“Wilderness” The Life of Joseph
“There Comes a Reckoning; The Brothers First Journey to Egypt”
Our growth as Christians does not take place primarily in comfortable situations. Many characters in the Bible find themselves in the wilderness right before God uses them to make a huge impact. God knows that we grow most through tough trials, serious testing and difficult circumstances. It is in these places we find out God is always with us and he is working in us off the grid. This study of the life of Joseph is a perfect series to empower you to face hard times and to grow.
Circumstances and Providence force Joseph’s brothers to face their past. Each leg of the journey makes them deal with decisions and moral failures of their lives. Their journey leads us to ask the question, “is it possible to get out from under the weight and shame of a moral failing from our past?” Does God want us to be miserable because of our sinful decisions? Does God punish us because of our past?
In order to understand what is going on in today’s passage, we have to understand Joseph’s family.
Isaac and Rebekah
Jacob and Esau (Laban)
Leah and Rachel (Gen. 29:31ff.)
The Obvious Step (vv. 1-5)
When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4 But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5 Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
The famine had reached a point in the life of Jacob’s family that they were close to being in a critical position, “for the famine was in the land of Canaan.” There was food to purchase in Egypt, and there were dwindling supplies of food in Canaan. But there were also, people who needed to have a relationship with God (the sons of Jacob), so the famine forced them to take a step they never would have otherwise.
Why do we so often struggle with the obvious answer to, “that we may live and not die” – the answer to continuing to live is to go the Egypt and buy grain, but the brothers stare at each other (or “why do you delay”), each waiting for the other to take some kind of action (or “what are you waiting for?”), all while the family begins to struggle. We have the answer to eternal life, and Jesus as the “bread of life,” yet we look around as if there may be some other answer. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life,” yet when hard times comes, we look around and stare, as if there is some other way to live this life.
But there may have been another reason of why the brothers react to Jacob’s suggestions, as “Why do you look at one another?” – It was to Egyptian slave traders that they had sold their brother (Joseph) many years before (Gen. 37ff.). They had intended to kill Joseph, but just as they were about to, slave traders came by, on their to Egypt. So every time Egypt came, up, or Joseph’s name came up, Reuben would look at Simeon, and Simeon would turn and look at Zebulen, and on and on as they would have been reminded of Joseph’s pleas “don’t sell me please, . . .”
This is not God’s plan for mankind – that we live our lives in guilt and shame. The second thing God uses to get the brother’s attention, is their own conscience. They have to go to the place where their guilt resides. They have to face their sin. God loves these brothers enough to drive them to face their sin, and deal with their shame and guilt.
We are not sure why all ten brothers needed to go. The food may have been rationed where an individual was only allowed to purchase a set amount. Or perhaps there was safety in a larger number. Jacob did not allow Benjamin, who would have been around twenty, to go, “for he feared that harm might happen to him.” – there was another time when all the brothers had gone off with one his favored sons, and bad things happened.
The Observant Satrap (vv. 6-11)
6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”
“Joseph was governor over the land” – governor is a strong Hebrew word for complete mastery. The emphasis is on the absolute power Joseph held (over his brothers). When Joseph was younger the older brothers had power (physically stronger) over him and they used it to take out their anger and frustration by throwing him in a pit and selling Joseph off as a slave – to get rid of him. Now the situation is reversed. Joseph now has absolute power over the brothers. So, this is a question of once a person has power (everyone wants to rule the world), how will they use that power? How will Joseph use his new found power with his estranged brothers?
The brothers appear to be the same, just older. Joseph easily recognizes them. But Joseph is very different than when they last saw him, “the intervening years have left no outward sign of his origin. He is thoroughly Egyptian in rank, name, and speech; he is communicating with the petitioners through an interpreter (v. 23).” We see that Joseph seems to want to be reconciled with his brothers, but there has to be a heart change on the brother’s part, “the path to reconciliation must pass through this deep valley.”
(v.9) As his brothers are bowing down before him, Joseph “remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them.” It was the dreams that drove his brothers to hate him when he was a kid. Joseph, many years before, told his brothers, Genesis 37:7-8 “Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.” 8 His brothers said to him, “Are you indeed to reign over us? Or are you indeed to rule over us?” So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.”
For Joseph, the dream was a promise from God – this is going to happen. The fulfillment of the dream was incomplete because it included all the brothers, and his father. The dream from God guided Joseph on what to do next. Joseph also, wanted to see how his brothers treated the new favored child.
The Observation of Sin (vv. 12-17, 18-21)
12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days.
Joseph does not wish to punish the brothers, because he is second only to pharaoh and could have them killed with a motion of his hand, or a nod of his head. Instead, he wants to test Were they the same brothers who threw him in a pit, and sold him as a slave or have they changed; are they different? All the brothers are there except Benjamin (the only other son of Rachel) – have they done the same thing to him, that they did to Joseph? He needs to have them all together – including his father.
Let’s look back at Genesis 37:12ff. Joseph seems to be reenacting the day he was sold into slavery. It was the last time he saw his brothers. Are they the same men? Has their heart changed? Look at how they describe themselves, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers,” In Gen. 37:19 they called him the dreamer, “They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.” But now they call him brother, later in v. 22 he “the boy.” There is a tenderness now, that was not there before.
18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another,
“In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”
The brothers talk in their Hebrew tongue, they don’t think Joseph can understand what they are saying. They admit they are guilty of how they treated their brother, “In truth we are guilty” and they fear God is now judging them. Twenty years has passed and they are carrying the weight of their sin. So they finally admit it, 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Joseph doesn’t know the condition of his father, his other brother, and all the wives and children of his other brothers – they may be starving. So, he changes the plan, so that all the grain can get back safely home.
The Ongoing of Severity (vv. 23-25)
23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.
Why did Joseph weep? His brothers were showing signs that their hearts were changed. When our loved ones, whose eyes are blind and hearts are hardened toward the Lord, begin to show signs that God is at work in their souls – we weep. There is hope for the lost, no matter how many years it has been.
26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”
The money is replaced into the sacks and when they discover it, they are terrified. “Joseph’s replacement of his brother’s money in their sacks is to show that they were his guests; it is a sign of his deeply veiled love which makes them so great a gift.”
Throughout the passage, God is mentioned. Joseph says, “for I fear God,” and here the brothers say, “What is this that God has done to us?”— We are asking the question, are the brothers different, are their hearts any different now, than when they mistreated their brother the years before? There is a deep sense of guilt, and admission that they were wrong, and here a fear of a holy God and His judgment against sin.
However, “This is the first time in the entire story, beginning with the birth of the first of the sons of Jacob in chapter 29, that any of Joseph’s brothers is said to have mentioned God.” Joseph talked about God regularly, but not the brothers. The brothers are acknowledging that God is controlling a specific, important circumstance of their lives. God has seen the sin, God is not forgetting their sin, God is intervening, God remembers.
They are feeling the thumb of the Lord being pressed against their hearts. These brothers grew up in the home of a man of God – they were the sons of Jacob. God had brought Abraham, their great grandfather, out of Ur. God appeared to their father at Bethel and had wrestled with him at Jabbok. They knew all about God – but they did not know God personally.
(v. 28) It wasn’t the famine, nor the being thrown into prison, nor the harsh treatment, or seeing Simeon bound up and carried to prison that deeply affected them; it was not these things that caused “their hearts (to) fail(ed) them,” or for them to tremble; What got the guys messed up was a sign of grace and love.
These men knew and understood harshness and cruelty, but what caused them to collapse in fear was gentleness, love, and compassion – they didn’t understand it. All they had known their entire lives was favoritism, hatred, family drama, anger, guilt, and shame. But here, God does something good for them, for the Lord is good. Romans 2:4 “. . . God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?”
“The reason was that they knew they did not deserve generosity and so they could not believe it. . .Their record had its foundation in rottenness, and therefore they were fearful that any accident might bring the structure of life tumbling down.” Earlier (v. 18) Joseph said, “for I fear God,” but the brothers did not have a holy and saving fear of God – they have a shameful fear. The foundation of their lives were rotten, and they feared could collapse at any moment (a guilty conscience).
The Obligation of Sons (vv. 29-38)
29 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31 But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33 Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34 Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.’” 35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid.
36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”
Jacob has a total of 12 sons, one he thinks is lost (Joseph), one is being held captive as a guarantor (Simeon), but Jacob says, “he is the only one left.” Even though Jacob is old, he still needs a heart change – God has blessed him with 12 sons (not two).
35 says, “they were (all) afraid,” Why was Jacob afraid? There had been a time before, when the brothers had lost a brother, and returned with money – now here again, a brother was gone, there is a wild story, and they have grain and new found money. Does Jacob see through the brother’s story, is he doubting they are saying the truth? The family is still a mess and needs God to intervene.
But it is a family who had been given a promise by God. Earlier in Genesis 28:14-15 God promised Jacob and his, “Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. 15 Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”
There is only one answer to their problem – A loving father has to give up his only son, that he loves dearly so that those that sinned can be saved. There is a reckoning coming to all “who have sinned and fall short” of God’s requirement for entrance into heaven. Before we stand before our creator as sinners, there must be a heart change.
We have to give God our messed up lives, our messed up families, our messed up marriages, and receive His promise for our lives. Give God your fear and failures, and receive His promise of eternal life, forgiveness, purpose, and calling.
 James Montgomery Boice, Genesis, An Expositional Commentary, Volume 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan; Zondervan Publishing House, 1987) 115.
 “to see the nakedness of the land,” was a forceful way of saying ‘to pry into all our private affairs.’” Derek Kidner, Genesis, An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, Illinois; Intervarsity Press, 1967) 199.
 As being “the one who sold to all the people of the land” probably involved fixing the price at which the grain should be sold, determining the quantities to be allowed to purchasers, and examining the companies of foreigners who came to buy. Thomas Whitelaw, The Pulpit Commentary, Genesis (Grand Rapids, Michigan; WM. B. Eerdsman Publishing Company, 1978) 474.
 E. A. Speiser, The Anchor Bible, Genesis (Garden City, New York; Doubleday & Company, 1986) 324.
 Claus Westermann, Genesis 37-50, A Commentary (Minneapolis, Minnesota; Augsburg Publishing House, 1986) 106.
 https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/52298/we-are-seven William Wordsworth, “We Are Seven.”
 Gerhard Von Rad, Genesis A Commentary (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; The Westminster Press, 1952) 379.
 Boice, 133.
 George Arthur Buttrick, Commentary Editor, The Interpreter’s Bible, Volume 1 (Nashville, Tennessee; Abingdon Press, 1952) 787.