After Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams predicting seven years of plenty and seven years of famine, Joseph immediately traveled throughout Egypt, in anticipation of the years of plenty and to make preparation for the years of famine (Genesis 41:46).
During the seven years of plenty, the land produced abundant crops. Joseph implemented what he had recommended to Pharaoh. In anticipation of the seven years of famine, Joseph collected all the food grown during the seven years of plenty and stored the surplus food throughout the cities in Egypt. So abundant was the harvest that Joseph was able to store large quantities of grain, “like the sands of the sea” (Genesis 41:49). During these seven years of plenty, before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim.
Droughts and famines occurred frequently in the ancient Near East. There was a famine in the land of Canaan in the days of Abraham (Genesis 12:10) and there was another famine in Canaan in the days of Isaac (Genesis 26:1). Abraham went to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, but Isaac did not go; he went to Gerar in the land of the Philistines.
The famine that occurred in the days of Joseph was severe. Genesis 41 uses the word “severe” three times. The word “famine” occurs thirteen times. So severe was the drought that “there was famine in every country,” except in Egypt. Because of Joseph’s work, there was food throughout the land of Egypt (Genesis 41:54).
The Famine in Canaan
The great famine also hit the land of Canaan where Jacob and his family lived. In Canaan, Jacob heard that there was plenty of grain for sale in Egypt. How Jacob knew of the availability of food in Egypt is not known. Since the Nile provided enough water to irrigate the land, it is possible that Jacob took for granted that the Egyptians were using the waters of the Nile to grow crops.
Jacob recognized that his family was in jeopardy because of the famine and he seemed to be unhappy with the inactivity of his sons during this difficult time. He said to them, “Why do you keep looking at one another?” (Genesis 42:1). It seems that Jacob’s sons were unaware that there was food available in Egypt. It was also possible that they did not want to go to Egypt because of what they had done to Joseph. But in order to provide for his family, Jacob told his sons to go to Egypt and buy food there so that he and his family would not starve to death.
Twenty years had passed since the brothers had sold Joseph to Egypt. At the time the brothers were preparing to reenter Joseph’s life, Joseph was dealing with the famine in Egypt. During this time of crisis, Joseph’s conflicts with his brothers were behind him. Joseph knew that his brothers hated him. Because of Joseph’s dreams of greatness, the brothers sold him to merchants who then sold him to become a slave in the house of Potiphar.
After living two decades in Egypt, Joseph was doing well. He went from a slave in the house of Potiphar to a prisoner in Pharaoh’s dungeon, to become the second most important person in Egypt. But the famine in Canaan was about to bring back the bad memories of his past. Without Joseph’s knowledge, the famine in Canaan was bringing his brothers back into his life.
The Brothers Before Joseph
When Joseph’s brothers left Canaan to go to Egypt, Jacob did not allow Benjamin, his youngest son, to go to Egypt with his brothers. Joseph and Benjamin were the sons of Rachel, the woman Jacob loved the most. With the loss of Joseph, Jacob was afraid that something harmful would happen to Benjamin and he would be devoid of his two sons with Rachel.
The sons of Jacob did not come to Egypt alone. They came together with many other people who were traveling to Egypt to buy food because the famine was as severe in Canaan as it was in Egypt. The brothers came to buy food from the person responsible for selling the food available in Egypt. However, they did not know that the person selling the food was Joseph, the brother whom they had betrayed and sold as a slave.
When the brothers came before the Egyptian selling the food, they bowed in front of him as a sign of respect for the dignity of his office, with their faces touching the ground. Their bowing before Joseph was the fulfillment of Joseph’s dream, that his brothers would bow before him.
When Joseph told his dream to his brothers, Joseph said to them, “We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it” (Genesis 37:7). When they asked Joseph, “are you really going to rule us?” (Genesis 37:8), they never dreamed that some day they would bow before the šallît of Egypt. The word šallît is translated as “governor,” or “vizier.” The šallît was the person in charge of the affairs of the country.
Joseph and His Brothers
When Joseph’s brothers came before him, he immediately recognized them. The features of Semitic people differ from the features of Egyptians. The depiction of Asiatic people in the tomb at Beni Hassan, an ancient Egyptian cemetery, “features unique depictions of a number of individuals who can be identified as of non-Egyptian origin” (Mourad 2020:105). These features include “distinctive skin tones or colors, hairstyles, dress, and/or other elements to emphasize an affiliation with a cultural or social group that is not of the typical, ideal, Egyptian culture” (Mourad 2020:108).
On the other hand, Joseph brothers did not recognize him. One of the main reasons the brothers did not recognize Joseph was because they thought he was dead. More than twenty years had passed since that day when they sold Joseph to merchants going to Egypt. The last thing they expected was to discover that the brother they hated was the one in whose presence they were bowing. Another reason was that Joseph had an Egyptian name, he was shaven like the Egyptians, he spoke to them in Egyptian with the help of a translator, and was wearing his official Egyptian garments. In the mind of the brothers, the man standing before them was an Egyptian, not a Hebrew.
Joseph Tests His Brothers
When Joseph saw his brothers, he “remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them” (Genesis 42:9). Now that his brothers had come back into his life, Joseph had a problem: How to deal with them? Had they changed? Did they still hate him? In order to find out answers to these questions, Joseph decided to test his bothers. Although it is possible that Joseph was punishing his brothers for the treachery they had committed against him, his intended motive was not to punish but to make the brothers aware of what they had done.
The first test came when Joseph spoke harshly with them and accused them of being spies. Joseph accused his brothers four times of being spies who came to Egypt to find out about the defenses of the land. Each time the brothers had to deny the charges against them. When they said they were “honest men” (Genesis 42:11), Joseph had to find out if they were indeed honest men.
So, Joseph tested them a second time. Joseph said to them, “this is how you will be tested: . . . you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here” (Genesis 42:15). Joseph wanted to see Benjamin, his youngest brother. The last time Joseph had seen Benjamin, Benjamin was just a little boy. After twenty years, Benjamin was a grown man with his own family. The brothers had claimed to be “honest men,” now Joseph will test their honesty, “Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested” (Genesis 42:16).
To show his brothers how determined he was about testing the veracity of their words, Joseph put them in prison for three days, in the same prison where he spent several years of his life. The place where the brothers were confined, the mišmar (Genesis 42:17), was the same place where Joseph was also confined (in the mišmar, Genesis 40:3). Joseph had mixed motives by putting his brothers in prison. There was a sense of revenge, allowing them to experience the horrors of prison he had experienced and there was a desire to increase the pressure on his brothers to bring Benjamin to Egypt.
Joseph did not want to punish his brothers; he wanted to see his younger brother. After three days Joseph told his brothers to let one of the brothers remain in prison and the others could return home with food for their families. But they had to bring their younger brother in order to gain the release of their imprisoned brother.
The conditions Joseph imposed on his brothers made them remember their treachery against Joseph, “They said to one another, ‘Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us’” (Genesis 42:21). Joseph arrested Simeon, bound him before his brothers, and sent him back to prison.
The imprisonment of Simeon is significant in Joseph’s attempt at evaluating his brothers. Joseph is forcing his brothers to relive what they had done in the past. Their confession, that they were being punished for what they had done to their brother, indicates that what Joseph was doing was producing results. With Simeon in prison, Joseph indirectly was forcing his brothers to decide whether they would be willing to leave their brother in Egypt.
Joseph then ordered his servants to fill his brothers’ bags with grain. Joseph also ordered that their money be put back into their bags and that they be given enough supplies for their trip home. When they arrived home, the brothers told Jacob what had happened. Jacob refused to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt. He told his sons, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me” (Genesis 42:36).
Jacob’s heart was broken because of the loss of his sons, but he refused to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt. Because of Jacob’s stubbornness, Simeon remained in prison in Egypt. But the famine in Canaan was strong. Starvation forced Jacob to make a desperate decision. Jacob was forced to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt. Jacob’s sons returned to Egypt and they took Benjamin with them, against Jacob’s will, “As for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:14).
Joseph Reveals Himself To His Brothers
When Joseph saw Benjamin with his brothers, he told his servants to prepare a meal for them. Simeon was released from prison and Joseph and his brothers ate together. Joseph’s brothers once again “bowed to the ground before him” (Genesis 43:26) and Joseph inquired about his father “Is your father well? Is he still alive?”
After the meal, Joseph’s servants filled the brothers’ sacks with grain and, at Joseph’s command, they put Joseph’s his silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. After they left Joseph’s house, Joseph told his servants to go after the men and find his silver cup. The soldiers came where the men were. They told the men Joseph’s decision, “he with whom it is found shall become my slave, but the rest of you shall go free” (Genesis 44:10). The soldiers brought the men back to Joseph’s house and the silver cup was found in Benjamin sack.
Joseph was designing a situation similar to what had happened to him. Joseph was testing his brothers to see if they had changed. The brothers had already felt some conviction that they were being punished for their treatment of Joseph. They were remorseful and afraid for their father. How would his father react to losing another son?
Judah spoke to Joseph explaining his family situation. He told Joseph how his father reacted when he was informed that Simeon was in prison and that Benjamin must come to Egypt. Judah was aware of what would happen to his father Jacob if Benjamin remained a slave in Egypt. Judah told Joseph, “please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy; and let the boy go back with his brothers” (Genesis 44:33). It was Judah who recommended that Joseph should be sold to Egypt. Now, it is Judah who was willing to sacrifice himself and be a slave in Egypt in order to save his brother.
When Judah finished speaking, Joseph recognized that his brothers had changed. Joseph revealed himself to his brothers. He told his servants to leave him alone with the men. Joseph wept and told his brothers, “I am Joseph” (Genesis 45:3). Joseph’s brothers were amazed. The brother they hated and the brother they had sold to Egypt was the man in whose presence they bowed and the man who was an important official in the Egyptian government.
Joseph was a sentimental man. Joseph wept when he saw his brothers for this first time (Genesis 42:24). Joseph wept when he saw his brother Benjamin (Genesis 43:30). Joseph wept when he revealed himself to his brothers (Genesis 45:2). Joseph wept when he hugged Benjamin (Genesis 45:14). Joseph wept when he hugged and kissed his brothers (Genesis 45:15). Joseph wept when his father Jacob came to Egypt (Genesis 46:29) and Joseph wept when he kissed the dead body of his father (Genesis 50:1).
When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, when he hugged and kissed them, Joseph was forgiving his brothers for all the pain and suffering they had caused him to endure. The evil of the past was gone. A new relationship with Joseph and his brothers was just beginning.
That moment of hugs and kisses, that moment when Joseph shed tears over his brothers, that was a moment of historic reconciliation.
On September 26, 2021, my pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior pastor of The Compass Church preached a sermon on Genesis 42—49 titled “Joseph – Relational Conflict.” The post above is based on Jeff’s sermon.
In his sermon, Jeff used Joseph’s life and the problems he had with his brothers to develop four principles that people must apply in dealing with conflicts
1. The Principle of Rationalization
In dealing with conflicts, one must beware of rationalization. When dealing with conflicts, people convince themselves that they have a noble motive for what they are doing. Joseph desired revenge for what his brothers had done to him. Joseph wanted to see his brothers, so he believed that putting his brothers in prison would achieve his purpose. Some people believe that treating others poorly is a way of dealing with conflict.
2. The Principle of Undeserved Kindness
Joseph recognized that leaving his brothers in prison was not the proper way of dealing with his problems with them. Joseph showed kindness when the brothers did not deserve it. It was undeserved kindness because his brothers had made his life difficult. It is undeserved kindness that breaks the cycle of hostility.
3. The Principle of Generosity
Joseph was generous with the brothers who had treated him poorly. Joseph was very generous with his brothers by giving them food, by returning their money, and by making additional provisions to help them return home.
3. The Principle of Boundaries
In dealing with conflicts it becomes essential to establish necessary boundaries. In reestablishing a relationship in the midst of conflict it is important to evaluate attitudes and behavior. Joseph’s brothers said, “we are honest men,” but they were not telling the truth. A healthy relationship is based on truth and integrity.
4. The Principle of Courageous Affection
In restoring the relationship with his brothers, Joseph courageously conveyed true affection to the ones who at one time had done him harm. Joseph hugged and kissed his brothers. He truly loved them, even though they had harmed him. Dealing with conflict involves vulnerability. When dealing with conflict, one must learn how to forgive. One also must be willing to express true feeling and openness in reestablishing broken relationships.
The Sermon: Joseph – Relational Conflict. A Sermon by Jeff Griffin.
Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
Anna-Latifa Mourad, “Foreigners at Beni Hassan: Evidence from the Tomb of Khnumhotep I (No. 14),” American Schools of Oriental Research 384 (2020): 105–132.
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