Genesis 42:1-24 “If you are honest men.”
Joseph’s brothers had sold him into servitude, eventually to the arch nemesis Egypt, and deceived their father into believing he had been mauled by a wild beast, and now ten of his eleven brothers were sent by their father to Egypt to beg for food. Benjamin, the youngest, was left behind. Since the brothers were not Egyptians they would have to pay for the food, so they also took items to barter. Little did they know that the governor was Joseph, and they would need to bow before him in order to buy their food (vv. 1-6). Joseph recognized them of course, but he made like he was a stranger, and a harsh overlord. Then recalling his dreams, where the LORD had revealed that one day they would bow before him, he started to accuse them of being spies, coming to find any weaknesses if Egypt’s defences, but they denied it (vv. 7-12).
In explaining who they were they referred to Joseph as the one brother they had who was “no more” (v. 13). To test them he told them that to prove their testimony one of them must go back and get the youngest brother, Benjamin, then put them in prison for three days to think things over (vv. 14-17). Joseph used to be the youngest, so now he would see how they really felt about him, and how they would treat the new youngest. Their father scolded them, telling them to stop looking at each other and man up and go get some food (v. 1). Now they would be confronted with looking at each other again, ultimately to see who would man up now. Evidently not one of them could rise to the occasion, even though it was a matter of life and death.
The brothers were cowards in life, none of them able to stand on his own two feet and do what was right, just as they behaved when they sold Joseph. So Joseph gave them a plan B. He would let all of them go back but one. He still was looking for one of them to man up (vv. 18-20a)! There was an ultimate question which they had to answer with deeds and not just words, and that was contained in Joseph’s preamble when he said, “If you are honest men” (v. 19). We then finally get to some truth, truth which his brothers had buried deep within their consciences. Ultimately God had orchestrated this situation so that they would have to answer for their crime for selling their brother into servitude and deceiving their father (v. 21). Finally Rueben said that he told them so, that way back then he said that they should not sin as they did (v. 22).
Rueben had kept them from actually killing Joseph, instead throwing him into a pit with the intent of picking him up later and giving him back to their father (Gen. 37:21-22). Ultimately Rueben knew he had failed, in his own responsibility to protect Joseph (37:29-30), as Jacob’s eldest (29:32). Joseph was privy to this entire discussion, and after he turned away and wept, he placed Simeon back in prison. Leah, who was unloved by Jacob, gave birth to Rueben then Simeon. She gave Rueben his name because the LORD had “looked on her affliction,” and her hope was expressed in ‘See, a son!’ (29:32 Cf. NGSB. 58). Then when her second was born she named him Simeon because the LORD had ‘heard’ that she was unloved (v. 33). She then bore Levi and Judah, arguably the two pillars of the nation (vv. 34-35).