Joseph’s Dealings with His Brothers (Genesis 42-43)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

In the midst of the crisis in Egypt, Joseph’s brothers arrived from Canaan, seeking to buy food, as the famine severely affected their land also. They did not recognize Joseph, and he did not reveal himself to them. He dealt with his brothers largely through the language of commerce. The word silver (kesef) appears twenty times in chapters 42 through 45 and the word for grain (shever) nineteen. Trading in this commodity provided the framework on which the intricate personal dynamics hung.

Joseph's behavior in this situation became quite shrewd. First, he concealed his identity from his brothers, which—while not necessarily rising to the level of open deceit (Hebrew mirmah as with Jacob in Gen. 27:35)—certainly was less than forthright. Second, he spoke harshly to his brothers with accusations he knew were unfounded (Gen. 42:7, 9, 14, 16; 44:3-5). In short, Joseph took advantage of his power to deal with a group he knew could be untrustworthy because of their earlier treatment of him.[1] His motive was to discern the present character of the people he was dealing with. He had suffered greatly at their hands over twenty years prior, and had every reason to distrust their words, actions, and commitment to the family.

Joseph’s methods verged on deception. He withheld critical information and manipulated events in various ways. Joseph acted in the role of a detective conducting a tough interrogation. He could not proceed with full transparency and expect to get reliable information from them. The biblical concept for this tactic is shrewdness. Shrewdness may be exercised for good or for ill. On the one hand the serpent was “the shrewdest of all the wild animals” (Gen. 3:1 New Living Translation), and employed shrewd methods for disastrously evil purposes. (The NLT's consistent use of "shrewd" makes it clear that the same Hebrew word is being translated. The "NRSV" uses "crafty" here.) The Hebrew word for shrewdness (ormah and cognates) is also translated as “good judgment,” “prudence,” and “clever” (Prov. 12:23; 13:16; 14:8; 22:3; 27:12), indicating it may take foresight and skill to make godly work possible in difficult contexts. Jesus himself counseled his disciples to be “as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16 NLT). The Bible often commends shrewdness in the pursuit of noble purposes (Prov. 1:4; 8:5, 12).

Joseph’s shrewdness had the intended effect of testing his brothers’ integrity, and they returned the silver Joseph had secretly packed in the baggage (Gen. 43:20-21). When he tested them further by treating the youngest, Benjamin, more generously than the others, they proved they had learned not to fall into animosity among themselves the way they had done when they sold Joseph into slavery.

It would be superficial to read into Joseph’s actions the claim that thinking you are on God’s side is always a justification for deceit. But Joseph’s long career of service and suffering in God’s service gave him a deeper understanding of the situation than his brothers had. Seemingly, the promise that God would make them into a large nation hung in the balance. Joseph knew that it was not in his human power to save them, but he took advantage of his God-given authority and wisdom to serve and help. Two important factors differentiate Joseph in making the decision to use means that otherwise would not be commendable. First, he gained nothing from these machinations for himself. He had received a blessing from God, and his actions were solely in the service of becoming a blessing to others. He could have exploited his brothers’ desperate predicament and spitefully exacted a greater sum of silver, knowing they would have given anything to survive. Instead, he used knowledge to save them. Second, his actions were necessary if he was to be able to offer the blessings. If he had dealt with his brothers more openly, he could not have tested their trustworthiness in the matter.