When the Tables Turn

With your enemies at your mercy, will you pursue retribution or reconciliation?

When Joseph is sold into slavery, his dream of leadership seems permanently derailed. But once the brothers’ betrayal begets his destiny, the power dynamic shifts—now the perpetrators bow before their victim. With his brothers at his feet, will Joseph accuse or accept them? The answer is both, and at the end of his ruse is redemption none of them could have imagined.

 

Read

To get the most out of this Bible study, read Genesis 37 and 42-45. But first, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in these chapters. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. And above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.

Key Passages: Genesis 42:1-38; Genesis 45:1-28

 

Background

When Joseph last saw his brothers, he was pleading for his life from the bottom of a cistern as they conspired to sell him to passing traders.

 

Reflect

Coming face to face with his betrayers more than 20 years later, Joseph is no longer at their mercy.

  • Joseph immediately recognizes his brothers, but since they don’t recognize him, he assumes a harsh interrogatory tone (Gen. 42:7-8). Then in Genesis 42:9, the tension’s kicked up a notch: Joseph hurls an out-of-left-field espionage accusation against the brothers when he remembers his dreams about them. (See Gen. 37:5-9.) Why do you think the memory triggers this specific approach?

  • Considering how his brothers treated him as a teenager, Joseph’s actions may seem vengeful. But look at Genesis 42:4 and Genesis 42:13-20. What is he actually trying to accomplish by threatening and imprisoning his older brothers?

  • Note their response (Gen. 42:21). Though decades have passed, the brothers connect their current distress to their past betrayal and assess their circumstance as retribution. What does that tell you about the effects of unresolved guilt?

 

Continuing the Story

Leaving Simeon in Egypt as collateral, the others go home with grain and heavy hearts. The only way to retrieve their imprisoned brother and buy more grain is to bring Benjamin before a seemingly delusional and unhinged royal administrator. Jacob is adamantly opposed to putting the boy at such risk. But hunger has a way of dismantling even the strongest objections, and the dwindling food supply forces the patriarch’s hand.

    Jacob is forced to risk the exact heartbreak he’s been avoiding since Joseph’s presumed death.

  • Relinquishing Benjamin—who, as far as Jacob knows, is the only remaining son of his favorite wife—must be a reminder of his agony at losing Joseph. How does seeing Jacob’s reluctance through a lens of past trauma reframe what could seem like selfishness or favoritism?

  • With starvation on the horizon, Jacob is forced to risk the exact heartbreak he’s been avoiding since Joseph’s presumed death. Yet in doing so, he paves the way for reunion with Joseph—an outcome he surely never imagined possible. What is the connection between risk and reward? What roles do trust and desperation play? Thinking of your own life, have you ever had to face the prospect of reliving a painful moment? Did you risk trusting God for a different outcome? Why or why not? What relationship do you see between acting on faith and healing and/or redemption?

 

Reflect

Apprehensive and humbled, the brothers again travel to Egypt, this time with Benjamin in tow. Invited to Joseph’s residence for lunch, the brothers feel grateful but unnerved to see they’ve somehow been seated in correct order by age. Then, when it’s time to leave, any prior sense of relief is shattered by accusations of thievery. They are brought back into the presence of their Egyptian nemesis, who is certain to claim their lives as punishment, either in slavery or death. Or so they think.

Forgiveness reframes transgressions and trauma in light of God’s merciful sovereignty, opening the door for redemption and healing.

  • Reread Genesis 44:14-17. How is this scene similar to what took place years earlier in Genesis 37:23-28? Consider that the present situation has been covertly orchestrated by Joseph. Why do you think he positioned his brothers in almost the same scenario, where they could yet again benefit by abandoning their father’s favored son into slavery?

  • Note Judah’s transformation (Gen. 37:26-27; Gen. 44:33) and the subsequent emotional self-disclosure by Joseph (Gen. 45:1-2). How is the moment redemptive for both victim and perpetrator?

  • Reread Genesis 45:4-8, paying particular attention to verse 5. How does Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers beget a generous attitude toward them? Instead of focusing on their betrayal, Joseph redefines the story as God’s plan. How does recasting it this way relate to his generosity and forgiveness?

  • To forgive does more than absolve sin. It reframes transgressions and trauma in light of God’s merciful sovereignty, opening the door for redemption and healing.

REMEMBER Forgiveness reframes.

 

Revisit

Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.

Forgiveness is a function of trust. Holding grudges and keeping score reveals that we may not fully believe God is on our side, working in His perfect timing to fulfill every promise.

  • Is there anyone in your life you’re struggling to forgive? If so, are there certain fears associated with the thought of letting go—such as, What if they hurt me again? What if they never change? Is it possible I’ll never recover what I lost? Write down your anxieties and pray through each one with the Holy Spirit. What would trusting God with your worries look like? Is it possible that at some foundational level, you feel responsible to take care of yourself? What if you purposefully entrusted your needs to God?

  • In Matthew 6:12, Jesus teaches us to pray, “Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.” What impact does it have when you approach forgiving others with the mindset that you also are a sinner in need of forgiveness?

  • In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus warns, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” To some, these words might seem like a divine threat. Jesus, however, was revealing that God does not view forgiveness as an independent transaction. Rather, He sees it as a communal experience meant to simultaneously revive our relationship with Him and with others. How does viewing forgiveness as an exercise in interconnectedness change your perspective on individual grudges?

  • To forgive is to trust, and to trust is to be vulnerable. What makes this hard in your situation? It may be frightening to let go, but with release comes freedom—and that’s always God’s goal for our lives.

 

Illustration by Adam Cruft

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1 Now Jacob saw that there was grain in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, Why are you staring at one another?"

2 He said, Behold, I have heard that there is grain in Egypt; go down there and buy some for us from that place, so that we may live and not die."

3 Then ten brothers of Joseph went down to buy grain from Egypt.

4 But Jacob did not send Joseph's brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, I am afraid that harm may befall him."

5 So the sons of Israel came to buy grain among those who were coming, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also.

6 Now Joseph was the ruler over the land; he was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph's brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground.

7 When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly. And he said to them, Where have you come from?" And they said, From the land of Canaan, to buy food."

8 But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him.

9 Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land."

10 Then they said to him, No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food.

11 We are all sons of one man; we are honest men, your servants are not spies."

12 Yet he said to them, No, but you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land!"

13 But they said, Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no longer alive."

14 Joseph said to them, It is as I said to you, you are spies;

15 by this you will be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here!

16 Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies."

17 So he put them all together in prison for three days.

18 Now Joseph said to them on the third day, Do this and live, for I fear God:

19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households,

20 and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die." And they did so.

21 Then they said to one another, Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us."

22 Reuben answered them, saying, Did I not tell you, `Do not sin against the boy'; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood."

23 They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them.

24 He turned away from them and wept. But when he returned to them and spoke to them, he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.

25 Then Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain and to restore every man's money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. And thus it was done for them.

26 So they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed from there.

27 As one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money; and behold, it was in the mouth of his sack.

28 Then he said to his brothers, My money has been returned, and behold, it is even in my sack." And their hearts sank, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, What is this that God has done to us?"

29 When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying,

30 The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly with us, and took us for spies of the country.

31 But we said to him, `We are honest men; we are not spies.

32 We are twelve brothers, sons of our father; one is no longer alive, and the youngest is with our father today in the land of Canaan.'

33 The man, the lord of the land, said to us, `By this I will know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me and take grain for the famine of your households, and go.

34 But bring your youngest brother to me that I may know that you are not spies, but honest men. I will give your brother to you, and you may trade in the land.'"

35 Now it came about as they were emptying their sacks, that behold, every man's bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed.

36 Their father Jacob said to them, You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and you would take Benjamin; all these things are against me."

37 Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you."

38 But Jacob said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow."

1 Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried, Have everyone go out from me." So there was no man with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

2 He wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard of it.

3 Then Joseph said to his brothers, I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?" But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, Please come closer to me." And they came closer. And he said, I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

5 Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.

7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.

8 Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

9 Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, `Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.

10 You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have.

11 There I will also provide for you, for there are still five years of famine to come, and you and your household and all that you have would be impoverished."'

12 Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth which is speaking to you.

13 Now you must tell my father of all my splendor in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here."

14 Then he fell on his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.

15 He kissed all his brothers and wept on them, and afterward his brothers talked with him.

16 Now when the news was heard in Pharaoh's house that Joseph's brothers had come, it pleased Pharaoh and his servants.

17 Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, Say to your brothers, `Do this: load your beasts and go to the land of Canaan,

18 and take your father and your households and come to me, and I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you will eat the fat of the land.'

19 Now you are ordered, `Do this: take wagons from the land of Egypt for your little ones and for your wives, and bring your father and come.

20 Do not concern yourselves with your goods, for the best of all the land of Egypt is yours.'"

21 Then the sons of Israel did so; and Joseph gave them wagons according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey.

22 To each of them he gave changes of garments, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of garments.

23 To his father he sent as follows: ten donkeys loaded with the best things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain and bread and sustenance for his father on the journey.

24 So he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, Do not quarrel on the journey."

25 Then they went up from Egypt, and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob.

26 They told him, saying, Joseph is still alive, and indeed he is ruler over all the land of Egypt." But he was stunned, for he did not believe them.

27 When they told him all the words of Joseph that he had spoken to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived.

28 Then Israel said, It is enough; my son Joseph is still alive. I will go and see him before I die."

7 When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them, but he disguised himself to them and spoke to them harshly. And he said to them, Where have you come from?" And they said, From the land of Canaan, to buy food."

8 But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him.

9 Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them, and said to them, You are spies; you have come to look at the undefended parts of our land."

5 Then Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more.

6 He said to them, Please listen to this dream which I have had;

7 for behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and lo, my sheaf rose up and also stood erect; and behold, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf."

8 Then his brothers said to him, Are you actually going to reign over us? Or are you really going to rule over us?" So they hated him even more for his dreams and for his words.

9 Now he had still another dream, and related it to his brothers, and said, Lo, I have had still another dream; and behold, the sun and the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me."

4 But Jacob did not send Joseph's brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, I am afraid that harm may befall him."

13 But they said, Your servants are twelve brothers in all, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no longer alive."

14 Joseph said to them, It is as I said to you, you are spies;

15 by this you will be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here!

16 Send one of you that he may get your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. But if not, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies."

17 So he put them all together in prison for three days.

18 Now Joseph said to them on the third day, Do this and live, for I fear God:

19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers be confined in your prison; but as for the rest of you, go, carry grain for the famine of your households,

20 and bring your youngest brother to me, so your words may be verified, and you will not die." And they did so.

21 Then they said to one another, Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us."

14 When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph's house, he was still there, and they fell to the ground before him.

15 Joseph said to them, What is this deed that you have done? Do you not know that such a man as I can indeed practice divination?"

16 So Judah said, What can we say to my lord? What can we speak? And how can we justify ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants; behold, we are my lord's slaves, both we and the one in whose possession the cup has been found."

17 But he said, Far be it from me to do this. The man in whose possession the cup has been found, he shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father."

23 So it came about, when Joseph reached his brothers, that they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the varicolored tunic that was on him;

24 and they took him and threw him into the pit. Now the pit was empty, without any water in it.

25 Then they sat down to eat a meal. And as they raised their eyes and looked, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites was coming from Gilead, with their camels bearing aromatic gum and balm and myrrh, on their way to bring them down to Egypt.

26 Judah said to his brothers, What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?

27 Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers listened to him.

28 Then some Midianite traders passed by, so they pulled him up and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. Thus they brought Joseph into Egypt.

26 Judah said to his brothers, What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood?

27 Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh." And his brothers listened to him.

33 Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, Please come closer to me." And they came closer. And he said, I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

5 Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.

6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting.

7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.

8 Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

14 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.

15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

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