What does Genesis chapter 42 mean?Genesis 42 begins with Jacob sending his ten oldest sons to Egypt to buy grain for the family. It ends with him refusing to send his youngest son back as part of a second trip.
Severe famine has gripped the region, just as Joseph had predicted (Genesis 41:53–56). Due to his preparations in Egypt under the authority of Pharaoh (Genesis 41:46–49), Egypt alone has grain for its people and surplus to sell to those in danger of starving after two years of no crops. Jacob's family is in exactly that position—near starvation—so he sends his ten oldest sons to Egypt with money. Jacob does not send his beloved youngest son Benjamin with them, however. He fears some harm might come to the boy, and he could not bear to lose him (Genesis 42:1–5).
Arriving in Egypt, the brothers unknowingly experience an emotional but one-sided reunion. They come to stand before Joseph himself, bowing low (Genesis 37:5–10), hoping to purchase their grain. Even twenty years after being sold as a seventeen-year-old (Genesis 37:28), Joseph quickly recognizes them. They don't recognize him, however. Now nearly 40, Joseph had become fully Egyptian in his manner and appearance. The brothers are baffled by this Egyptian ruler's harsh response to them. After pointedly questioning them about where they are from and why they have come, Joseph flatly accuses them of being spies. He says they have come to discover Egypt's military weaknesses for some foreign power (Genesis 42:6–12).
Joseph's brothers understood this accusation could lead to imprisonment or death. They don't realize the only authority capable of punishing them—Joseph—is not planning to harm them. They quickly protest. They are honest men, normal people, mutual brothers and sons of the same man. They even have one more brother back in Canaan with their father and another brother who is "no more," meaning Joseph himself. Pressing them further, Joseph again accuses them of being spies. He offers one chance to earn his trust. One of them must return to Canaan and come back with their youngest brother. If they refuse, he will conclude "by the life of Pharaoh" that they have been lying and are truly spies (Genesis 42:13–16).
Then Joseph puts them all in prison for three days to think about it. Perhaps Joseph also needed that time to cool off, as well. After all, it's likely he never expected to see his family again. It's entirely reasonable for him to be angry, but later verses show that revenge is not something on his mind (Genesis 47:11–12). Three days later, he presents them with a new plan. If they follow it, he says they will live. Instead of holding nine of them and sending one back, he will instead hold just one of them in prison and send the rest back with full sacks of grain. However, they must return with their youngest brother to save Simeon and buy grain again (Genesis 42:17–20).
The brothers agree, but they are still terrified. Joseph had been speaking to them through an interpreter, who apparently leaves. Assuming Joseph cannot understand them, they speak openly. In remorse, they connect what is happening to their crime of selling Joseph into slavery over twenty years earlier. With genuine remorse, they acknowledge their guilt, expressing that they deserve this suffering. Joseph, still unrecognized, hears it all and weeps, disguising his reaction to preserve his secret. Emotion or not, Joseph sticks to the plan. He selects Simeon to remain behind and binds him in front of them (Genesis 42:21–24).
In another twist, Joseph also orders the brothers' money be secretly returned to their sacks, along with the grain. This might be a combination of charity and a further way of rebuking and testing them. Since they do not know Joseph has arranged this, the revelation will terrify them when they discover it along the road home. They would be afraid the Egyptians would assume they'd stolen the money, or the grain, or both (Genesis 42:25–28).
As expected, Jacob does not take the news well. He lashes out at the nine of them for losing first Joseph, then Simeon, and now expecting him to risk Benjamin, as well. To lose Benjamin would kill him, Jacob claims. He will not send him to Egypt. In an especially crushing moment of favoritism, he claims Benjamin is the only one he has left—in front of nine other sons (Genesis 42:29–38).
The famine will not be over any time soon, however. Jacob will soon be forced to reconsider his stance (Genesis 43:1–2).