After Jacob learned that grain was available in Egypt, he sent ten of his sons there to buy it for the household. Fearing that harm might befall his youngest son Benjamin, the full brother of Joseph, he did not permit him to accompany them. Along with other foreigners, the “sons of Israel” (Jacob) arrived in Egypt to purchase grain, for the famine was severe in the land of Canaan. (42:1-5)
Joseph was in charge of the sale of grain to those affected by the famine. When his half brothers arrived, they prostrated themselves before him, with their faces touching the ground. Although he recognized them, they did not recognize him. Through an interpreter (42:23), Joseph spoke harshly to them, asking them from where they had come and accusing them of being spies. At this time, he remembered the prophetic dreams about the eleven sheaves of grain bowing down to him and the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him. His half brothers denied that they were spies, saying that they were upright men from Canaan and the sons of one father. There had been twelve of them, but one was no more and the youngest was with his father. Joseph still insisted that they were spies and proposed to put them to the test, doing so solemnly “by the life of Pharaoh.” His initial proposed test was that all except one of them be confined in Egypt and that one of them should then return to Canaan to bring back their youngest brother. Only if the youngest brother would be brought to Egypt would they be cleared of the charge that they were spies. (42:6-16; see the Notes section.)
A factor that would have concealed the identify of Joseph was his use of an interpreter in speaking to his half brothers. Moreover, he was now about 39 years of age and no longer did he have the youthful appearance of a 17-year-old. In his Antiquities, (II, vi, 2), Josephus indicated that Joseph’s facial features had changed and that the “greatness of the dignity” in which his half brothers saw him did not make it possible for them to suspect that he was the person whom they had sold.
For parts of three days, Joseph kept all of his half brothers in prison. On the third day, he said to them, “Do this, and you will live. I fear God. If you are upright men, let one of your brothers remain confined in your prison [the place where they had been imprisoned] and let the rest go to take grain to your famished households. And your youngest brother [you must] bring to me to verify your words, and you will not die.” Upon hearing Joseph’s words, his half brothers concluded that this turn of events had occurred because of their guilt respecting Joseph. They saw his distress and heard his plea, but they had failed to listen. Therefore, they continued saying to one another, “Therefore, this distress has come upon us.” Reuben then spoke up, reminding his brothers that they had failed to listen when he told them not to sin against the lad. He then added, “And now comes an accounting for his blood.” Apparently this was the first time that Joseph came to know that Reuben had wanted to save his life. He understood every word that his half brothers said among themselves, but they were unaware of this, for he had spoken to them through an interpreter. (42:17-23; see the Notes section.)
After hearing what his half brothers said among themselves, Joseph was deeply moved emotionally. He left their presence and wept. Upon returning, he spoke to them and then selected Simeon “and bound him before their eyes.” (42:24) Likely Simeon was the one chosen to be left behind in confinement because he had been the most insistent on wanting to kill his half brother Joseph. This is the view expressed in the apocryphal Testament of Simeon (thought to have come into existence in its final form in the second century CE). Therein Simeon is quoted as saying, “I was jealous of Joseph because our father loved him; and I set my mind against him to destroy him, because the prince of deceit [the devil] sent forth the spirit of jealousy and blinded my mind, so that I regarded him not as a brother, and spared not Jacob my father. For when I went into Shechem to bring ointment for the flocks, and Reuben to Dotham [Dothan], where were our necessities and all our stores, Judah our brother sold him to the Ishmaelites. And when Reuben came he was grieved, for he wished to have restored him safe to his father. But I was angry against Judah in that he let him go away alive, and for five months I continued wrathful against him.”
Joseph directed those responsible for filling the bags of his half brothers to return the silver with which they had paid for the grain and to supply them with provisions for their journey back to Canaan. His brothers loaded their bags of grain on their donkeys and departed. On the way at a place where they decided to stop for the night, one of the brothers opened his bag to scoop out grain for his donkey and discovered his bundle or pouch of silver “in the mouth” of his bag. According to Targum Jonathan, this one was Levi who no longer had his brother Simeon as his companion. After he told his brothers about the return of the silver, “their hearts failed them” and they began to tremble. Apparently within themselves they felt a sickening dread and became terrified, prompting them to say, “What is this that God has done to us?” (42:25-28, 35)
Upon arriving at their destination in the land of Canaan, the brothers told their father Jacob about their having endured harsh words from the man in charge of the land of Egypt and his accusing them of being spies. They related how they had defended themselves as upright men, telling him that they were of a family of twelve brothers of whom one was no more and the youngest among them was with his father in the land of Canaan. To prove that they were upright men and to have Simeon released, they would have to return to Egypt with their youngest brother. (42:29-34)
When the brothers emptied their bags of grain, they also found their returned bundles of silver. They and their father became fearful, apparently because this could be interpreted to mean that they had not paid for the grain and that their claim to be upright or honest men was false. Jacob became deeply distressed and said to his sons, “You have bereaved me. Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come upon me.” (42:35, 36)
Reuben promised to bring Benjamin back, offering to do so at the sacrifice of those who were most dear to him, his own two sons, and telling his father that he could slay them if Benjamin did not come back from Egypt. It is, of course, inconceivable that Jacob would have put his grandsons to death, and Reuben must have known this. Apparently, in expression of rash emotion, Reuben wanted to assure his father that he would make himself fully responsible for the return of Benjamin. There may have been hesitancy on Jacob’s part to trust his firstborn son fully, for he had years earlier violated Bilhah, his father’s concubine and the mother of his two half brothers Dan and Naphtali. Jacob insisted that Benjamin would not accompany his sons back to Egypt, telling them, “My son will not go down with you [to Egypt], for his brother is dead and he alone [of his offspring by his beloved wife Rachel] is left. If harm should befall him on the journey on which you are to go, you would bring my gray hairs down to Sbeol [Hades (LXX), the realm of the dead] with sorrow.” Evidently he felt that his grief would be so great that it would lead to his death. (42:37, 38)
Targum Jonathan indicates how Joseph knew that his half brothers had come to purchase grain. At the city gates, he had appointed officials who daily registered the names of all who came to buy grain and also the names of their fathers.
Targum Jonathan, the Jerusalem Targum, and Targum Neofiti say that Joseph’s firstborn son Manasseh was the interpreter. At this time, Manasseh would have been only about 8 years old, and so it does not seem likely that he was the interpreter.
According to the apocryphal Testament of Zebulun (which is also from the same time as the Testament of Simeon), Simeon and Gad were the ones who wanted to kill Joseph. It is more likely, however, that Simeon and Levi would have been the most intent on seeking the death of Joseph, especially because they appear to have been very close. This is evident from their unified act to murder all the men of Shechem because a prominent young man of the city had raped their sister Dinah.