The Ultimate Test
Topic: Sovereignty of God Passage: Genesis 44:1–34
“THE ULTIMATE TEST”
1 Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, 2 and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.
3 As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. 4 They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? 5 Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.’”
6 When he overtook them, he spoke to them these words. 7 They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing! 8 Behold, the money that we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? 9 Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” 10 He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” 11 Then each man quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each man opened his sack. 12 And he searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.
14 When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15 And Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”
18 Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord. ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’
24 “When we went back to your servant, my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will go down. For we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28 One left me, and I said, “Surely he has been torn to pieces,” and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’
30 “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32 For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”
There may not be a more threatening word in a student’s vocabulary than the word, “test.” In a school setting tests come in a variety of ways. Mid-term and final “exams” are generally scheduled far enough in advance by the instructor so that students know the precise date when they will be held accountable. On occasion, the teacher may decide to give a “unit assessment” in order to check on the students’ progress. The most terrifying “test” of all, however—at least it was for me—is when the teacher announces on the spur of the moment that there will be a “pop quiz.”
Regardless of how long it has been, most of us can still hear the ominous words echoing from the front of the classroom on an otherwise pleasant day: “Get out a piece of paper, place your name at the top, and number 1 through 10.” Maybe even now you are experiencing a “flashback” as you recall the flushed skin, clammy hands, and churning stomach that you had.
Quizzes generally don’t carry as much weight or impact our final grade as an “exam,” but that is not always the case. Take, for example, the student whose course grade sits precariously on the fence of either passing or failing the course, and the result of a single unannounced “quiz” could make all the difference.
There is a psychological phenomenon in the academic world known as “test anxiety.” It occurs when a student has studied hard and believes that he or she has a grasp on the subject matter, but then “freezes up,” “goes blank,” and “zones out” with nervousness whenever a test is announced.
Joseph’s brothers may have believed that their days of testing were behind them, especially after having been served a sumptuous meal at the table of Egyptian vizier. The last sentence of chapter 43 describes the festive mood of that day: “And they drank and were merry with him” (Genesis 43:34). Perhaps they even felt that they had at last “learned their lesson” following their grievous sin of twenty years earlier. Having buried the past, they may have been ready to “move on” with their lives. Little did they know that one more “pop quiz” awaited them...one that would have great ramifications in the providential plan of God.
Although Joseph has been and will continue to be the principle actor in the drama being played out in the pages before us, it is actually God who is the One who has written the script. And while the players are virtually unaware of the Lord’s sovereign presence, you and I have been repeatedly reminded that He is the One who is in complete control. Could these brothers have actually thought that two decades of guilty conscience brought on by the heartless betrayal of a brother could be assuaged by a single meal?
Near the end of the 19th-century, Francis Thompson wrote a lengthy poem in which he referred to God as “The Hound of Heaven.” Picking up on that theme, F.B. Meyer later wrote within the context of the guilt these brothers carried, and that of which you and I have been known to carry as well:
The sleuth-hound is on your track: it may take years to run you down; but it will never leave the trail until it has discovered your hiding-place and found you out. “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Tens of years may pass over your life; and like these brethren you may be congratulating yourself that the sin is forgotten, and you are safe: and then a train of circumstances, little suspected, but manipulated by a Divine hand, will suddenly bring the truth to light, and write God’s sentence in flaming characters upon the walls of the house in which you riot in careless ease. The unforgiven sinner is never safe.”
I can think of no more appropriate way to introduce Genesis 44. The opening word “then” suggests a scene remarkably different from the one that had concluded the previous chapter. Having provided for them and prepared them for their long journey back to Canaan, Joseph has skillfully set up his brothers for the ultimate test of their character.
In verses 1 through 13, we are given a “behind-the-scene” glimpse into...
The strategy of Joseph (Genesis 44:1-13).
While the brothers slept that night in anticipation of their departure for home the next morning, Joseph ordered the steward of his house to pack each man’s sack with as much grain as it would hold and to once again return the money they had brought with them. Given recent events, perhaps the brothers may have come to expect that they would be graciously treated. What they didn’t expect was that there would be one more item packed in their belongings of which they would be forced to give an account. Joseph had carefully and covertly instructed the steward to “Put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.”
With the sun just beginning to shine its rays upon a new day, the brothers—all eleven of them this time—departed the Egyptian city. One is almost able to detect the positive and jubilant tone in their voices. How different it would have sounded from when they had first arrived. “Can you believe our good fortune?” they must have thought. But before they had traveled more than a few miles, Joseph ordered his steward to pursue after them with haste.
It may be that this was the same steward who had packed their sacks and placed within Benjamin’s bag the silver cup. If so, he would have been in on Joseph’s scheme. When he caught up with them, he was to ask, “Why have you repaid evil for good?” In other words, “Why have you stolen my master’s cup?” It is the next phrase in verse 5 that has caused some consternation. Here the steward added this was the cup by which “he practices divination.”
The Hebrew word is “nahash,” and it refers to “a way of gaining knowledge by supernatural means.” Biblical research has shown that the type of divination referred to here probably involved observing the actions of oil and water when poured into a cup together, and then studied and interpreted by a diviner. They might portend peace or war, success or failure, fertility or barrenness, health or illness, et cetera. Years later, Jewish law strongly forbade such practices (cf. Leviticus 19:26, Deuteronomy 18:9-12) in attempting to discern the future. The people were to trust the Lord instead. It is doubtful, though not clear, whether Joseph would have actually practiced divination, although it was commonly employed in both Egypt and the heathen Canaanite nations.
When the steward caught up with the brothers, he immediately demanded that they explain why they had stolen from Joseph’s house. Shocked by the sudden turn of events, they reacted with disbelief and incredulity. Mounting an immediate defense, they were willing to be searched and hand over anyone in whose sack the alleged stolen was found. In fact, they “doubled down” on their offer, saying, “Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also, and we also will be my lord’s servants.”
Without a moment’s hesitation, the steward called their bluff, adding that it wouldn’t be necessary for all of them to return...only the one who was shown to be guilty. “The rest...shall be innocent” and go free.
As the brothers lowered their sacks to the ground, the steward and those who may have accompanied him assumed the role of “TSA agents,” beginning with the oldest in their search for the silver cup. One sack after another was opened, and no cup was found. With eleven down and one to go, they at last opened the sack belonging to Benjamin. One can feel the collective heart of the brothers sink when we read the words, “And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.” With disbelief, “They tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.” They had some explaining to do.
What a difference a day had made! I imagine that the retracing of their steps back to Joseph’s house was one of silent contemplation. Very few words would have been exchanged. After all, what more could be said? Their experiences in Egypt had resembled a roller-coaster of emotion. The celebration of less than twenty-four hours earlier had all of a sudden become a faded memory. What’s more, they had also just offered to have their youngest brother executed on the charge of theft.
That brings us to verses 14 through 17, where is recorded...
The sentence for Benjamin (Genesis 44:14-17).
It was probably still morning when the brothers arrived back at Joseph’s house. There is significance in that the group is now referred to as “Judah and his brothers.” Judah has not been mentioned in the narrative since verse 8 of the previous chapter. There, you may recall, he had offered himself as a “pledge” for Benjamin’s safety. It had been the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back in persuading Jacob to allow his youngest son to accompany his brothers back to Egypt. As we noted then, Judah appears to have risen to become the chief spokesman of the group. He had made himself accountable for Benjamin’s safety, and now it appeared as if the “pledge” he made was coming due.
Finding themselves before Joseph once again, they prostrated themselves before him...for the third time! Joseph, still hiding his identity from his brothers, began the inquisition and asked them to explain themselves. A careful reading of his words in verse 15 do not necessarily suggest that Joseph actually “practice(d) divination,” but rather it would have been expected of someone in his lofty position. A clearer understanding of his statement would be, “Surely you should have known that I would have found you out!”
As we would by now expect, Judah was the one who spoke up in response, offering words of confession, not merely—so it would seem—for having the cup found in their possession, but for earlier and greater sins as well. Sins like having sold their brother into slavery twenty years earlier and covering that deed by living a lie with their father for two decades. “God has found out the guilt of your servants,” Judah acknowledged aloud.
It is often said that “Confession is good for the soul.” But what is “confession”? More likely than not, we think of it as a quick “apology” which, when expressed, serves as a quick enema for the conscience and appeases God. After all, we presume, the Lord is forgiving, right? If we say we are “sorry,” He understand and all is made “right” again. Well, not so fast!
A more biblical understanding of “confessing sin” means “to give God glory by admitting our sin as a violation of His holy character, and acknowledging His sovereign right to punish it.” In fact, it is not until we are able to view our sin in that way, we will not be able to comprehend the extent of what it cost God—through the death of His Son, Jesus Christ—to pay for it. And what’s more, we will never truly learn to repent of our sin until we see confession in that way.
In reality, the cross is more about God’s justice than it is about our forgiveness. In other words, more important than us having our sin fully forgiven is that God’s justice being fully satisfied. And that only happens at the cross. If you had all of eternity to pay for your sin, you wouldn’t be able to do it. It isn’t until we see the enormity of the debt that we owe that we can even begin to understand the vastness of His mercy.
Joseph’s heart was being stirred with what he perceives to be genuine contrition on the part of his brothers. But, like a masterful instructor, he was not yet ready to collect the tests and grade them. There remained one more item on the exam that could not be left blank. It had to be responded to. He would give them one more opportunity to leave behind a younger brother. After all, it had been with Benjamin that the cup had been found. As far as they knew—but as unlikely as it seemed—he may have actually been the one to have stolen the cup. The rest of them could go free. They could take whatever version of the story back to their father that they wished. He was an old man and was soon to die anyway. Just leave Benjamin to pay the debt and they could “go...in peace.”
We should bear in mind that the careful ruse being fostered by Joseph was not for the purpose of carrying out a “slow revenge.” Even though twenty years had passed, having grown up in the family that he had, Joseph was well aware of the distrust, deception, and dysfunction which had characterized them. Here and now he was being very cautious in determining whether they had truly changed before He would reveal himself and entrust himself to them.
Judah didn’t request a few moments alone with his brothers to discuss the options. In an eerie way some twenty years earlier, they had played out this scene before with another of their brothers. Now they were faced with a similar choice. Would they react in a similar way?
Beginning with verse 18, Judah insists that if one were to face the consequences of allegedly having stolen the silver cup, then they all would.
The speech by Judah (Genesis 44:18-34)
...is one of the most lengthy and remarkable monologues in all of Scripture. Its depth of feeling and sincerity of purpose flows through its every statement. What makes it most remarkable is the fact that it comes from the lips of one who once upon a time was so calloused that he cared little about the grief that he had caused his father. Now as he speaks, Judah’s words contain humility, pathos, and self-sacrifice. In it we find both intercession and substitution, highly characteristic of Jesus Himself, the One who would in time come to be identified as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5).
The majority of Judah’s speech contains a summary of the recent past. It is basically a review of the events we have been discussing in last few chapters. There are no major deviations or departures. In this retelling, however, we cannot help but see the irony in Judah’s unwittingly referring to the man to whom he was speaking as “dead” in verse 20.
In verses 24 through 29, we note the passion with which Judah pleads for the lives of both Benjamin and his father. A cynic might say that Judah, first and foremost, was looking out for himself—after all, he was the one who made the “pledge” to bring Benjamin back home safe-and-sound. But that misses the point altogether. Judah’s appeal is a selfless one.
It is sometimes difficult to determine when “conversion” occurs in the experience of Old Testament characters...and in some of our lives today. Many of us grew up, having been taught that unless we can recall a specific date or a precise experience that we had, then we have every reason to question whether or not we ever truly were “saved.” Let me be clear is assuring you that the Bible teaches nothing of that sort. The only test of “assurance” that any of us have is whether or not we are trusting Christ and living in obedience to the Word of God in the present. Are we taking on more and more of the character of Jesus Christ? Is there evidence of “conversion”—the “fruit of regeneration,” if you will, in our lives?
The only foundation for the assurance of salvation is Jesus Christ, namely the sinless life that He lived and the finished work He accomplished on the cross. As has been said from this pulpit many times, Jesus lived the life we should have lived, and died the death we should have died. When a person turns from sin—meaning confession and repentance—he is then declared by God to be righteous “in Christ.” In other words, Christ’s righteous life is imputed to us, just as the debt of our sins was placed upon Him.
The way a person can know for certain that he or she is saved is by having faith in Christ today! The evidence of that will be the presence of God’s Holy Spirit and a life of obedience to God’s Word. That is why the Scriptures exhort us to examine ourselves regularly to make our calling and election sure (cf. 2 Peter 1:10). Do not take salvation for granted or let it rest on some “decision” or “experience” in the past. The Bible says that “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
As for Judah, we may be able to detect “evidence of conversion” through his humble intercession before Joseph that day. We see it most clearly in verses 30 through 34. Having laid out his summary of the recent past, Judah next shines a spotlight on the immediate present. What we find here is a plea for mercy being made to the one in whose hands is the power to give it. Having explained the “pledge” that he had made with his father in guaranteeing Benjamin’s safety, Judah’s intercession now advances to the level of “substitution.” Let’s again read verses 30 through 34:
“Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant, my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”
In verse 33, Judah makes request to be the one who remains “instead of” Benjamin. In other words, Judah is willing “to take his place,” to be assigned the full measure of guilt in the charge alleged against his brother, and to bear his punishment. It is the same Hebrew term (“tahat”) that is found in the moving account of Abraham being willing to offer Isaac as a sacrifice to God. As he laid his son on the altar and prepared to slay him, Abraham heard a voice from heaven calling him to stop. Looking around, Abraham spotted a ram caught in a thicket. “And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son” (Genesis 22:13). By sacrificing the ram “in the place of” his son, Isaac’s life was spared.
It has been pointed out that Judah is the first person in the Bible who willingly offered his own life for another. The encounter with Abraham and Isaac, as well as the one we find here in Judah’s plea with Joseph, both point to the ultimate act of substitution when Jesus Christ took our place on the cross. Isaiah described that impending event in this way:
“Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten of God.
But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds
we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;
And the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:4-6).
Judah would, of course, not have been able to see this with the clarity that you and I possess because God’s story was still being written in “real time.” In fact, it was still in its prologue. But like “bread crumbs” leading to the cross, Judah and his brothers were following the trail laid out in advance by the God of providential circumstances.
It has been well-said that “the Hound of heaven” does not rest until He has captured His “prey.” There are no lengths to which He will not go in order to pursue those who are His and to accomplish His sovereign purposes.
This would be Joseph’s final test of brothers. It would prove to be a “pass-fail” exam. Unlike the stories of our lives that are in the ongoing process of being written, we know what happened next. At least, I assume that you know. If not, then feel free to read ahead into chapter 45 this week and find out.
Judah has truly played the role of mediator between Joseph and the rest of his brothers over the last couple of chapters. There are striking parallels between this story and the mediatorial work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Unlike most mediators who serve the interests of neither party but whose role is solely to reconcile them, Judah had a vested interest in this situation. That is because he himself was a member of the family whose interests he served. On a grander scale, if Jesus were to mediate between a holy God and a sinful human race, He had to be a bona fide member of that race. God had to become a man and step into the world that He had created. That He did when He “became flesh and dwelt among us” (cf. John 1:14).
The Bible says that He was “born of a woman” (cf. Galatians 4:4), “made in the likeness of men” (cf. Philippians 2:7), and “was tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). He was truly the God-man. Never was there one like Him, and nor would there ever be another like Him. That is why 1Timothy 2:5 reminds us that “There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”
Judah was pleading for the life of his younger brother. He was also pleading for the life of his father. A few years earlier this same man would have been willing to sacrifice them both—and all of his other brothers for that matter—for the sake of himself. But now, here he is, willing to sacrifice himself so that others would be spared. He has assumed the role of mediator. The moment of truth is at hand...just as yours may possibly be this morning.
The Lord Jesus is “the mediator of a new covenant” (cf. Hebrew 9:15). He alone is qualified and capable to serve in that role because at stake in Him are the interests of both God and man. God’s justice toward sin must be fully satisfied, and through His death on the cross on your behalf, God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (cf. Romans 3:26).
Justice and mercy meet at the cross (cf. Psalm 85:10)...and Christ is both willing and waiting to meet you there.