Does the universe repay us as we deserve? (Genesis 42:21–28)

“What is this that God has done to us?” (Genesis 42:28)

People expect to be rewarded for doing right, and to suffer when they harm others. Religions teach that this will happen in the next life if not in this one, whether that’s understood as eternity or reincarnation. Does the Bible teach this?

You can certainly find cases of people who felt like this. Joseph’s brothers believe their past has caught up with them when they find themselves in an Egyptian prison:

Genesis 42:21–22 (ESV)
21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

The accusing voice they hear is the guilt within. Their present suffering is the suffering they gave Joseph, returned to haunt them like Duncan’s ghost in Macbeth. That’s what they believe. We know it’s Joseph probing them.

Held to account

The oldest brother echoes a phrase we heard in Genesis 9:5: a reckoning for his blood. As Abel found, the world is not a just place. Cain’s descendants killed for justice (4:23), escalating the violence until it corrupted the world (6:11). After the flood, God gave humans authority to take a killer’s life: From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man (9:5).

That marked a curious development in the Genesis story, as if the universe doesn’t repay evil sufficiently, so humans must intervene to get the justice they deserve. It was the first time humans were given authority over each other’s lives, a major change in human relations, so different to how God treated a murderer (4:15).

As ruler of Egypt, Joseph has the power to execute his brothers, to call them to account for how they destroyed his life. His temptation to do so was as real as their fear.

Joseph weighs them. He understands their guilt and fear. The emotion is overwhelming:

Genesis 42:23–24 (ESV)
 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.

The brothers are astounded at how this Egyptian understands them. The eldest brother of a Middle Eastern family was responsible for the others, but Reuben is wriggling off the hook, insisting he should not be held accountable when he never agreed to harm Joseph in the first place (compare 37:21-30).

Simeon is second in line. They all know Simeon and Levi had legendary anger issues, zealots who kill to ensure people get what they deserve (34:25, 30; 49:5). The brothers are astonished as the Egyptian ruler chooses Simeon and binds him before their eyes.

Not held to account

Joseph releases the other nine. He’s not taking his revenge. If forgiveness is releasing people from obligation instead of holding them to account, Joseph forgives them and lets them go.

How did Joseph make this journey to forgiveness? His steps are set out for us to follow:

  1. You will live, for I fear God (42:18). The first step is releasing people to answer to God instead of us.
  2. Once Joseph made that choice, he was free to feel empathy for them and their families, your starving households (42:19).
  3. Consequently, it wasn’t anger but compassion that overwhelmed Joseph as he saw them struggling with their guilt and fear (42:24).
  4. Joseph is now free to treat them as his brothers, to bless them with everything they could need for their journey home (42:25).

What a picture of forgiveness Joseph paints:

Genesis 42:25–26 (ESV)
 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them. 26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed.

Joseph repaid them fully — not what they deserved, but the full amount of the famine-priced grain the family had paid. That is grace.

“But I didn’t pay!”

This doesn’t add up for people who believe we must suffer for our wrongdoing. If I haven’t paid, will it still come back to haunt me later?

When the brothers discover how they’ve been repaid, their fears shift from how Joseph could treat them to how God will get them for what they’ve done:

Genesis 42:27–28 (ESV)
27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

That might be the ultimate question. Even if we get away with stuff for 20 years, is God still catching up with us, determined to give us what we deserve?

Despite their terror, God is not demanding the destruction of Jacob’s sons. He’s saving their lives. As Joseph explains later, You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive (Genesis 50:20).


For people who believe we should get what we deserve, grace feels incongruous. It’s a seismic shift from what we expect: What is this that God has done to us?

Joseph modelled God’s grace when he repaid the evil they had done with good, everything they might need for their journey. Isn’t that how God himself responds to his world? For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:17)

Consequently, we have no business condemning the world either. God never called us to manipulate people’s fear and guilt as a means to get them to respond to us. Guilt is not the doorway to grace.

Grace overturns retribution’s case against us. Grace announces release for captives. When humanity condemned the Christ, God raised him up to lead the captives out of death, into life where we also forgive each other as the family in his leadership.

Not condemnation but grace restores divine justice to the world. Grace is a non-transactional way of living and relating.

What others are saying

Joyce G. Baldwin, The Message of Genesis 12–50, The Bible Speaks Today (England: IVP, 1986), 181:

Joseph gave them more than they asked (25) and even returned to their sacks the money they had brought. It was a loving gesture, misunderstood by the brothers, who regarded with suspicion this unexpected generosity. To their minds it could only be mysterious and ominous, an act of God, of whom they were afraid (28). Sheer grace they found frankly perplexing.

Walter Brueggemann, Genesis, Interpretation (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1982), 337–338:

The guilt of the brothers has an enormous power: “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother” (42:21). “How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants” (44:16). They are not free enough to have faith. They are harnessed to the past. As a result, the brothers are excessively concerned for the safety and well-being of their father and Benjamin. Having falsely grieved their father, they must be on continual guard that they do not add to his grief (44:30–34). Because they could not believe the dream, they are forced to treat father Jacob as though he were the last generation who must be kept alive and unharmed for perpetuity. They cannot see themselves as a generation of promise-bearers. They certainly have no clue about their brother Joseph. They are unable to think of any generation after themselves. They are fated, locked to a past moment. They cannot be open to any new possibility, either as a new gift from God or as fresh work of Joseph.

Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18–50, NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 527:

Reuben’s now comes the reckoning for his blood recalls those passages in the OT in which Yahweh seeks or requires (dāraš, bqš) the blood of the murdered, for this blood has been removed from beyond his control (Gen. 9:5; Ps. 9:13 [Eng. 12]; Ezek. 3:18, 20; 33:6, 8). When a person took the life of another, he in essence gained control of the blood of the victim (see 2 Sam. 4:11, “should I not now demand his blood from your hand?”)

Ambrose, On Joseph 8.45, fourth century (ACCS, Downers Grove: IVP, 2002, 278):

They indeed brought money, but the good Joseph gave them the grain and gave them back the money. For Christ is not bought with money but with grace.

Related posts

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s