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Practical Lessons from the Story of Joseph: Chapter 4 - Joseph and His Brothers

By J.R. Miller

      "Then Joseph kissed each of his brothers and wept over them, and then they began talking freely with him." Genesis 45:15

      It was a startling revelation to the Hebrew brothers, when these words fell from the lips of the great ruler of Egypt: "I am Joseph!" No wonder they could not answer him. No wonder they were troubled at his presence.

      But let us bring up the story. There were seven years of plenty, and then the seven famine years began. The famine extended to Canaan, where Jacob lived. He and his household began to be in need. Then Jacob heard that there was food in Egypt, and that the hungry people of all lands were flocking there to buy bread. So he sent his sons to obtain provision for his household. The brothers seem to have been slow to start on this journey. Their father had to urge them. "Why are you standing around looking at one another?" he asked them. "I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die."

      But we are not surprised that they did not set out eagerly for Egypt. It was into Egypt they had sold their brother. That was more than twenty years ago--but the memory was fresh as ever. There are some things we cannot forget. The mention of Egypt was like a sword in the flesh of these strong men. No wonder they had to be urged to start. Only ten went. The father would not trust Benjamin away from himself.

      Arriving in Egypt, they were ushered into the presence of the governor, and bowed down themselves before him, with their faces to the earth. So Joseph's dreams were fulfilled at last. He knew his brothers. At first he treated them harshly, made himself strange to them, spoke roughly to them. Why did he do this? Was it resentment? Was he repaying the evil they had done to him so long before? No! he was testing them. He wanted to know if they had grown better through the long years. So he tested them at different points, in different ways.

      If one has wronged us, treated us unjustly, shown toward us a spirit of envy, or of ingratitude; forgiveness is not all the duty we owe him. We have a duty to the man's soul. We should seek the cure in him of the evil disposition which caused him to sin against us. We should try to make it impossible for him to repeat the wrong to another.

      Before he revealed himself to them--Joseph sought to know whether his brothers had been cured of the badness of heart which twenty years before had led them to treat him so cruelly. Were they penitent, or hardened still? He found very soon that they were suffering the bitter pain of remorse. He put them into prison for three days, alleging that they were spies. Again they stood before him. Not supposing that he understood their Hebrew language, they talked among themselves:

      "They said one to another--This has all happened because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his terror and anguish and heard his pleadings, but we wouldn't listen. That's why this trouble has come upon us!"

      Joseph heard their words and understood what they said. He saw that they remembered their sin against him. He saw, too, that they were feeling the sense of remorse and conscious guilt, and believed that the calamity which had now befallen them, was in retribution for the great crime they had committed against their brother.

      Remember that he was now testing them, to find out whether they were the same men who had dealt so cruelly with him twenty-two years before. The first testing was encouraging. They seemed to be truly penitent. Joseph was deeply affected. The record says "He turned away from them and began to weep." This shows that even at this first interview, his heart was tender and loving toward them. Why did he not then make himself known to them at once? Instead of doing this, however, he suppressed his heart's deep feeling, restrained his longing to say to them, "I am Joseph!" and to forgive them, and turned back to them sternly, saying that one of them must stay in prison while the others returned home with food for their households. Then he took Simeon and bound him before their eyes.

      Why was this seeming severity, when his heart was so full of love for them? He was not yet sure enough of the genuineness of their repentance. Perhaps it was the prison that had wrought this penitence in them. Perhaps they were not really changed in their heart and character. Mere sorrow for wrongdoing, is not enough. One may have bitter remorse for a bad past--and yet not be cured of the spirit which did the evil. Would these men do now the same thing, over which they were grieving so bitterly? Joseph was not yet sure, and he would not make the mistake of revealing himself to them and forgiving them--until he was satisfied on this point. So he sent them away.

      Nine brothers went back to Hebron. On their way home they were startled at finding their money in their sacks with the food. Guilt makes such cowards of men, that every new incident fills them with new terror. Finding the money, made the brothers afraid. They interpreted this bit of generosity as evidence of enmity, a trick to get some cause of harming them. Even a sweet bird note, sounds like a warning of retribution, to a conscience in remorse. Our own heart--makes our world to us. Peace in the bosom changes a wilderness to a garden; it changes thorns to roses; it changes discords to harmonies. But remorse makes a hell of the loveliest spot of God's footstool.

      The brothers went home. At length, they are back again in Egypt, and Benjamin is now with them. They had a kindly reception. The governor asked after the welfare of their father "the old man of whom you spoke." He saw Benjamin and his heart yearned upon his brother, and he sought where to weep. He could not keep back the tears, and he entered his own room and there gave vent to his feelings. Gaining control over his emotions, he washed his face, to remove the traces of his tears, and came again to his brothers. He had them dine with him. Still he did not make himself known to them. He let them start homeward again. They are happy now. Simeon is free, too, out of prison and with the others.

      But they have not gone far, before they are suddenly overtaken by an Egyptian officer who charges them with the theft of Joseph's silver cup. Sack after sack is taken down and searched, in the order of the men's ages. At last the missing treasure is found in Benjamin's sack. Instantly dismay seizes all the brothers. They did not know that Benjamin was innocent, that Joseph had ordered the cup to be put into his sack for a purpose. All the circumstances were against him. It looked as if this youngest brother of theirs, of whom their father was so proud--was a thief! Here he was, bringing disgrace upon all of them. Now mark where the test of character comes in. If these older brothers had been the same men they were twenty-two years before, they would have made short, sharp work with Benjamin. But what did they do?

      They tore their clothes in their sorrow, and went back, all of them, to the city. They hastened to Joseph's house and fell down before him on the ground. Joseph spoke sharply to them: "What deed is this that you have done? "

      There was another outburst of penitence: "Oh, my lord, what can we say to you? How can we plead? How can we prove our innocence? God is punishing us for our sins. My lord, we have all returned to be your slaves--we and our brother who had your cup in his sack." They do not denounce Benjamin, and propose to give him up. They will all stand together.

      Joseph said he could not punish the innocent with the guilty. "Only the man who stole the cup will be my slave. The rest of you may go home to your father."

      Here was the test. Would these ten men go away and leave Benjamin alone, in the grasp of Egyptian justice, to suffer for his supposed offense? Twenty-two years ago they would have done it. Instead of this, however, we have one of the finest scenes in all human history. These brothers will not desert Benjamin. The speech of Judah, as he pleads for Benjamin, is one of the noblest pieces of natural eloquence in any literature, sacred or profane.

      "Then Judah stepped forward and said, "My lord, let me say just this one word to you. Be patient with me for a moment, for I know you could have me killed in an instant, as though you were Pharaoh himself. "You asked us, my lord, if we had a father or a brother. We said, 'Yes, we have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, his youngest son. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother's children, and his father loves him very much.' And you said to us, 'Bring him here so I can see him.' But we said to you, 'My lord, the boy cannot leave his father, for his father would die.' But you told us, 'You may not see me again unless your youngest brother is with you.' So we returned to our father and told him what you had said. And when he said, 'Go back again and buy us a little food,' we replied, 'We can't unless you let our youngest brother go with us. We won't be allowed to see the man in charge of the grain unless our youngest brother is with us.' Then my father said to us, 'You know that my wife had two sons, and that one of them went away and never returned--doubtless torn to pieces by some wild animal. I have never seen him since. If you take away his brother from me, too, and any harm comes to him, you would bring my gray head down to the grave in deep sorrow.' "And now, my lord, I cannot go back to my father without the boy. Our father's life is bound up in the boy's life. When he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We will be responsible for bringing his gray head down to the grave in sorrow" Genesis 44:18-31

      No one can read these pathetic words of Judah, as he pleads for his brother Benjamin, and not see that these men have been wonderfully changed since that day when they sold another brother into bondage, and were deaf to all his piteous cries and entreaties. Judah evidently speaks for all his brothers. We notice particularly, in these men, a tender regard for their father, which they had not shown before. They had seen his uncomforted sorrow all the years since they had robbed him of Joseph; now they cannot endure to cause him even a single pang. Their gentle thought for him is really beautiful. We notice also a tender love for their youngest brother, which contrasts wonderfully with their hard-hearted cruelty toward Joseph that day at Dothan. As they were then--they would not have cared what might happen to Benjamin; now Judah begs to take the boy's place and bear his punishment, staying in Egypt as the governor's slave, so that Benjamin may return home.

      Joseph was now satisfied. At their first visit he had seen their deep consciousness of guilt, as they remembered their sin against him. In this final testing he saw more--he saw that they were changed men. The grace of God had been at work in them. The sin of twenty-two years ago, they could not now commit. Penitence had wrought deeply in them, softening their hearts. They were prepared now to stand together as brothers and together to lay the foundation of national life.

      The time has come therefore for disclosure. All doubts are gone from Joseph's mind. As soon as Judah had finished his eloquent plea, Joseph ordered all the attendants to go out of the room. No eye must witness the sacred scene which was about to be enacted. When they were altogether alone, Joseph, with streaming eyes and loud weeping made himself known to his brothers. "I am Joseph!" he said to his brothers.

      Who can imagine their feelings--as these words fell upon their ears! First there must have been terror mingled with the amazement. Again all their sin against their brother rose before them. Here was Joseph whom they had so cruelly wronged. He was Ruler of Egypt, and they were in his power; what would he do with them? Twenty-two years ago, they had put him in the pit to die, and then had hastily lifted him out, only to sell him as a slave. They had supposed that they were now done with "that dreamer." But here they are before him in utterly reversed position. Is it any wonder they stood speechless in the presence of Joseph, or that they could not answer him, or that they were troubled?

      But Joseph's heart was too full to prolong the scene. "Come near to me," he said. "I am Joseph your brother, whom you sold into Egypt!" But he hastened to comfort them. "And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God!" Genesis 45:5-8

      Then he bade them hasten to his father with the news--and to return, all of them, with their father and their families, to dwell in Egypt, to be near to him. The wonderful scene closes with Joseph's falling upon Benjamin's neck in loving embrace, then kissing all his brothers and weeping with them in the joy of reconciliation. The barriers were all now broken down. The old sin was forgiven. The long-sundered family was brought together again. Estrangement had been healed by love and peace.

      Here we may pause in the narrative, to gather some of the PRACTICAL LESSONS.

      Joseph's dealing with his brothers is an illustration of Christ's dealing with us, when we have sinned. When the brothers came the first time to Egypt and stood before Joseph, he was ready to forgive them, to be reconciled to them, and to take them into his favor. When he heard them talk in confidence among themselves of their sin against him, he was so moved that he had to turn away from them and weep. There was no bitterness even then in his heart toward them. Yet he did not at once say to them, "I am Joseph!" and fall upon their necks in forgiving love. He restrained his tender feelings and impulses. He let them go away and for months longer remain uncomforted by the forgiveness, which was even then warm in his heart. He did it because he believed it were better for them that he should do this. He was not satisfied that they had yet reached the experience in which forgiveness would be the full, rich blessing it should be to them.

      In all this we have an illustration of the way Christ ofttimes deals with us in forgiving us. There is forgiveness in his heart the moment we stand before him. We have not to excite and kindle love in him. He loves us in our sins. He is always ready to forgive. But ofttimes he leads the penitent through experience after experience, before he reveals himself in full, rich love. These brothers were sorry for their sin when they first stood before Joseph. "We are truly guilty!" they said among themselves.

      That was confession. But had their sorrow for their sin--cured them of their wickedness of heart? Joseph was not sure at first. Mere consciousness of guilt is not enough when we stand before Christ. It is not enough to say, "I have sinned." There is a sorrow of the world, which works death. It is a sorrow because the sin is found out, because it brings shame and reproach upon us, because it hurts our reputation among men, or because it must be punished. Such penitence as this, does not satisfy Christ. He does not yet declare himself to the man who stands before him, weeping over his sins--but with heart unchanged. He does not yet forgive him. He may even seem cold to him, and may treat him with apparent harshness.

      The sorrow for sin which God wants and waits for--is godly sorrow, which works amendment of life; which is not only sorry for past sins--but which will no more repeat those sins. When Joseph learned at last that his brothers were new men, gentle-hearted toward their father whom they had once so cruelly and with such heartlessness, wronged; and loving and noble-spirited toward their brother, instead of manifesting the spirit of envy and wickedness which they had shown toward himself--he quickly revealed his identity to them, forgave them, took them into his heart, and lavished his generous love upon them.

      Just so, does Jesus. When our repentance is sincere, true and deep--he then reveals himself to us, makes himself known to us, grants us forgiveness, and gives us his peace. As Joseph invited his brothers to come to Egypt, where they would be near him and where he could nourish them--so Jesus invites his forgiven ones into fellowship with him, into the family of God, to share all his blessedness and glory.

      This story teaches us the duty of forgiving those who have wronged us. It would be hard to conceive of any sorer wrong that could be done to another, than was done to Joseph by his brothers. There was no cause for it either, no provocation. It began in a feeling of envy because their father loved Joseph more than he loved them, and weakly showed his preference. It was aggravated by the boy's dreams, which he in a naive and childlike way told them. Envy grew to hate, and hate ripened into the intention of murder, which by God's providence was softened into selling as a slave. It was cruel wrong--and causeless! But we have seen how freely and how beautifully it was forgiven.

      There does not appear ever to have been any revengeful feeling in Joseph's heart toward his brothers. He seems to have kept his heart free from any trace of bitterness--and full of sweet, gentle love, through the years. When his brothers bowed before him, and he had them in his power--all his old affection for them revived. He forgave them completely. He took them to the old place in his love. He confessed them as his brothers before the king. He had them come and live close beside him, and nourished them with affectionate tenderness.

      Surely it is a beautiful picture--Joseph loving and blessing those who had sought to kill him, who had caused him years of sorrow and grief! It is more than a mere human sweetness and gentleness of heart, that does this. Centuries before Christ came to teach the world the blessedness of forgiving, before the cross was raised up, before the gospel was written--Joseph had learned the whole lesson! How? He must have lived close to the heart of God all those years, and thus he became the interpreter of the divine forgiveness.

      And the lesson is for us! We live more than as many years after Christ's birth--as Joseph lived before he came; have we learned this lesson of forgiveness as well as Joseph had learned it? Are there any of us who have been abused by brothers as he was? Are we keeping our own heart sweet and loving under the ill-usage? Or have we allowed bitterness to creep in, a feeling of resentment, a desire for revenge? Let us study the picture of this badly-treated brother, forgiving those who had so sorely wronged him--until its spirit sinks into the depths of our spirit! Life is too short for us to carry in our heart, even for one little day--a feeling of bitterness.

      "Forgive us our sins--just as we have forgiven those who have sinned against us." So we pray.

      We are taught here, too, that God uses even men's evil--to help advance his kingdom. Joseph said to his brothers: "Do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you." We can readily see how blessing and good came out of all the evil done by the brothers of Joseph. Had not Joseph been sent to Egypt--no preparation would have been made for the famine. Even the men who did the cruel wrong themselves, ate the bread which through their sin had been laid up! This is a wonderful truth. God's hand is on everything. No evil deed of worst men, is allowed to run riot among the divine plans and purposes, or to defeat his love and grace. This does not make sin less sinful; but it assures us that even the wrath of man, shall be made to praise God.

      It has been, said that some of the greatest treasures in heaven will be blunders which God's children have made when trying their best to do something to show their love. The soiled and puckered handkerchief the little girl is trying to hem, because she loves her mother--has a value away beyond anything a seamstress can do. Many a piece of marred work, marred by one who wanted to help Christ, and did her best--will have immeasurable value in God's sight. Many of us in looking back over our life, can see many things we thought were mistakes--but which now appear to have been the very best things we could have done. It seems as if the "mistakes" were all the while intended to be there, so thoroughly have they become part of the fabric of our life and work.

      Indeed we may go further, and say that the errors, yes, even the sins of our life, when repented of, forsaken and forgiven--are taken into the hand of the great Master builder, and used in the temple walls. The result of Peter's fall was so transmuted, that it became a great blessing to him. Someone says, "God does not need our sins to work out his good intentions--but we give him little other material;" and it is surely a comfort to us in our penitence--to know that even out of such material, he can build beauty and good. It is a comfort to know that while we cannot undo our wrong deeds--yet God can keep them from undoing us--and can even use them in his kingdom.

      This truth should not make anyone think less penitently of his sins. We may not do evil--that good may come, depending upon God to bring good out of it. This would be presumption and blasphemy. The lesson is for those who have already sinned and done wrong and foolish things. They never can be, as if they had not done evil. The memory of transgression will always give pain. Penitence is not the best thing; innocence is far better. But, having sinned, penitence is blessed; and even out of the hurt and the marring--God can build good. "You meant it for evil; but God meant it unto good."

      We must all stand one day before him, whom by our sins we are grieving and wronging these passing days. The brothers never expected to meet again, the lad whom they had sold away as a slave. But one day, in Egypt, they found themselves face to face with him, and heard from his lips the startling words, "I am Joseph!" Pilate had Jesus before him, pale and despised, and sent him to his cross. In judgment, Pilate will lift up his eyes on Jesus and hear the words, "I am Jesus!" Are you wronging Christ? Are you grieving him, rejecting him? Are you harming any of his little ones? There will be a day when you shall stand before a great white throne, and shall hear from the lips of him who shall sit there, "I am Jesus!" Let us so treat Christ now--that when he reveals himself to us in the judgment, it may not terrify us with the words, "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels!"--but give us joy to hear the precious words pronounced by his lips, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world!"

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See Also:
   Chapter 1 - Joseph and His Dreams
   Chapter 2 - From Prison to Palace
   Chapter 3 - An Interpreter for God
   Chapter 4 - Joseph and His Brothers
   Chapter 5 - Joseph and His Father
   Chapter 6 - Joseph in Old Age and Death


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