The famine is all over, even in the land of Canaan. Jacob sends his sons to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognizes them but they don’t recognize him.
People have been coming from far off lands to buy grain in Egypt. The famine is not a localized event. On this eventful day, ten of Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt. I’m curious if Joseph had been expecting them to come at some point. Was he watching for them every day? Did he think about them as he put up all the stores? In his son Manasseh’s name, part of the meaning was that he forgot his father’s house. I don’t know that he could truly wipe the memory of his first 17 years of life but he was able to move beyond the bad memories. He was able to let go of any anger he held towards his brothers. And he was able to make a life for himself where he was at.
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It is not possible for Joseph to watch over all the storehouses every day so he only opens one set of storehouses at a time. They would sell grain from that reserve until it was depleted, then they would move to the next city’s stores. This way Joseph is able to maintain a watchful eye over all that happened. With much authority comes much accountability. Joseph was diligent in looking out for Pharaoh’s interests.
It had been nearly six months since Joseph had opened the first of the storehouses. One of the city’s ten storehouses had reached one quarter capacity while the other nine remained full. They still had a HUGE abundance! This is the only reason Joseph had consented to allowing people from other lands to buy grain. He had to maintain an adequate supply for Egypt before lending aid to her neighbors.
Joseph daily watched the people assemble and form lines before the treasury boxes. Each person had to pay their fees before their sacks were loaded with grain. The people were also to bring their own bags to be filled. If they had no bags they were sold some surplus ones from the harvest times. Once money changed hands the servants would load their bags with grain and deliver them to the purchaser, ready for transport. Joseph made sure each step was fair and efficient. The price of the grain remained steady and the purchaser could be assured he would not pay more for his grain than his neighbor would. The only exception to this was that citizens of Egypt paid a lower price than foreigners. They had after all contributed to the storehouse where neighboring countries hadn’t. Joseph also frequently walked among the lines, checked that things were running smoothly, and even monitored the level of grain in the storehouse.
The day was hot and dry. It had not rained in nearly a year. Joseph knew this would carry on for years yet to come but it didn’t make it any more comfortable as he observed the proceedings. This day was no different from all the others since he opened the storehouse. Joseph retreats to his seat atop a nearby set of stairs. This is his most comfortable position, though he doesn’t spend a lot of time here during the day. As he is looking around he notices a large group of men coming to join the crowd. Something about this group catches his attention. Their dress is familiar. It reminds him of home. As they get closer their faces become more distinct.
“Reuben? Gad?! Asher!!” Joseph begins to list off his brothers in his mind one at a time as he recognizes them. He is excited to see them but he is also still warry. “Have they changed since they sold me so many years ago? Are they sorry for the things they have done? Or are they just as cold hearted as they were before?”
Joseph’s eyes narrow as he watches them for a little bit. He needs to find out where their hearts are at. He comes up with a plan to test them. He knows that because of the manner of dress he has adopted to fit in with the Egyptian court his brothers will not be able to recognize him. He has a clean shaven face and body and is wearing the eye markings of royalty. The last time they saw him was when he was being taken away as a young man in fetters.
Joseph steps down from his observation seat and begins walking among the crowds. Because of the many nations being served, there are interpreters working at all times. As Joseph’s brothers approach the treasury box Joseph steps forward and challenges them in the Egyptian tongue. The interpreter working at this station translates for him. Joseph’s eyes are like flint and his words are accusing and sharp.
“Where do you come from?”
“We have come from the land of Canaan to buy food for our family.”
“I don’t believe you! You are spies and are trying to find our weaknesses!”
The interpreter looks at Joseph with surprise. How did his master know of these spies? He quickly relays Joseph’s words.
“No my lord. We are honest men. We have only come to buy food.”
“NO. You ARE spies. I can see it plainly. Why else would you come in such a large group? I just caught you before you could disperse and gather your intelligence.”
The interpreter is in awe of his master’s powers of observation but he renders his duties admirably, translating accurately for both Joseph and the group of spies.
“We are all brothers of one man. We were sent here to buy food for all our families. There are many of us so we needed to come as a group to carry enough back to care for the whole camp.”
“And is this man living? Or did you just make him up? Are you his only sons or does he have others that I should be looking out for too?”
“He is living and well. It was he who sent us on this mission. There were twelve of us. Our youngest brother stayed home with our father and the other one was lost years ago.”
“You think you are so cunning! I don’t believe a word you say. You are spies!”
Joseph signals to a group of guards. They come over immediately.
“Arrest these men! Throw them in the kings prison!”
“NO my lord! We are NOT spies!”
“You will have one opportunity to prove this. Your youngest brother must come here and appear before me. Then I will know you are telling the truth. Send one of your group back to your ‘father’ and have him send your ‘brother’ to me. The rest of you will remain in prison until he arrives.”
Joseph had the guards take all ten of his brothers to the kings prison immediately.
The interpreter is relieved this encounter is over but still wonders how Joseph knew the group was spies. He also wonders if maybe the group is telling the truth. Joseph was very gruff with them without actual proof or provocation. But he will NEVER question Pharaoh’s second in command!
The day continues on with the buying and selling of grain. There is a nervousness in the air after seeing what just transpired, but as long as the guards are not called back the people feel safe from Joseph’s wrath, for now.
Joseph returns to his home that night exhausted. His encounter with his brothers had weighed heavily on him all day. He wants to reveal himself but he can’t, not until he is sure there was a change. He also wants to keep Benjamin and his father safe from his brothers. Joseph’s wife notices his distraction and tries to comfort him. He won’t be comforted though. He simply wants to be left alone.
When finally alone, Joseph prays to God. “God of my fathers, I have long to see my family again. But I don’t know if I can trust them. I believe You had a plan for my life and a purpose in bringing me here. I remember the dreams of my youth that You provided to me. I have seen a portion of those dreams come true today. I had almost forgotten those dreams from so long ago. Please guide me in how to respond to my brothers. Help me to know their hearts. I desire to know if they have repented of their treatment of me. I don’t hold their actions against them but I would like to see that they recognize their own guilt. Thank You God of my fathers for being my God too.”
Three days pass before Joseph has his brothers all brought out of the prison. He had gone near each night to try and hear any conversations they had while confined. It mainly focused around how they could possibly convince him that they were not spies and how they would never be able to convince their father to release Benjamin. They were losing hope every day they were confined. Reuben poses a question; “Do you think he will keep us here forever?” The general consensus is ‘no’ but they are none of them certain.
After three days Joseph has the whole group brought out of prison and brought before him. Joseph has already ordered their grain sacks filled and tied to their donkeys. They are ready to leave immediately. Joseph had also ordered a surprise for his brothers. He had his personal servant retrieve their money and put it back into their sacks. No one knows of this except him and his servant who did this job for him.
“I still don’t believe you but I’m giving you one last chance to prove yourselves. I will keep one of you here while the others return to your own land. I will also let you buy food for your ‘family’. But know this; you will not see me again unless you bring your younger brother back with you. And if you don’t see ME you won’t be allowed to purchase any more grain. This is your ONLY chance.”
The brothers are all shaken. They are pleased the lord of Egypt is letting them go; all except for one. They KNOW they have to get home and convince their father to send Benjamin back right away.
“This is punishment from God because of how we treated our brother. He begged us not to sell him and we didn’t listen.”
Reuben speaks up; “I TOLD you not to hurt him but you wouldn’t listen to me. Now we all have blood on our hands and we have to live with this.”
Joseph can’t keep it in any longer. He turns away and quietly weeps. God has answered his request. He sees that his brothers do indeed regret what they did to him. But he must maintain his ruse until he can see his youngest brother again. He HAS to know they have truly changed.
Joseph chooses Simeon to remain in custody. He binds him up in their site and has him escorted back to prison. He then returns to his duties of overseeing the sale and distribution of Egypt’s stores.
The brothers make their way home with as much speed as they can. Their donkeys are loaded with grain so the trek is much slower. They are worried about their families and have already lost three days to being in prison. But this journey can’t be made in a single day. They have to stop and rest. The first night it is Gad who tends to the animals while Judah and Levi prepare the fire for the meal. Reuben is the best cook among them so he volunteers to prepare the meal. It isn’t much but he always finds a way to spice it up a little.
As Judah is laying the fire he hears a sharp intake of breath from Gad. He looks up immediately, as anyone who tends animals would. Gad is holding something in his hands. It looks like a money sack and it appears to be full. But that can’t be. They just spent all their money in Egypt for the grain they are hauling. Sure, there is enough in their money belts for supplies on the way home but there should NOT be a full money bag among them.
All the brothers gather around Gad as he looks at each of his brothers while holding his money bag. “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” (verse 28a). “This MUST be a punishment from God for how we treated our brother” offers Judah.
Reuben addresses his brothers; “There is nothing we can do about it right now. The man won’t see us without Benjamin. If we go back and try and return the money we will all be arrested. We need to go home, get Benjamin, and return with him and this payment. Nothing else makes sense.”
They all nod in agreement. They each return to their tasks and finish preparing for the night. No one sleeps well the rest of the way home. They are all worried about Simeon, the money, and how their father is going to take all this bad news.
The brothers arrive home after a week on the road. Shouts from those in the field announce their arrival. Jacob goes out to greet his sons. While they are still a ways off, Jacob notices that one of them is missing. “I knew something bad would happen. I’m SO glad Benjamin didn’t go with them” he thinks to himself.
As his sons approach the all begin talking at once trying to tell him the story of their journey. “One at a time!” Jacob cries. They all stop talking and look at each other to determine who will be the spokesman of the group. Judah steps forward. He begins telling Jacob about meeting the lord of the land and how they were accused of being spies. “He spoke to us roughly and wouldn’t believe us at all. We kept telling him that we were not spies. We even told him that we were simply a band of brothers.”
Reuben steps in now. “That’s when he really started questioning us. He even asked about you and any other brothers we had. We told him the truth about Benjamin and losing Joseph. Then he told us that the only way to prove that we weren’t spies was to bring Benjamin back with us. And to ensure that we returned, he kept Simeon in prison. We have to go back right away and bring Benjamin so we can bring Simeon home.”
The brothers are emptying their sacks as Reuben and Judah tell Jacob the story. As each one opens their sack they find their money neatly wrapped in its sack, sitting right on top. They had hoped it was only Gad’s sack that still contained his money. Now they see that they have ALL they brought for payment still with them. They are all frightened. “The man thought we were spies now he will be convinced we are thieves too!”
Jacob looks stricken. He grabs Benjamin’s robe. “NO! You will NOT take Benjamin there! You have already taken two of my children from me. You will NOT take Benjamin too! I would die if I lost him too. Let the man think whatever he wants.”
Reuben looks his father straight in the eye. “Simeon is not dead. We have to take Benjamin to the man in order to free him. We also have to take him the money that was put back into our sacks. Kill my two sons if I don’t bring Benjamin back to you unharmed.”
“NO! I will hear no more of this! This is my final word on the matter. Benjamin stays here. Simeon’s life is in God’s hand, not mine. As for the money, put it aside. It does not belong to us any longer.”
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We already know that Rachel’s children were Jacob’s favorites. But it astounds me to read that Jacob considered Simeon’s life forfeit, as good as dead already. He would not do anything to put Benjamin in danger or in even perceived danger. I wonder if Benjamin was treated this way on a daily basis too. Was Jacob so over protective with Benjamin that he held him back from all ‘dangerous’ work? What was Benjamin allowed to do?
Something else that I was thinking about when reading our passage is how I often say too much. In our story I had Joseph asking direct questions of his brothers to elicit the answers he wanted. In our reading we don’t see those direct questions. Instead it appears that the brothers are volunteering information just to appease ‘the man’ and make him less suspicious of them. Later on when questioned by Jacob as to why to told him about Benjamin, they say it was in response to direct questions. We don’t know for sure if they were doing a CYA move at that point of if we just didn’t get to hear the whole conversation. I gave them the benefit of the doubt by writing the questions into our story. But even under direct questioning, could they have been a little shrewder with their answers?
It is hard to anticipate what someone will do with the information you provide. I believe they were caught off guard that day, but they shouldn’t have been. They should have known there would be scrutiny on them as foreigners. They should have prepared in advance what to say. Maybe they did, but Joseph’s questions took them into deeper water than they had prepared for. This is where they should have asked for God’s help. But then again, God had this all planned from the beginning. Hopefully I can still take the lesson they didn’t get to use for myself. I need to ask God to guide and guard my answers in situations like this. I also need His help in identifying the situations BEFORE I blunder into them and blabber my mouth off.
Father God, You know I’m coming up on just such a situation in my life. It is a tricky spot and I need ALL Your wisdom and guidance in it. I NEED to know when to shut up too! Help me give the right answers to conclude this whole process.
Lord Jesus, I also tend to get myself into trouble with my big mouth when dealing with family matters. PLEASE put a guard on my mouth. Don’t let me speak words that wound others; family or friends. I’ve tried to deal with this issue on my own and have failed as many times as I’ve attempted. I NEED Your help! I don’t know what it is going to take but I trust You to be able to accomplish it. I give You my mouth, heart and mind. Please line them ALL up with Your will and Your word.