Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.
14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16 Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days.
18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so.
Joseph decides to test his brothers. It might be that he longed to see Benjamin. Alternatively, he may have not have believed their story and wanted to confirm for himself that his brother is alive. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:
(14) That is it . . . —Joseph persists in his charge, because, besides the information which he gained, he also wished to get Benjamin into his power, that he might have him with him. As for his brethren, he had probably as yet no settled purpose, but naturally he would feel great indignation at the treatment he had experienced at their hands, and might not be unwilling to give them some degree of punishment.
The Pulpit Commentaries adds to this idea. Joseph wants to ascertain that Benjamin is alive, he likely wants Benjamin to be in his own custody, and perhaps he doe snot mind too much if his brothers spend some time in jail to make that happen. They caused him to spend many years as both a slave and as a prisoner:
And Joseph said unto them (betraying his excitement in his language), That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies. But Joseph knew by this time that they were not spies. Hence his persistent accusation of them, which to the brothers must have seemed despotic and tyrannical, and which cannot be referred to malevolence or revenge, must be explained by a desire on the part of Joseph to bring his brothers to a right state of mind. Hereby (or in this) ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh—literally, life of Pharaoh An Egyptian oath (LXX; Gesenius, Rosenmüller, Kalisch, Lange), in using which Joseph was not without blame, aliquid esse fateor quod merito culpetur (Calvin) though by some (Ainsworth, Wordsworth, Murphy, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’) the expression is regarded simply as a strong asseveration (cf. 1 Samuel 1:26; 1 Samuel 17:55)—ye shall not go forth hence except your youngest brother come hither. The condition, which must have appeared extremely frivolous to Joseph’s brethren, was clearly designed to ascertain the truth about Benjamin. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye (i.e. the rest of you) shall be kept in prison (literally, shall be put in bonds), that your words may be proved (literally, and your words shall be proved), whether there be any truth in you; or else (literally, and if not) by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies—literally (sc. I swear), that ye are spies.
The note above also gives some background on the “by the life of Pharaoh” oath given by Joseph.
With the conditions set for their freedom, we continue on with The Pulpit Commentaries and verse 17:
And he put them all together into ward (literally, and he assembled them into prison) three days. Ostensibly in consequence of their unwillingness to agree to his proposal, but in reality to give them an experience of the suffering which they had inflicted on him, their brother, and so to awaken in their hearts a feeling of repentance. Yet the clemency of Joseph appears in this, that whereas he had lain three long years in prison as the result of their inhumanity towards him, he only inflicts on them a confinement of three days.
The note here suggests that the three days in prison was both to punish his brothers but also to awaken in their hearts an opportunity for remorse. Ellicott’s note on verse 18 continues the action forward, and here maybe Joseph conveys to his brothers that he might be from Canaanite lands himself:
(18) I fear God (Elohim).—By the use of the name Elohim they would understand that he worshipped the same God as they did. For though he may himself have used the Egyptian word for the supreme Deity, yet doubtless he would take care that the interpreter used the word Elohim.
The use of Elohim indicates that Joseph shares their religion. We can finish the section with a note from The Pulpit Commentaries:
And Joseph (whose bowels of mercy were already yearning towards them) said unto them the third day, This do, and live;—i.e. this do that ye may live—for I fear God—literally, the Elohim I fear; the term Elohim being employed, since to have said Jehovah would have been to divulge, if not his Hebrew origin, at least his acquaintance with the Hebrew faith (Hengstenberg). At the same time its use would arrest them more than the preceding adjuration, By the life of Pharaoh! and, whether or not it implied that the true God was not yet unknown in Egypt (Murphy), was clearly designed to show that he was a religious and conscientious person, who would on no account condemn them on mere suspicion (Lange). If ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison. Joseph’s first proposal, that one should go for Benjamin while nine remained as hostages for their good faith, is now reversed, and only one is required to be detained while the other nine return. If the severity of the first proposal filled them with consternation, the singular clemency of the second could not fail to impress them. Not only were the nine to be released, but their original demand for grain to carry home to Palestine was to be complied with, the grand vizier adding, to their undoubted amazement, As for the rest of you, go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses. “How differently had they acted towards their brother, whom they had intended to leave in the pit to starve” (Keil). The Egyptian governor feels compassion for their famishing households, only he will not abandon his proposition that they must return with Benjamin. But bring your youngest brother unto me—or, more emphatically, and your brother, the little one, ye shall cause to come to me. That Joseph should have insisted on this stipulation, which he must have known would cause his aged father much anxiety and deep distress, is not to be explained as “almost designed” by Joseph as a chastisement on Jacob for his undue predilection in favor of Benjamin (Kalisch), but must be ascribed either to the intensity of his longing to see his brother (Murphy), or to a desire on his part to ascertain how his brethren were affected towards Benjamin (Lawson), or to a secret belief that the best mode of persuading his father to go down to him in Egypt was to bring Benjamin thither (‘Speaker’s Commentary’), or to an inward conviction that the temporary concern which Benjamin’s absence might inflict on Jacob would be more than compensated for by the ultimate good which would thereby be secured to the whole family (Kurtz), or to the fact that God, under whose guidance throughout he acted, was unconsciously leading him in such a way as to secure the fulfillment of his dreams, which required the presence of both Benjamin and Jacob in Egypt (Wordsworth, ‘ Speaker’s Commentary). The reason which Joseph himself gave to his brethren was that Benjamin’s presence was indispensable as a corroboration of their veracity. So (literally, and) shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die (the death due to spies): And they did so—i.e. they consented to Joseph’s proposal.
Here in this section, Joseph shows more compassion. He only wants to keep one of the brothers confined. He lets the other nine return to their homeland – and with grain in tow no less. The note speculates upon Joseph’s motivations (perhaps he was indifferent to the stress parting with Benjamin would place on his father, perhaps he was punishing his father, perhaps he thought the temporary suffering would be more than outweighed by the eventual benefits, etc.)
We will see in the next section whether or not Joseph’s actions evinced in his brothers the depth of their own wrong-doing toward Joseph. The situation they were just in surely brought that memory to mind.