Sometimes our conscience needs to be prodded and refreshed so that we not only feel guilt but act upon it. Wisely, Joseph did not attack the brothers who had mistreated him but tested them so they would both acknowledge and repent of their sin.
In 1811 a fund was created by the U. S. Treasury Department called the “Conscience Fund.” It all started with $5 sent in anonymously by someone who had cheated the government and wanted to pay it back. Over the past two hundred years, the Treasury Department has received more than $6 million in repayments, with written confessions included. One man mailed in nine cents because he had reused a postage stamp; another sent in $40,000 in several allotments to make up for what he had stolen in taxes over many years. Another individual wasn’t able to repay with money but sent in some handmade quilts as repayment. Many of these people were trying to silence the guilt they felt. Others were a little suspect, like one individual who wrote, “Dear Internal Revenue Service, I have not been able to sleep at night because I cheated on last year’s income tax. Enclosed find a cashier’s check for $1,000. If I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.”
What makes us lose sleep over sin? What is it inside us that so deeply troubles us?
No matter where you go in the world—Africa, Australia, Albania, America—everybody knows that stealing your neighbor’s chicken is wrong. That guilty feeling isn’t a social construct; it’s produced by a God-given creation called the conscience.
Your conscience encourages you when you’re right and gets on to you when you’re wrong. The problem is, your conscience can be trained like you train your dog to roll over and play dead. Our conscience must be trained, not by our society, but by the Scriptures.
But let me encourage you; if you’re bothered by something you’ve done, that’s actually a sign that your conscience is fulfilling its God-given function. It’s still operating, and it can be revived.
Here in Genesis chapter 42, we’re going to watch the revival of the conscience in Joseph’s brothers. For twenty years they have tried to ignore their guilty consciences. And it hasn’t worked for one moment—and that’s good news.
Just as Joseph predicted, the famine in Egypt arrived, and it eventually reached into the land of Canaan, where Jacob and his family are living.
In chapter 42 we read:
When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” (verses 1-2)
In other words, “Why are you standing around looking at each other? We’re running out of food, and everybody knows you can get grain down in Egypt, so what are you waiting for?”
But Egypt is the last place these brothers want to go. Just the mention of Egypt stirs their guilty consciences.
There’s an old proverb that says, “You never speak of rope in a hangman’s house.” Well, you never speak of Egypt around the sons of Jacob.
These boys have kept a secret, but now because of the famine, they’ve run out of options. So, verse 3 tells us that off to Egypt they go. I can’t help but think that as they entered the Egyptian city and saw slaves performing menial tasks, were their hearts beating with fear that they would turn a corner and come face to face with their brother?
In verse 6 we’re told that the brothers came before Joseph and “bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground.” This sounds like that dream Joseph had as a young boy, doesn’t it? According to verse 7, Joseph recognizes them.
But verse 8 tells us, “They did not recognize him.” Well, Joseph is nearly forty years old now, wearing the rich garments and gold jewelry of the prime minister of Egypt. He would have been wearing the Egyptian headdress and been clean-shaven according to Egyptian custom, whereas his brothers, in Hebrew fashion, would have had full beards. They wouldn’t have begun to imagine this powerful Egyptian ruler was their little brother.
What Joseph does next is really a test to see if they are the same cutthroat men who had wanted to kill him years earlier. In verse 9 Joseph accuses them of being spies. And they panic, insisting they’re not spies. They explain in verse 13 their family situation, revealing that their father had twelve sons, but one is no more (that would be Joseph), and their youngest brother, Benjamin, is back home.
So, Joseph tests their character even further in verse 16 by demanding that one of them return to Canaan and bring Benjamin back to Egypt to prove what they’ve said about their family. Then in verse 17 he puts them all into prison for three days to think it over.
Keep in mind, as verse 23 tells us, that Joseph is speaking to them in Egyptian, through a Hebrew interpreter. They don’t know he can understand everything they’re saying to one another.
Back in verse 18, Joseph lets them out of prison and says he’s going to keep one brother in Egypt as insurance, while the rest of the brothers can take the grain they have purchased back home. But Joseph insists that they return to Egypt with their youngest brother; that will prove their innocence.
Joseph knows that his old brothers wouldn’t have cared about abandoning one brother to save their own skin. After all, they had abandoned him and all these years had never come looking for him in Egypt.
Without knowing Joseph can understand them, the brothers wonder out loud about what is happening to them. They see only one reason God is permitting this:
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. 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.” (verses 21-22)
Don’t miss that: “We are guilty.” In fact, in the Hebrew text, the word we is emphatic. “We—oh, we are guilty. We did not listen to Joseph as he begged for his life.”
With that, Joseph rushes out of the room, and the tears come pouring down his cheeks (verse 24). Are these tears of grief? Yes. But they’re also tears of hope. He’s just heard his brothers admit that they had known all along that what they did to him was heartless and wrong. They had lived with a guilty conscience all these years, and now they pour out to each other how sinful and selfish their lives have been.
When Joseph gains control—probably splashing water on his face—he returns and orders Simeon to be bound and placed in jail until his brothers return.
But he has another test in mind. In verse 25, Joseph has his brothers’ grain bags filled up and each man’s money placed in his sack as well. He’s going to test their loyalty and honesty. Joseph is giving them every reason in the world to never come back to Egypt. They have plenty of grain and plenty of money as well. What’s losing one more brother going to matter?
Was their apparent repentance for real? Would they care about their brother Simeon, who now waits for them in jail? Will they return to Egypt? We’ll find out as our Wisdom Journey through God’s Word continues.