Reconciled with his brothers
Joseph would have been glad to see his older brothers again, but he still did not know how far he could trust them. In order to test them he had set them up with charges of theft (see part 2 of this series). Now he needed to see how they would respond.
(Gen 44:14 -16 CSB) When Judah and his brothers reached Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell to the ground before him. “What have you done?” Joseph said to them. “Didn’t you know that a man like me could uncover the truth by divination?”
“What can we say to my lord?” Judah replied. “How can we plead? How can we justify ourselves? God has exposed your servants’ iniquity. We are now my lord’s slaves—both we and the one in whose possession the cup was found.”
The brothers prostrated themselves before Joseph for a third time. It seems that by default the older brothers let Judah be their spokesman. To Joseph’s formal accusation, Judah proclaimed and confessed that they were all guilty, that God knew their iniquity, and that, although only one was culpable for the cup, they all deserved and would gladly take punishment.
Judah said “God has exposed your servants’ iniquity.” Was it a good sign that Judah referenced God in his confession? At face value, Judah was confessing their collective guilt for stealing the cup and the money. Joseph knew they had not stolen those things, therefore the guilt they claimed to feel was false guilt. But previously, Joseph had overheard them talking their true guilt for selling him into slavery and telling their father he was killed by wild animals.
Perhaps it was a good sign that under the accusation of theft the brothers seem to have properly felt the helplessness that comes from knowing one’s sins are abhorrent to God. But an abuser can readily confess guilt when under pressure. The question is, what does the abuser do after such a confession? In this case, Judah said ‘we will all be your slaves’. This was not just a promise to go to counseling. It was not a vague promise to be good from now on. It was offering themselves as lifelong slaves to the Governor of Egypt.
(44:17-23) Then Joseph said, “I swear that I will not do this. The man in whose possession the cup was found will be my slave. The rest of you can go in peace to your father.”
But Judah approached him and said, “My lord, please let your servant speak personally to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, for you are like Pharaoh. My lord asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ and we answered my lord, ‘We have an elderly father and a younger brother, the child of his old age. The boy’s brother is dead. He is the only one of his mother’s sons left, and his father loves him.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him to me so that I can see him.’ But we said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father. If he were to leave, his father would die.’ Then you said to your servants, ‘If your younger brother does not come down with you, you will not see me again.’”
Judah respectfully reminded the Governor of the moral dilemma he had placed them in when they last left Egypt. The Governor had instructed them to bring Benjamin to Egypt even though it might kill their father to part with him. In reiterating that former conversation, Judah repeated the old lie that one of their brothers was dead. Hmm… to what extent had the brothers reformed from what they had been twenty years ago?
(44:24-31) “This is what happened when we went back to your servant my father: We reported to him the words of my lord. But our father said, ‘Go again, and buy us a little food.’ We told him, ‘We cannot go down unless our younger brother goes with us. If our younger brother isn’t with us, we cannot see the man.’ Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One is gone from me — I said he must have been torn to pieces — and I have never seen him again. If you also take this one from me and anything happens to him, you will bring my gray hairs down to the grave in sorrow.’ So if I come to your servant my father and the boy is not with us — his life is wrapped up with the boy’s life — when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. Then your servants will have brought the gray hairs of your servant our father down to the grave in sorrow.”
Judah’s speech seems to demonstrate compassionate empathy for his father. The beautiful phrase his life is wrapped up with the boy’s life could indicate that the brothers had changed for the better.
One of the pains of being abused is being constantly misunderstood — being blamed for things that aren’t your fault, being told you have attitudes or motives or feelings that you don’t have at all. A victim yearns to be understood and believed. A victim yearns for true empathy.
Judah and his brothers had been selfish. But now in Judah’s speech we hear selflessness, putting the needs of another before one’s own. This selflessness is what victims of abuse have longed for, prayed for, believed for, hoped for, from their spouse… and have tried to demonstrate to their spouse, despite the continual trauma of abuse.
Let’s go back to Judah. Speechifying is not enough. Do self-sacrificial actions follow?
44:32-34 “Your servant became accountable to my father for the boy, saying, ‘If I do not return him to you, I will always bear the guilt for sinning against you, my father.’ Now please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave, in place of the boy. Let him go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father without the boy? I could not bear to see the grief that would overwhelm my father.”
Judah brought his plea to a climax by offering to take Benjamin’s punishment on himself. He had promised his father that he would make sure Benjamin came home. Now he was following through with that promise.
An unreformed abuser might have rehearsed his opening speech to the Governor, but when Judah says “I could not bear to see the grief that would overwhelm my father”, his spontaneous words have the ring of true empathy. Here we see reformed selflessness; the Christ-type of which Ephesians 5:25 speaks.
(Gen 45:1-3) Joseph could no longer keep his composure in front of all his attendants, so he called out, “Send everyone away from me!” No one was with him when he revealed his identity to his brothers. But he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and also Pharaoh’s household heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But they could not answer him because they were terrified in his presence.
The emotional drama of this moment is all the greater for its being so long held off. Joseph, who had restrained his tender emotions so well, was now free to release them, discerning that it was safe to do so. Knowing the bridge had been fully inspected by the engineers and discovered to be sound. Knowing that the individuals on the other side of the bridge were not going to throw his pearls before swine. Knowing that his own selflessness would be met by comparably selfless (if rather shocked!) hearts. Knowing that now the relationship would be one of mutuality and respect.
45:4-8 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please, come near me,” and they came near. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.”
Joseph sought to put their minds at ease. They had felt the anxiety and terror of conviction; they had repented and demonstrated fruits of repentance. Now it was right that they feel the joyous grace of forgiveness, and the sweetness of knowing that the whole bitter history could be forgotten. He assured them that he held no resentment against them because it had all been part of God’s plan, and for a purpose. So completely had he forgiven them that he did not even think to mention it. Instead he urged them to forgive themselves. (Rom. 8:28)
The narrative goes on to record the happy invitation Joseph was now able to make — to have all his family come and live in Egypt and be nourished for the next five years of famine. The brothers were astonished.
45:14 -15 Then Joseph threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin wept on his shoulder. Joseph kissed each of his brothers as he wept, and afterward his brothers talked with him.
Next, Pharaoh himself confirmed Joseph’s offer, and spelt out its generous terms: they were to bring the whole extended family to Egypt, with their animals, and eat of the fat of the land, and not worry about bringing their household goods, for ‘the good of all the land of Egypt is yours’.
45:21-24 The sons of Israel did this. Joseph gave them wagons as Pharaoh had commanded, and he gave them provisions for the journey. He gave each of the brothers changes of clothes, but he gave Benjamin three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothes. He sent his father the following: ten donkeys carrying the best products of Egypt and ten female donkeys carrying grain, food, and provisions for his father on the journey. So Joseph sent his brothers on their way, and as they were leaving, he said to them, “Don’t argue on the way.”
Although he no longer needed to test them, Joseph bestowed still more gifts on Benjamin than the other ten brothers. This was his prerogative and an expression of his special affection for Benjamin; but he may also have done it as an aid for the others — to help them remember and practice their new-found unselfishness, to consolidate the learning they had already made.
George Athas, Professor of Hebrew at Moore College Sydney, says,¹ “We should remember that clothing in the ancient world was far more valuable than today, since it took far longer to produce without modern technologies, and only the wealthy tended to have more than one set of clothes.”
Joseph’s caution “Don’t argue on the way” was wise. They were going back to Jacob and would have to make a clean breast of it with him. While Joseph had been forgiving, the older brothers might well be anxious about recriminations from their father. And Benjamin might have had questions for them on the journey; they would have had to respond to Benjamin with humility and honesty. The word ‘argue’ is a Hebrew word meaning to quiver (with violent emotion, especially anger or fear), be agitated, quake, be excited, perturbed. Joseph was telling his brothers not to be agitated, not to give way to fear or anger on the journey. In other words, Joseph was well aware that after character reformation, there is need for vigilance to make sure the good fruit lasts. All learning comes by repetition and practice.
We can leave this chapter, and (almost) our narrative here. The brothers broke the good news to their father, no recriminations happened, and the emigration of the family took place successfully. There is one little postscript to this saga of abuse and reconciliation, however, which is interesting. In the next part of this series we will move several chapters ahead, to the death of Jacob, who died in Egypt but was buried in Canaan, according to his wish.
¹ Private communication from George Athas who has kindly sent me a section of his draft MS for his forthcoming book Bridging the Testaments (to be published by Zondervan).
Note: I changed ‘Sheol’ to ‘the grave’ in Gen 44:24-31. For more on the meaning and translation of ‘Sheol’, see this article by Ruth Magnusson Davis.
Posts in this Joseph series
Part 3: Is this post.