Elon, North Carolina
All of us know someone who is hard to spiritual things. It may be a family member. It may be a spouse. It may be a friend or co-worker. We know or have known someone who lives in sin and is unrepentant. They are not planning on changing and may not even think they are doing anything wrong. How does God reach such a person? How does He soften their heart and awaken their conscience?
This chapter gives us a partial answer to that question. Joseph’s brothers were spiritually hard. They had lived in unconfessed sin for over twenty years. They had a skeleton in their closet. They have a family secret. Are there any family secrets in your family?
Joseph’s brothers committed a terrible crime against someone in their own family. They have not told anyone about this crime. They are the only ones who know about it. They lied to their dad about what happened to their brother.
They not only committed a crime, they committed a cover-up. They tampered with evidence. They dipped Joseph’s coat of many colors in goat’s blood to deceive their father. They thought they committed the perfect crime. Joseph’s brothers have lived with the guilt of that crime for over twenty years. At the end of this chapter, they begin to go through a change. We will see how that happened.
We are studying the Book of Genesis. Today, we come to Genesis 42. It is a very interesting chapter. There is a lot of drama in this chapter, as Joseph sees his brothers for the first time in over twenty years. There is a lot of suspense. There is a lot of emotion in this chapter. Joseph gets emotional. Some men never cry.
Joseph cries three times in these chapters. He cries once in this chapter when he hears his brothers say that they are now being punished because of what they did to Joseph He cries once in the next chapter when he sees his baby brother Benjamin for the first time in over twenty years. He cries a third time when he revealed himself to his brothers.
Let’s look at how God works to stir our conscience from this chapter. Before we do that we have to first understand what your conscience is and what it is not.
What is Your Conscience?
The Bible says that we all have a conscience inside of us. It is an inner voice that all of us have. The Bible says that it is written on the heart of everyone, saved and unsaved. What exactly is a conscience? What exactly does it do?
Your conscience is that voice inside your head that tells you what is right and what is wrong. It is like a built in smoke detector. It does not go off if there is smoke. It goes off if you do something that you were not supposed to do. If you do something wrong, your conscience will make you feel guilty about what you have done. An alarm goes off inside.
There are myths that some people have about our conscience. In the old movie about Pinocchio came the motto “always let your conscience by your guide.” Disney made it a song. The only problem is that our conscience is not always right. It has to be guided by Scripture. If we do not know the Word very well, we may believe in our head that some behaviors are perfectly acceptable (since society accepts them) that are actually immoral. We may believe that other behaviors are sinful which are not forbidden by Scripture.
Our conscience is the voice of morality that you have inside your head but that voice has to be shaped by Scripture and not just by society and pop culture. Someone said that our conscience does not really tell us what is right or wrong but whether what we are doing agrees with our own views of right and wrong.
The Bible says that some people have a seared conscience. I Timothy 4:1-3 says, “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons. Such teachings come through hypocritical liars, whose CONSCIENCES have been SEARED as with a hot iron. They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods, which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth” (NIV). What is a seared conscience? It is a conscience that stops working. The NLT renders it “their consciences are dead”. You can cause damage to your conscience.
How does that happen? It is simple. You begin to rationalize and excuse your behavior. You stop listening to your conscience and you do it so many times that it no longer speaks to you. People can get to the point where they can commit murder and feel absolutely no remorse for what they have done. They become completely psychotic. That is why Muslim fanatics in the Middle East commit acts of complete barbarism.
They chop off a person’s head. Their hands are full of blood and they think they have done absolutely nothing wrong. In fact, they commit these barbaric acts with their name of their god on their lips. They actually think they are doing God’s work. They call evil good. The prophet Isaiah said “Woe when you call evil good and good evil” (5:20).
Awakening a Dead Conscience
How does God awaken a dead conscience? What does He use to stir our conscience? Joseph’s brothers were living with a guilty conscience. They lived a lie. They have pretended like nothing has happened and they have done nothing wrong. They shook off any guilt feelings that they had. They had a hard heart. Now time has passed. Over twenty years have passed.
How does a hard heart become softened? To have your conscience stirred, three things have to take place. We see all three of these things taking place in this chapter.
1) You have to have a sense of need
“When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you just keep looking at each other?’ He continued, ‘I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.’ Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt” (42:1-3 NIV).
God knows how to get our attention. God put these brothers in extreme need. They were facing starvation. This famine in Egypt is severe and spreads to Canaan. Jacob tells his son to go get some food from Egypt “so that we may live and not die”. This was a serious situation.
God put them in a position where they were forced to go to Egypt. They had no choice. It was the only place that had food and if they did not get food they would die. Egypt not only had extra food, it had the Nile River. Even if there was not rain, there was the Nile River.
God sometimes sends a famine in our life to bring us to repentance or to bring us back to God. When God wants to get our attention, He puts a crisis in our life (health, marriage, financial, family). He makes us needy. God still does this today. To reach us we have to be broken. He does it in many different ways. We see this in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need” (Luke 15:13-14 NIV).
What brought the prodigal son back to the father? A famine hit the land and he was in need. He was out of money and had to eat some of the food that pigs eat and that is when the Bible says that “he came to his senses” (15:17). These are the prodigal brothers, instead of the prodigal son. They are in need and are going to Egypt where Joseph is and where they will have to face him and be confronted with their actions from twenty years earlier. Their past will catch up with them.
2) You have to be convicted of your sin
That is what God does in this section. By the end of the chapter, the brother’s are forced to admit that they are very guilty because of what they did to their brother. Genesis 42:21 says, “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 on us’” (NIV).
This is the only time in the whole book that anyone confesses their sin. It is an amazing confession. How did they get to that point? First, they came to Egypt. “Then ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt…. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them” (42:3, 6-7)
The first thing that happens is that they arrived in Egypt. Joseph recognized them immediately. They did not recognize him. The last time they saw him, he was seventeen. Now, he is thirty-eight or thirty-nine (almost forty years old). He looks Egyptian. He is wearing Egyptian clothes and speaks Egyptian. They bowed down before him. That is interesting.
Joseph had a dream when he was a teenager. It was a dream about him ruling over his family. His family mocked him for the dream but in this chapter his brothers come to Egypt and bowed down before him. When they all bowed their faces down to the ground, Joseph immediately flashbacked to the dream God gave him twenty-two years earlier but then something strange happens. Let’s look at Joseph’s reaction and then talk about why he does it.
Joseph’s Strange Reaction
When Joseph sees his brothers, he does NOT seem happy to see them. He recognizes them right away but he does not immediately run up to them and give them all a hug and say how glad he is to see them. He conceals his identity. He speaks to them through an interpreter and pretends he does not even know their language. He treats them as strangers. When he speaks to him, he is not loving and kind but rough and harsh.
He questions their motives for buying food. He falsely accuses them of being spies, even though he knows they are not spies. He imprisons them for a crime they did not commit. There is a role reversal in this chapter. The tables are now completely turned. Joseph is now on the top and they are on the bottom.
- Joseph used to be the one who was helpless and vulnerable. He was outnumbered and thrown into a pit with no way out. Now it is the brothers who are helpless and vulnerable. They are in a foreign country and need to buy food for their family. They are hungry.
- Joseph’s ten older brothers used to have all of the power. Joseph was powerless. He was the victim. Now Joseph has all the power. He was the Prime Minister of Egypt. He was second to Pharaoh. He had the power of life and death. His word could send a man to prison. Joseph used to be at their mercy and now they are at his mercy.
- Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit and now he throws them into prison.
- They accused him of being a spy. Remember, when he found them they said, “Are you come to spy on us?” Now Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies.
- Joseph’s brothers did not listen to him when he cried from the pit. Now Joseph does not listen to any of their arguments about why they came to Egypt.
Why did Joseph do this? Was he vindictive? Is this pay back? Is he getting even with them? Is this Joseph’s Revenge? No. Joseph had his chance to get his revenge. If he wanted to, he could have done that.
- If he wanted to be vindictive, he could have kept them in prison for much longer. He put them in prison for three days. He was in prison for three years. This was actually a merciful sentence.
- If he wanted to be vindictive, he could have had them executed on the spot because of what they did to him. He had the authority to do that.
- If he wanted to be vindictive, he would not have changed his plan from keeping nine in prison (42:16) to keeping only one in prison (42:19). This was another sign of compassion on Joseph’s part. He realized that it was too harsh to keep nine brothers in prison. One person could not bring much food back home.
- If Joseph was vindictive, he would not have given them their money back. Why did he put their money back in their sack? He did not want their money.
- If Joseph was cold and vindictive, he would not have wept three times in this chapter. In fact, the text says that Joseph wept in another room and then came out and bound Simeon before their eyes. They saw him arresting Simeon but they did not see him weeping. Joseph spoke roughly to them but it was all an act. Inside, he felt very differently.
Joseph Tested his Brothers
Two times we are told that that this was a test (42:15, 16). Joseph was testing his brothers. Why is he testing his brothers? There was a good reason. The last time he saw them, they wanted to kill him. They threw him in a pit and wanted to leave him there to die. They couldn’t stand him. They hated him. They were violent. They threw him in a pit and when he cried to get out, they just laughed at him. These were not nice people.
That was Joseph’s last recollection of them and it was not their only crime. These ten brothers were a rough group. Simeon and Levi slaughtered a whole village. They were extremely violent. They massacred a whole town. Reuben committed incest with his mother-in-law. Judah is out seeing prostitutes and commits incest with his daughter-in-law. Joseph wanted to know if their character changed in the last twenty years.
There is another reason he did this. Joseph’s dream had all of his brothers bowing down to him. The dream is not completely fulfilled. Only ten of them came to Egypt. One was missing. Where was his brother Benjamin? Joseph only had one full-blooded brother, Benjamin.
Benjamin was Rachel and Jacob’s son and he was not with them. Did they kill him? Did they throw him in a pit and sell him into slavery? They claimed to be honest men. They said Benjamin was at home, so he tests their honesty. Joseph did not trust his brothers and he had good reason from the past not to trust them.
This is the first time his brothers have been honest with Joseph and he does not believe them because of their track record. Forgiveness does not mean that you have to trust someone. Someone said, “Forgiveness is instantaneous; trust is earned over time. If a drunkard comes to church and turns to Christ, God forgives him immediately, but he shouldn’t become a leader the next day.” Joseph was in an abusive relationship with his brothers. They almost killed him. It was wise for him to test the sincerity of their repentance.
God uses these things to stir their conscience. The first thing that he did was arrest Simeon and kept him in Egypt as a hostage. Second, he told them that they must bring back Benjamin to Egypt. That will be a problem because Jacob will not want him to go but they will have no choice. They have to return if they are going to get Simeon out of prison.
3) You have to recognize that God is working in your life
The third thing that happens when a person’s heart is changed is that you to recognize that God is doing something in your life. “At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. “My silver has been returned,” he said to his brothers. “Here it is in my sack.” (42:27-28 NIV)
They opened their sacks and saw their money and their hearts sank. The KJV says that their hearts failed them. Literally, it reads, “Their hearts stopped”. They had a heart attack. What were they worried about? They were just accused of spies and now they are worried that they will be accused of stealing. They were terrified.
They came back with food they never paid for and they have to go back to get Simeon. They think that they are in big trouble and they say, “What is this that God has done to us?” God did this. It was not an accident or a coincidence. When God stirs a person’s conscience, he makes that person feel needy, convicts that person of sin and that person sees God working in his or her life.
When the brothers go back home, they tell their dad what happened. What was his reaction? He was devastated. Every time the sons go away, they come back home with more silver and one less son. Jacob thought this was terrible and decided that there was absolutely no way that he was going to send Benjamin to Egypt, because if he did, he would only lose him. Two of his sons were as good as dead and the rest would be viewed as thieves.
In Jacob’s mind, he lost his wife Rachel. She died in childbirth. He lost Joseph. He has lost Simeon and, if he sends Benjamin (his youngest son) to Egypt, he will lose him as well. Jacob says “all of these things are against me” (42:36). The chapter ends with a very important lesson for all of us. Jacob whines about all of the bad things happening in his life. We laugh at him and then go do the same thing. Why did he do this?
He walks by sight and not by faith and he completely misinterpreted God’s providence. It is possible to completely misunderstand what God is doing in our lives. Jacob looked at his circumstances and drew the wrong conclusion. He saw Joseph’s coat of many colors and jumped to conclusions.
He assumed that he was dead. He was overprotective of Benjamin. He also exaggerated. In Jacob’s mind, Joseph was gone. Simeon was gone and Benjamin will be leaving soon. He looked at all of the bad things happening in his life and thought everything was against him.
In reality, everything was for him. If God is for us, who can be against us? Joseph was alive and ruling in Egypt. Simeon was perfectly safe. He was in prison but was going to be released and Benjamin was fine. He would go to Egypt but would return to Canaan. Everything was working out right on schedule. We can laugh at Jacob but we do exactly the same thing that he did.