First, the accusation that they are spies is very astute. Why would so many men travel together without their wives and children? He catches them off guard and immediately puts them on the defensive. And listen closely to what they say when they defend themselves: “We are all sons of one man. We are honest men” (Genesis 42:11). Honest men? That is how they are going to defend themselves in front of the brother whom they sold into slavery? (Of course, they don’t know it is him.)
When Joseph insists that they are spies, they reveal more information, and that’s when they fall into a trap: “We, your servants, are twelve brothers” (Genesis 42:13). One, two, three, four… apparently you are only ten. And where are the other two brothers, oh spies who can’t even count correctly? “Behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more” (Genesis 42:13). Oh, now I see! One stayed home and the other simply disappeared, right? It sounds like a lie that they came up with on the spot just to make up the difference between the 10 men present and the 12 that they said they were. “It is as I said to you. You are spies” (Genesis 42:14).
Joseph presents his first plan: “By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies” (Genesis 42:16). An excellent plan! The supposed “brother” will come without seeing or interviewing the others and will have to identify them all thoroughly with a knowledge of each that only a brother would have.
So Joseph puts them in jail for three days (Genesis 42:17). Let them feel the desperation that comes from lying at the bottom of a cistern without knowing how to get out. Let them think long and hard about the connection between what they did to Joseph and what’s happening to them now.
And let them notice the big difference between their imprisonment of Joseph and their imprisonment by the governor of Egypt: “I fear God” (Genesis 42:18). Do the brothers understand how they would have acted differently that day if they had feared God?
“If you are honest men…” (Genesis 42:19) How those words should have entered like a thorn prick into their sensitive consciences! “Let one of your brothers remained confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households [mercy and generosity!], and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die (Genesis 42:19-20).
And the brothers understood the lesson! “Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us’” (Genesis 42:21).
Afterwards in Canaan, the brothers, specifically Judah, passed the next part of the lesson. First, Jacob grows desperate and resists every attempt to send Benjamin to Egypt. Reuben can only insist foolishly, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you” (Genesis 42:37). (Is he that clueless to think that his father’s soul will be consoled in the loss of another son by killing two of his grandchildren?) While the whole family argues in circles, in walks Judah, a changed man.
This Judah is experienced in humiliation and brokenness. His lack of integrity was revealed to all. He more than probably anyone else felt the pain of a guilty conscience in the three days in jail in Egypt: he wanted to kill Joseph, too, but was the one who suggested that he be sold into slavery (Genesis 37:26-27). Judah not only saw his father’s anguish from the loss of Joseph over all those years, but he too lost his wife and two sons. How many times did he lie awake at night, wondering if the loss of his sons was some recompense for what he did to Joseph? He understands his father’s desperation to protect Benjamin: he did the same thing, doing everything possible to preserve the life of his third and last son. If anyone could understand Jacob’s fear, pain and anguish, it was Judah. And he offered to stand in for Benjamin and protect him.
“And Judah said to Israel his father, ‘Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever’” (Genesis 43:8-9).
So Jacob sends Benjamin. Always thinking of gifts to appease another’s anger, he sends some of the choice fruits of the land as gifts to the governor of Egypt (but this time, not in excessive value or quantities). He blesses them, but he prepares himself for the worst: “May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as far as me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:14).
The brothers return to Egypt, anxious and attentive to showing honesty and righteousness in everything they do. They’re surprised that they’re invited to a meal. Not only that, but they are seated around the table in the order of their birth: “And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth. And the men looked at each other in amazement” (Genesis 43:33). Who put all 11 of them in the right order? Somebody who knew them was directing the whole event. “Portions were taken to them from Joseph’s table, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs (Genesis 43:34). Maybe the brothers don’t realize it, but this is another test. How are they going to react when one of them is shown obvious preference above the others? Are they going to complain? Get jealous? Argue? Thanks be to God, they pass the test: “And they drank and were merry with him” (Genesis 43:34).
But they still have one test remaining. How are they going to react when someone wants to separate them from their father’s favorite? They willingly handed him over for twenty pieces of silver years ago. Are they going to go back to Canaan content with their hidden money this time, leaving their father’s favorite in Egypt like they did with Joseph? A changed family answers, especially a changed Judah: “For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father” (Genesis 44:32-34).
The test uncovers a changed heart, one that would rather sacrifice itself for the good of the preferred brother and for his father rather than see them suffer, an attitude completely different from the one that sold Joseph into slavery years ago. They are not honest men, but they are repentant and changed men. And soon they will be forgiven and blessed men as well: “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Genesis 45:4-5).
There will be other kings and prophets in the Old Testament with God-given discernment into the hearts of men: Samuel will anoint the youngest son of Jesse as king (1 Samuel 16:6-13); Nathan, will communicate conviction of sin to king David through a parable (2 Samuel 12:1-14); Solomon will have to identify a baby’s real mother (1 Reyes 3:16-28); Daniel will interpret another king’s dream and will even inform him what he dreamed (Daniel 2). But there is probably no other who tests the hearts of another group of men so thoroughly and extensively as Joseph tested his brothers.
And all these men of God are simply a reflection of the One who knows all men’s hearts perfectly. “Jesus on his part did not entrust himself to them, because he knew all people and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man” (John 2:24-25). “I am he who searches mind and heart, and I will give to each of you according to your works” (Revelation 2:23). Jesus demonstrates perfect, limitless, profound, clear and effective discernment.
May the Lord Jesus give us wisdom and discernment to examine hearts so that His righteousness manifests itself in the government of our families, our workplaces, our communities and our churches. And may He find our hearts repentant and changed, too.