Back in the land of promise Jacob was hungry too. The famine had taken its toll and left Joseph’s family with the money in their pockets but no bread on the table. His brothers listened to their children cry for food and their wives complain until they couldn’t stand it anymore and went to their father to complain. There they stood looking around at each other and shaking their heads over the problem, telling each other they just didn’t know what they were going to do about the situation.
“What good are you doing standing around looking at each other for a solution?” Jacob asked. “Egypt has food. There is your answer. Go to Egypt immediately and buy us food before we all starve.”
“That certainly seems to be a viable hypothesis,” his eldest son said. “All eleven of us shall go together to buy food from the store houses in Egypt that we have heard so much about.”
Jacob’s old wrinkled skin turned white on his face and his eyes grew dark in their wide round sockets. “No, no. Benjamin shall not go with you. Ten is enough to bring back the food. Benjamin shall stay here with me where I’ll know he’s safe and no evil will befall him.”
“What could possibly happen to him while he is gone with us to buy food?” Simeon’s voice rose with each word.
“Hush,” Levi admonished in an undertone to his brother. “The ten of us can go alone just as well as not; and there is no reason to get our father upset over Benjamin.”
Benjamin held his breath and let it out slowly. His forehead was creased with lines. “Of course not. I just lost my temper for a minute there.” Turning to his father, he said, “Yes, you’re right, of course. The ten of us will get started right away, won’t we, men?”
The brothers didn’t squander anymore time talking and were soon on the road to Egypt. It was mighty hot traveling long before they reached the desert. The land was parched and dry and the riverbeds offered no refreshment to the thirsty donkeys. The water they carried with them had to be used sparingly until they reached the Great Sea and even then it was low. By the time they reached their destination even those hardy shepherds were hot and tired and more than a little glad to have that part of the round trip over with.
As quickly as possible they made themselves as presentable as they were able to after their long journey and requested an audience with the prime minister, having been told it was he who was in charge of the food. Permission was granted with condescension and the ten of them went before the presence of the great man and bowed low to him, almost kissing his feet.
Joseph recognized them immediately but had no intention of revealing himself to them too soon. His Egyptian finery, his shaven face, and the office he held would keep them from identifying him. He even used an interpreter to talk with them, demanding to know who they were and where they came from.
Reuben spoke for the family and explained quite respectfully that they came from the land of Canaan to buy food for their families.
The brothers watched with growing apprehension as the interpreter talked to the important gentleman and the creases in great man’s forehead deepened while his eyes narrowed. He shook his head from side to side and his voice sounded like a low growl to his brothers as he answered. As he talked he drew himself up to an even more impressive height. The brothers began to sweat.
The interpreter swung toward the sons of Jacob and snapped, “You are spies! You have come sneaking around to find out where we are vulnerable.”
“No, no, I assure you that we are not spies,” Reuben said. “We are simply the sons of our father. There are twelve of us, but one had to stay with our father and the other is gone. We are all the sons of one man, honestly, and we simply came to buy food for our starving families.”
The servant turned back and spoke to the prime minister again while the ten brothers waited breathlessly, but the minister’s face only hardened and the words that sprang from his lips were plain to the brothers even before the interpreter spoke.
“No, you are not to be believed. You are surely spies. You insult the prime minister when you expect him to believe your foolish story.”
“Oh.” The word came out of Reuben’s mouth with a slow breath, but before he could answer the great man was speaking and he shut his own mouth deferentially and waited.
The servant whirled back toward the brothers when his master was finished speaking and said briskly, “You shall be tested. You say you have another brother at home? Well, we shall see if you are brothers at all now. Send for your youngest brother. One of you only shall go back to where you say you come from and bring your brother back here while the remainder of you shall be kept in prison. But for now you shall be tested more before that one is allowed to go. If you are not deceitful it will be seen after you have spent some time in prison. Guards! Guards! Away with these men! It is surely necessary to the life of our great Pharaoh to test their honesty.”
The next three days the brothers had a chance to wonder how much young Joseph had suffered in that hole so long ago. They saw over and over again in their own chains the manacles they had caused to shackle their little brother’s legs. Then they thought of the long journey from home through the desert and saw the bloody sores that must have been the result of those restraints rubbing lesions as he stumbled along in the heat.
They sighed with relief and trembled with fear when, three days later, they were brought from the prison into the great prime minister’s presence again.
Very sternly, and oh so far above them, the man began to speak in a clear grave voice. When he finished an interpreter turned to the brothers and repeated his words in Hebrew.
“Because I fear God you shall live if you do as I say. One of you only shall stay in prison and the rest of you shall go to your home with the food for your family. Then you will come back with your younger brother to prove your story is true; and then you shall all go free and no one will die.”
“This is because we ignored Joseph when he pled with us for his life,” one of the brothers said.
“Yes,” another agreed. “We saw the agony of his soul and refused to listen. Now we are being punished for our sin.”
“Didn’t I tell you” Reuben said, “not to sin against the poor boy? But would you listen? No! And now just look at the mess we’re in. We’re just going to have to pay for our sin, that’s all.”
Joseph had to leave for a few minutes then. The brothers had been speaking freely, assuming he couldn’t understand them. Joseph’s heart was touched by his brother’s imperfect repentance and he turned aside to weep by himself; but he still couldn’t trust his brothers and he had a deep need to see his father and younger brother.
“Where did he go?” Levi asked just as he returned with another prison guard who immediately put Simeon back in chains and led him away.
And while his brother were hastily preparing themselves for the journey home Joseph was giving orders for the food they ordered to be loaded on the donkeys. “Put the money they paid for the food back in their sacks,” he ordered, “and make sure they have plenty of food and water for the trip back home.”
The sons of Jacob didn’t talk much as they left the city and started on their way home. They had much to think about. But that night when they stopped at an inn for the night one of them opened his sack to fed his donkey and found his money that should have paid for his share of the food.
He turned to his brothers and howled, “This is awful! My money is back in my sack. It will seem that I am a thief. Now what shall I do?”
“We must get home as quickly as possible,” they decided, “before it is discovered and the Egyptians catch up and put you in prison too.”
But they whispered to each other fearfully as they traveled, “What is God doing to us? Are we finally going to be punished for the evil we did to our little brother?”
Explaining the absence of Simeon wasn’t something those evil men looked forward to either, or the demand by the ruler of Egypt for their return with Benjamin. It was beginning to look like they were going to get returned to them, full measure, pressed down, and shaken together, and running over the misery they had wished on their innocent little brother.
When they got home and unpacked, things seemed even worse, for their money was all still with them. They were all a bunch of no-good thieves, and they hadn’t intended to be at all. Was this their sin making itself manifest in their lives even against their volition? Could it be that sin had frozen itself into their beings and they couldn’t rid themselves of it now? There was only one thing to do: take the money and Benjamin, go back to Egypt, and try to make the lord of the land believe them. Could men who had lived a lie for over thirty years make themselves credible enough to be believed? Their father thought not.
“You shall not take my son Benjamin away from me too,” he insisted in pitiful anger. I have already lost two of my sons and you propose to take my Benjamin who has already been deprived of all the rest of his family except me. No, you won’t! I couldn’t bear to lose him too.”
But his own and the hunger of his family made the stipulation about taking Benjamin to Egypt vague in Jacob’s mind and he ordered his sons to return and buy more when their food ran out.
“We cannot go back without Benjamin,” Reuben said. “I promise you I will bring him back again if you put him in my care. I promise you on the life of my own sons that I will keep him safe – but we cannot go back without him.”
“Why did you tell him in the first place that you had another brother?” The Father’s question had tears in it. “How could you do this awful thing to me, to put my son in danger?”
“The man made a point of asking us about our family. He even asked if our father was still alive and if we had another brother,” Dan said. “How could we do anything else besides answer him honestly, especially when he was accusing us of being spies?”
“Yes,” Naphtali agreed, “how could we possibly know he would demand we bring our brother to Egypt?”
“Listen, Father,” Judah said. “Send him in my care and we will go and bring back food, and I promise you that I personally will make sure no harm comes to him. If we don’t go, we all die of starvation. Let me take full responsibility forever if I don’t bring him back to you safely with the food from Egypt. Think about it, if you had not held us back before we would have already been back with more food and Simeon and Benjamin too.”
Jacob caught his breath, let it out, and rubbed a tear from his eye. “If it must be so, then go, but take some of the best fruits from here for a peace offering. Tale some balm and honey too; and I think he would like a nice supply of spices and myrrh. They probably don’t get many pistachio nuts or almonds either; better take along a goodly portion of those. Make it all up into an attractive gift for the man; and take double your money. Perhaps the money was just and oversight and he will be glad to forgive it.”
Jacob’s eyes filled with tears again and he sobbed, “May God Almighty give you mercy before the lord of the land that you may bring me back my sons.” Then he stood tall and threw his shoulders back. “And if I am bereaved, I am bereaved!” And the old man turned his back on his sons and walked away toward the south; but his shoulders were still back and his back was straight.
His sons got their gift together and made haste back to Egypt.
And as Joseph saw the prodigals off in the distance, he said to his servants, “Kill the fatted calf.” He told his stewards to bring the men to his own house and make a feast ready for them to dine with him at noon.
That was quite a remarkable thing for the ruler of all Egypt, only inferior to the Pharaoh in regards to the throne, to invite a bunch of scruffy nomads into his house. The servants were rather astonished themselves but of course they wouldn’t show it by as much as a turn of their heads.
The act brought much more than astonishment to that bunch of scruffy nomads from Canaan – it brought fear. What now? Are they going to make us slaves and have our donkeys taken away from us, they asked themselves.
The sons of “Israel almost fell over themselves trying to explain to the houses steward how it came about that they still had the money from their first trip to Egypt. They quickly showed him the money that should have stayed in Egypt the first time and the equal to it they brought for the second supply of grain.
The steward surprised them by saying he had the money they brought the first time, so it must have been their god who put the money in their sacks. While they were trying to assimilate that news he brought Simeon out to meet them. Then he ushered them all back into the house and gave orders to have their feet washed and their donkeys fed – treating them just like honored guests.
“What’s going on?” Dan whispered.
“We are to have our noon meal her in the lord of the land’s house. Can you believe it?” Simeon said. “He seems to be a very decent man and he is going to keep his word. Did you have a lot of trouble getting Father to let you bring Benjamin?”
“If he is to be here at noon,” Judah said, “we’d better get our gift ready and make it and ourselves as attractive as possible.”
“I certainly hope he appreciated the trouble we have gone to,” Asher said. These donkeys are loaded down with gifts from Father sent to appease his lordship. Here, Benjamin, look lively there and get that donkey unloaded.”
“Oh, let the boy alone,” Judah said. “He is doing the best he can/ Here, Benjamin, I’ll take that. It’s much too heavy for you and I can just as well tale it.”
Levi laughed. “What’s the matter, Judah? He asked, with a sneer. “Are you afraid Father’s pet will break his nails?”
“I have enough sin to my account,” Judah said sternly. “I certainly don’t need anymore. I made our Father a promise and I intend to keep it. We certainly have enough problems without asking for more. Here, take this bundle and set it under that tree in the shade. Benjamin can work with them there while we unload the rest.”
Joseph, when he came at noon, accepted the gifts graciously as they bowed low before him, asking them how they were and how their journey had gone. “And how is your father, the old man you told me about?” he asked. “Is he still alive and healthy?”
When the interpreter relayed this to his brothers, Judah raised himself from the ground long enough to assure him that their father, his servant, was in good health and still very much alive; then he prostrated himself to the ground again.
Joseph saw Benjamin and asked if her were the brother thy told him about. As they assured him this was indeed the little brother, Joseph looked into the face of his mother’s son and yearned to throw his arms around him. But it wasn’t time yet, so he turned his back on his brothers and sought privacy to weep in his own chamber. He took comfort in knowing his God understood what he was going through and his Asenath was trying to understand.
Joseph couldn’t indulge in tears very long, and soon washed his face and returned to his guests, giving orders for the meal to be served immediately. Joseph wouldn’t eat with them, of course. They were far below him, both in the fact that they were Hebrews and Egyptians considered it an abomination to eat with a lowly Hebrew shepherd, and in rank. So the other Egyptians ate by themselves, Joseph ate by himself, and his brothers ate by themselves.
The thing that surprised the brothers is that they were seated according to their ages as though he knew their exact birth order; which of course he did, but the brothers had no way of knowing that. Then he did something even stranger – he gave Benjamin five times as much food as any of the rest of them got.
Now, in the past, they probably would have been very jealous of Benjamin and gotten angry; but they had learned a little in the years since their cruelty to Joseph and they were just happy to be eating at his lordship’s table instead of rotting in prison. Who cared if Benjamin had more than the rest. They all had plenty to eat and drink, so why begrudge their little brother more? They ate and drank and were merry with him instead. Joseph was impressed. He wanted to throw his arms around his brothers right then and there, but they had one more test to pass, so he held his peace.
Joseph commanded his steward to fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they could hold, and then put their money back into the mouth of each sack. “Also put my silver cup into the mouth of the younger man’s sack when you put his grain money in,” he said.
His servant did as he was bid and bright and early the next morning the sons of Jacob said their farewells, took their donkeys, and left the city.
Joseph gave them time enough so he was sure they had left the city, and then he told his steward to go after them. “And when you catch up with them,” he said, “accuse them of stealing my silver cup. Look first in the older men’s’ sacks and keep going until you find it in the youngest man’s sack where you put it. Then bring them back here to me.”
And so his faithful servant caught up with his unwary victims and accused them of stealing his master’s silver cup, the very cup that he drank out of. Not only that, but it was the cup he did his divinations out of, the servant informed them. “You have done evil – repaid his lordship’s goodness with evil!”
“Why, how could you accuse us of doing such a horrible thing? Reuben asked, as he raised himself up and squared his shoulders. “You know very well that when we found the money in the mouth of our sacks we returned it to you, so how could you think we would do something as awful as stealing silver or gold from your lord’s house? Of course we didn’t! If you find it with one of us, let him die and we will be your lord’s slaves.”
“No,” the haughty steward said. “Whoever is found with it shall be my slave and the rest of you shall be blameless.”
The steward started a methodical search that gave his tormented subjects plenty of time to become emotionally whiplashed between indignation and fear that it would be found in one of their sacks after all. Each sack had its money back in its mouth just like the last time so, after all, it was possible the cup would be found in one of their sacks too.
When the servant finally reached Benjamin’s sack and drew the cup out, his brothers were so upset they tore their clothes.
“Never mind that,” the happy steward said. “I have my man and my lord’s cup, so we shall be on our way.”
Benjamin’s brothers quickly loaded their donkeys and returned with him to the city where they fell to the ground before his lordship trembling.
“What possessed you to do something so foolish?” Joseph asked. “Didn’t you understand the power I have? How could you have done something so foolishly evil?”
“What is there for us to say?” Judah asked. “We can’t clear ourselves. We are your slaves.”
“Oh no,” Joseph said. “I will not require that. You are free to go, all except the one who was found with the stolen item. He shall be my slave. As for the rest of you, you may go in peace to your father.” He turned his back on his brothers with a snap of his fingers toward his steward who promptly started to lead Benjamin away.
Judah quickly made his way to the prime minister before he could disappear into his house, and said, “Please let your servant have a word with you, my lord. Please do not be angry with me. I know you have all the power of Pharaoh.”
When the interpreter finished telling the scowling lord, what Judah said, Joseph nodded curtly and the servant said, just as tersely, “You may speak.”
So Judah reminded the great man, as dramatically as he could, how he had asked if they had a brother and demanded he be brought to Egypt; and how they had told him it would kill their father if anything happened to him. He went on to tell Joseph how their father had answered when told of the situation and only let him go as a last resort. He also told him his poor father had lost Benjamin’s mother and only brother and wouldn’t be able to bear it if he lost Benjamin too. “I know that it would kill him and I shall bear the blame because I am the down payment on my promise to my father that his son will be returned to him safely. I cannot go to my father without him and watch him die of the pain. I beg of you to let me stay as your slave in his place for his father’s sake. Let Benjamin go to his father.”
Joseph couldn’t stand anymore. He had his answer, his brother, Judah, had passed the test and that was enough. He commanded all of his servants to go and leave him alone with the Hebrews, but when he told them who he was, he wept so loud all the house of Pharaoh could hear him.
And, when they realized he was the brother they had sold into slavery, his brothers were even more terrified. Their sin truly had found them out. Oh, what to do!
“Please come here close to me,” Joseph said through his tears. Well, it wouldn’t do any good to run and hide, so they approached him trembling.
“Don’t you understand?” he said. “I am Joseph, the brother you sold into bondage. Don’t be upset that it happened now though, because God sent me here to preserve life. The famine has been in all the land for two years, but it will continue for five more and God sent me her so he could use me to deliver you and save the lives of all your families. You see, it wasn’t you who sent me here, it was God. He sent me here to rule this land so you would be able to go live in the land of Goshen and not come into poverty in the next five years.
“You are the Lord’s people and the sheep of his pasture. Be thankful unto him and bless his name.”