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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 42

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


7. Joseph’s brothers’ first journey into Egypt ch. 42

Joseph awakened his brothers’ guilty consciences when he put his brothers in prison as spies after they had come to Egypt for grain. By keeping Simeon hostage while allowing the others to bring Benjamin back, Joseph pricked their consciences even more.

Joseph treated his brothers as he did to discover how they felt toward Jacob and Benjamin, who had taken Joseph’s place in Jacob’s affections. He also did so to see if they had genuinely repented of their sin against himself. He apparently did not act out of revenge, and he was not vindictive. Joseph simply wanted to uncover his brothers’ hearts.

"Joseph’s tests of his brothers were important in God’s plan to channel his blessing through the seed of Abraham. God had planned to bring the family to Egypt so that it might grow into a great nation [Genesis 15:13]. But because the people who would form that nation had to be faithful, the brothers needed to be tested before they could share in the blessing. Joseph’s prodding had to be subtle; the brothers had to perceive that God was moving against them so that they would acknowledge their crime against Joseph and demonstrate that they had changed. If they failed the test, God could have started over with Joseph, just as he had said he would with Moses in Exodus 32:10, when his wrath was kindled against Israel." [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p. 647.]

Verses 1-7

Twenty-one years after his brothers sold Joseph into slavery they bowed before him in fulfillment of his youthful dreams (Genesis 42:6-7; cf. Genesis 37:5-9). Ronald Hyman analyzed Joseph’s skillful use of questions to uncover his brothers’ attitudes and intentions as well as the key role of questions in the whole Joseph narrative-there are 30 to 40 of them. [Note: Ronald T. Hyman, "Questions in the Joseph Story: The Effects and Their Implications for Teaching," Religious Education (Summer 1984):437-55.]

"The time was when Joseph’s brethren were men of high respectability in the land of Canaan, whilst Joseph himself was a slave or a prisoner in the land of Egypt. Now, by a signal reverse, Joseph was governor over all the land of Egypt, while they appeared before him as humble suppliants, almost craving as an alms those supplies of food for which they were both able and willing to pay the price demanded." [Note: Bush, 2:298.]

"The double identification of Joseph as hassallit [administrator] and hammasbir [dispenser] recall Joseph’s two earlier dreams, the one in which the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed before him (his position of authority), and the other in which the brothers’ sheaves bowed before his sheaf (his position of provider)." [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 519. Cf. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, p. 163.]

People who sell their brother into slavery are not trustworthy. Therefore Joseph retained power over his brothers until he could trust them.

The chiastic structure of Genesis 42:7-24 focuses attention on the brothers’ imprisonment.

"A Joseph knew his brothers and remembered (Genesis 42:7-9 a).

B Joseph accused them of being spies, but they explained their situation (Genesis 42:9-13).

C Joseph set out a test whereby they could prove they were honest men (14-16).

D Joseph put them in prison (Genesis 42:17).

C’ Joseph set out a new test for the brothers to prove they were honest (Genesis 42:18-20).

B’ The brothers confessed their guilt concerning their brother, and Reuben accused them of their fault (Genesis 42:21-22).

A’ Joseph understood and wept (Genesis 42:23-24)." [Note: Ross, Creation and . . ., p. 649.]

Verses 8-17

Joseph remembered his dreams (Genesis 42:9), and the proof of God’s faithfulness undoubtedly encouraged his confidence as he proceeded to deal with his brothers. He played a role before them charging them with a crime punishable with death in Egypt. Such a serious accusation encouraged his brothers to be as honest as possible, which is what Joseph wanted.

A family will rarely risk almost all of its sons in a dangerous spying mission, which probably explains the brothers’ statement that they were all sons of one man (Genesis 42:11).

Probably Joseph wanted to be sure that his brothers had not killed Benjamin since they had contemplated killing himself (Genesis 42:15).

The three-day imprisonment provided Joseph with time to plan his strategy, and it impressed the brothers with the importance of cooperating with Joseph (Genesis 42:17). These three days also gave the brothers a taste of what Joseph had endured for three years. Joseph may have intended that they serve one day’s imprisonment for each year he had suffered incarceration because of their hatred.

"A vindictive Joseph could have dismayed his brothers with worthless sackloads, or tantalized them at his feast as they had tantalized him (Genesis 37:24-25); his enigmatic gifts were a kinder and more searching test. Just how well-judged was his policy can be seen in the growth of quite new attitudes in the brothers, as the alternating sun and frost broke them open to God." [Note: Kidner, p. 199. Cf. Waltke, Genesis, p. 542.]

Verses 18-24

Joseph’s profession of faith in God (Elohim) told his brothers that he realized he was under divine authority and therefore would be fair with them. His test guaranteed Benjamin’s safe passage to Egypt, something Joseph had every reason to worry about in view of his brothers’ treatment of himself. Earlier, when he saw only 10 brothers and not Benjamin, he probably wondered if the 10 had already done away with Benjamin.

The brothers saw divine retribution in what had happened to them (Genesis 42:21-23). The brothers confessed their guilt in dealing with Joseph as they had done in his hearing. However, Joseph wanted to assure himself that they had also borne the fruits of genuine repentance (i.e., taken a different course of action with Benjamin and Jacob). Therefore he did not reveal himself to them at this time. Joseph’s heart had not become hard toward his brothers because of their treatment of him. He did not hate them (Genesis 42:24).

"There is nothing more striking in the character of Joseph than the utter absence of revengeful feeling, whether it was against his brothers, or against Potiphar, or against the chief butler." [Note: Thomas, p. 407.]

Rather his heart remained tender, and his brothers’ confession moved him. Reuben as the eldest and most responsible son would have been the logical choice to retain as a hostage. Yet because Joseph had overheard that Reuben had talked his brothers out of killing Joseph (Genesis 42:22), Joseph passed him over and selected Simeon, who was the next oldest. Perhaps Joseph also remembered Simeon’s cruelty and callousness toward his father (Genesis 34:25; cf. Genesis 49:5-7).

Verses 25-28

Joseph restored his brothers’ money to them out of the goodness of his heart. His gracious act would satisfy their needs but also cause them to search their souls further as they contemplated the implications of their good fortune. When they first discovered the money in one of their sacks, they regarded what God was doing to them as divine punishment (Genesis 42:28). This is the first time in the story that the brothers mentioned God. Their aroused consciences saw God at work behind what they were experiencing (cf. Genesis 42:21-22).

"’Silver, money’ (keseph) is mentioned twenty times (Genesis 42:25 to Genesis 45:22). In the first scene of Acts 1 [Genesis 37:2-36], the brothers put a total of twenty pieces of silver before a brother (Genesis 37:28). Now they put their brother over a fortune in silver. As might be expected in an act about family reconciliation [Genesis 42:1 to Genesis 46:27], other key words are ’brother’ (ca. 50x) and ’father’ (ca. 40x)." [Note: Waltke, Genesis, pp. 541-42.]

Verses 29-38

Each time Jacob’s sons had left home they returned with more money but minus a brother (chs. 37, 42). [Note: Hamilton, The Book . . . Chapters 18-50, p. 535.] Did Jacob think they had sold Simeon?

"Joseph’s brothers soften the news considerably, making it sound like Simeon was a guest of Joseph . . . instead of being bound in prison. They do not mention the threat of death and do not at this time speak of the money in the one sack." [Note: The NET Bible note on 42:34.]

The money in the sack widened the breach between Jacob and his sons but drew the brothers closer together. Jacob despaired because he distrusted his sons and the Egyptian ruler, and he had forgotten the promises of God (Genesis 42:36). He therefore concluded that, "All these things are against me." In reality God was causing all those things to work together for good for Jacob (cf. Romans 8:28). He would soon realize God’s blessing.

"A great portion of our present trouble arises from our not knowing the whole truth." [Note: Bush, 2:309.]

Reuben’s offer of his two sons was pathetically weak (Genesis 42:37). He claimed willingness to suffer in Jacob’s place, but would he really put his own sons before his brother? And how would killing Jacob’s grandsons console Jacob? It is no wonder that Jacob declined Reuben’s offer (Genesis 42:38).

Throughout this chapter we can observe the attitude of Joseph’s brothers changing. Faced with a personal crisis they acknowledged their guilt. They regarded their suffering as righteous divine punishment, and they began to place Jacob’s interests above their own. However their repentance was not yet complete. The process of contrition had to run further before reconciliation was possible. [Note: See Waltke, Genesis, p. 550, for further development of the "severe mercies" God used to heal Jacob’s fractured family.]

"The motives and actions of Joseph and his family members are not patterns to be copied or avoided. The author’s goal is to show that God’s designs for Israel’s fathers are working toward the end of redeeming the household of faith." [Note: Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, p. 768.]

When believers have unresolved guilt in their hearts, God often convicts their consciences to discover if they are spiritually sensitive enough to participate in His program.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Genesis 42". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/genesis-42.html. 2012.
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