Genesis 42:21
And they said one to another, We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he sought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come on 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. As the sight of his brethren bowing before him with the deepest reverence reminded Joseph of his early dreams of the sheaves and stars, which had so increased the hatred of his brethren towards him as to lead to a proposal to kill him, and an actual sale, he said to them, "Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land (i.e., the unfortified parts of the kingdom which would be easily accessible to a foe) ye are come;" and persisted in this charge notwithstanding their reply, "nay, my lord, but (ו see Ges. 155, 1b) to buy food are thy servants come. We are all one man's sons (נחנוּ for אנחנוּ, only in Exodus 16:7-8; Numbers 32:32; 2 Samuel 17:12; Lamentations 3:42): honest (כּנים) are we; thy servants are no spies." Cum exploratio sit delictum capitale, non est verisimile; quod pater tot filios uno tempore vitae periculo expositurus sit (J. Gerhard). But as their assertion failed to make any impression upon the Egyptian lord, they told him still more particularly about their family (Genesis 42:13.): "Twelve are thy servants, brothers are we, sons of a man in the land of Canaan; and behold the youngest is now with our father, and one is no more (אימנּוּ as in Genesis 5:24). Joseph then replied, "That is it (הוּא neut. like Genesis 20:16) that I spake unto you, saying ye are spies. By this shall ye be proved: By the life of Pharaoh! ye shall not (אם, like Genesis 14:23) go hence, unless your youngest brother come hither. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother; but he shall be in bonds, and your words shall be proved, whether there be truth in you or not. By the life of Pharaoh! ye are truly spies!" He then had them put into custody for three days. By the coming of the youngest brother, Joseph wanted to test their assertion, not because he thought it possible that he might not be living with them, and they might have treated him as they did Joseph (Kn.), but because he wished to discover their feelings towards Benjamin, and see what affection they had for this son of Rachel, who had taken Joseph's place as his father's favourite. And with his harsh mode of addressing them, Joseph had no intention whatever to administer to his brethren "a just punishment for their wickedness towards him," for his heart could not have stooped to such mean revenge; but he wanted to probe thoroughly the feelings of their hearts, "whether they felt that they deserved the punishment of God for the sin they had committed," and how they felt towards their aged father and their youngest brother.

(Note: Joseph nihil aliud agit quam ut revelet peccatum fratrum hoc durissimo opere et sermone. Descendunt enim in Aegyptum una cum aliis emtum frumentum, securi et negligentes tam atrocis delicti, cujus sibi erant conscii, quasi nihil unquam deliguissent contra patrem decrepitum aut fratrem innocentem, cogitant Joseph jam diu exemtum esse rebus humanis, patrem vero rerum omnium ignarum esse. Quid ad nos? Non agunt poenitentiam. Hi silices et adamantes frangendi et conterendi sunt ac aperiendi oculi eorum, ut videant atrocitatem sceleris sui, idque ubi perfecit Joseph statim verbis et gestibus humaniorem se praebet eosque honorifice tractat. - Haec igitur atrocitas scelerum movit Joseph ad explorandos animos fratrum accuratius, ita ut non solum priorum delictorum sed et cogitationum pravarum memoriam renovaret, ac fuit sane inquisitio satis ingrata et acerba et tamen ab animo placidissimo profecta. Ego durius eos tractassem. Sed haec acerbitas, quam prae se fert, non pertinet ad vindicandum injuriam sed ad salutarem eorum poenitentiam, ut humilientur. Luther.)

Even in the fact that he did not send the one away directly to fetch Benjamin, and merely detain the rest, but put the whole ten in prison, and afterwards modified his threat (Genesis 42:18.), there was no indecision as to the manner in which he should behave towards them - no "wavering between thoughts of wrath and revenge on the one hand, and forgiving love and meekness on the other;" but he hoped by imprisoning them to make his brethren feel the earnestness of his words, and to give them time for reflection, as the curt "is no more" with which they had alluded to Joseph's removal was a sufficient proof that they had not yet truly repented of the deed.

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