So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. (Genesis 42:3)
Today we return to our series on Joseph, Snapshots of a Godly Life. This is a story in two parts. Part one is about Joseph, who is the loved and favored son. Part two is about his brothers, who are the chosen family.
Part one is about how the dearly loved son was humiliated and exalted. We followed the story of how Joseph came to his brothers. The brothers hated him because he was the loved and favored son. They threw him in a pit and sold him to traders who took him to Egypt. But God blessed Joseph, and raised him up so that he became the governor at the right hand of Pharaoh, with authority over the whole land of Egypt.
Joseph is very much like Jesus. Part one of the story shines the light on Jesus Christ the dearly loved and highly favored Son of God, who came into the world to seek his brothers, suffered our rejection, and yet has been exalted to the highest place where he reigns as Prince and as Savior (Acts 5:31).
The brothers are very much like us. So while part one points to the journey of Jesus, part two points to our story. It is the story of how God redeems sinners like us through the loved and favored Son. Part one is about the Redeemer. Part two is about the redeemed.
Keeping the framework of this story in mind will help you to know where we are over these next weeks: Part one is about God’s great purpose for his Son. Part two is about God’s gracious plan for his people.
A Picture of the Ten Brothers
To understand these chapters we need to get a picture of the ten brothers: They were not like Joseph. They had lived the opposite of a godly life. You can see this in four snapshots that are given to us in the Bible.
i. The first is the story of Simeon and Levi
Joseph’s brothers made a deal with the Shechemites, the extended family of a man called Shechem. Shechem had fallen in love and slept with their sister Dinah.
The brothers were outraged, but then they made a deal with Shechem that they would intermarry with them and be at peace with him, if all their men were circumcised. The men of Shechem agreed, but while they were still recovering, and in no position to fight, the sons of Jacob launched an assault on the men of the city and destroyed it completely.
It was an outrage and an atrocity. In Genesis 34:30 Jacob says to Simeon and Levi, “You have brought trouble on me by making me stink to the inhabitants of the land.” You have dragged my name in the dirt! Nobody will ever trust my word or the word of this family again.
ii. The second is the story of Rueben
While Israel lived in that land, Rueben went and lay with Bilhah his father’s concubine. And Israel heard of it (Gen. 35:22).
Rueben was the firstborn son (Gen. 35:23), but he brought disgrace on the family through his sexual indulgence. That’s the significance of the coat of many colors (Gen. 37:3-4), by the way. When Jacob gave the coat to Joseph he was saying, “Reuben has forfeited his rights as the oldest son. Now he (Joseph) is the one!” That’s why the brothers hated him.
iii. The third story is the story of Judah
Here we read the account of Judah and Tamar (Gen. 38). Suffice to say that this is another story showing another of the brothers to be sexually promiscuous. Judah is a man without sexual boundaries. Behind him he leaves a trail of broken hearts and wounded lives as he sins his way further and further away from God.
iv. The fourth story is the story of Joseph
We saw in part one the story of how Joseph was sent by his father on a long journey to find his brothers. Scripture says, “They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him” (Gen. 37:18). Here are men who would kill their own brother out of jealousy.
But in the kindness of God, Rueben restrained them. He said to the brothers, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness” (Gen. 37:22). Then the Ishmaelite traders arrived, and the brothers sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver (Gen. 37:28).
If that wasn’t bad enough, then the brothers went back to their father and told him his dearly loved son was dead. They dipped Joseph’s coat in the blood of an animal and they said to Jacob, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not” (Gen. 37:32).
Jacob said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces” (Gen. 37:33).
On the basis of that lie, that deception, Jacob went into mourning and he refused to be comforted. He said, “I will go to my death mourning.” His whole life was soaked in sorrow because of a lie that was perpetrated by the brothers.
Have you got the picture? These brothers were men whose word could not be trusted. They were prone to violence. They were sexually out of control. They were capable of lying, even to one who loved them, in order to cover up their own sin.
How Can Men and Women Like This
Share in the Blessing of God?
How can a person who has betrayed trust, lied, broken promises, and deceived even their own loved ones, come to share in the blessing of God?
Remember the big picture of the Bible story: God comes to Abraham and says, “I will bless you and through you all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12). The blessing will come to and through Abraham’s offspring.
There’s Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then these ten brothers. The brothers were the great-grandchildren of Abraham. And they are about as far away from the blessing of God as it is possible to be! How can men like this share in the blessing of God? Is that even possible?
What lies before us these next weeks is a remarkable story of redemption. We are going to see how God can transform the most broken lives. It is a marvelous story of hope.
Over these next weeks I want to draw out seven themes from this story and we will see in them a model of how Jesus Christ, the loved and favored Son of God, works to bring change in broken lives, and what his grace can do in us and in the people we love today. The first theme is the awakening of conscience.
The timeline in this story is important. Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers sold him as a slave (Gen. 37:2). He was 30 years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh, and there were 7 years of plentiful harvests before the famine at the beginning of chapter 42. More than 20 years had passed since the brothers sold Joseph to the traders on their way to Egypt.
During these 20 years they had slipped into the worst of all positions: Their sins were forgotten but not forgiven. No doubt, what they had done would have been on their minds at times, but we know that their sins were never dealt with.
There was never a time when they came to their father and said, “Dad we lied to you. Your son was not killed by wild animals. We sold him to traders on their way to Egypt.” There was no confession, and there had been no repentance. The brothers simply moved on.
Here we are twenty years later and the brothers are working for their father, but for 20 years they have also been lying to the father, deceiving the father. And having repeated the sad story of how their poor brother was so tragically killed by wild beasts to every person who visited the family, they might well have come to believe the story themselves.
If your sins are forgotten but not forgiven you are in the worst of spiritual positions. If you are troubled by the memory of your past sins, I say it is far better that your sins are forgiven but not forgotten, than forgotten and not forgiven!
The worst position of all is to be at peace with yourself when your sins are not dealt with. Hope begins for these brothers, and hope begins for us when God awakens the conscience, and God does that in this story in four ways.
How God Awakens the Conscience
1. By disturbing peace
God often breaks into our lives through unexpected events that are completely beyond our control. This happened to the brothers through a famine: “The famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen. 41:57). God often does this to get our attention. The brothers found themselves in need, and this had not happened to them before.
When the famine began, “Jacob learned that there was grain for sake in Egypt” (42:1). “So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt” (42:3). When they arrived in Egypt, we are told that “Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him” (42:8).
Joseph recognized his brothers because nothing about them had changed. They were just 20 years older. They did not recognize him, because after 20 years, he had been elevated to the highest position in Egypt, and he would have looked very different from the last time the brothers had seen him.
One writer says, “Joseph’s head would have been shaved, his scalp oiled and his face and eyebrows painted with cosmetics as befitted his status as an Egyptian aristocrat.”  Beyond that the long flowing robes of an Egyptian governor, and the fact that he was speaking another language, would have made him unrecognizable to his brothers.
Some writers are critical of Joseph for the way in which he deals with the brothers, but what he does is used by God to bring about a remarkable change. That change begins in verse 17, where we read that “He put them all together in custody for three days.” Here we are in prison. Here we are in a situation we never thought we’d be in.
Maybe there are ways in which God is breaking into your life by disturbing your peace. Things seemed to be going along well and then something unexpected and quite beyond your control happened. Some trouble comes to your family, you are moved from your job, a secret is revealed, there is an issue with your health… Everything is changed! Life cannot go on as it did before. Through this event God has disturbed your peace.
Why is he doing that? God is waking them up and he is saying, “This has got to change.” Otherwise you are going to miss out on God’s blessing.
2. By arousing memory
We see this especially in verse 21 and 22, but I think that the awakening of their memory may have begun in verse 1. When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” (Gen. 42:1).
Jacob says the word ‘Egypt!’ and the brothers are all looking at each other, “That’s where we sent Joseph! Now the old man, who thinks Joseph is dead, is sending us there!” That was the word they never spoke in their home. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been 20 years since that word had been spoken in their home.
Then, when they arrive in Egypt, the brothers are thrown into prison. Now memory is really aroused. “For no good reason, we threw our brother in a pit, and now, for no good reason, we have been thrown into prison.” So in verse 21, “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.”
It’s all coming back to them now! God brought their past actions to mind and their own sins are real, alive, fresh, and present. Conscience is awakened. They see what God sees and know what God knows, “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’” (Gen. 42:22).
3. By speaking harshly
This is mentioned twice: “Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them” (Gen. 42:7). This so impressed itself on them that when they returned home, they said, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies” (Gen. 42:30).
It is striking how often the first words Jesus spoke to people in the Gospels might easily have turned them away. One example is the story, in Matthew 15, of the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus and begged him for help.
Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel” (15:24). How encouraging is that to a Canaanite woman? But she would not take ‘no’ for an answer. Then Jesus said, “It is not right to take the children’s break and throw it to dogs” (15:26).
You would think at this point she would take offense and go, but instead she says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table” (15:27). And then Jesus said, “Woman, great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire” (15:28).
Let me try and explain where you might experience something similar: You come to church, and what you hear is not comfortable. It brings to mind things you would rather forget. The Word of God is disturbing to you. We live in a world that says, “Every experience must be calculated to make me feel good.” A shallow kind of person says, “I’m out of here.”
One way to describe the Bible is that it has two parts: the law and the gospel. It tells us what God requires and it reveals to us what God provides. Why does God speak law to us? Why does the Holy Spirit convict us of sin? Why do you have this experience of sitting in church feeling that you may not be the good and righteousness person you like to think you are? Because only when you feel the weight of the law, will you see your need of the gospel.
Paul explains in Romans 7, “The law is… good” (7:12). Because it is through God’s law that we discover our own sin. When we see what God requires of us, we see that we are nowhere near what he calls us to be, not even at our best. If you feel convicted of sin today, thank God for it. To be at peace when your sins are not dealt with is the worst of all positions!
When God speaks to you harshly – which is what conviction of sins feels like – it is actually the greatest kindness. The great irony in this story is that the man who speaks harshly is the brother who loves them, and whose undeserved favor will save them. God may seem to be against you, but he is totally for you in Jesus Christ. When you come to know who he is, you will see all that he says and all that he does in a completely different light, because all along he has been working for your good.
4. By showing kindness
Joseph spoke harshly to the brothers, but he could not restrain his own love for them. He is overcome by emotion and has to leave, “He turned away from them and wept” (42:24).
Then 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 (Gen. 42:25). This is a sheer act of kindness. The Bible says that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
Robert Murray McCheyne says, “It is commonly thought that preaching the holy law is the most awakening truth in the Bible, that by it the mouth is stopped, and all the world becomes guilty before God; and, indeed, I believe that this is the most ordinary means which God makes use of. And yet to me there is something far more awakening in the sight of a Divine Savior freely offering Himself to every one of the human race.” 
The fascinating thing here is that the brothers don’t know what do to with this act of kindness. They don’t understand what has happened and they completely misinterpret it. One of the brothers finds the money in his bag and he says, “‘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?’” (42:28).
This is the first time in the entire story that the great grandchildren of Abraham mention the name of God! At last these men who have lied and broken trust, and have long forgotten their past sins, have some awareness of God. Right now they think he is against them. They don’t yet know the gracious purpose he has for their lives, but at least they are awakened!
God has been at work in their lives. He has disturbed their peace. He has aroused their memories. He has spoken to them harshly. And now he is showing them undeserved kindness and favor.
Has Anything Like This Ever Happened to You?
I meet a lot of people who tell me that they have always been Christians. Well, have you ever been awakened and convicted of your own sin? Because that’s the first mark of being a Christian. Of course, this happens in different ways, at different times, and with different degrees of intensity in different people, so how would you know if this has happened to you?
When you are awakened, you will come to the clear conclusion that you are a sinner. You will say, “I have already sinned enough in my life to fully deserve the eternal condemnation of God.” That’s the first thing that happens when you become a Christian.
Have you come to this conclusion about yourself? When you do, the pride, the swagger, the self-righteousness and the pretense will all be gone. You will feel that you are a person whose only hope is in Jesus Christ. And hope will have begun for you.
 David Searle, Joseph, p.94, Banner of Truth, 2012.
 Andrew Bonar, Memoirs and Remains of R. M. McCheyne, page 366, Banner of Truth, 1966.