Did He Go Too Far?
Joseph was persuaded that God had sent him to Egypt to save his family (45:7). We do not know how long he had believed this, but it drove his actions toward his brothers. They did not simply need deliverance through the provision of food. They could not live peaceably in Egypt or realize their destiny as the people of God unless the past was faced and forsaken. As we see in the brothers’ response to this last test, their crime against Joseph laid as heavily upon their consciences as if it had occurred five minutes earlier. And the reason for this is that Joseph wisely laid tests and little reminders to them of that incident. I have no doubt that had the Lord not confronted Joseph’s brothers in this way, they would have continued in their hardened state and perished eternally. Sins that we hide and do not confess are sins that God has not forgiven. Conscience cannot be bought off with deals and deceptions. The passage of time may quiet the agitation a little and even deceive the sinner into thinking that all will be well after all, but the slightest stirring of God’s hand, a little trouble, or the threat of exposure will open the old wound and arraign the hardest heart before his tribunal.
This is a great mercy, for conscience is in some measure a sentinel telling us that judgment is coming. A stirred and agonizing conscience is a call to repent, a warning bell of God’s displeasure. A silent and passive conscience indicates that it has been seared by willful and presumptuous sinning (1 Tim. 4:2). Joseph knew this, and his tests were pointedly intended either to expose the worst in his brothers, which would have confirmed them as resolute devils, or to break them, and thus to bring restoration, repentance, and peace through righteousness. We might have stopped the tests earlier, but Joseph remembered their utter heartlessness when he cried for help in the pit. He thought of the grief they inflicted upon his father. He thought of their reckless unbelief against God’s covenant promises. These sins had to be confronted…and deeply. Like a good surgeon, Joseph searched the wound to the very bottom of the infection. The Lord does the same searching work in us, and if we are wise, we shall ask him to do it (Ps. 139:23). Few things are as miserable as to live with sin and guilt eating away at your soul. Even the most horrible exposure before men is a great mercy, if it breaks us before God and leads us to the cleansing fountain of Christ’s blood. Therefore, let us gladly stoop and have honest dealings with him, for he will heal and cleanse us by his stripes. If our conscience condemns us, as John wrote, we may be sure that God is greater than our conscience and will condemn us far more strongly (1 John 3:20). When the Lord deals with our sins, we must be assured that he will never go too far but will always chasten as far as required for our true repentance. Let us not push his hand away, for he judges and chastens us now so that we are not condemned along with the world (1 Cor. 11:32).
Joseph’s Probing Temptation
It was perfectly conceived, therefore, for Joseph to place his brothers in an awkward position with respect to their younger brother. He ordered his steward, who must have been in on the plan to some degree, to fill their sacks with grain, place their money back in their sacks, and then to stow his silver cup in the top of Benjamin’s sack. This, Joseph thought, should do the trick. For he then ordered his steward to go after his brothers and accuse them of stealing his “divination” cup. From their response, Joseph hoped to learn much about their character and attitudes toward his younger brother. Would they forsake him and be glad to get rid of their father’s favorite…again? Or would their response this time be different? When the Lord repeats a test, we should think, “Ah, he would confirm me in obedience to him, or in resistance to this particular sin.” Or, “He is getting a read upon my character and commitments, not that he is ignorant, but that he will show me my true colors.” Since the Lord chastens whom he loves, we should expect him to test regularly our basic commitments, our loves, and our fears. Since he loves us, he does not want us to live with sin, serve empty idols, or follow vain loves. The best way is for him to arrest our attention is to test us at exactly those places where we have erred before, are presently weak, or where he would have in the future be stronger in his service.
As for Joseph’s silver cup, the Egyptians believed that by pouring oil into a cup of water, then the future could be read in the shapes that formed. I doubt seriously that Joseph believed this, but it was a common practice. Joseph knew who revealed the future, and it was not oil in a cup! He could not, however, appear to be completely at odds with all the paganism of Egypt, even if he himself did not practice it. He undoubtedly shared his true views with a select few, but he was an outsider. He was not commissioned by the Pharaoh to be a social and moral crusader but to save Egypt from famine, which he did. What evils he could resist, he certainly did, but not in a way that left the position and responsibility assigned to him. Nor did he forget that God had placed him there to save his family, the church, and he tempered his zeal with prudence rather than rashly turning the whole existing order upside down. In the practices of Joseph and Daniel, there is much wisdom in the way they went about serving God and standing for righteousness. Most often, it was in the form of seed-dropping and a persistent example of godliness and conviction. It was not of the social revolutionary variety, which is so much desired today, for men are fearful and look for instant change and deliverance. Normally, the Lord’s kingdom progresses slowly upon the back of prayer, righteousness, and long-term commitment.
The Silver Cup in Benjamin’s Sack (vv. 6-13)
6 And he overtook them, and he spake unto them these same words. 7 And they said unto him, Wherefore saith my lord these words? God forbid that thy servants should do according to this thing: 8 Behold, the money, which we found in our sacks' mouths, we brought again unto thee out of the land of Canaan: how then should we steal out of thy lord's house silver or gold? 9 With whomsoever of thy servants it be found, both let him die, and we also will be my lord's bondmen. 10 And he said, Now also let it be according unto your words: he with whom it is found shall be my servant; and ye shall be blameless. 11 Then they speedily took down every man his sack to the ground, and opened every man his sack. 12 And he searched, and began at the eldest, and left at the youngest: and the cup was found in Benjamin's sack. 13 Then they rent their clothes, and laded every man his ass, and returned to the city.
The Brothers Accused and Incredulous
The brothers began the return journey with tremendous enthusiasm, especially Judah. Benjamin would be returned safely to Jacob. As an added bonus, Simeon was released, and they had food for several months. The Egyptian ruler had treated them so well that they were confident of a favorable reception should they need additional supplies. The Lord’s face had turned favorable toward them. It is impossible to exaggerate the lightness of their hearts, and perhaps they sang and joked. Suddenly and not far from the city, Joseph’s steward overtook them, likely with several other servants with him. He accused them of stealing Joseph’s silver cup. They were amazed – why are you saying this? We returned with double money for the previous grain, and you think we would steal your lord’s cup? They spoke truth as far as they knew and called God to witness their honesty. Search our baggage. Let the thief die, and we will all be your slaves. They were confident of their innocence, and this was part of Joseph’s plan. The steward wanted only the guilty party, and the brothers quickly unloaded and opened their sacks. There was the cup in Benjamin’s bag.
The Brothers Gripped with Poignant Agony
The cup was found in Benjamin’s bag. It is well-nigh impossible to describe the brothers’ feelings. Twenty years’ weight of guilt and lies and secrecy forced itself upon their amazed hearts. They apparently asked no questions of Benjamin. Surely he did not steal the governor’s cup, but there was the evidence. He must have stolen it. Or did God put it there to punish them? The more sensitive must have felt that more than human agency was at work. They tore their clothes even as they reloaded their sacks and prepared to return. The weeping – God will often make his children cry now so that he may give them joy later. One can almost feel sorry for them, but not quite, but remember your sins and do not snidely rejoice that they are being exquisitely tortured. God has a way of turning the tables. Their extreme agony warns us not to sin, that our sins will find us out, and that the passage of time does not blunt God’s memory. They had allowed their father to believe a lie and robbed him of his beloved. How many nights had Jacob cried himself to sleep and spent his days looking over his shoulder for his Joseph? The God of Jacob did not forget the injury done to his servant. Joseph’s brothers closed their ears and hearts to Joseph and then to their father, and now there is no one, from their perspective, to comfort them. And yet, we can look above and see that God loved them. Strange are God’s love and ways of dealings with us. It seems like we have gotten away with our sins or that they are long buried and forgotten. Little do we know that sin not confessed, not purged, and not forgiven grows like a quiet cancer. It stunts the growth, poisons the soul, and veils the grace and glory of God. If God loves us, he will remove it. He will force the confrontation, the grief. He will remove the masks and walls behind which we hide – at least sufficiently so that we are confronted with his majesty and mercy, which are so much the more wonderful as we honestly face a little of our filth.
Found Out by God (vv. 14-17)
13 Then they rent their clothes, and laded every man his ass, and returned to the city. 14 And Judah and his brethren came to Joseph's house; for he was yet there: and they fell before him on the ground. 15 And Joseph said unto them, What deed is this that ye have done? Know ye not that such a man as I can certainly divine? 16 And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord's servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. 17 And he said, God forbid that I should do so: but the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my servant; and as for you, get you up in peace unto your father.
The Real Crime Demands Atonement
What a strange party that returned and stood before Pharaoh’s second in command! The church looked more like a ragged band of defeated soldiers than the bride of Christ. Again they fell before Joseph, and this may be the time mainly indicated by Joseph’s youthful dream. They are wholly prostrate before Joseph – body and soul. They are broken. Their lives lie in Joseph’s hand. What have you done? Did you not think that I would find this out? Joseph did not mean that he practiced the black arts of divination but that someone in his position would certainly ascertain what had happened. Everything then came out at once. Was Judah the only one who could even speak? It seems so. What can we say, my Lord? There is no way we can prove our innocence. Then, twenty years’ guilt forced its way out – God has found out the iniquity of your servants. What iniquity? They had done nothing wrong in these recent events. It was the earlier crime, the real crime, something they did not think Joseph knew about. How bizarre! Confessing something to Joseph that he had nothing to do with (apparently), but they are so overwhelmed with the realization of their evil and its exposure that it is all they can mention. God has done it! God has done it! Have you ever felt this way, O sinner? I pray so. I pray he has so revealed your guilt to you, even if it was only the sins of the heart, those evils of pride and lust and ambition and unbelief and fear, that you were driven to confess them before him. Only by mercy and truth is iniquity purged. Unless we repent, we shall perish (Luke 13:3,5), and none ever truly or deeply repented before the face of God who were not undone and utterly broken for their sinfulness.
Judah’s First Offer…Rejected
And we must be clear, very clear about this, for we have no part of Christ or his everlasting kingdom unless God grants us repentance unto life. There must be a comparison of ourselves not with men but with the holy God with whom we have to do. Then, seeing something of his majesty and holiness, we must hate ourselves and our sins and our sinfulness. There is a difference between these last two ideas. It is not enough to be sorry for individual sins, but we must descend deeper to the fountain of our corruption, the loss of the righteousness with which God created us and the corruption that now invades the whole of our nature. We must feel something of our blood-guiltiness before God, but we may by no means stop there, else we have not repented. Accepting personal responsibility and personal inability to do anything to remove our guilt and atone for our transgression, we must see and cling to Jesus Christ as our only cleansing and covering. His blood and righteousness are our only plea before offended majesty. Judah did not yet see this as clearly as we now can, but as the brothers’ spokesman, he did confess their corporate and individual guilt. We shall all be your servants. We deserve this. We sold our brother, and we must now be sold. Joseph rejected this offer. Only the guilty will suffer. The rest may return home in peace.
Judah Offers Himself in Place of Benjamin (vv. 18-34)
18 Then Judah came near unto him, and said, Oh my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord's ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant: for thou art even as Pharaoh. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying, Have ye a father, or a brother? 20 And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him. 21 And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. 22 And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die. 23 And thou saidst unto thy servants, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more. 24 And it came to pass when we came up unto thy servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And our father said, Go again, and buy us a little food. 26 And we said, We cannot go down: if our youngest brother be with us, then will we go down: for we may not see the man's face, except our youngest brother be with us. 27 And thy servant my father said unto us, Ye know that my wife bare me two sons: 28 And the one went out from me, and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since: 29 And if ye take this also from me, and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. 30 Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad's life; 31 It shall come to pass, when he seeth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave. 32 For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father forever. 33 Now therefore, I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. 34 For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I see the evil that shall come on my father.
Judah’s Passionate Recounting…It’s All about Father (vv. 18-31)
This was too much for Judah. Can we even make out his character at this point? This is the man who thought nothing of consorting with a woman whom he thought to be a prostitute. He was as criminally guilty for his treatment of Joseph and his father as the rest. It was his idea to sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites (37:27). And now he steps forward to recount the history of their dealings with the Egyptian governor. We know these facts well, but do you notice that Judah was wholly concerned with his father (vv. 20, 22, 25-31). Rarely has there ever been such a transformation of a man’s character. And what an example of the way to pray – complete prostration before Majesty, total dependence, honest confession, and open imploring for mercy! If we all prayed in this fashion, how quickly sin would be defeated, Satan tuck tail and run, and the kingdom of our beloved Savior grow and prosper! Whereas before Judah and his brothers were completely self-obsessed, furious at their father’s favoritism, and peeved at Jacob’s dreams – not to mention willing to kidnap, murder, and sell into slavery in order to be rid of him – Judah was now completely obsessed with his father’s feelings. It is never too late to learn obedience to the fifth commandment. See also the nature of true and full repentance – turning from sin to walk in all the ways of God’s commandments. Judah once hated his father; now he loves him and is willing to die for him – as a full-grown man. Heaven-sent conviction and repentance change everything. They set the heart toward God and restore moral balance and sanity to the soul through confession and restitution.
Let Me Become Your Slave for My Brother (vv. 32-34)
Joseph must have been crying at this point – if controlled outwardly, then his eyes were watering and preparing to unleash twenty years of longing and love and loss. But the depth of Judah’s repentance is not yet fully revealed. God’s grace, O, his wonderful grace, when once he begins to peel back the layers of our lies and excuses and fears and to cleanse us down to the very depths of our guilt. Judah recounted to Joseph that he became surety for Benjamin. Knowing that his father would not otherwise allow Benjamin to travel to Egypt with them, he offered his life for Benjamin’s. He did not want to see his father killed by grief, so Judah made this pledge to his father, and he intended to keep it with his life, if necessary. So, let me, Governor of Egypt, become your slave in place of my brother. Let my brother go free and keep me in his place. Do with me what you will, only let him go free. It cannot matter much to you, Judah implied. You will have one of us. I cannot return to my father without my younger brother. I no longer care about my life and am willing to forfeit my father’s love if only I can keep what I have promised and preserve my father from the grief that will kill him if we return without his favorite son. I am fine, he says in effect, with my father having a favorite son and it not being me. All I care about it is honoring and preserve my father and my younger brother.
What can we say to this? God’s wonderful grace enables true repentance. Judah’s personal transformation is moving beyond words, but it is moving not simply because he had been so wicked but because he was at this moment so much like his greater Son will one day be. Judah laid down his life on the spot for Benjamin. In this, he showed the person and work of Christ to us, as something of a type. We are redeemed because the Lion of the tribe of Judah, Jesus Christ, stood surety for us and bore our condemnation and even became sin for us. We can leave the land of condemnation and slavery because Jesus Christ became our substitute and was struck down by the sword of justice that should have fallen upon us in hell forever. Thus, from this weak man, the Lord of the covenant intended to reveal his great saving work to come. Yes, Judah’s offer melted Joseph’s heart and finally convinced him that his brothers were changed men, but beyond this, Judah’s offer is a pattern of the gospel. It is God’s invitation to us and his gift to us in his Son. Let them go, Father, Jesus Christ says. Take me instead. Strike me down. Receive my blood for theirs. Count my sheep righteous on account of my perfect obedience to you. Consume me upon the altar of holiness and justice, rather than these. Let your righteous anger burn against me, not against my own whom you gave me before the foundation of the world.
Remember Judah when the Lord tests and chastens. The brothers were in agony over what was happening to them. Perhaps it would also be helpful for us to think that it was really Joseph who was testing them, as it is Jesus who is testing us. We have nothing to fear from the King of the nations, even as his brothers had nothing to fear from the Governor of Egypt. He was looking out for them and intending good for them, even as our Savior is working all things together for good for us. This is the way we are to think of chastening – that after we have yielded to it, God will bring many fruits from it (Heb. 12:11). It is not pleasant for the moment. Some tests seem to last all our lives and with little reprieve. Let us remember God’s purposes in them – to make us partakers of his holiness, to purge away the sins that make us miserable, and to make us know more of his power in our weakness. Confident in his love, we can yield to his wise providences and pressures. He knows what is best for us. He knows that our joy lies in the way of holiness and forsaking sin.
Profiting from the Word and Searching Our Hearts
1. Why did Joseph not go too far in testing his brothers?
2. How does the Lord awaken our consciences unto repentance?
3. What does it mean for a conscience to be “seared?” (1 Tim. 4:2)
4. Why does the Lord often make his children weep now? What bearing does 1 Cor. 11:32 have upon Joseph’s interaction with his brothers?
5. Why did Joseph’s brothers’ thoughts immediately turn to their 20 year old crime?
6. What are some ways in which Judah manifests personal repentance and transformation?
7. How is he a type of Christ?
8. Describe the gospel of substitutionary atonement.
9. Why was Joseph weeping by the time made his offer?