

As soon as they had opportunity, the older brothers explained to Joseph’s steward about the mysterious money they’d found in their sacks. The steward reassured them that he had received their money the first time. He released Simeon from prison to join his brothers. Their relief must have been great, but it would have been counteracted by further doubts: what could the Governor want with them if he didn’t want to accuse them of theft or deception? Joseph was keeping their fear at full stretch.

Since the men had heard that they were going to eat a meal there, they prepared their gift for Joseph’s arrival at noon. When Joseph came home, they brought him the gift they had carried into the house, and they bowed to the ground before him.

He asked if they were well, and he said, “How is your elderly father that you told me about? Is he still alive?”

They answered, “Your servant our father is well. He is still alive.” And they knelt low and paid homage to him.

When he looked up and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, he asked, “Is this your youngest brother that you told me about?” Then he said, “May God be gracious to you, my son.” Joseph hurried out because he was overcome with emotion for his brother, and he was about to weep. He went into an inner room and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out. Regaining his composure, he said, “Serve the meal.” (Genesis 43:26-31)

Joseph’s courtesies for his brothers and solicitous inquiries after their father showed how genuinely he forgave them and still cared for them.

His self-command in containing his tears until he was in a separate room is remarkable and instructive for all victims of abuse. Emotions may sometimes overcome us, but we need to be careful where we let them out. When we are shrewdly assessing abusers who appear to be reforming, we need to contain and regulate our emotions so they do not derail us. Emotions may overtake us, but we should not let them affect the careful course of step-by-step examination.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven
… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing
(Ecc 3:1, 5b KJV)

Engineers must examine and test a bridge after an earthquake, before traffic is allowed to resume across it. In addition to visual inspections they can do magnetic particle testing, X-ray testing, ultrasonic testing, phased-array ultrasonic testing, and liquid dye penetration to verify suspected cracking in metalwork.

An abuser must be examined and tested after he has caused a relationship earthquake, before tender and intimate emotions are allowed to flow back and forth between the parties.

Joseph sat the brothers at the table in order of their birth, which would have set their minds spinning again. Henry Morris has noted that there are 39,917,000 ways in which eleven people could have been seated. For Joseph to have done it this way was incredible! The brothers must have been at a loss to explain it. Either the Governor knew more about their family than they could conceive, or it was supernatural. Was the Governor personally instructed by God? Did the Governor have supernatural powers?

During their first visit to Egypt, Joseph had heard them speaking among themselves about how they had sold Joseph into slavery.

…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. (42:21-23)

The brothers did not know it, but Joseph had overheard an admission (a confession of sorts) from his former abusers.

Having already overheard their admission, having found them to be now basically responsible towards the person (Benjamin) who was most at risk of being their second victim, Joseph continued testing them.

Testing them for envy

Would they revert to envy and selfishness if Benjamin was singled out for special honor? This was an excellent test. When Joseph was young, he had been especially honored by his father. His father had given him the coat of many colours and entrusted him to report on his older brothers’ activities. The dreams Joseph had indicated that his brothers and father would highly honor him — they would bow down before him. The brothers had envied and hated Joseph and unjustly abused him for all this. Would they resent and abuse Benjamin if they saw him being extraordinarily honored?

Joseph sent five times more food to Benjamin than to any of the other brothers.

Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him. (43:34 ESV)

It would seem that the older brothers did not show resentment that Benjamin had been favoured by the Governor.

Two more false accusations

Joseph commanded his steward to fill the brothers’ sacks with food, to put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth and to put his special silver cup into Benjamin’s sack.

By having their money put back into their sacks a second time, Joseph was setting them up for another false accusation, thus keeping alive their sense of guilt. And by putting the cup in Benjamin’s sack, Benjamin was being set up the worst — not because Joseph wanted to test Benjamin, but because he wanted to test the ten older brothers. How would they handle a situation where they could easily escape punishment by letting Benjamin take the rap?

At morning light, the men were sent off with their donkeys. They had not gone very far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Get up. Pursue the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Isn’t this the cup that my master drinks from and uses for divination? What you have done is wrong!’” When he overtook them, he said these words to them. (Gen 44:3-6 CSB)

Joseph instructed the steward to accuse the brothers of gross ingratitude and theft. He also had the steward say that the Governor practised divination. We need not think that Joseph actually practised divination; he most likely told the steward to give out that lie because he knew it would heighten the brothers’ anxiety. A Governor who had powers of supernatural discernment might see into what they had kept hidden: namely, that they had sold Joseph into slavery and lied about him being killed by wild animals!

The brothers’ sense that ‘God was onto their case’ must have been exquisitely painful. The accusations of ingratitude and theft were false accusations, but each accusation had its parallel in the brothers’ wickedness of long ago. The teenage Joseph had treated his older brothers well, but they had repaid him with evil. They had stolen young Joseph’s liberty and dignity and they had robbed Jacob of his beloved son.

The brothers pleaded to the steward, ‘We did not steal the money last time; we have proved ourselves honest; why should we have stolen this time!’ They then rashly offered the life of the principal thief and all of the rest of themselves as servants if the cup should be found. (Did Judah recall promising on his life to bring Benjamin home after the expedition?)

The steward replied, “What you have said is right, but only the one who is found to have it will be my slave, and the rest of you will be blameless.” (44:10)

The steward modified the brothers’ offer to make it a less strict penalty. He said that the one who stole the cup would be enslaved, and the others could go free. The steward knew what a search of the sacks would produce. And by this time he must have realised (or been let in on the picture) that his master’s feelings for these men were not motivated by straight-out cruelty, nor was his master gleefully playing cat and mouse just for the sake of it.

The Bible does not tell us that this was exactly the moral dilemma which Joseph had instructed the steward to place before the brothers. Perhaps Joseph had given these guidelines, or perhaps he left it for providence to sort out. But this dilemma was ideal as the culmination of the whole testing program.

So each one quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. The steward searched, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest, and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. (44:11-12)

This put the ten brothers on their mettle. Would they let Benjamin suffer in order to preserve their own liberty? The opportunity was available, easy, tempting. It was the steward who said that only the cup thief would be enslaved. They weren’t responsible for setting the terms of the penalty. The penalty would enslave Benjamin and allow them to go free! They could go back to Jacob and say,“The Governor’s steward set the penalty before he even looked in the bags! We couldn’t do anything about it!” Plus, if any of them were covetous there was an additional temptation: should they return to Jacob with the news of Benjamin’s enslavement, Jacob may well have died from grief and the ten of them would have received larger inheritances than if Benjamin had been there to take his share.

Then they tore their clothes, and each one loaded his donkey and returned to the city. (44:13)

The brothers did not show a flicker of moral weakness. They tore their clothes in grief for Benjamin, for they considered his problem their own problem. (Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it… So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loves his wife loves himself. Eph. 5:25,28)

Rather than abandon Benjamin, the brothers turned round and went straight back to the Governor to plead Benjamin’s case. They wanted to behave differently from how they behaved years ago to Joseph. They didn’t want to sacrifice Benjamin for their own self-interest. They chose to do right instead of wrong.

Why? What were their motives? They did not want to carry news to their father that Benjamin had suffered mischief. They wanted to protect their father from more grief. But if those were their only motives, they would probably have been muttering accusations or indulging in whispered blame-shifting while following the steward back. The plain fact was, their characters had grown under Joseph’s testing, assisted by the testing of famine and the stringency of their father. They wanted to protect Benjamin. They put their younger brother before themselves.

Come what may, they were ready to face the Governor. They set their teeth to face the Governor’s wrath, in order to plead for Benjamin’s liberty.

They remembered their past wickedness. Perhaps we can infer that they were ready to face God and were prepared to take whatever consequences God might providentially deal out to them.


Posts in this Joseph series

Part 1:  Joseph tested his brothers by falsely accusing them

Part 2: Is this post.

Part 3:  Reconciled with his brothers

Part 4: Joseph’s brothers were afraid of Joseph even though he had forgiven them

Part 5: Joseph’s treatment of his brothers — reflections and applications

Part 6: We can learn a lot about wise reconciliation by comparing and contrasting our own situations to that of Joseph

Related series

Is it always sinful to tell an untruth?

5 thoughts on “The second test Joseph gave his brothers”

  1. Wonderful, Barbara. You are really bringing this to life for me. I think your advice to regulate our emotions when our abusers are showing reform is very wise. 💖

  2. Barb, you tell this so very well. I wonder how often over the years and decades those brothers relived what they did to Joseph and suffered because of their actions and of being unaware of his fate. All those years of pretending to Jacob and Benjamin and maintaining a lying deception every day. I wonder if later they remembered the dreams that young Joseph had related to them of how they would all bow down – and be humbled. And Joseph remained merciful.

  3. Another great exploration of this story! I’m enjoying seeing genuine repentance and genuine forgiveness fleshed out in this story which develops over decades. A refreshing change from the twisting of Scripture and of God’s heart which has produced the widespread teachings of forced repentance and cheap grace.

    1. Barbara, I just wanted to say that my heart was heavy for you a few weeks ago when you were feeling low. I’m now rejoicing that your spirit has been revived when I read this powerful work you have done on the the trials of Joseph and his family. I am also learning from the comments by others who are also gaining so much from your work. You are a gifted teacher and I am very grateful to God for you. Thank you for carrying on. 💖

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