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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 42

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This, the sixth episode in the [~toledowth] of Jacob, recounts the onset of the famine with its impact upon Israel, the ten sons journeying to Egypt to buy grain, Joseph’s recognition of his brothers, and his maneuvering to keep Simeon bound in Egypt until they should return another day. We may entitle the events of this chapter:


The remarkable narrative of the events recorded in this and related chapters is so vivid, true to life, and charged with emotion, that one may only marvel at the type of vicious and arrogant unbelief that would attempt to split the sources, contradict its plainest affirmations, and impose some corrupted substitute for what the Word of God says. The events of these chapters “are true to life and fit the character of Jacob (depicted in Genesis 25 and Genesis 26), making it difficult to accept the view of some scholars that two disparate sources lie behind the present material.”(F1)

Verse 1

“Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another? And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence, that we may live, and not die.”

This record of a family council precipitated by the stern realities of the terrible famine and the threat of death from starvation emphasizes the authority and decisiveness of Jacob, whose “energy and resourcefulness (of the father) is (sic) set in striking contrast to the perplexity of the sons.”(F2) Such a glimpse underlines the fact that we are actually dealing with the [~toledowth] of Jacob, not that of Joseph. Like any good narrative, this one leaves out many things. It is not related how Jacob learned of the availability of grain in Egypt, nor what proposals (if any) his sons offered as a remedy for the situation. Whatever discussions and proposals were discussed and rejected, Jacob resolved them all by the order, “Get you down thither, and buy for us from thence!”

Verses 3-4

“And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy grain from Egypt. But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure harm befall him.”

Benjamin had become Jacob’s favorite following what he supposed was the death of Joseph, and he might have been afraid that the same kind of hatred that had previously resulted from his partiality to Joseph might possibly have been transferred to Benjamin. There might even be some evidence here that Jacob in the intervening years had come to question some of the things his sons had told him. In any event, he refused to entrust Benjamin to them on this trip to Egypt.

Verses 5-7

“And the sons of Israel came to buy among those that came; for the famine was in the land of Canaan. And Joseph was the governor over the land; he it was that sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves to him with their face to the earth. And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly with them; Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.”

“Came to buy among those that came” Keil gave the literal meaning of this as, “they came in the midst of the comers.”(F3) The narrative indicates that a large number of people were arriving from many different places. The ready access to Joseph by the brethren has been made the occasion of some very snide remarks by some scholars. Simpson charged the narrator here with total ignorance of “the administrative problems in such an office as Joseph’s.”(F4) All such views are unjustified, because, as we have noted, many of the details are here omitted. While true enough that Joseph did not personally handle all of the details of so many sales, any group of strangers who might have been suspected of being spies would inevitably have been referred to Joseph, and this would appear to have been exactly what occurred here. Neither should it be overlooked that the hand of God was moving in all the events of the Bible.

Regarding Genesis 42:7, “according to a truly Semitic style of narrative, is a condensation of what is more circumstantially related in Genesis 42:8-17.”(F5) This explains the repetition of key statements.”

Verses 8-11

“And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him. And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye have come. And they said unto him, 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 dramatic fulfillment of Joseph’s dream that his brothers would bow down to him had just occurred; no wonder Joseph remembered. It may be wondered why Joseph charged his brothers with being spies. Some have charged Joseph with insincerity in this and have attempted to explain it in various ways. Some have thought that Joseph was intent on bringing his brothers to repentance. And some Jewish writers have made this an act of righteousness on Joseph’s part. Friedman even stated that “he made himself a stranger unto them in order to spare them the shame of defeat.”(F6)

Perhaps a better explanation lies in the supposition that the case of his brothers had been brought before Joseph personally by subordinates in the bureaucracy and that they had originated the charge of spying. If so, this would account for two things: (1) Joseph’s handling the case in person, and (2) the firm, even harsh manner in which he dealt with it. Anything on Joseph’s part that could have been interpreted by lesser officials as disloyalty to Pharaoh would have been pounced upon and used by them against Joseph, for it may not be supposed for a moment that everyone in Egypt appreciated having “this foreigner” rule over them. Thus, Joseph discharged his duty under the circumstances to the fullest, openly backing up the false charges in a manner that left him above and beyond all possible criticism.

“We are all one man’s sons” The argument is that no father would risk sending ten sons on a single spy mission. The argument was valid.

“We are true men” Joseph’s opinion of that remark might have been, “Yes, I know what kind of true men you are. You sold a brother, and lied to your father about what became of him.” Despite everything, however, Joseph was glad to see his brothers and was already of a mind to forgive them totally.

“To spy out the nakedness of the land” This has no reference to the lack of food supplies, for there was plenty of food. The word “nakedness” is here used “metaphorically for things that are meant to be hidden from potential enemies.”(F7) What is implied is that they had come to discover the state of Egypt’s military preparedness to repel an attack.

Verses 12-14

“And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come. And they said, We 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. And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies.”

This is a further elaboration of the impromptu trial, initiated by Joseph on the spot, and conducted in the presence of everyone. The brothers supported their testimony by giving further information about the family, including the fact of Benjamin’s being at home with Jacob, and the cryptic reference to Joseph who, they said, “is not.” Joseph announced the verdict: Guilty! No underling could have complained about Joseph’s handling of the case. Under the rules of that ancient society, every accused was considered guilty until proved innocent, and the burden of proof was always upon the defendant.

Verses 15-17

“Hereby shall ye be proved: by the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither. Send one of you and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be bound, that your words may be proved, whether there be truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies. And he put them all together into ward three days.”

So the accused must prove themselves innocent. To this point, Joseph had disposed of the case fully in keeping with what anyone in Egypt would have considered to be absolutely proper. After a period of three days, during which period practically everyone in Egypt would have forgotten all about the incident, Joseph would again review the case and reduce the number from ten to one of those who would be left in prison. Perhaps Joseph remembered the members of his father’s house and thought of their dire need of food, and therefore he sent them all home except Simeon, their sacks laden with grain, and their money returned, as related at once by the sacred author.

“By the life of Pharaoh” This was a common oath, corresponding to an expression found in 2 Kings 2:4, “And Elisha said, As Jehovah liveth.” In Egypt, Pharaoh was considered a god, but Joseph’s early training had taught him the name of the true God, a truth he had not forgotten, despite his using the usual Egyptian expression here.

Verses 18-20

“And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God: if ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in your prison-house; but go ye, carry grain for the famine of your houses: and bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die. And they did so.”

“This do, and live … Your words shall be verified, and ye shall not die” From this it appears that the imprisonment of the alleged spies implied also that they were to be executed, a not unlikely sentence in view of the charges under which they had been imprisoned. Whitelaw says, “This was the death due to spies.”(F8)

“For I fear God” The word here is [~’Elohiym].(F9) It is significant that in this phase of Joseph’s life, Jehovah, the covenant name of God does not appear in his speech. Nevertheless, his mention of God in this passage must have been a source of hope for the brothers.

“And they did so” Speiser called this a mistranslation, “because no deed followed,” adding that, “They made the Yes sign,”(F10) signaling that they agreed. However, the same general expression is used in Genesis 42:25, where it has the meaning that the following events were in conformity with what Joseph said. And we see no good reason why the same is not the case here.

Joseph’s purpose is clearly discernible in the turn of events recorded here. He wished to have charge of Benjamin, fearing, perhaps, that the same fate which had befallen him might also be the lot of his youngest brother, both Joseph and Benjamin being the sons of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, and therefore subject to the jealous hatred of the other brothers.

Verses 21-23

“And they said one to another, We are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. And Reuben answered them saying, Spake I not unto you, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore also, behold, his blood is required. And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for there was an interpreter between them.”

“We are guilty” “Conscience arouses in the brethren the fear that the day of reckoning, so long delayed, has come at last.”(F11) Twenty years had not removed the horrible guilt of those brothers. And, although they had not actually killed their brother, they had little doubt that death had indeed claimed him. The edict of God Himself to the effect that “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:6) was very much in the minds of those sinful brothers, who recalled their own merciless refusal to hear the pleas of their brother. That detail concerning how they heard and refused Joseph’s pleading is not recorded elsewhere, but from this it appears that they sat down to eat bread within earshot of their brother’s pitiful pleadings. No wonder their conscience tortured them when at last it appeared that the day of reckoning had come!

Supposing that Joseph could not understand their language, they did not bother to hide their remarks from him, but Joseph understood fully, and also learned from what they said something he might not until then have known, namely, that Reuben had attempted, though vainly, to restrain the others. This may also account for the fact that not Reuben, the oldest, but Simeon was chosen to be kept as hostage. Some have inferred from this that Simeon was the principal leader in the whole event of Joseph’s sale. Francisco observed that, “If a man has a good conscience, he should heed it; it is easy to silence for awhile, but impossible to kill.”(F12)

Verses 24-25

“And he turned himself about from them, and wept; and he returned to them, and spake to them, and took Simeon from among them, and bound him in prison before their eyes. Then Joseph commanded to fill their vessels with grain, and to restore every man’s money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way: and thus it was done unto them.”

The conversation of the conscience-stricken brothers recalled all too vividly the tragedy in his own life for which they were guilty, and the burning memories of it, together with the thought that one of them vainly tried to save him, touched the fountains of tears in Joseph’s heart, and he turned away to hide his tears. After a little while, he stopped weeping and returned to the business in hand.

“Bound Simeon in prison before their eyes” This is a strong statement. It was not, merely, that Simeon was imprisoned. They were all in prison. Something more was added to the sentence of Simeon and was executed in the presence of the other brothers. Did Joseph hold the cruel Simeon to be especially guilty? It would appear that he did.

“Commanded to fill their vessels with grain” The naive notion that has crept into the comments of some exegetes regarding this episode, namely, that these ten brothers had only ten sacks is ridiculous. On such an expedition, with pack animals to bring home the purchases, there were probably a great many sacks, or skins, in which to convey grain.

“Restore every man’s money into his sack” This has the meaning of requiring the money to be put into “one of the sacks” pertaining to each of the ten brothers. The size of the whole operation fully explains why only one of them discovered the money en route home.

Verses 26-28

“And they laded their asses with their grain, and departed thence. And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the lodging-place, he espied his money; and, behold, it was in the mouth of his sack. And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they turned trembling one to another saying, What is this that God hath done unto us?”

The mention here of only one of the brothers finding his money, and later of all of them finding their money after they arrive home, is no evidence whatever of two different, contradictory sources, a favorite allegation of unbelievers. On the other hand, this is exactly the way it happened. It was by chance that one of them opened a sack of grain to feed his ass, and that that particular sack was the one in which his money was restored. It would have been an exceedingly difficult and dangerous task to dismantle the whole shipment and search all the sacks at a lodging-place, where the curiosity of others and the cupidity of thieves would have been an added inducement for a hostile attack. One sack with the money restored was the only excuse which Joseph needed to have them all arrested, an event which they, at the time, might have expected. The full extent of the restored purchase price did not come to light until the entire cargo was unloaded AFTER they reached home.

Verses 29-34

“And they came unto Jacob their father unto the land of Canaan, and told him all that had befallen them, saying, The man, the lord of the land, spake roughly with us, and took us for spies of the country. And we said unto him, We are true men; we are no spies: we are twelve brethren, sons of our father; one is not, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan. And the man, the lord of the land, said unto us, Hereby shall I know that ye are true men: leave one of your brethren with me, and take grain for the famine of your houses, and go your way; and bring your youngest brother unto me: then shall I know that ye are no spies: so will I deliver you your brother, and ye shall traffic in the land.”

As is characteristic of the Biblical writings, there is here a detailed repetition of facts already known by the reader, but they were repeated for the sake of Jacob. It is interesting that the brothers, who certainly had no certain knowledge that Joseph was dead, nevertheless spoke of him as “is not,” i.e., deceased. It was the same lie they had told Jacob twenty years earlier, but they had probably told it such a long time that they themselves believed it. Jacob’s reaction to their report is recounted in the closing verses of the chapter.

Verses 35-38

“And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack: and when they and their father saw their bundle of money, they were afraid. And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children; Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me. And Reuben spake unto his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him unto thee again. And he said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left: if harm befall him by the way in which ye go, then will ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

“And ye will take Benjamin away” Jacob here anticipated the continuing famine and the eventuality that Benjamin would have to go on the next trip to Egypt. Reuben’s rash promise about slaying his two sons as a surety made no impression at all upon Jacob. “Boiling over as water” was the ultimate verdict upon Reuben’s whole life, as pronounced by Jacob in the final blessing of the twelve sons (Genesis 49:4). Therefore, for the present time at least, Jacob was determined not to comply with the demands that Benjamin go into Egypt.

Difficult as it might appear, the dramatic and emotional impact of this chapter is not diminished by what follows, but it is enhanced and deepened until it reaches the soul-stirring climax in Genesis 44, in which that mighty emotional storm swallowed up them all and Joseph was revealed to his brothers.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 42". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-42.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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