With the arrival of Joseph’s brothers in Egypt, there is a literal fulfillment of the prophecy Joseph gave back in Genesis 37:7. The brethren fall down and bow before their brother, for he is the viceroy over all the land. The prophecy has been fulfilled, Joseph has been elevated to a position of power, and his brothers have been humbled in his sight. But strangely enough, Joseph chooses not to reveal who he truly is to them at this time. Rather than identifying himself to them and seeking a peaceful reconciliation (or else exacting retribution for their treacherous deeds), Joseph conceals the fact that the man who they supposed was long since dead is the same one seated upon the throne before them and speaking through an interpreter.
What follows over the course of the next few chapters might seem to be a very peculiar and capricious way for Joseph to deal with his brothers: the one moment accusing them of espionage, the next lavishing gifts upon them; at once locking them away in prison, only to quickly set most of them at liberty. What exactly was Joseph attempting to accomplish through all of this? First of all, there can be no doubt that God Himself was guiding Joseph’s decisions through this entire ordeal. God had a definite purpose for each and every one of the actions Joseph would take. Secondly, we understand that Joseph’s harsh treatment was the most expedient method for convincing the brothers to bring Benjamin into Egypt. And thirdly, had Joseph revealed himself immediately, it is very likely that the brothers would have never returned at all after this first visit. We learn later that they continued to fear the prospect of Joseph seeking revenge against them, even until the end of their lives (Gen. 45:3, 50:15). Perhaps a fear for their own safety would have prevented them from returning again once they had made it back home to Canaan.
“And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)
As we begin to consider the specific details surrounding Joseph’s dealings with his brothers, much about it seems very familiar. The locking away in prison, the “sacrifice” of the younger brother, the adoration for one brother (Benjamin) above the others are all staggeringly similar to events which we have already read. Many people today reject the idea of “what goes around comes around”, or “as a man soweth, that shall he also reap”, but the sons of Jacob obviously did not. Their assumption concerning the treatment given to them is that they have fallen under the judgment of God. They believed that what had come upon them was a direct consequence for what they had earlier done to Joseph.
So what was the purpose that God was accomplishing in the lives of these men? We learn later that this was not a judgment upon them, so what was it? It is an often visited theme in Scripture, as well as a reality in the lives of many believers, that the Lord will bring us to a place of testing precisely at a point wherein we have failed before. So many times, to our own horror, circumstances will line up in such a way that we are brought face-to-face with a situation similar to one which previously resulted in sin and failure. We sometimes find ourselves again in a place marked by our own sinfulness and shame. But God does not allow us to re-enter such predicaments that we might fail again, but that we might do what is right. For a second time, the precious life of Jacob’s most beloved son is in the hands of his eldest ten sons; how will they respond?
The testing that the brothers will undergo is so that Joseph might know if these men had changed since the time they dealt so wickedly with him, and so that the brothers themselves would know if they were any different. This time of trial was for the benefit of the sons of Jacob, but not God. God knew what the outcome would be; our testing is never for Him to learn something about our character, but for us to learn something about His. We never truly know the strength and vitality of our faith until it is tested.