When the ten brothers who had sold Joseph into Egypt as a slave stood before him, not aware of his identity, and he accused them of being spies who came to see the nakedness of the land, he was not bearing false witness against them. He knew better. He knew exactly who they were and why they came to Egypt. To speak the truth ourselves we cannot say that it was a case of saying the wrong thing because of ignorance. And yet we may not accuse Joseph of breaking the ninth commandment. Nor may we accuse him of cruelty and injustice when he cast them all into prison for three days.
What shall we then say about this charge of Joseph? We shall say first of all that although they were not spies who came to see the nakedness of the land, there was an element of truth in calling them spies. For spies are men who hide the truth, men who come under false pretenses, make themselves out for what they are not, and behind your back, or covering up before your eyes, desire your hurt and ruin. And in that light the ten brothers rather than Joseph should be accused of breaking the ninth commandment. For with bold faces, because they did not recognize him, they declare that they were true men. In this they were bearing false witness against Joseph. They were dishing out an untruth, pretending to be what they were not, hiding the truth; and although they were not in it seeking positively to injure and ruin Joseph, they were refusing to make any restoration and deliverance from the misery into which they sold him.
We may note in Genesis 42:14 that, as far as Joseph is concerned, this is the very heart of the matter. He says to them, “That is it that I spake unto you saying, ye are spies.” And this follows immediately after the statement of the brothers that their youngest brother is back in Canaan with their father, and the twelfth brotheris not. Were they true men they, would have said, “We know not where the twelfth brother is, for we sold him as a slave into Egypt some ten years ago, and we have lost track of him. Sir, would you kindly use your influence to help us trace him so we can confess our sin to him and seek to set him free?” No wonder is it that, after they said that he was not, that is, was dead, Joseph said, “That is it that I spake unto you saying, Ye are spies.” They were covering up, which is characteristic of spies.
Let it also be noted that, when Joseph accuses them of coming to see the nakedness of the land, he was not bearing false witness against them but for
them. The accusation was not true, and Joseph knew that it was not true, for he had already recognized them as his brothers. It was not, however, an accusation hurled at them in hatred, to hurt them, to get a material advantage over them, to take away any of their possessions, or even to bring upon them a punishment that they did not deserve. It was a false accusation that was spoken for their good in an attempt to bring them to repentance and confession of their sin.
In that light it can also be seen that it was not cruel or unjust to have them cast into prison for three days. And do not argue that Egypt’s judicial department had no right to punish Canaanites for a crime which they committed upon a Canaanite in Canaan. This was not the work of Egypt’s judicial department but of Joseph. He used the facilities of Egypt which were at his disposal, but he was neither functioning here as an Egyptian judge, nor as an Egyptian policeman. What is more, this is not punishment for a crime, but chastisement which God sent upon these brothers to correct and restore them. And may not He Who is the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth, Whose is not only Egypt but the whole universe, use part of it to chastize His people?
In His mercy God gave these ten brothers three days to talk things over and give some real deep and serious thought to the matter that had been bothering their consciences all these years. And let it be asked in parentheses, what are three days in prison compared with the life of slavery to which they had consigned Joseph? Have they any room to complain about the fact that he planned to have them in prison for three days? In love and for their good Joseph planned three days for contemplation, soul searching, and beseeching of God on their knees for deliverance and an explanation of this turn of events in their lives. And by the work of the irresistible Holy Spirit they were brought to repentance and confession so that three days later before Joseph they declare—not knowing that he hearing them understood their language—”We verily are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear: therefore is this distress come upon us.” And Reuben added, “Spake I not unto you saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? Therefore, behold, also his blood is required.”
This they confessed after Joseph had brought them up out of prison, and had informed them that he feared God, that he would keep one of them in prison as an hostage, and that, to prove themselves to be true men, they would have to bring along their youngest brother, after which they would receive the one in prison back again. “So shall your words be verified,” Joseph said, “and ye shall not die” (Genesis 42:18-21). To this the brothers agreed, and that is the meaning of the words, “And they did so.” Joseph had said to them, “This do and live, for I fear God.” And when we read that they did so, it means that they agreed to this arrangement.
The question may be asked, “Why did he not demand that they bring their father along, seeing that he was as eager to see him as to see his younger brother?” And the answer must be found in Joseph’s purpose with the whole verification of their words. Remember that he needed no proof of the fact that they were telling the truth when they said that they were all sons of onefather and had a young brother home. The only added information that they could give was that both their father and their brother were still alive. But behind all this rough speech, imprisonment, keeping one of the brothers in prison, and demanding that Benjamin be brought down to Egypt that their words might be verified is the fact that these brothers had not simply sinned against Joseph. They had cruelly, shamefully and unnecessarily cast their father into deep grief and sorrow. Now Joseph had no way of knowing that they had dipped his coat in the blood of a kid and made their father believe that a wild beast had slain him. He could only surmise how much and what they told their father about selling him into Egypt as a slave. He did not know that Jacob refused to be comforted and told his sons that he would go to his grave mourning for this most beloved son. But he certainly knew that these ten brothers had robbed their father of his fellowship, and that to him Joseph was as good as dead. He could realize very keenly by the loss of his father’s fellowship what his father felt in regard to himself. And true men do not do a thing like that to their father.
By demanding that they bring Benjamin along and down to Egypt he could determine whether these brothers now had any feeling and love for their father. Would they quickly agree to his proposition to save their own lives? Or would they hesitate and be reluctant to rob their father of two more sons—Simeon left behind in prison, and Benjamin taken from him with the fear of losing him? Consider once: how could Jacob be sure that this harsh man in Egypt would not put all of them back in prison including Benjamin? He had appeared to be a rough speaker and one quick to imprison. Would he be satisfied that this was their younger brother? And would he next insist that they give proof that this other, twelfth brother was not? Would they be required to give proof of his death, and be able to do that? And the reaction of the brothers to this proposition of Joseph would reveal whether they would want to spare their father more robbing of sons and grief, even if it be a temporary robbing. Even that would hurt this aged father who had now replaced Joseph with Benjamin as his most beloved son.
As we saw, they did agree quite readily and quickly to the proposition. There must have been a brief conference among them; but we are given to believe that there was no hesitation, and the nodding of the heads in agreement, when their spokesman revealed their willingness, revealed no love or feeling for their father. (Did they really have a choice? Joseph had said, Do this and live.” Had they not agreed it would have meant death for all of them; and that surely would have been a blow to their father.) But the Scriptures give us more information. In their brief conference while they debated the issue they took Joseph, we may believe, by surprise. For in their discussion of the proposition- not knowing that Joseph understood them—they confessed their sin against him and that God was sending them this distress. This moved Joseph to tears, because of which he had to turn away from them. They were tears of spiritual joy.
But even though they confessed all this, they had not yet shown any repentance as far as what they did to their father is concerned. In fact, when they get home they revert to their bearing of false witness against their father when they relate what happened in Egypt. Once again they prolong the grief of Jacob with the lie that Joseph “is not.” And let it never be forgotten that one can bear false witness against another by one’s silence. When you can relieve one’s fears and save one from a punishment that one does not deserve by speaking up and defending that one, and you remain silent, you are breaking the ninth commandment. And though in Joseph’s hearing, though not as addressed to him, they admitted guilt in their sale of him as a slave, as long as they do not tell their father the truth, they are not true men, and are hurting him.
Joseph, seeing the beginning of a change in his brothers, does weep. Yet he also presses on with the attempt to get them to confess all. They are still covering up and thus acting as spies. This is not the time for him to reveal his identity. It may hurt a parent to have to punish his child; but this must not move him to terminate the means of correcting. Through Solomon God Himself teaches us that “He that spareth the rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Proverbs 13:24). All too quickly parents will spare the rod because it is not convenient for their own flesh. All too quickly, because of the shame of it, parents will seek to deliver their children from civil punishment for their crimes. All too quickly they will go to defend their erring child against its teacher in school, and build up more disrespect for the teacher in the child’s mind. All too quickly will churches fail to discipline those who walk in sin because it might cause the church to lose members and financial support. Better it is to emulate Joseph. Go and weep in secret in your closet, for it is no pleasure to cut off from the Church of God. But be sure to come back and continue the discipline with the prayer that God will use this extreme remedy to bring to repentance.
And never forget that it is because God’s beloved Son was sold for thirty pieces of silver and nailed to the tree of the cross by His brethren that we may be corrected by discipline. As fallen in Adam we do not even have the right to be brought to repentance. Only as redeemed in Christ may we have means applied to us to convert us. And parents can weep for joy when they see the beginning of a change in their wayward children. But give the thanks then to God. For His Son Who knew no sin was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him (II Corinthians 5:21). The cross gives us the right to be true men again. The blood of Christ covers our sins and gives us the right to be delivered from the evil of trying to cover up our sins and pretend to be what we are not.