The Pentateuch: Joseph reconciles with his brothers, Genesis 41-45
Have you ever been forgotten about? Ever entrusted something important with someone who didn’t regard it as important? Joseph can relate. Joseph had interpreted the dreams of two prisoners with God’s guidance, and when the dreams came true Joseph asked the cupbearer who was being reinstated to his position of honor to remember him and what he had done. Unfortunately, the cupbearer forgot about Joseph.
The cupbearer didn’t just forget Joseph – he forgot him for two years. Two years after the cupbearer was reinstated, Pharaoh had dreams that no one could interpret for him. In that culture, dreams were regarded as divine messages from “the gods”. They believed that dreams should be interpreted and paid attention to. Pharaoh’s dreams were especially important since he was considered by the Egyptian people to be divine himself. Magicians and wise men were people specifically hired for things such as interpreting dreams, yet they could not give Pharaoh anything helpful about these dreams.
After two years of being forgotten, Joseph was finally remembered. This is a stark reminder that even when people fail us, God never does. God was with Joseph the whole time, and reminded the cupbearer at the time He knew was right. The cupbearer was not only the taster of all of Pharaoh’s food and drink to test for poison, but this landed him as an especially trustworthy servant meaning he had the ear of Pharaoh. He was allowed to give counsel to Pharaoh, and he used his influence in this moment to tell him about Joseph who had rightly interpreted his own dream two years ago.
When Joseph was brought to Pharaoh he could have been angry, held a grudge, unwilling to help, and defensive… he could have been spiteful and unhelpful. You and I probably would not respond the way Joseph did – with grace, praising the Lord and giving Him honor, glory, and credit and taking none for himself. Joseph humbled himself and exalted his God in a moment most of mankind would be more inclined to seek justice for the wrongs done to us. Joseph is an incredible example in this moment of humility and faithfulness that we should all seek to follow.
14 Then Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and they quickly brought him from the dungeon.[a] He shaved, changed his clothes, and went to Pharaoh.
15 Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I have had a dream, and no one can interpret it. But I have heard it said about you that you can hear a dream and interpret it.”
16 “I am not able to,” Joseph answered Pharaoh. “It is God who will give Pharaoh a favorable answer.”[b]
Joseph is Remembered
Why did Joseph praise God in this moment? Joseph never lost faith, never gave up hope, and continued to cling to the conviction that God was with him and made all he did successful. Joseph was faithful to the Lord even when his circumstances were painful. Now, Pharaoh recognized God’s hand on Joseph and elevated him to the highest position in the empire, second only to Pharaoh himself.
Joseph was a 17-year-old spoiled, favored, pampered younger son when his brothers tricked, trapped, and sold him, and now at 30 years old Pharaoh gave him the name Zaphenath-paneah, which means “treasury of the glorious rest”, put him in charge of his empire, and gave him a wife, Asenath, who gave him two sons named Manasseh and Ephraim. God blessed Joseph and made everything he did successful – in the seasons of scarcity and suffering as well as the seasons of abundance and joy.
50 Two sons were born to Joseph before the years of famine arrived. Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest at On, bore them to him. 51 Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh[a] and said, “God has made me forget all my hardship and my whole family.” 52 And the second son he named Ephraim[b] and said, “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
Blessings don’t always come in the ways we expect. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own family, then imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, yet the Lord was with him. God blessed Joseph with the responsibility of caring for Potiphar’s household, caring for other prisoners, and then managing the Egyptian empire second only to Pharaoh in the land. Joseph was also blessed with peace and hope knowing the Lord was with him through his sufferings and successes.
There have been plenty of times in my own life when the season I was in hurt. Difficult seasons can be painful, but I had peace and hope knowing no matter what was happening in my life the Lord was with me, sustaining me, guiding me, and providing for me. I knew I could trust the ways the Lord chose to provide and the ways He chose not to provide. When I have trusted the Lord in these seasons, I have come out of them closer to Him, stronger in my faith, and able to persevere in the next tough season with more endurance.
Joseph kept his heart focused on God, and God sustained him and blessed him even through the suffering seasons of his life.
Abundance and Famine
Joseph had told Pharaoh what needed to be done in response to the dreams God had given Pharaoh and interpreted through Joseph. There would be seven years of abundance in the land, and then seven years of devastating famine. Joseph was in charge of preparing for the famine and managing the kingdom through the crisis. In the years of abundance, he stored away so much grain and excess food it could not have been weighed.
Sometimes that is how the seasons of abundance in our lives feel. God is pouring blessing after blessing and we can’t even count them all. But also like life, seasons of famine come in and if we have not prepared in the seasons of abundance, we will feel the sting of the famine with a devastating blow. Joseph leaned on God to teach him to prepare for the famine to come, so when the famine did come he was prepared and able to save those impacted by the famine.
Not only did God prepare Joseph to withstand the coming famine himself, but through Joseph, the entire nation of Egypt and beyond was able to survive the season of famine. This is a beautiful example of how God uses even a single person to make an incredible ripple effect in our world. Joseph was a spoiled, rotten, bratty younger brother. He was a braggart, a tattle-tail, and proud. God used the seasons of famine in his life – slavery and imprisonment – to prepare him, shape him, and mold him into the man God knew Joseph needed to be in this seven-year season of literal famine in the land.
Again, Joseph clung to his faith in God, and led the people through the abundance, preparing them by the Lord’s direction, and then managed the famine under His direction as well. The famine was so bad that even the land of Canaan was hit hard. One day, Joseph’s brothers come knocking for some food.
Joseph reunites with his brothers
Joseph’s brothers do not know they seek food from the little brother they’d sold so many years ago. Joseph, however, recognizes them and is harsh toward them. I can’t help but notice Joseph’s possible desire to lash out at his brothers. Yet, we see his faith taking hold, and he embarks on a strategic chain of events to test his brothers. Joseph wants to see if his brothers have changed. I imagine he wants to see if they are sorry for what they did all those years ago.
5 The sons of Israel were among those who came to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canaan. 6 Joseph was in charge of the country; he sold grain to all its people. His brothers came and bowed down before him with their faces to the ground. 7 When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.
“Where do you come from?” he asked.
“From the land of Canaan to buy food,” they replied.
8 Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.
By this point, Joseph had been in Egypt for over 20 years – 13 years of enslavement and imprisonment, seven years of abundance, and they are well into the season of famine by now when the brothers have run out of food back home in Canaan. Over 20 years since Joseph had seen his brothers, over 20 years for his brothers to regret what they’d done to him, over 20 years for their father to grieve the loss of his favorite son.
This chain of events Joseph implements is probably a way for him to process the last 20-something years as much as it is to test his brothers. I’m sure anyone would want closure in such circumstances. Yet here is Joseph, highest ranking person in the entirety of Egypt other than Pharaoh, and his past comes back to haunt him on his own doorstep of power and position.
Joseph reconciles with his brothers
The brothers did not know this was their brother as he began putting them to the test, and kept his brother Simeon imprisoned while the rest of the brothers were sent home to fetch baby brother Benjamin as proof they were not spies. Benjamin was the only other son of Joseph’s mother, Rachel. Surely Joseph longed to see his little brother.
18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “I fear God—do this and you will live. 19 If you are honest, let one of you[a] be confined to the guardhouse, while the rest of you go and take grain to relieve the hunger of your households. 20 Bring your youngest brother to me so that your words can be confirmed; then you won’t die.” And they consented to this.
21 Then they said to each other, “Obviously, we are being punished for what we did to our brother. We saw his deep distress when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this trouble has come to us.”
22 But Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to harm the boy? But you wouldn’t listen. Now we must account for his blood!”
The brothers and their father were so afraid of the man they had yet to discover was Joseph that they waited to return until they were nearly starving again and had no choice but to get more food from Egypt. Jacob needed much convincing to send Benjamin with the other brothers, but he gave in remembering that it was all in God’s hands after all.
When the brothers return with Benjamin in tow, Joseph puts them through a couple of additional tests. What would his brothers do if Benjamin were threatened? His brothers, fortunately, showed remorse for their past crimes and fought for the life and freedom of their youngest brother offering to trade places with him if only Benjamin could return home.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Please, come near me,” and they came near. “I am Joseph, your brother,” he said, “the one you sold into Egypt. 5 And now don’t be grieved or angry with yourselves for selling me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there will be five more years without plowing or harvesting. 7 God sent me ahead of you to establish you as a remnant within the land and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.[a] 8 Therefore it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
They passed the test. Joseph could not stand it any longer and revealed himself to his brothers.
My favorite part of the entire story is here at the end where Joseph reveals himself and shows such grace, humility, and love toward his brothers while praising God at the same time. Joseph tells them that it was not them but God who put him through all of the ordeals and sufferings of the past so that he could be where he was, to save the people in the time of famine. Joseph understood and gave glory to God for his sufferings, recognizing and explaining that it had been for the good of all that he was put through such cruelty. All of that pain led him to the position he was in. Joseph poured it all out for God – God did it, not Joseph.
Pharaoh finds out about Joseph’s brothers, his family is sent away with all the best of Egypt, and instructed to come back to Egypt so that Joseph could provide for them through the remaining years of famine. They would lack for nothing and be given the best lands to tend their flocks, and even given charge of the flocks of Pharaoh. God used Joseph’s suffering to prepare him and then used him in his plan to redeem his brothers, God’s chosen people, and save them from the devastation of the great famine. Their father, Israel, is overjoyed at hearing that his beloved son lived and sets out to see him again.
25 So they went up from Egypt and came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan. 26 They said, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!” Jacob was stunned,[a] for he did not believe them. 27 But when they told Jacob all that Joseph had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to transport him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived.
28 Then Israel said, “Enough! My son Joseph is still alive. I will go to see him before I die.”