Genesis 42 Study Notes


42:1-38 In many ways this chapter reuses the elements of chaps. 37-38. Members of Jacob’s clan go to Egypt, are unjustly accused of a crime they did not commit, one (Simeon) is imprisoned under false pretenses, several of the brothers acquire silver after consigning a brother to live in Egypt, the (supposed) eldest living son of Rachel is forced to go to Egypt, and Jacob is made to grieve over Rachel’s son.

42:1-5 News of Egypt’s willingness to sell grain to outsiders reached Jacob. Since he was the patriarch and chief decision maker of the clan, it was Jacob’s responsibility to look out for the clan’s welfare. He had the right to order the rest of the adult males to go down to Egypt to buy grain. In a virtual replay of chap. 37, Jacob sent ten of Joseph’s brothers out to do the family’s work, but he spared a son of his beloved late wife Rachel (Benjamin). Jacob’s sons joined a stream of others who came to Egypt to buy grain.

42:6-13 Since Joseph was in charge of selling grain to all the people of Egypt, his first responsibility was to meet the needs of his own people. Nevertheless, he did permit sales to non-Egyptians who posed no threat to Egypt. When Joseph’s older brothers . . . bowed down before him with their faces to the ground, they fulfilled Joseph’s prophetic dreams (37:7,9). Joseph had not seen his brothers for twenty years, yet he recognized them immediately. But the brothers did not recognize him; as a top Egyptian official Joseph had no hair on his head, wore eye makeup and expensive clothing, and spoke fluent Egyptian.

Joseph remembered his dreams about his brothers and their treacherous actions against him, so he devised a test to see if they had changed during the past two decades: he accused them of being spies sent to identify the weakness of the land (lit “the nakedness of the land”). They immediately denied the charges, supporting their claim by telling him they were all sons of one man—members of a single clan, not a large coalition of enemies poised to strike Egypt. Furthermore, it was a relatively small clan, with only twelve brothers (by comparison, Gideon had seventy sons, Jdg 9:2), and one of them was no longer living.

42:14-20 As part of his test Joseph threatened to keep nine of the brothers imprisoned, letting one return to Canaan and come back with their youngest brother Benjamin. To give all ten of them a small taste of what they had made him experience, Joseph had them imprisoned for three days. After their initial “shock probation” Joseph softened his initial conditions, requiring that only one of them be confined to the guardhouse while the rest returned to Jacob. Before leaving, however, they consented to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. Joseph probably made them do this to make sure they would not do to Benjamin what they had done to him.

42:21-26 The brothers’ harsh treatment in Egypt—the land where they had once sent Joseph—as well as the stiff demands placed on them made it plain to them that they were being punished for what they had done to their brother twenty years earlier. Reuben, eldest of the group and the one who had kept Joseph from being killed by his brothers (37:22), interpreted the current events as a divine accounting for Joseph’s blood, i.e., his death. Reuben’s earlier defense of Joseph and his current rebuke of his brothers may explain why second-born Simeon was detained instead of Reuben.

Joseph, whose heart—but not his outward appearance—had been softened toward his brothers by Reuben’s comments, understood the words the brothers spoke in Hebrew, turned away from his brothers, and wept. After dismissing his brothers Joseph compassionately provided them not only with grain for the family, but returned each man’s silver to his sack and gave them food for their journey. Joseph’s act of kindness was probably also meant to test the brothers’ character; if they were honest, they would return the money.

42:27-35 Joseph’s brothers, who had once traded Joseph’s life for money, now felt their hearts “depart” (sank) when they received this money from him. Worried that they would be pursued as criminals, they trembled in fear of what God had done to them. Upon their return home Jacob was greeted by only nine sons. The matter worsened when he was told that the brothers were accused of spying, and the clan could get Simeon back and trade for additional food in Egypt only if the men brought back their youngest brother Benjamin. Everyone became even more afraid when they found bags of silver in each man’s sack; now all nine brothers could be imprisoned as thieves if they ever returned to Egypt.

42:36-38 Reduced to despair by his sons’ report, Jacob responded by saying, Everything happens to me! Perhaps Jacob even doubted God’s repeated promise to bless him (32:39; 35:9). His adamant refusal to let Benjamin go down with his brothers to Egypt was understandable but irrational, since it meant that the entire clan would die of starvation. Reuben, who had once saved Joseph’s life (37:22), now stepped forward to save the clan. He countered his father’s fears of losing Benjamin by offering to experience the loss of two of his four sons (Ex 6:14) if anything happened to him in a return trip to Egypt. If Benjamin died, Reuben would experience a proportionately worse fate than his father. However, Reuben’s argument had no effect on Jacob; if Jacob’s son should die, it would not make him feel better to kill two of his grandchildren as well.