Why Did Joseph Test His Brothers?

In Genesis 42, Joseph’s brothers who had sold him into slavery arrived in Egypt and appeared before him, the ruler of Egypt. They obviously did not expect to see him there and so did not recognize him. Joseph recognized his brothers, but he did not reveal his true identity to them. Instead, he treated them with harshness. Why?

Commentators are not agreed on the reason. Perhaps my favorite suggestion is one we might call the “Hey y’all, watch this!” explanation. Picture Joseph talking to his friends at his office in Egypt. His brothers come in, and he says, “Hey y’all, remember my brothers I was telling y’all about. There they are. Watch this! Hold my beer!”

Unfortunately, this fruitful way of interpreting the Scripture has not been widely accepted by scholars.

One thing that scholars seem to agree on is that Joseph was not trying to get revenge. As one example, Matthew Henry says: “Now why was Joseph thus hard upon his brethren? We may be sure it was not from a spirit of revenge, that he might now trample upon those who had formerly trampled upon him he was not a man of that temper.”

This might be hard to believe in light of the fact that Joseph put all of the brothers in prison for three days. Then, he kept the oldest, Simeon, in prison, telling them that he would only release him if they came back with their youngest brother Benjamin. After all, when people start taking hostages, it’s not funny anymore.

There are two solid reasons to think that this is not revenge. First, Joseph could have done much worse. He could have made them slaves. He chose not to. Second, his own explanation of the situation indicates a long reflection on the meaning of his sufferings that excludes a desire for revenge: “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” (Genesis 45:5).

So, what was Joseph doing? It seems most likely that he was trying to determine if they had changed. Forgiveness allows people a fresh start, but relationships are built on the basis of people’s character. If someone has been abusive in the past, forgiveness allows a fresh start. However, a real relationship can only flourish if the abuser can let go of their abusive ways.

So it was with Joseph. Happily, in this case, Joseph saw that their hearts had changed. His pretend harshness culminated with a situation where he was going to take Benjamin as his slave. Judah stood up and said:

So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father, and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. . . . Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers.

At this point, Joseph could bare it no longer. He broke down and wept before his brothers. Reconciliation had begun.

Is there an application to us today? When we don’t feel safe because of past hurts, we can approach those who have hurt us to see if they have changed. If they have, then we should be willing to be reconciled without demanding anything else in return.

This may be hard, but it is the way of King Jesus. “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”


8 Replies to “Why Did Joseph Test His Brothers?”

  1. I appreciate thus explanation it confirmed my thoughts along those lines Thanks for clarifying this question I’m always asking questions on google and to my surprise I found the answer

  2. Thank you, Dorothy, for taking time to read my thoughts and for your encouragement. So glad this article could be of help to you.

  3. Thanks so much for your commitment and effort to enlightening me and others through this plateform.
    Joseph for sure Fear GOD, otherwise he would not have to put them through those harsh processes if he had wanted to take revenge- all he needed to do is to accuss them of a capital sin and sentence them accordingly.
    Along with your thoughts I agree that he needed to know if they can be trusted.
    The LORD replenish your strength.

  4. Thank you, Enoch, for taking the time to read the article and comment. Joseph really did have his brothers in his power, didn’t he? May you be strengthened in the Lord as well.

  5. Joseph wasn’t ready to forgive at first. It’s true that he was testing them to see if they’d changed, but he was testing them to extremes. What you have to remember here is that the Israelites have a much different concept of forgiveness. In order to atone, you must admit to your wrongs, understand why it was wrong, and find a way not to repeat it. Jewish people don’t forgive so easily.

  6. Trying to track down the owner of the picture you used. Is it you? I would like to use the picture, too.

  7. Unfortunately, I am not. I am not even sure how I got it. I probably found it on Google images. Thanks for checking in, Susan.

  8. Hello, Boudin, thanks for your comment.

    I’m not sure if what you say is supported in the text. However, I think that Joseph probably came to the resolution that God meant it for good after a long period of experience. I think this gave him the power to forgive.

    In this case, it’s not clear that the brothers had any of the things you mention, but Joseph was not going to hold it against them or act against the wrong they committed. In my view, this is what forgiveness is.

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