My study today tells the story of Joseph’s brothers and their interaction with Joseph when they traveled to Egypt. The story begins with Jacob (their father) hearing about the fact that Egypt had extra grain it was selling, and sending 10 of his 11 sons that were still with him (Joseph being in Egypt already) to purchase some. The 10 brothers go and end up meeting Joseph face to face, though they did not recognize him. They bow down to him (which was foretold in Joseph’s dreams), and Joseph recognizes that these men are his brothers from Canaan. Joseph treats them very harshly – it doesn’t say why he does this, but does hint at the fact that he wants to reach out to them but feels he cannot. Joseph accuses them of being spies and puts them in jail. After 3 days (which I’m sure loosened them up pretty good), Joseph comes to them and tells them that he is going to keep one of them (he ends up keeping Simeon), but send the rest back to get Benjamin, the son Jacob kept in Canaan. This, says Joseph, will prove that they are not liars, and then they can buy and sell in Egypt all they want. The brothers agree and head back to Canaan to get Benjamin. Joseph also sends grain with them to feed their starving families. Along the way home, they realize that not only do they have the grain that Joseph gave them, but they also have their money that should have been used to pay for the grain. This causes them to fear that they will be accused of stealing the grain, and therefore they will either lose their brother Simeon forever or they will be put in prison themselves. When they finally reach Jacob and explain it all to him, he refuses to allow Benjamin to be taken, saying that he has already lost Joseph and now Simeon, and he will not lose Benjamin too.
Little pieces of this story tell of things that show the extreme guilt that was being held inside each of Joseph’s brothers over the fact that they had sold Joseph as a slave those many years ago. The first sign of this guilt is in verse 1, where its says “when Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, ‘Why do you just keep looking at each other?’.” When I first read this, I took Jacob to be saying “Don’t just sit there staring at each other, go buy some grain!” But a commentary I came across saw it a bit differently. It said “Jacob noticed a strange expression among the brothers when Egypt was mentioned, because the brothers knew it was likely Joseph was sold as a slave there. Their conscience made them feel terrible any time Egypt was mentioned.” I’m not sure I totally agree with this wholeheartedly based on what I read in the text, but it would agree with how the brothers end up acting later in the chapter. When Joseph begins to treat them harshly and held them in prison, the brothers automatically assume that they are being punished by God for how they had treated Joseph. In verses 21-22, “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 upon us.” Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.”
I had some interesting thoughts about this guilt that they were showing. First, it had been somewhere around 20 years since they had sold Joseph to the merchants as a slave to be taken to Egypt. This tells me that they had allowed their guilt to fester for that amount of time – since they had lied and told their father that Joseph had died, they couldn’t talk about what they had done without Jacob hearing and learning of their treachery. And guilt left untouched inside of us can often fester, similar to how a splinter left untouched in our skin will fester and the pain will grow worse. In fact, the commentary I mentioned before said “The quickness with which they associated these events with their sin against Joseph probably meant they often remembered their sin against him. There was not a completely logical connection between their current situation and their previous treatment of Joseph. But a guilty conscience sees every trouble as sin’s penalty.” And this is so true! We so often think that bad things happening to us are always punishments! It makes me think about Hurricane Katrina and the number of people who said that that disaster was God’s punishment of that area for their sins of loose living and practicing of voodoo. I think that is ridiculous. God may choose to use a disaster to punish an area for their sin (like Sodom and Gomorrah), but I believe that under the New Covenant as established by Christ’s death and resurrection, that our punishments for sin are either completely forgiven (for those of us in Christ) or are put off until a later time (for those who are lost). But because we usually think that bad things happening to us are a punishment for our sins, we also tend to think that bad things happening to others are punishments for theirs.
One other area that I found interesting in this story is how Joseph’s brothers were still lying about Joseph’s fate. They knew full well that Joseph was alive when they last saw him – they had simply sold him as a slave and had not killed him as they first proposed. But perhaps because they had spent the last 20 years lying about the fact that Joseph was dead, they had somehow come to believe he actually was. Whenever they met Joseph (and didn’t recognize him), the told him “Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more” (v. 13). This “one” who “is no more” is referring to Joseph, of course, and I’m sure Joseph knew this. Later, when the brothers cry out that their treatment was a punishment for what they had done to Joseph, Reuben says “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” These two statements make it sound like they honestly believed Joseph was dead. Although they had no reason to believe Joseph was really dead (but also had no reason to believe he was really alive), their guilt obviously made them think the worst. And they had originally planned on killing him – perhaps because of this their guilt was worse, and they felt like they really had killed him after all.
Guilt is one of the worst of all human emotions, but it is also a normal feeling for almost everyone (unless you’re a psychopath). For those of us in Christ, when we sin we often feel guilt (and we should!), and sometimes we confess our actions as sin and ask forgiveness (as we should!), yet we continue to feel guilt. Joseph’s brothers needed to feel guilty for what they had done – they had not owned up to their actions. But when we ask for Jesus to forgive us for our sins, part of faith is trusting that He truly has forgiven us and that we are restored. Case in point: My freshman year in college I got into some things that were incredibly sinful and not good for me at all. I ended up moving away and transferring schools, and I moved in with a good friend who was also a believer. Months after I had done much of that stuff, even though I had repented and begged Christ’s forgiveness, I still harbored a lot of guilt over it. My friend asked me about how many times I thought I had committed a particular sin, and I told him probably hundreds. For the next several days, he would ask me over and over (hundreds of times) “Do you love Him?”, meaning Christ. After the 10th or 11th time, it got annoying, but he kept at it. And every time he asked, I would say “yes” and “of course,” and my friend would say “feed His lambs,” or “take care of His sheep.” I finally got what he was doing – he was modeling Jesus’ restoration of Peter after Peter had denied Him 3 times. It was a powerful message to me that with Jesus’ forgiveness comes complete restoration, and guilt has no place in a believer’s heart after they are restored. I’m not saying that I still don’t have problems with guilt over that and many other situations, but I try to remember that those feelings are not from God and therefore have no place in my life.