So, Joseph is hoarding grain and the whole region is suffering from a massive famine. News of the food in Egypt has spread, and even Jacob has heard of it. “And he said: ‘Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt. Get you down there, and buy for us from there; that we may live, and not die (Genesis 42:2).'” Ten of Joseph’s brothers go down to Egypt, with Benjamin remaining behind because Jacob was scared of anything happening to him. When I first read this, I was surprised that Jacob hadn’t learned his lesson about playing favorites amongst his sons, but then I realized that at this point, he still doesn’t know that Joseph was betrayed by his brothers. We also don’t know yet if they’ve learned their lesson and are feeling guilty, or if Benjamin is treated the same way that Joseph was.
Now, we have the reunion we’ve been waiting for. However, it’s a one-sided reunion. “And Joseph’s brothers came, and bowed down to him with their faces to the earth. And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly with them and said to them: ‘Where did you come from?’ And they said: ‘From the land of Canaan to buy food.’ And Joseph knew his brothers, but they knew him not (Genesis 42:6-8).”
I can’t imagine what must have been going through Joseph’s mind at this moment. He hasn’t seen his brothers in years. The last time he saw them they were throwing him into a pit, contemplating his murder, and selling him into slavery. Now, he has a whole different life. He is a powerful man, with a wife and children, and the respect of the king of Egypt. And now, before him, are the brothers who betrayed him. Is he surprised that they don’t recognize him, or does he expect it? After all, he’s a different person by now, with a new name and life completely foreign to the one that he had in Canaan. In this moment, his dreams begin to come true: his brothers are bowing before him. Yet, who could have predicted that these would be the circumstances in which that prophecy would come to be?
Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies. They reassure him that they aren’t, and explain, “We are all one man’s sons; we are upright men, your servants are not spies (Genesis 42:11).” Without even knowing it, they are fulfilling the prophecy of Joseph’s childhood dreams by declaring themselves his servants.
Joseph commands them to return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin, the youngest brother, in order to prove that they aren’t spies. He holds them in Egypt for three days, and then says on the third day, “‘This do, and live; for I fear God: if you are upright men, let one of your brothers be bound in your prison-house; but you go, carry corn for the famine of your houses; and bring your youngest brother to me; so shall your words be verified, and you will not die.’ And they did so (Genesis 42:18-20).”
Speaking amongst themselves, the brothers recall their earlier actions against Joseph. “‘We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us (Genesis 42:21).'” It’s clear now that the guilt of their actions has weighed upon them for years, and it almost seems like they’ve been waiting for some kind of punishment to eventually fall on them as a result of what they did to their brother. Joseph weeps as he overhears them regretting their actions, but they don’t seem him. He chooses Shimon from amongst the brothers, and ties him up. He then fills their bags with provisions, and returns their money to them secretly, and they leave. While they’re on the road, one of the brothers opens his bag, and realizes that the money is there. They get scared, wondering what will happen to them now that it looks like they’ve been as dishonest as they were accused of being.
They return home to Jacob, and tell him of their adventures in Egypt. They tell him that they have been commanded to return with Benjamin. He responds, “‘Me have you bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Shimon is not, and you will take Benjamin away;upon me are all these things come.’ And Reuben spoke to his father, saying: ‘You shall slay my two sons, if I bring him not to you; deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him back to you.’ And he said: ‘My son will not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he only is left; if harm befall him by the way in which you go, then will you bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave (Genesis 42:36-28).'” It is clear from this promise on behalf of Reuben that he has truly repented from the sins of his youth. He is willing to promise and risk the lives of his own sons in order to reassure his father that this time, he will protect the beloved younger son. Benjamin will not suffer the same fate as Joseph, and Jacob will not be bereft of yet another son. This truly shows a lesson learned, and is one of the first times in Tanakh where a sinner has the opportunity to show his growth, by being placed in the situation that he was in previously once again, and acting differently. How many of us have those opportunities? There are so many things that we say we would have done differently, but we aren’t given the opportunity to prove that by facing the same circumstances. Reuben, however, has this chance to truly make up for a wrong. As the oldest brother, he didn’t stand up properly and save Joseph. But he can make up for his guilty conscience by protecting Benjamin, bringing peace to both himself and his father.