And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan . . . .
And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.
Egypt’s years of plenty came and went just as God had revealed. They were followed by a very grievous famine. The waters of the Nile ceased from overflowing their banks, and the ground became hard and parched. No new food would grow. The people were forced to live off the crops which Joseph had warned them to lay aside. But it was not long before even these private storages began to dwindle and disappear. Knowing that the storehouses of Egypt were full, the people went to Pharaoh crying for food. Pharaoh referred them to Joseph, for he knew that in this matter also, Joseph was guided by the Spirit of God. But Joseph hesitated with opening the granaries; he knew that the famine would be long and the storage should not be allowed to deplete any sooner than necessary. Only when the need became crucial did he allow the grain to be taken out of storage and sold to the people. With care he watched over the distribution of food that none should be wasted. Not only did the Egyptians have to be supplied, but buyers came to him from many different countries, for the famine was over all the earth.
Meanwhile, back in Canaan, the life of Jacob’s family had not been going well for many years. Ever since the ten brothers had brought Joseph’s blood-stained coat to him, there had come a change over them which Jacob could see although he could not understand. The rough way of life which they had led in former years seemed to have lost its interest for them. They settled down to a quieter life that was much more becoming to them as children of God. In all of this Jacob could have rejoiced were it not for something else. Over the whole subject of Joseph there hung an aura of mystery. The ten avoided the subject. They did not want to talk about Joseph. It seemed, although there was no direct evidence, that they knew more about what had happened to Joseph than they were willing to tell. This made Jacob afraid. He found it difficult to trust his own children. He did not like to leave Benjamin alone with them. He refused to allow him to go out into the field with them. The fear would not leave him that the same thing might happen to Benjamin which had happened to his brother.
Finally the time came when the great famine touched also the land of Canaan. Crops would not grow and the people of the land began to travel to Egypt for food. But now the same hesitant attitude which the ten brothers held toward their departed brother seemed to spread out to cover also Egypt. They avoided the suggestion that they should go with their neighbors to buy corn. What Jacob, did not realize was that the brothers also were afraid. They knew that if they went to Egypt their duty would be to look for the brother whom they had sold and try to redeem him. But if they would manage to find him, it would mean that their sin would be exposed. Troubled and frightened, they remained silent. At last Jacob became impatient. “Why do ye look one upon another?” he asked. “Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.” Thus it was, at the command of their father, that the ten men set out for Egypt; but Benjamin was kept with Jacob at home.
For the coming of his brothers to Egypt, Joseph meanwhile was ready and even waiting. For some time already he had anticipated the way in which the Lord would lead. When he became ruler over all of Egypt the possibility of his brothers bowing down before him became very real, just as the dreams of his youth had foretold. Moreover, when it became apparent that the famine was over a broader area than just Egypt so that men came from many different nations to buy food, it became evident to him what would be the occasion of their coming. Rather than go himself into Canaan to visit his family, or to contact them in some other way, he thought it best to wait for the way of the Lord to unfold itself. Patiently he waited, all of the time keeping careful watch over those markets which men from Canaan were inclined to frequent.
As Joseph awaited the coming of his brothers, the question of how he should greet them became for him a matter of grave concern. There were two ways which would seem quite natural. He might have met them in anger determined to punish them for the sin which they had committed against him. This is what the brothers would have expected had they known that he awaited them. However, for Joseph it was quite impossible. Any hatred or bitterness which he might have once felt had long since faded away. He discerned the hand of the Lord in what had happened and was content. He could no longer be angry with his brothers. More natural for Joseph would have been to forget about all that had transpired and to greet them with welcome and joy. Although they had treated him badly, they were still his brothers and, in spite of their sin, children of God. The easiest thing of all for him would have been to greet them with love. But that reaction too would have been natural and God had brought Joseph to be a deeply spiritual man. As he contemplated the expected arrival of his brothers, questions continued to arise in his mind concerning their spiritual lives. Were they still living in sin as they had in the years that he was among them? Did they realize the guilt that was theirs because of the sin which they had committed against him? Were they sorry and repentant for their sins? Did they desire to live new and better lives in the fear of God? These questions troubled Joseph and he felt that he had to learn the answers. If they had not yet learned to put hatred behind them, it was necessary for him to lead them in that way. Moreover, he feared that should they recognize him in his high position, they might pretend to be repentant for material gain while maintaining hatred in their hearts. He felt that the best that he could do would be to find out their attitude toward his brother Benjamin, who had undoubtedlytaken his place in their father’s love, before they recognized him as ruler of the land. It was with this concern for the spiritual lives of his brothers that Joseph laid the plan which was followed.
When the ten brothers came into Egypt, God providentially led them to the very market where Joseph was managing the sale of grain. Joseph, ever on the lookout for them, recognized them already at a distance and took personal charge of their transaction. There was little likelihood that the brothers would recognize him. While in the intervening years the appearance of the brothers had not changed a great deal, Joseph looked entirely different. He had grown from youth into manhood. His face was clean shaven like the Egyptians without the rough beard customary in Canaan. He wore royal apparel, and his Egyptian headgear served to disguise his identity. His manners were smooth and polished like a high government official, far removed from the crude manners of the shepherd-boy which they had known in the past. Moreover, the brothers hardly expected to find Joseph in a position of high authority. If their eyes searched for him at all, it was among the numerous slaves that constantly filled the market-place. When their eyes fell upon Joseph, they saw nothing but an austere government official whose every appearance spoke of high rank and great authority. Without question they bowed themselves to the ground before him. It was to Joseph as a sign from heaven. The dreams of his youth which he had not been able to forget, but which always returned to perplex him, were finally come to fulfillment.
With keen disappointment, Joseph’s eyes searched and found that Benjamin was not among the brothers. Perhaps there passed through his mind even a tinge of fear lest they might have disposed of Benjamin as once they had disposed of him. For Joseph the presence of Benjamin was most necessary. Only in examining their attitude toward him would he be able to determine whether hatred and jealousy still lingered in their hearts and controlled their lives.
Joseph took the approach of an stern inquisitor. “Whence come ye?” he asked them through his interpreter. The question was natural enough, but the harsh manner was frightening. “From the land of Canaan to buy food,” they meekly replied. Joseph had to have reason to detain them, and so he accused them, “Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.” Canaan was the traditional enemy of Egypt and the accusation was not impossible. Shocked and trembling with fear the brothers answered, “Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come. We are all one man’s sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.” The logic was that one man would never send so many of his sons to perform such a dangerous task as spying out the weak points in Egypt’s defense. It was not a very good argument but the best they could produce. Joseph after the manner of inquisitors merely repeated his accusation, “Nay but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.” Distraught, the sons of Jacob could think of no other defense than to give more details of their family. “Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.” With joy Joseph heard this. Benjamin and his father yet lived. Even more he now had occasion to summon Benjamin to Egypt. “That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies: hereby ye shall be proved: by the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your younger brother come hither. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.”
For three days Joseph put them all in prison to impress upon them the seriousness of their situation and to stir their consciences. Meanwhile also Joseph was led to revise his plan. The suffering which he would cause his father’s house was too great. Calling his brothers out of prison Joseph presented to them his revised plan. “This do, and live; for I fear God: if ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison; go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses: but bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die.”
It was then that Joseph’s plan began to bear fruit. The brothers, not knowing that Joseph could understand their language, for he spoke to them through an interpreter, began to talk among themselves. “We are verily 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.” With deep feeling in his soul Joseph turned from them into another room and wept. This much he had learned. They remembered their sin. They knew that they were guilty and worthy of punishment. It was a joy for Joseph to learn that much, and it made it even more difficult for him to suppress his natural desires and go on with his plan. But there was more he had to know. Were they sorry for their sin or merely for its consequences? Had they laid their hatred aside? Were they willing to live in God’s love? That still had to be found out. Returning to the brothers, Simeon, perhaps the leader in their sins of former years, he had bound before their eyes; and, after giving them corn, sent the rest on their way.
On the way, one more cause for fear came to the brothers. Without their knowledge Joseph had restored their money to the sacks in which their corn was carried. When nearly home, one of the brothers ran out of provisions and opened his sack to get more. There he found the money. That it was there on purpose was more than they could imagine. All that they could think was that the Egyptian would find it missing and think they had stolen it. That would make it yet harder on Simeon. In fear they cried, “What is this that God hath done unto us?” and so returned to their father.