Testing and Forgiveness
Genesis 42-45 (selected verses)
This section of the Joseph story is told slowly over the course of four chapters. The chapters belong together and it makes sense to cover them in a single sermon, but it would be too long to read the whole section! Instead, narrate the outline of the story and dip in to read shorter snippets from the passage at some key moments.
As we pick up the story, famine has come and there is a food shortage in most of the world, but this is not the case in Egypt because they had been forewarned through Pharaoh’s dream and Joseph had been able to oversee a food storage project during the preceding years of plenty. Now people from all of the surrounding nations were coming to Egypt to buy food, and amongst them were Joseph’s brothers who he had not seen for twenty years!
As the brothers arrived, Joseph recognised them but they did not recognise him (he was now clean shaven and dressed as an Egyptian official). Last time he had seen his brothers, things had not gone well for Joseph and this was an opportunity for him to choose to either take revenge on them or seek reconciliation. On entering the presence of Joseph, the brothers bow down before Joseph, fulfilling the dream that Joseph had reported to them at the beginning of the story in Genesis 37.
Test One – Remorse
Joseph did not immediately reveal who he is to his brothers but instead tested them. He wanted to discover whether or not they were still the same men who had sold him into slavery or whether anything had changed. Joseph accused them of being in the land as spies and grilled about their family situation. When they mentioned their youngest brother, Benjamin, who had been left behind, Joseph insisted that they bring Benjamin to him as proof of their story, and that they leave one of the brothers behind as a hostage until they were able to do so.
The role of Benjamin in the story is important. He was Joseph’s younger brother and was only a boy when Joseph was sold. He was not part of the actions of the other brothers. He was also Joseph’s full brother, the only remaining son of Rachel, and as such he was favoured by Jacob in a similar way to how Joseph had been favoured. With Joseph gone, Jacob was particularly protective of Benjamin. From Joseph’s point of view, it would be easy to imagine the older brothers transferring the resentment that they had once felt towards him onto Benjamin.
On hearing Joseph’s demand, the brothers began speaking among themselves in their own language (assuming he couldn’t understand). They acknowledged their guilt for what they had done to Joseph and thought what was happening now was a reckoning for their sin. The way they spoke of the incident showed a change in their attitude, now referring to Joseph as ‘our brother’ rather than ‘that dreamer’. For the first time, Joseph learned that at least one of his brothers had argued against the plan, and hearing this genuine remorse from them moved Joseph to tears.
Godly sorrow for sin is a good thing. There is often nothing that we can do to put right what we have done wrong in the past, but a change of heart towards those things is still a powerful thing. God is looking for us to renounce our sin and to show genuine remorse for it.
Test Two – Change
Having heard the change of perspective that his brothers have had about their previous actions, Joseph wanted to find out how deep that repentance went. He created a situation for the brothers where they had the opportunity to make a similar choice to the one they made before.
Eventually Jacob yielded and agreed to let Benjamin make the potentially dangerous trip (he was initially willing to let Simeon rot in jail instead). To get to this point it took intervention from two of the brothers – firstly Reuben saying that Jacob could kill his kids if something went wrong (!?), and secondly from Judah who agreed to personally bear responsibility for the welfare of Benjamin.
When Benjamin and the others arrived, Joseph treated them to a meal and made a particular fuss of Benjamin. On their first trip, Joseph had returned the brothers gold to their sacks of grain. This time he did the same but also hid his silver cup inside Benjamin’s sack. When the brothers were not far from the city, he sent his steward to follow them and accuse them of theft, It was suggested that any of them who had stolen the cup should be put to death, and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack!
The purpose of this was to give the brothers an opportunity to abandon Benjamin. They would be able to save their own lives and get off with their freedom and even the grain that they had come for. Everything would be fine for them and it would only be Benjamin who suffered. Twenty years ago the men who sold Joseph would have jumped at the opportunity, but these were changed men and instead pled for Benjamin’s life, with ultimately Judah offering himself in Benjamin’s place. No longer were they selfishly giving up their brother for their own good. Now they were willing to sacrifice themselves for their brother.
True repentance always involves change. It is one thing to be sorry for the wrongs that we have done, but the rubber hits the road when we next encounter a similar situation. The work of God in our lives is a deeply transformative one and turns us into the kind of people who respond to situations differently.
Having seen the change in his brothers, Joseph could not contain himself any longer and he revealed his identity to them. The brothers were shocked to find that it was Joseph, but Joseph was able to explain to them all that God has done. Even though they had wronged him, Joseph did not hold this against them because he saw the hand of God’s providence in his circumstances.
In this moment, we see two things from Joseph – forgiveness and reconciliation. He made a conscious choice not to hold their sin against them and he looked to see the relationship restored, and even invited them and Jacob to come and dwell with him in Egypt.
Forgiveness is at the heart of what it is to be a Christian. Through Christ, all of our sins have been forgiven by God, and we are called to extend the same kind of forgiveness to others. Indeed, in the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Where relationships have become estranged or broken, then just like Joseph we should be looking to see reconciliation happen.
How Does It Point to Jesus?
These chapters show Joseph forgiving those who caused his sufferings, and this exactly what Christ did. From the cross he prayed ‘forgive them for they know not what they do.’ While we were enemies, Christ extended his grace to us and reconciled us in relationship to himself.