Far-reaching Famine (verses 1-5)
The food supply is gone and everyone is at a loss as to what to do. Jacob’s sons were not short of ideas when it came to getting rid of their little brother Joseph, but they have no concept of how to save their families from wasting away due to the famine. When Jacob tells them to go to Egypt, chances are their consciences were bothered by the thought of going to the very place the slave-traders were headed to whom they sold their brother. All but Benjamin are sent to Egypt. Jacob doesn’t trust the other brothers to keep Benjamin safe, suggesting that he probably blames them as well for the loss of Joseph.
Application: What are practical ways you seek answers and wisdom during times of uncertainty?
Joseph’s Brothers Jailed (verses 6-17)
When Joseph’s brothers arrive and bow down to him, it is still merely a partial fulfillment of his dream (c.f. Genesis 37:7, 9). He was still awaiting the time when “the sun and the moon” bowed down as well (i.e., his mother and father). After 20 years and so many changes in Joseph’s appearance, the recognition is only one-way. At first, Joseph treats his brothers harshly and has them thrown in prison with the accusation that they are spies, which is what they accused him of prior to selling him. Their claim that they are “honest men” is not really the strongest line of defense! When they tell Joseph that his brother Benjamin is alive, it would have certainly be a relief, since he would have been worried that Benjamin, as the new favorite of their father, may have received the same treatment as Joseph by his brothers. We should not read this as Joseph’s vindictive revenge. He is weeping throughout this passage and godly wisdom marks his merciful treatment of his brothers.
Application: Joseph responded to his brothers with mercy. How did Jesus respond to those who mistreated Him? What Scriptures specifically address our responsibility to respond with mercy to those who have offended us?
Mercy Manifested (verses 18-28)
The third day brings mercy to the imprisoned band of brothers. Instead of sending only one of them back, Joseph sends all of them back except one, providing more people to carry back the grain. Joseph knew the likelihood of them returning because he knew, based on Pharaoh’s dreams, that the famine would last seven years (at this point they are only two years into it). The brothers begin to consider the events as divine judgment for their sin against Joseph. They fear that their sin has finally found them out (c.f. Numbers 32:23). Reuben proudly seeks to justify and separate himself from his brothers by reminding them of his pathetically passive attempt to rescue Joseph. He was just as guilty as they were of the cover-up and of deceiving their father.
As Joseph witnesses the impact of the conviction among them, he is moved to tears. He is putting up a hard front, but there is warm affection for his brothers. Without them knowing, he orders their sacks to be filled and their silver to be paid back. When they discover that one of the brothers still has the money for the grain, their hearts sink. They know what happens to thieves, and they can only imagine now what will happen to their brother Simeon back in prison. Again, because of their guilty conscience, they see everything through the lens of guilt and ask, “What is this that God has done to us?”
Application: Do you tend to see hardship only as God’s judgment rather than God’s tender care for you? What is a proper response when your conscience accuses you of sin (1 John 1:7-9)?
Joyless Jacob (verses 29-38)
When Jacob’s sons return to him, tell him what has happened, and then discover that the money has been returned to all of their sacks, they are all dismayed. Jacob despairs the loss of Joseph and now Simeon, and is distraught by the fact that all seems to be working against him. Jacob refuses to allow the brothers to take Benjamin as they had done with Joseph and Simeon. Reuben shows his true colors, once again. He pretends to be courageous, but actually proves himself a coward by offering the life of his own sons—a solution that is worse than the problem! In the end, Jacob is left in his grief and self-pity. He is focused on Jacob only: “You will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.”
Application: Compare the response of Jacob (Gen. 42:36: “[A]ll these things are against me” with Rom. 8:28 (“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose”). How can we be assured God causes all things for our good when we look at circumstances that cause us discomfort and displeasure?