The truth of the matter is that everyone has skeletons in their closet. We all have things in our past that we wish were not there. We have all made mistakes. We have all hurt people. The problem is that many of us are responding to our past by simply ignoring it and hoping that if we ignore it long enough it will go away. But there's something you need to understand about your past. Your past will always catch up with you.
As we continue our journey in the life of Joseph, we now move the camera from Egypt back to the land of Canaan. We now move the focus away from Joseph and back on to his ten brothers who ultimately put him in that pit that started the whole ordeal. And as we do we are going to see that his brothers' past will catch up with them.
I want to remind you about the timeline taking place because you need to understand that when Genesis 42 begins it has now been over 20 years since Joseph was thrown in the pit. Remember the scenario. Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers abducted him and threw him in the pit and then sold him into slavery into Egypt and convinced their father he had been killed by a wild animal.
At the age of 30, he eventually is brought before Pharaoh and he's promoted to prime minister of Egypt. For the first seven years of his tenure as prime minister, Egypt lives through years of plenty but now the seven years of famine have begun. It's been over two decades since this whole nightmare began on that day when his brothers threw him in the pit.
THE BROTHERS SENT
The first thing we see in the text is Joseph’s brothers being sent to Egypt in the first three verses of Genesis 42. Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt and asks his sons a question that many parents still ask of their kids today. He says, “Why are you staring at one another?” Remember, they're out of food but there's food in Egypt. So Jacob asks. “Why are you staring at one another? I've heard there's grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us from that place so that we may live and not die.”
The famine is not just in the land of Egypt but all the surrounding lands as well. It's now affecting Joseph's family back in the land of Canaan. Everyone has heard. The news is out there. It's no secret that even though there's no food anywhere else there's plenty of food in Egypt. Isn't it ironic that while Jacob realizes that there's plenty of food in Egypt, what he doesn't realize is that the reason there's plenty of food is because his beloved son Joseph has been the one in charge of handling it.
Joseph’s brothers are now middle aged men, yet Jacob has to say to them, “Why are you sitting here staring at one another? Why are you twiddling your thumbs? Has it not crossed your mind that it might be a good idea for you to go down to Egypt and get us some food?” What I see here is some sort of reluctance on the part of the ten sons. They're not eager to go to Egypt. Why? My guess is that they're still living with the guilt of what they did 20 years earlier. Most likely, over those 20 years those brothers didn't talk much about what they did. It was out of sight, out of mind. Their hope was that if they just ignored their past it would go away. The problem is that guilt never goes away until it is dealt with and their guilt has been brewing for 20 years.
Whenever those brothers think of Egypt, who do they immediately think of? Joseph. The last thing that happened in their relationship with Joseph was that they sold him as a slave into Egypt. I don’t think they were reluctant to go because they were afraid they might run into Joseph. Egypt's a big place. Besides that, I think they pretty much were convinced he was dead by now. You don't last as a slave in Egypt long and it's been over 20 years. I think they're reluctant to go because Egypt reminds them of their past. It reminds them of mistakes they made that they haven't dealt with yet because they are hoping that by ignoring them they will go away. So Jacob has to order his sons to go down to Egypt and to get some food.
Keep in mind from a geographical point of view that it's approximately 300 miles from Hebron, where Jacob and his family lived in the land of Canaan, to Egypt. This is a journey they would take on foot or with donkeys. It would be like your dad saying to you here in northern Michigan, there's food in Ohio. Go get some. And you would have to walk or ride a donkey from Gaylord, Michigan, to Ohio to get food and then come back. We are not talking a simple day's journey. We are not talking a week's journey. We're not even talking a month's journey. It would be several months round trip to go to Egypt, get the food and come back.
THE BROTHERS SILENCED
Now let's fast forward the story a few months to the brothers' arrival in Egypt and the next thing that we are going to see are the brothers of Joseph being silenced. This is an encounter for the ages seen in verses 6 and 7.
“Now, Joseph was the ruler over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. And when Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them. But he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly and he said to them, ‘Where have you come from?’ And they said, ‘We've come from the land of Canaan to buy food.’
Now, put yourself in Joseph's position. You are the prime minister of Egypt. It's been 20 years since you got thrown in the pit by your brothers and sold as a slave into Egypt. I have to guess that over those 20 years Joseph daydreamed often about this day that he would be able to face his brothers again. However, when Joseph woke up on this morning I doubt very seriously he said, ‘I bet today's the day I get to see my brothers.’ This was going to be a shock to him.
Joseph is on his chair. He's meeting with those who are coming to buy food and he notices these ten men who are obviously from the land of Canaan. They're bearded. They're not clean shaven like all the other Egyptians. As he looks closely at them it becomes very obvious to him who they are. These guys are his brothers that he hasn't seen in 20 years since they sold him into slavery.
Joseph has the upper hand on them. Though he recognizes them, according to the text, they have no clue as to who he was. The last time they saw Joseph he was 17 years old. He's now going on 40. A lot changes happen in a man's appearance from age 17 to age 40. Have you noticed that? You don't think that's true? Pull out your high school yearbook. You have changed and it has not been for the good either. Joseph changed.
Not only that, the Bible says he disguised himself. He would have had the Egyptian royal garb on, the Egyptian makeup, the Egyptian head dressing, and to make it even more of a disguise, he talks to his brothers through an interpreter. So it seems to them like he only knows Egyptian even though he really does know Hebrew.
Joseph is going to put his brothers through a series of tests. Now, at first glance it almost looks like Joseph's trying to get revenge but I don't think that's the case. We have already seen that Joseph has dealt with his past bitterness. That is why he named his one son Manasseh (because God removed the sting from his pain) and the other Ephraim (because God has made him fruitful and blessed him in the land of his affliction). I don't think he's being vengeful at all. I think he's being wise. He has forgiven his brothers already, but for there to be reconciliation, for him to enter back into a relationship with them, he has to know that they have changed.
Remember that one of the big problems in their past relationship was that his brothers hated him because he was the favored son of their dad because he was the firstborn son of Rachel, his dad's favorite wife. Who's the only other brother that has Rachel as a mother? Benjamin. Joseph wonders about the welfare of Benjamin. He’s probably thinking, “If they did what they did to me, I wonder what they have done to Benjamin?” So he puts them through a series of tests the try to determine if they have changed.
Joseph immediately accuses these ten brothers of being foreign spies. If you read through chapter 42 you will discover that he makes this accusation four different times. Four times in one chapter he says, “You are spies.” Notice what they say back to him in verse 11. This blows my mind. They respond to him saying, “We are not spies. We are all sons of one man.” Who's the one man? Jacob. Is that a true statement? Yes. They're all sons of Jacob. There are four different mothers involved but they all have the same father.
They then say, “We are honest men.” I wonder if Joseph had to bite his tongue at that point. They're standing there not knowing that they are talking to Joseph going, “No, we're not spies. We are men of integrity!” 20 years ago they threw their brother in a pit and sold him into slavery and for the last 20 years have lived a lie, convincing their father that his son was dead. Now they are standing before the prime minister of Egypt claiming to be honest men. No wonder Joseph puts these guys through a test to see if they have changed. Notice what else they say in verse 13.
“Your servants are 12 brothers in all.”
There are ten of them standing before Joseph. They said there we're 12 of them. What about the other 2 brothers? Here's what they say.
“Behold, the youngest (that would be Benjamin) is with our father today back in the land of Canaan.’
That gives Joseph some crucial information. He now knows Benjamin is alive and his father is still alive. But now notice what they say about the 12th brother.
“The youngest is with our father today and one is no more.
Who are they talking about? Joseph. Our youngest brother is back with our dad and one, well, he is no more. He kind of disappeared. We're not really sure what happened to him. This is how these guys are dealing with their past. They're dealing with their past by ignoring it. They're dealing with their past by hoping it will go away. My friend, your past doesn't go away. Your past always catches up with you. And it will with these brothers.
Joseph responds by saying, “No, you're spies. I'm going to put nine of you in jail and I'm going to send one of you back to the land of Canaan to fetch your younger brother. You bring your younger brother here as proof that you're telling the truth and I'll let the other nine go. If you don't bring the younger brother back, I'm going to kill all nine of them as spies.” Then, instead of just putting one in jail, he throws all ten of them in prison and he lets them sit there for three days.
Why does Joseph throw all ten of them in prison? Wouldn't it be cool if each of us had our own prison and any time somebody annoyed us we could just throw them in prison? Would that not be cool? Someone cuts you off in traffic, you throw them in jail. Someone says a mean word to you, you throw them in jail. I don't think that's what Joseph did. I believe that the reason Joseph did this was that he personally needed time to think and pray. He needed time to regain his thoughts. Remember, when he woke up that morning, did he expect to meet his brothers that day? No. He needs time to think this situation through. He needs time to pray this through. He needs time to make sure he's being wise in his decision making. So he throws all ten of them in jail. Ironically, it was most likely the same jail that he would have spent years in because of them.
At the end of the three days Joseph gives them a chance to prove they are indeed honest men. He does, however, change tactics a little bit. Instead of keeping nine and sending one, he says “Let one of your brothers be confined in prison and then the rest of you carry grain back to your households. Then bring your youngest brother back to me so your words may be verified and you will not die.”
When Joseph tells them this, something amazing takes place. The next thing we see is the brother's sorrow and their guilt comes pouring out. Remember, for 20 years they've been ignoring their past. But the guilt's been there. You can see the guilt because they're very reluctant to even go to Egypt and the guilt keeps building and finally, 20 years later, it all catches up with them and the guilt comes pouring out. They're now going to admit guilt. They're going to express sorrow. They're now going to accept punishment.
This is very important because this is the turning point. It’s going to be a slow turn. It's going to take several chapters before it's completed but this is the turning point. This is the point that turns that past of theirs into what eventually will become forgiveness and reconciliation. The very first step in dealing with your past is to quit ignoring it and finally admit it. That's the first step. For 20 years they've tried to ignore it hoping it would go away. But your past never goes away. It will catch up with you. Finally, they admit guilt. Look at verse 21. “
Then they said to one another, truly we are guilty concerning our brother.”
Keep something in mind. They are talking to each other while standing in front of Joseph. They're in front of Joseph but they're clueless about two things. Number one, they have no clue it's Joseph. They just think it's the Egyptian prime minister. They don't realize the very brother they're talking about is the one standing right there. Number two, they're clueless to the fact that Joseph can understand every word they're saying. They think he only speaks Egyptian.
Put yourself in Joseph's shoes. For 20 years you have had to deal with the mistreatment and pain that has come into your life because of your brothers. For 13 of those 20 years you lived as a slave and a prisoner. And now, after 20 years, you get to hear those words as the brothers admit, “We are guilty.” The problem is that at this point, they're only going to admit it to each other. They're not going to admit it to anyone else. I'm telling you, it's a slow turn that they make but this is the starting point.
Secondly, they express sorrow. Look what else they say.
“We are guilty because we saw the distress of Joseph's soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen.”
As they talk to each other they remind each other of the look on Joseph's face when they pulled him out of that pit and sold him as a slave into Egypt. They remind each other of his words begging them, “Please don't! Please don't!” For 20 years, even though they haven't talked about it, they have lived with that memory in their minds. Every time they close their eyes at night they see Joseph's face with the fear on it. Every time they dream, they dream of Joseph's words begging them not to do this. Now, for the first time in 20 years, they're expressing sorrow over the fact that they caused distress in Joseph's life.
And then, thirdly, they're willing to accept punishment.
“Therefore, this distress has now come upon us.”
It's an amazing verse. They are saying, “We caused distress on Joseph and now this distress (same word) is coming upon us.” There's a principle there we really need to learn. It comes from Galatians 6 and it says, “Whatever you sow you will reap.” These guys sowed all kinds of distress into Joseph's life and now they're experiencing distress in their own lives.
Reuben now steps up to the plate. Remember, Reuben's the firstborn son. At this point, Reuben marches right in to one of those “I told you so” speeches. Remember, when Joseph was coming towards the brothers in his coat of many colors, the brothers said. “Here comes that dreamer. Let's kill him.” Reuben's the one who spoke up and said, “No, don't kill him. Instead, let's throw him in a pit.” Reuben's intention was to come back later and rescue him but Reuben then had to leave for some reason and while he was gone the other brothers sold him into slavery. Reuben now pipes up and basically says, “I told you so.” He says, “Did I not tell you don't sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen to me.” Keep in mind that though Reuben may have actually saved Joseph's life, he’s just as guilty. For 20 years he's gone along with the lie. He's an accomplice to the crime.
Joseph is listening to this whole conversation and look how he responds in verse 23. Joseph turned away from them and wept. Joseph is not in this for vengeance. Joseph is not carrying resentment. Joseph's heart is breaking. For the first time in 20 years he finally hears these brothers say, “We were wrong!” Joseph leaves the room weeping. His heart hurts for his brothers.
He then comes back but he's still going to test them. His heart hurts but he's still going to be wise. He's not just going to come in and say, “Hey guys, surprise! It's me.” He's not ready to do that yet. He's going to test them first. He took Simeon from them and bound Simeon before their eyes. He had already told them that he was going to keep one of them in prison while the others went back and got their younger brother. Keep in mind that that would probably be at least six months for them to make the round trip back to the land of Canaan, get their brother and bring him back to Egypt. So whoever Joseph picks to stay is going to stay in that jail cell for quite some time. And who does he pick? He picks Simeon.
I've read that many times but for the first time as I did I asked myself this question. Why Simeon? There were ten of them, right? Why didn't he pick Gad or Issachar or Zebulon? Why did he pick Simeon? Was Simeon the firstborn? No. Who was the firstborn? Reuben. Back in that day birth order was very important. You would think if one brother was going to stay, they would pick the firstborn. Instead Joseph picks Simeon who's the second oldest. Why does he pick the second oldest instead of the first oldest? This is just a guess. My opinion is that this was Joseph's way of saying thank you to Reuben for saving his life 20 years earlier. Instead of keeping Reuben, the firstborn, in the jail for months, he takes the second born. He takes Simeon.
Honestly, if I were Joseph, I would have picked Judah. If you go back to Genesis 37, when Joseph's in the pit while Reuben is gone somewhere, it was Judah who instigated the whole idea about selling him into slavery. He's the one who said, “Hey, let's make some money off the kid. Let's sell him into slavery so we never have to worry about him again.” Judah instigated it, and had I been Joseph, Judah's backside would have been in that jail for several months because I would have been in it for vengeance. The very fact that he picks Simeon tells me he wasn't in it for the vengeance. He was testing these brothers. He wanted to find out had if they really changed.
Notice now the gift that's involved. Joseph has the food that they buy put on their donkeys but he does something else. He puts in their sacks of food the money they used to buy it. Now, why does Joseph do this? I think it was a good thing. I think Joseph was simply showing grace. He was simply showing mercy. He wasn't going to have his family buying the food. He was going to give it to his family as a gift. But notice what happens when they discover the money in verse 27 and 28.
“As one of them opened his sack to give his donkey some fodder he saw the money. Behold, it was in the mouth of his sack and he said to his brothers, my money's been returned. It's in my sack.”
Now, at this point, you would think they go, “Wow! How about that? We got free food!” But no, their hearts sank and they turned trembling and the word trembling is the same word used in other places in the Old Testament to describe an earthquake. They were fearful, trembling. They said,
“What is this that God has done to us?”
In their minds they are now going to get accused of stealing. This bad situation's become even worse. That's what guilt will do to you. When you live with guilt for all those years and the guilt builds and catches up with you, you begin to see all of life through the lens of your guilt. It makes life miserable. Even the good things that happen in your life are tainted because you can only view life through the horror of your guilt. And that's where these brothers are.
The brothers finally get back to the land of Canaan and we see the grief that's involved. They tell their dad what happened. They say, “Dad, when we were in Egypt we went before the prime minister. He accused us of being spies. We told him we were honest men. He wouldn't believe us. He threw us in jail for three days. Then he kept Simeon. He sent the rest of us back. He said if we don't bring Benjamin back, he's going to kill Simeon.”
But more importantly, notice what they didn't tell their dad. They did not tell their dad anything about their guilt. They did not say, “Dad, there's something you need to know. We really think all these bad things are a result of something we did 20 years earlier and we think we need to tell you about it.” You see, they're willing to admit guilt to each other but they're not yet willing to take responsibility for it.
How does Jacob respond? First, he responds with fear. In fact, look what he says in verse 36.
“Their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more.”
He's written off Simeon. The brothers tell him, “Simeon is still alive. He's in jail. We can rescue him.” But Jacob has written him off.
“And now you want to take Benjamin? All these things are against me.”
How's that for the spiritual leader of the home? At the very time of crisis, where the family needed a spiritual leader to rise up and say, “Guys, we need to seek God. We need to fall on our faces before God. We need to get direction from God. We need to trust God.” Instead, he's filled with fear. And not only does he respond with fear, he also responds with favoritism.
This is amazing. How did Joseph's brothers deal with their past? They tried to ignore it hoping it would go away. How did Jacob deal with the mistakes of his past? He just kept on repeating his mistakes over and over again. What was one of the major causes for this whole debacle to begin with? It was Jacob's favoritism of Joseph. Has Jacob changed? No! Look at verse 38.
“But Jacob said, ‘My son, Benjamin, shall not go down with the ten of you to Egypt, for his brother is dead and he alone is left.”
Do you see a problem with that statement? Weren't there nine other brothers sitting there? Jacob says, ‘My one son (Joseph) is dead. You're not taking my other son because if he dies he's all I have left.’ The brothers have to be thinking, “What are we, Dad, chopped liver?” Do you see how Jacob's repeating the same mistakes all over again? Look what else he says.
“If harm should befall Benjamin on the journey with you, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol.”
In other words, I will die of grief. Wait! What about Simeon? If they don't bring Benjamin back, he's going to die a prisoner in Egypt. I think there's a lot of Christians today who are really struggling in life because they are responding to their past like Jacob or like Joseph's brothers. They are either ignoring it, hoping it will go away, or they just keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again.
But there's hope. There is good news because if you're willing to quit running from your past, if you're willing to quit ignoring it, if you're willing to quit repeating the same mistakes and you're willing to get honest with God, honest with yourself, and honest with those you have hurt, God can remove the guilt that is ruining your life and God can restore broken hearts.