How do we avoid guilt?

Joseph had ten older brothers who didn’t like him because he was the favorite son of their father. Furthermore, Joseph kept having dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, thinking they were getting rid of a pest; however, the long term consequences of their action was a burden of guilt.

Their burden of guilt came to light years later during a famine when Joseph was in charge of all of Egypt. Joseph had known via a dream that the famine was coming, so he had stored up food in preparation for the famine. When the famine came, people from all over the world came to Egypt to buy grain.

Gen. 42:1 ¶ Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, “Why are you staring at one another?”

Gen. 42:2 He said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down there and buy some for us from that place, so that we may live and not die.”

Gen. 42:3 Then ten brothers of Joseph went down to buy grain from Egypt.

Gen. 42:4 But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, “I am afraid that harm may befall him.”

Notice the word “afraid”. Jacob did not send Benjamin to Egypt along with his other sons because he was afraid that something would happen to Benjamin.

Gen. 42:5 So the sons of Israel came to buy grain among those who were coming, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also.

Gen. 42:6 ¶ Now Joseph was the ruler over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.

Gen. 42:7 When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly. And he said to them, “Where have you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.”

Notice the phrase “bowed down”. Joseph’s brothers bowed down to Joseph. This was the fulfillment of a dream that Joseph had had many years before (see Genesis 37:5-8).

Gen. 42:8 ¶ But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him.

Joseph’s brothers had sold Joseph into slavery many years before, but now they were at Joseph’s mercy. Since they did not recognize Joseph, they didn’t realize that they were now at Joseph’s mercy.

Gen. 42:9 Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, “You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land.”

Gen. 42:10 Then they said to him, “No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food.

Gen. 42:11 “We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies.”

Gen. 42:12 Yet he said to them, “No, but you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land!”

Gen. 42:13 But they said, “Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no longer alive.”

Notice that the brothers claimed that Joseph was no longer alive. They knew they had sold Joseph, so at this point in time they really didn’t know if he was dead or alive. However, in order to cover up their misdeed of selling Joseph, they had allowed their father to assume that Joseph had been killed by an animal (see Genesis 37:33); therefore, in order to continue the coverup, they were in the habit of telling everyone that Joseph was no longer alive.

Gen. 42:14 Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you, you are spies;

Gen. 42:15 by this you will be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here!

Gen. 42:16 “Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.”

Gen. 42:17 So he put them all together in prison for three days.

The word “tested” appears twice. Why did Joseph want his brothers to prove they were telling the truth? Joseph knew they were telling the truth. Joseph knew who their father was and that they were not spies. Joseph saw that there were ten brothers before him and he knew that there was one more and that he himself was the twelfth. Why did Joseph tell them they had to prove themselves?

Gen. 42:18 ¶ Now Joseph said to them on the third day, “Do this and live, for I fear God:

Gen. 42:19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households,

Gen. 42:20 and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so.

Notice they were in jail for three days. Three days is not a long time compared to our entire lives, but in their circumstances, three days was a long time to ponder their predicament and be afraid of what might happen to them (and what might happen to their families if they were unable to carry food back home).

Gen. 42:21 Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.”

Gen. 42:22 Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”

At this point, it had been many years since Joseph’s brothers had sold him into slavery, and yet they very quickly concluded that they were being punished for what they had done to Joseph. This indicates that they had been carrying a burden of guilt ever since they had sold him.

Gen. 42:23 They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them.

Gen. 42:24 He turned away from them and wept. But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.

Gen. 42:25 Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. And thus it was done for them.

Notice the word “wept”. Joseph got very emotional when he learned that his brothers felt guilty about what they had done to him.

Gen. 42:26 ¶ So they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed from there.

Gen. 42:27 As one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money; and behold, it was in the mouth of his sack.

Gen. 42:28 Then he said to his brothers, “My money has been returned, and behold, it is even in my sack.” And their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

Notice the word “trembling” and that they were afraid of what God was doing to them.

Gen. 42:29 ¶ When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying,

Gen. 42:30 “The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly with us, and took us for spies of the country.

Gen. 42:31 “But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we are not spies.

Gen. 42:32 ‘We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no longer alive, and the youngest is with our father today in the land of Canaan.’

Gen. 42:33 “The man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I will know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me and take grain for the famine of your households, and go.

Gen. 42:34 ‘But bring your youngest brother to me that I may know that you are not spies, but honest men. I will give your brother to you, and you may trade in the land.’”

Unlike when they had sold Joseph, this time Joseph’s brothers gave an accurate account to their father of what had happened.

Gen. 42:35 ¶ Now it came about as they were emptying their sacks, that behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed.

Gen. 42:36 Their father Jacob said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me.”

Notice that Jacob felt life was against him. This is a picture of the grief that Jacob had felt ever since losing Joseph.

Gen. 42:37 Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you.”

This seems to be a strange offer. Obviously, Reuben was trying to convince his father that he would do everything possible to protect Benjamin; and if the lives of Reuben’s sons were at stake, then Reuben would be highly motivated to protect Benjamin. However, Reuben’s sons were also Jacob’s grandsons. If Jacob was refusing to send Benjamin because he was afraid of losing Benjamin, why would he agree to send Benjamin when there was a risk of losing two grandsons in addition to Benjamin?

Gen. 42:38 But Jacob said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.”

Notice the phrase “he alone is left”. Jacob had fathered twelve sons and only Joseph was missing, but Jacob referred to Benjamin as the only one left. This was because Jacob had fathered his sons via four different women, and Joseph and Benjamin were the only two sons of his favorite wife Rachel; therefore, Benjamin was the only son of Rachel who was left. Even though Jacob’s other sons understood this, it still had to be discouraging to them to realize that their father did not value them as much as he valued Benjamin.

Let’s go back and look again at verses 21-22. Notice the words “guilty” and “reckoning”.

Gen. 42:21 Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.”
Gen. 42:22 Reuben answered them, saying, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do not sin against the boy’; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.”

When Jacob’s sons were young, Jacob clearly favored Joseph over the rest of his sons, and Joseph offended his brothers with his dreams. The brothers sold Joseph into slavery to get back at him and get rid of him, but they actually hurt themselves as much as they hurt Joseph because they had to live with the guilt and they had to watch their father grieve over the loss of Joseph. Joseph’s brothers hurt themselves because when they decided to sell Joseph, they didn’t think about the consequences of their actions, nor did they anticipate the guilt they would feel and the pain they would experience as they watched their father grieve.

The lesson for us is to think through the consequences of our actions before we do them. It is easy to focus on quick and easy fixes and do what the emotion of the moment guides us to do. However, as Joseph’s brothers found out, the emotion of the moment can lead to long term consequences and guilt. If we want to avoid a lifetime of guilt, we need to avoid giving in to the emotion of the moment as Joseph’s brothers did.


Further Reading

Who suffers when we are deceitful?

What should replace revenge?

Do you ever wonder where life went wrong?


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“Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.”