How strange Joseph’s behavior towards his brothers appears to us today! Why does he not simply welcome his family as friends, tell them all is forgiven, and send for his father and his brother Benjamin? Why does Joseph carry on with the elaborate Egyptian masquerade and
the tests with money and the silver cup smuggled into the sacks of his brothers? Why does he take Simeon hostage and arrange the dinner where Benjamin is favored above all his other brothers?
We should begin by recognizing that Joseph is a remarkably wise man. If we study him, we too can gain wisdom. Biblical wisdom is the skill to discern the secrets hidden in the heart. Many years after Joseph, King Solomon prayed for and was granted a heart of wisdom to judge over God’s people (1 Kings 3:1–15). To illustrate his wisdom, the chronicler records that two prostitutes appeared before Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of the same son (1 Kings 3:16–28). Each of the harlots had given birth to a son. But one mother had inadvertently smothered her son in the night and had substituted the body of her dead son for the living son of the other woman. The mother of the living son awakened and realized that the dead son had been placed beside her in the night and that the other woman had taken her living son. So these women came to Solomon for judgment in the matter. There were no witnesses to the facts, only the testimony of the two women, who, as harlots, were regarded as skilled liars (Prov. 2:16; 7:5–21).
Solomon, pretending exasperation, threatened to take a sword and divide the living son in two and give half to each of the two women. The mother of the dead son spontaneously agreed, while the true mother instinctively and immediately yielded her right as a mother in a desperate attempt to save the life of her son. Before the two women realized what had transpired, all the court of Solomon knew beyond any reasonable doubt who the true mother was. Solomon’s ruse had discovered the heart of the true mother before all the royal court.
When Joseph sees his brothers, his challenge is to know the true state of their hearts toward him. Have they repented of the evil they did against him? Would they display the same jealousy toward his brother Benjamin, the other son of Rachel, as they had shown against him? Or had God changed their hearts so that they truly loved the brethren, the test of true faith? Had God kept covenant with the family of Jacob?
In order to test his brothers, Joseph speaks through an interpreter and maintains his Egyptian demeanor. When Benjamin comes with Judah and all the brothers the second time, Joseph hosts a banquet for them in his home. He seats them in the order of their birth so that Benjamin is seated last. But Joseph favors Benjamin, who is seated in the seat of least honor, with the greatest gifts, giving Benjamin five times the portions he gave his other brothers (Gen. 43:34). Joseph is thus recreating the favor his father Jacob had shown toward him to see whether the brothers would respond in jealousy toward another favored son of Rachel. But Moses tells us that they overlooked this frank display of favoritism and simply ate and drank with Joseph and were convivial with him (Gen. 43:34).
Joseph’s greatest test of the brothers occurred as they began their return to Canaan. Very precise instructions were given by Joseph to put Benjamin in the place of suspicion by secreting Joseph’s silver cup into Benjamin’s sack of grain (Gen. 44:1–2). The test is perfect. When the cup is found with Benjamin and his guilt appears to be established, Joseph’s steward offers to permit the brothers to go back to Canaan, leaving only Benjamin behind as a slave in Egypt (Gen. 44:10). Joseph’s test precisely recreates the scene in Canaan twenty-two years before when the same brothers were ready to sell their brother for silver into Egyptian slavery, they themselves going on at no cost. But this time the brothers respond differently. They will not leave a brother behind in Egypt in bonds. Judah, who had sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver, offers himself as a surety to “drink” the lethal consequences of the silver cup of his brother, and, as the Hebrew text literally says, “to bear the sin” before his father forever (Gen. 43:9).
Joseph’s wisdom is to test the brothers and to discover the authenticity of their redemption. By this means Joseph recognizes that God has brought good out of evil (Gen. 50:20). The narrative’s true focus, however, is on Judah. At the beginning of the narrative, Judah (in the Septuagint Greek text, Judah’s name is “Judas”) sells his brother for twenty pieces of silver. At the climax of the narrative, Judah is willing to “drink” the judgment of the silver cup and to stand as a substitute for his brother, bearing the “sin” before his father forever. In other words, Judah begins as a type of Judas and ends as a type of Jesus! Such is the magnitude of the measure of God’s redemption that He can bring divine good out of human evil, even as Joseph had said.