Joseph’s greatest test (Genesis 42:1–20)

How did Joseph handle the most difficult temptation of his life?

When we idealize our heroes, we diminish their struggles. Joseph’s temptations were real, but Mrs Potiphar wasn’t the big one. His greatest test was his brothers — what he’d do to them once he had the power to give them what they deserve.

Twenty years have passed since that fateful day when the brothers threw Joseph in a pit, planning to put him to death so they would not have to bow to him (37:20). They don’t know it, but he now holds all power over the most dominant kingdom, the great house of Pharoah (41:40).

Joseph married into an influential Egyptian family. His children have a future in Egypt. He tries to forget his biological family and the pain they caused him (41:51). But one day the horrors come flooding back as he sees the faces of his brothers in the crowd.

The famine is biting. Jacob believes Joseph is dead, and he fears the rest of his family will die too. Jacob doesn’t know why Egypt has grain, but he sends his sons as a caravan on a desperate mission: Go down there and buy some grain for us, so that we may live and not die (42:2).

Joseph is not pleased to see them. They ceased being his brothers when they sold him. His distance and displeasure are palpable: he treated them as strangers and spoke roughly to them (42:7).

Their lives are now in Joseph’s hands. He has the power to treat them as they deserve, and every reason to do so. Is this the moment of sweet revenge?

Joseph charges them with espionage. No doubt Joseph met with the military many times regarding how to protect Egypt’s grain reserves from desperate foreigners. Depicting his enemies as Egypt’s enemies, he can hold them indefinitely as a matter of national security: You are spies (42:9).

Under interrogation, they claim to be sons of one man … not spies (42:11). They reveal their family story: a younger brother at home, and another is no more (42:13). That sounds innocuous in a world where child mortality was common, but this Egyptian seems to know they’re hiding a terrible truth: It’s just as I told you: you are spies! (42:14)

Are they still living the lie they told their father about Joseph? He plans to test your words, to see whether there is truth in you (42:16). The brothers must prove their story by sending one home to return with the youngest.

It’s an impossible test, and Joseph knows it. One on his own has little chance of making it home safely. Even if he did make it, Jacob would rather die than let Benjamin go, the only surviving memory of his beloved deceased Rachel (35:19; 42:4, 36).

Who’s being tested?

Joseph says he’s testing his brothers, but he’s the one whose character is being verified. What will he do with the brothers who planned to kill him now he has the power to put them to death or leave them locked up for life — like they did to him? Is this the end of the twelve tribes of Israel?

Remember when God tested Abraham? (22:1) Would Abraham turn from God once he had a son, the power for future generations in his hands? Or would Abraham keep trusting God for a kingdom of God through his descendants?

Will Joseph trust God with the future of the tribes of Israel? Or will he take matters into his own hands, the way they took his future into theirs? The power in Joseph’s hands is too frightening to contemplate, and they know it.

The most terrifying moment comes when Joseph repeats his false allegation against them and imprecates Pharaoh’s power rather than God’s in his quest for justice: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies! (42:16)

By the third day, Joseph is managing his anger better. He no longer wants them dead. He has refocused his heart on the God who wants them alive: Do this and you will live, for I fear God (42:18).

Joseph offers a more reasonable plan. Only one must remain: The rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households (42:19). The final brother will be released when they return with Benjamin, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die (42:20).


For three days, Joseph wrestled with the temptation to use death as justice for his brothers. We’ve struggled with that kind of “justice” since Cain introduced death to the world and his descendants bragged, I have killed a man for wounding me (Genesis 4:23). Fortunately, there were others who remained in God’s presence and began to call on the name of the Lord instead (4:26).

The temptation to use power like Pharoah is the biggest test of Joseph’s life. At the end of the story, the brothers still fear Joseph may take revenge (50:15–18). But Joseph knows we’re not each other’s judge. That belongs to God alone, and God is in the business of saving people, not destroying them.

The final testimony of Joseph’s life is this:

Genesis 50:19–20 (NIV)
19 Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”

What others are saying

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 519:

One can only imagine how difficult it would be for Joseph to restrain himself, to control his emotions, at this point. What is he thinking on the inside? Is he relieved and ecstatic to know his family is alive? Does the brothers’ unannounced and unexpected appearance open the floodgates of a lot of bitter memories?

Nahum M. Sarna, Genesis, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 293:

Joseph now finds himself caught in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. His sense of contentment is shaken by his unpleasant memories. The instinctive desire for revenge is tempered by the knowledge that his father and brother back in Canaan may be starving and are depending on the acquisition of provisions in Egypt. He is desperate for news of their welfare but dares not give himself away by overly anxious inquiry. Above all, he feels he must find out conclusively whether or not his brothers regret their actions and have truly reformed themselves. He decides upon a series of tests. …
An allegation of espionage provided a convenient pretext under which Joseph could have the brothers arrested and subjected to psychological pressure.

Claus Westermann, A Continental Commentary: Genesis 37–50 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002), 108:

The interrogator contests the brothers’ assertion and repeats his accusation (v. 12); then he repeats it twice more (vv. 14 and 16). … The constant repetition of the accusation is meant to unnerve the accused and break down his resistance. … In an interrogation of this kind, the accused is defenseless, and the interrogator can take advantage of this lack of defense and beat the accused down by persistent hammering. It is disturbing that nothing has changed down to the present day.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview Church, Perth, Western Australia

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