Genesis 42:21
And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.
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(21) We are verily guilty.—They had evidently expected that whatever suspicions might be aroused by their first appearance, all such ideas would disappear upon their explanation of themselves and their purpose. Instead of this they are thrown into prison, abandoned to their reflections for three days, and dismissed only upon the condition of their leaving one brother as a hostage for their coming again accompanied by Benjamin: and as they knew no reason for this, it would fill their minds with fear. But though they were now suffering unjustly, it brought back to their mind their former sin; and the fact that it was so fresh in their memories is a sign of the reality of their repentance.

Genesis 42:21. We are verily guilty — This is the just punishment of that wickedness which we committed against our brother. Though we could conceal it from men, we now see and feel it was known to God, who is reckoning with us for it. Thus the divine vengeance overtakes them, and conscience tortures them for a sin committed twenty years before, and their affliction, we may hope, brought them to repentance. We saw the anguish of his soul when he besought us — This particular is not mentioned in the history of this affair, recorded chap. 37., from which circumstance we learn, that the silence of Scripture concerning certain matters, is not a sufficient proof that they did not take place. We do not read that Joseph’s brethren were brought to feel this remorse of conscience, or made this confession to each other, during their three days of imprisonment; but now, when the matter was come to some issue, and they saw themselves still embarrassed, they began to relent. Perhaps Joseph’s mention of the fear of God, put them upon consideration, and extorted this reflection from them.

42:21-24 The office of conscience is to bring to mind things long since said and done. When the guilt of this sin of Joseph's brethren was fresh, they made light of it, and sat down to eat bread; but now, long afterward, their consciences accused them of it. See the good of afflictions; they often prove the happy means of awakening conscience, and bringing sin to our remembrance. Also, the evil of guilt as to our brethren. Conscience now reproached them for it. Whenever we think we have wrong done us, we ought to remember the wrong we have done to others. Reuben alone remembered with comfort, that he had done what he could to prevent the mischief. When we share with others in their sufferings, it will be a comfort if we have the testimony of our consciences for us, that we did not share in their evil deeds, but in our places witnessed against them. Joseph retired to weep. Though his reason directed that he should still carry himself as a stranger, because they were not as yet humbled enough, yet natural affection could not but work.After three days, Joseph reverses the numbers, allowing nine to return home, and retaining one. "This do and live." Joseph, notwithstanding the arbitrary power which his office enabled him to exercise, proves himself to be free from caprice and unnecessary severity. He affords them a fair opportunity of proving their words true, before putting them to death on suspicion of espionage. "The God do I fear." A singular sentence from the lord paramount of Egypt! It implies that the true God was not yet unknown in Egypt. We have heard the confession of this great truth already from the lips of Pharaoh Genesis 41:38-39. But it intimates to the brothers the astonishing and hopeful fact that the grand vizier serves the same great Being whom they and their fathers have known and worshipped; and gives them a plain hint that they will be dealt with according to the just law of heaven.

"Carry grain for your houses." The governor then is touched with some feeling for their famishing households. The brothers, though honoring their aged father as the patriarch of their race, had now their separate establishments. Twelve households had to be supplied with bread. The journey to Egypt was not to be undertaken more than once a year if possible, as the distance from Hebron was upwards of two hundred miles. Hence, the ten brothers had with them all their available beasts of burden, with the needful retinue of servants. We need not be surprised that these are not especially enumerated, as it is the manner of Scripture to leave the secondary matters to the intelligence and experience of the reader, unless, as in the case of Abraham's three hundred and eighteen trained servants, they happen to be of essential moment in the process of events. "Your youngest brother." Joseph longs to see his full brother alive, whom he left at home a child of four summers. "Verily guilty are we concerning our brother."

Their affliction is beginning to bear the fruit of repentance. "Because we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us, and we would not hear." How vividly is the scene of Joseph's sale here brought before us. It now appears that he besought them to spare him, and they would not hear! "This distress." Retribution has come at last. "His blood is required." Reuben justly upbraids them with their hardness of heart. Their brother's blood is required; for murder was intended, and when he was sold his death was pretended. "The interpreter was betwixt them." The dragoman was employed in holding conversation with them. But Joseph heard the spontaneous expressions of remorse, coming unprompted from their lips. The fountain of affection is deeply stirred. He cannot repress the rising tear. He has to retire for a time to recover his composure. He now takes, not Reuben, who was not to blame, but Simon, the next oldest, and binds him before them: a speaking act. He then gives orders to supply them with corn (grain), deposit their money in their sacks without their knowledge, and furnish them with provision for the way. Joseph feels, perhaps, that he cannot take money from his father. He will pay for the corn out of his own funds. But he cannot openly return the money to his brothers without more explanation than he wishes at present to give.

17-24. put them … into ward three days—Their confinement had been designed to bring them to salutary reflection. And this object was attained, for they looked upon the retributive justice of God as now pursuing them in that foreign land. The drift of their conversation is one of the most striking instances on record of the power of conscience [Ge 42:21, 22]. This is the just punishment of that great wickedness, which though we could cover from men, yet we now see and feel was known to God, who is now reckoning with us for it. Thus Divine vengeance overtakes them, and conscience tortures them for a sin committed above twenty years before, and their affliction brings them to repentance.

When he besought us: compare Genesis 49:23. Yet this passage is not mentioned in that history, Genesis 37:1-36. Learn hence, that the silence of the Scripture is no good argument that such or such a thing was not said or done, except in some special cases.

Therefore is this distress come upon us; he is inexorable to us, as we were to him.

And they said one to another,.... Before they went out of the prison, at least while in the presence of Joseph:

we are verily guilty concerning our brother; meaning Joseph, whom they had sold for a slave, and who they supposed was dead through grief and hard servitude; and now being in trouble themselves, it brings to mind the sin they had been guilty of, which, though committed twenty two years ago, was still fresh in their memories, and lay heavy on their consciences; for length of time neither makes sin less, nor the conscience lighter, when it is revived and charged home upon it, and which was aggravated particularly by the following circumstance:

in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; when in the utmost agony, with trembling limbs, and quivering lips, and floods of tears, as they stripped him of his coat, he most earnestly and importunately requested of them they would not put him into the pit, and leave him there; and in the same manner entreated them they would not put him into the hands of strangers, but restore him alive to his father; but they turned a deaf ear to all his cries and entreaties, and hardened themselves against him:

therefore is this distress come upon us; the same measure that was measured by them to him, was now measured to them again, and they were dealt with according to "lex talionis": they cast Joseph into a pit, and now they were committed to a prison; they would not attend to his cries and tears, and the anguish of his soul did not move their pity, and now he is inexorable to them, and will not at least appear to have any compassion on them, or show pity to them; and perhaps their being dealt with in this similar way brought to their remembrance what they had done.

And they said one to another, {f} We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.

(f) Affliction makes men acknowledge their faults, which otherwise they would conceal.

21. We are verily guilty] The words of Joseph’s brethren represent the vitality of conscience after a long interval of years. They have the traditional belief that calamity will overtake the guilty. Cf. the words of Elihu, Job 36:6-14.

his soul] See note on Genesis 12:13. Cf. Genesis 27:4; Genesis 27:25.

this distress] The same word is used by them to denote their present state of trouble and Joseph’s former agony of mind, when they threw him into the cistern to die. It is the law of retaliation, “distress” for “distress,” cf. Exodus 21:24. Joseph’s treatment works well; cf. Isaiah 26:16; Hosea 5:15.

Verse 21. - And they said one to another (Joseph's treatment of them beginning by this time to produce its appropriate and designed result by recalling them to a sense of their former guilt), We are verily guilty - "this is the only acknowledgment of sin in the Book of Genesis" (Inglis) - concerning our brother. They had been guilty of many sins, but the special iniquity of which their reception by the Egyptian governor had reminded them was that which some twenty years before they had perpetrated against their own brother. Indeed the accusation preferred against them that they were spies, the apparent unwillingness of the viceroy to listen to their request for food, and their subsequent incarceration, though innocent of any offence, were all calculated to recall to their recollection successive steps in their inhuman treatment of Joseph. In that (or because) we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us (literally, in his beseeching of us, an incident which the narrator omits to mention; but which the guilty consciences of the brethren remember), and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us. The retributive character of their sufferings, which they cannot fail to perceive, they endeavor to express by employing the same word, עָרַח, to describe Joseph's anguish and their distress. Genesis 42:21On the third day Joseph modified his severity. "This do and live," i.e., then ye shall live: "I fear God." One shall remain in prison, but let the rest of you take home "corn for the famine of your families," and fetch your youngest brother, that your words may be verified, and ye may not die, i.e., may not suffer the death that spies deserve. That he might not present the appearance of despotic caprice and tyranny by too great severity, and so render his brethren obdurate, Joseph stated as the reason for his new decision, that he feared God. From the fear of God, he, the lord of Egypt, would not punish or slay these strangers upon mere suspicion, but would judge them justly. How differently had they acted towards their brother! The ruler of all Egypt had compassion on their families who were in Canaan suffering from hunger; but they had intended to leave their brother in the pit to starve! These and similar thoughts could hardly fail to pass involuntarily through their minds at Joseph's words, and to lead them to a penitential acknowledgement of their sin and unrighteousness. The notion that Joseph altered his first intention merely from regard to his much afflicted father, appears improbable, for the simple reason, that he can only have given utterance to the threat that he should keep them all in prison till one of them had gone and fetched Benjamin, for the purpose of giving the greater force to his accusation, that they were spies. But as he was not serious in making this charge, he could not for a moment have thought of actually carrying out the threat. "And they did so:" in these words the writer anticipates the result of the colloquy which ensued, and which is more fully narrated afterwards. Joseph's intention was fulfilled. The brothers now saw in what had happened to them a divine retribution: "Surely we atone because of our brother, whose anguish of soul we saw, when he entreated us and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us." And Reuben reminded them how he had warned them to no purpose, not to sin against the boy - "and even his blood...behold it is required" (cf. Genesis 9:5); i.e., not merely the sin of casting him into the pit and then selling him, but his death also, of which we have been guilty through that sale. Thus they accused themselves in Joseph's presence, not knowing that he could understand; "for the interpreter was between them." Joseph had conversed with them through an interpreter, as an Egyptian who was ignorant of their language. "The interpreter," viz., the one appointed for that purpose; בּינות like Genesis 26:28. But Joseph understood their words, and "turned away and wept" (Genesis 42:24), with inward emotion at the wonderful leadings of divine grace, and at the change in his brothers' feelings. He then turned to them again, and, continuing the conversation with them, had Simeon bound before their eyes, to be detained as a hostage (not Reuben, who had dissuaded them from killing Joseph, and had taken no part in the sale, but Simeon, the next in age). He then ordered his men to fill their sacks with corn, to give every one (אישׁ as in Genesis 15:10) his money back in his sack, and to provide them with food for the journey.
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