Genesis 41:46-42:38: Haunted by a Guilty Conscience
Topic: Default Passage: Genesis 41:46– 42:38
Genesis 41:46-42:38: Haunted by a Guilty Conscience
We’ve been working our way passage by passage through the book of Genesis, and today the next passage we come to is Genesis chapter 41 verse 46 through chapter 42 verse 38, so I’ll be reading a selection of verses from that passage. It says,
56 So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth. 1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt…. 6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”… 14 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15 By this you shall 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, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days. 18 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19 if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20 and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes…. 26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”
May God bless the reading of his Word.
Let’s pray: Father, we find it written that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Help us to view your word that way this morning—not merely as an interesting subject for study or as a helpful resource for various situations but as our very life. May we experience it as that, through the ministry of your Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.More often than not, from what I’ve observed, people in our society tend to have a relatively high view of their own moral goodness. They consider themselves to be good people—according to their own standards of goodness, at least—and are often unaware of the ways in which they fall short of God’s moral standards. This is why you’ll often hear me explaining from the pages of Scripture how sinful we are and how we’ve transgressed God’s laws and deserve his judgment. That’s because, in a society that seems to continually affirm how good we supposedly are, people need to hear about their sin and be reminded of their need for a Savior. So, I try to be faithful to emphasize those truths Sunday after Sunday.
However, there are also times when people already feel the burden of their sins. They know they’ve done wrong and are plagued by a nagging sense of guilt. Maybe they’ve hurt someone in a significant way or been unfaithful to their spouse or failed to be a good parent or gotten to where they are today through some sort of dishonesty or done something else they know is wrong—and they feel guilty. They’re deeply troubled at the thought of what they’ve done and are plagued by their guilty conscience day after day.
And maybe that’s you this morning. Maybe it feels like you’re carrying around an enormous backpack on your back. And that backpack is filled with the heavy weight of the wrongs you’ve done. Maybe these are things you’ve done in the past or even things you’re doing in the present. And the guilt and shame you feel because of them is weighing you down and sometimes seems unbearable. So, how can we respond to these feelings in a healthy way and ultimately be free from the nagging sense of guilt we often feel? That’s what we’ll discuss this morning as we look at this passage from Genesis 41-42.
The previous chapters of Genesis record how Joseph’s brothers were so jealous of Joseph that they sold him into slavery in Egypt. Yet Joseph eventually rises to become the second-in-command of Egypt. And he now has the task of selling grain from the Egyptian storehouses to people from Egypt and from surrounding nations in the midst of the severe famine that’s taking place in that region of the world.
We then learn in Genesis 42:1-3 that 1 When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2 And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3 So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt.
We then read in verses 6-11, 6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7 Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”
So, Joseph undoubtedly looked a lot different as a high-ranking Egyptian official than he had as a country boy in Canaan. Following Egyptian customs, Joseph’s beard had likely been shaven off completely, and his clothing probably consisted of a white linen garment with plenty of gold on it and other decorative features common among the Egyptian aristocracy. He also spoke in the Egyptian language. So, his brothers didn’t recognize him. But he, of course, recognized them.
And he uses that to his advantage in verses 9-10, accusing them of being spies who have been sent to see how depleted Egypt’s resources are. He then continues to act as though he believes they’re spies in the subsequent verses. He says to them in verses 15-17, 15 By this you shall 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, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17 And he put them all together in custody for three days. Then after the three days, Joseph only keeps back Simeon and sends the rest of them back to Canaan with grain and instructions to bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, back to Egypt with them.
And listen to how they interpret their predicament in verses 21-24: 21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23 They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.
Joseph then does something even more unexpected in verses 25-28: 25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them. 26 Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27 And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” Then, after Joseph’s brothers get back home, they discover that all of their sacks have money in them, and they start freaking out because they’re afraid that Joseph will think they’ve stolen from him.
So, the question that naturally comes to mind is, “Why is Joseph doing this to them?” At first glance, it might seem as though he’s taking revenge on them a little bit and retaliating for the hardships they brought on him by selling him into slavery. Yet I don’t think that’s the correct interpretation because, if you remember, there was a point in the narrative, recorded in verse 24, when Joseph is so overcome with emotion that he has to quickly leave the room in order to weep. So, Joseph’s not enjoying the misery that he’s putting his brothers through.
Instead, I believe the best interpretation is that Joseph’s testing his brothers to see if they’ve changed at all since he last knew them. He needed to know who he was dealing with and make sure that his brothers weren’t the same ruthless lot that had previously discussed the idea of killing him and then greedily decided to line their own pockets by selling him into slavery. Because if Joseph’s brothers hadn’t changed and he did welcome them with open arms in Egypt, it was very possible that they’d cause significant trouble for him there. Perhaps their ruthless and violent tendencies would lead them to commit certain crimes in Egypt and end up dragging Joseph down with them. So, Joseph had to know their character. And that’s why he tests them as he does in this passage. His tactics are certainly a bit severe, but it’s hard to think of another way in which he can accurately assess their present character.
Yet the aspect of this passage I find most interesting is what Joseph’s testing reveals about his brothers. Joseph’s testing reveals that they’re still plagued by a guilty conscience. That’s what I believe is actually the main idea of this entire passage. Joseph’s testing of his brothers reveals that they are still plagued by a guilty conscience.
Look back at verse 21. After Joseph’s brothers have been in jail for three days and are now being commanded by Joseph to leave one of their number in Egypt while the rest of them go back home and retrieve Benjamin, notice now they interpret their situation. Specifically, notice why they think this difficulty has come upon them. Verse 21: “Then they said to one another, ‘In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.’” Isn’t that fascinating? It’s been about 20 years since they sold Joseph into slavery and the guilt of what they’ve done is still plaguing their consciences to such an extent that, when a significant difficulty arises, they instinctively assume that it must be God punishing them for what they did to their brother.
This is confirmed in verse 22. We read, “And Reuben answered them, ‘Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.’” Back in Genesis 37, Reuben had tried to rescue Joseph from the plot of the rest of the brothers and had succeeded in saving Joseph’s life but had failed to keep his brothers from their fateful decision to sell Joseph into slavery. And Reuben now interprets this crisis situation in Egypt as “a reckoning for [Joseph’s] blood.” In other words, according to Reuben, there’s no doubt about it. Their current situation is divine payback for what they did to Joseph.
Yet, in reality, as we can see from the larger context, God’s actually using this situation for their good. God’s working behind the scenes throughout all these events for the good of his people. And that even includes Joseph’s brothers. Joseph’s brothers needed to be brought face-to-face with what they had done and have their consciences awakened to the heinousness of their sin and ultimately come to genuine repentance. And that’s what God does through Joseph in this passage. He graciously afflicts the consciences of Joseph’s brothers and thereby leads them to repentance.
You see, a guilty conscience is actually a wonderful thing because it alerts us to the fact that something is wrong. Kind of like a smoke detector going off in the middle of the night. I don’t think anyone’s ever been awakened in the middle of the night by their smoke detectors, discovered that their house was on fire, and then complained about the smoke detectors waking them up. Or take physical pain as another example. The ability we have to feel physical pain is a blessing because it usually alerts us to the fact that something’s wrong and thereby prevents further damage from being done to our bodies. Like if you put your hand on a hot stovetop and didn’t feel a burning sensation, that wouldn’t be a good thing. It would result in severe damage being done to your hand.
By the way, I learned not too long ago that this is actually why people with leprosy sometimes lose fingers and toes and occasionally even larger parts of their body like arms and legs. It’s not that the leprosy directly causes the loss of these body parts but rather that it damages the body’s nervous system and causes various body parts to become numb. So, when the person then gets a cut or some other type of injury, that injury will often go unnoticed and will eventually lead to infection and possibly to a body part like a finger or toe or arm or leg having to be amputated. So, physical pain plays a critical role in protecting us from harm. The ability we have to feel pain is actually a tremendous blessing.
Similarly, the fact that we have a conscience is a blessing as well. God’s given us the capacity to experience guilt for the things we’ve done and thereby be alerted to the reality that something’s wrong spiritually. A guilty conscience signals to us that we have a spiritual and moral problem that’s going to lead to some significant consequences if that problem isn’t addressed.
Not only that, it’s also very dangerous to persist in a certain behavior when your conscience is making you uncomfortable because, as you continue engaging in that problematic behavior, your conscience gradually becomes desensitized to it. In the words of 1 Timothy 4:2, it becomes “seared.” That’s the word the Apostle Paul uses. He’s speaking of false teachers and refers to them as “liars whose consciences are seared.” In other words, they’ve lied so many times that they don’t even feel bad about it any longer. In all likelihood, when they lied the first time, they felt pretty bad. Then, when they lied again, they still felt bad but not quite as bad as they did the first time. Then, when they lied a third time, they felt even less bad. And now, Paul says, they habitually tell lies and don’t feel anything. Their consciences are seared. They’ve been thoroughly desensitized to that sin.
This can also happen on a societal level as well. For example, I think it’s pretty clear that American society as a whole has had its collective conscience seared when it comes to a variety of things including sexual immorality, the murder of babies in the womb, a disrespect for parental authority, and just basic dishonesty. I mean, we’ve come to a point where a politician can tell a bald-faced lie that everyone knows is a lie and yet hardly anyone—especially in that person’s own political party—even gives it a second thought. That’s where we are as a society.
It reminds me of Romans 1 where it states three times that God “gave [people] up” to their sinful desires. Romans 1:24 says, “Therefore [because of their habitual sin] God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves.” Then verse 26 says it again: “For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions.” Then again in verse 28: “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.”
So, the point is that your conscience is something you don’t want to ignore. You know, there are certain warnings in life that you can ignore pretty safely. For example, I ignore the check engine light in my car all the time—and usually without any significant consequences. The only time I have to figure out why the check engine light is on is when I have my car inspected. But one thing you can’t afford to ignore is your conscience since the consequences for ignoring that are both serious and eternal.
So, what should you do when you have a guilty conscience? Well, one thing people often try to do is soothe their guilty conscience through a variety of human methods. We try to cover our sin, as it were, in a variety of ways. This goes all the way back to the first humans, Adam and Eve, trying to cover their nakedness in the Garden of Eden. Genesis 3:7 records how “they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” And ever since then, people have been doing that same basic thing—attempting to cover their nakedness with the fig leaves of their own morality.
They might, for example, engage in acts of charity, giving their time and donating their money to various charitable causes. Or they might just attempt to engage in various acts of kindness informally in their day-to-day lives. It all looks very good on the outside—and, of course, it often has some positive effects on the people around them—but on the inside, these individuals are trying to placate their guilty conscience. They’re desperately trying to find relief from the feelings of guilt that continue to haunt them.
And in some situations, people will even resort to punishing themselves in various ways in an attempt to placate their conscience. Back in medieval times, this took the form of many Catholic monks practicing self-flagellation, in which they’d actually whip themselves—sometimes severely—in order to supposedly cleanse themselves of their sins. And even though I haven’t heard of many people today doing that, there are certainly ways in which we try to placate our guilty conscience through self-punishment. It could be a physical form of self-punishment, as is sometimes the case with cutting, or an emotional or relational form of self-punishment.
Yet, if we’re honest, I think we’d all have to admit that none of these things is the answer. I believe God’s designed the conscience in such a way that we sense, deep down, that all of these human interventions are insufficient to deal with the ways in which we’ve fallen short of God’s moral standards. At the end of the day, none of them provides us with the relief from guilt that we’re looking for.
And the Bible tells us why. It teaches us that the only adequate remedy for our guilty conscience is Jesus. Jesus is the only answer. He’s the only solution to our sin problem. Jesus is God in human flesh and came to this earth in order to rescue us from our sins. That involved him living a perfectly sinless life and then dying on the cross to make atonement on our behalf. Our sins were actually placed on Jesus so that he suffered the punishment for them instead of us. Jesus then completed his saving work by rising from the dead. As a result, Romans 8:1 tells us, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
I also love the way Paul describes it in Colossians 2:13-14. He states that God forgave us of all of our trespasses “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” So Paul says that, as a result of our sins, there was this “record of debt that stood against us.” We owed a debt to God’s justice. And this debt was so great that it was far beyond our ability to repay. And it’s interesting that Paul refers to the existence of a “record of debt”—a written ledger detailing our sins and the debt we owed because of those sins. But what did Jesus do? Paul says he took that record of debt and nailed it to the cross. All of your sins, all of your shame, nailed to the cross of Jesus, never to be seen or read again.
You know, at the beginning, I said that many people—perhaps even some of you here today—are carrying around a backpack filled with the heavy weight of your sins. And wherever you go, that backpack goes with you, weighing you down. And that metaphor actually comes from John Bunyan in his famous book Pilgrim’s Progress, originally written back in the seventeenth century. In the book, a man named Christian is introduced to us as one who’s carrying on his back a tremendous burden. This burden, of course, represents his sin.
And Christian complains to his family of being “undone” because of this awful burden that lies heavily upon him. A few pages later, he complains that this burden on his back is so great that he fears it’ll sink him “lower than the grave.” So, he travels all over the place looking for a way to get this burden off of him. He goes to this place and that place, this person and that person. Yet as he continues his journey, the burden just keeps getting heavier and heavier—to the point that he says he can’t enjoy anything in this world.
Then listen to the first two paragraphs of chapter 3: “Now I saw in my dream Christian walking briskly up a highway fence on both sides with a high wall. He began to run, though he could not run fast because of the load on his back. On top of the hill, he came to a cross. Just as he got to the cross, his burden came loose, dropped from his shoulders, and went tumbling down the hill. It fell into an open grave, and I saw it no more. Now Christian’s heart was light. He had found relief from his burden. He said to himself, ‘He [Jesus] has given me rest by His sorrows, and life by His death.’ He stood gazing at the cross, wondering how the sight of the cross could so relieve one of guilt and shame. He no longer felt guilty of anything. His conscience told him that all his sins were forgiven. He now felt innocent, clean, happy, and free. He knew his sins had all been paid for by the death of the One who died on the cross. They were gone, buried in the Savior’s tomb, and God would remember them against him no more forever. He was so thankful and so full of joy that tears began to flow.”
Likewise, this morning, no matter how heavy of a burden you’re carrying, you can be free from that burden through Jesus. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” That’s his invitation for you today. You don’t have to go through life as Joseph’s brothers did back our main passage with the burden of sin on your shoulders. You can experience genuine and lasting relief from that burden through Jesus.
In addition, as we think about the guilty conscience of Joseph’s brothers back in Genesis 42, it’s also important to note that, even after we put our trust in Jesus and experience his forgiveness, God still continues to graciously make us aware of the sin in our lives. This isn’t to say that we should be feeling the weight of condemnation we felt before we embraced Jesus, but the Holy Spirit does expose sins in our lives and lead us to repentance. This is actually something we should be experiencing on a regular basis. We might even say that it’s one of the most important signs there is that we’ve experienced genuine conversion and that we’re healthy as Christians.
And more often than not, the instrument the Holy Spirit uses to show us our sin is the Bible. Hebrews 4:12 tells us, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” God’s Word in the Bible is a powerful thing. It pierces and penetrates our hearts and exposes the sins in our lives. That’s what should be happening as you read the Bible. That’s how you know you’re reading the Bible correctly. Like, if you read the Bible and find that it always seems to affirm the way you’re currently living, there’s something wrong there. You’re not reading it correctly.
Of course, there are plenty of ways in which the Bible is a source of incredible comfort and encouragement—absolutely. But it’s also true that the Bible steps on our toes and exposes our sins. You see, the Holy Spirit is like a master surgeon who skillfully uses the scalpel of Scripture to cut away from our lives everything that doesn’t need to be there—all the pockets of spiritual cancer that will prove harmful if they’re not dealt with. So, reading the Bible should be a mixture of comfort and affliction. One way I’ve heard it phrased is that the Holy Spirit uses the Bible to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. He comforts those who are afflicted by their earthly circumstances and afflicts those who are comfortable in their sin.
And in Genesis 42, God knows that Joseph’s brothers need to be afflicted. So, he graciously uses Joseph’s testing to bring their sin to the forefront of their minds and ultimately lead them toward repentance. And if we truly belong to God, we should expect him to do the same thing in our lives as well. We should expect him to regularly reveal our sin to us and lead us to repentance as a style of life. Hopefully, you’re experiencing that.
It’s also important to be aware that God often uses not only the Bible itself but also other Christians to point out sins in our lives. That also is a normal and healthy element of the Christian life. So, make sure you’re open to that and receptive to other Christians when they come to you in good faith with concerns about your life. Proverbs 27:6 (NIV) says that “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” One of the greatest expressions of love that those of us who are Christians can show to one another is when we gently and graciously help each other see aspects of our lives that are contrary to Scripture—not with a fault-finding spirit but with a genuine desire to help each other and protect each other from things that will inevitably cause harm. How I pray that our church would be that kind of place with those kinds of people—both people who will lovingly bring sin to someone else’s attention whenever that’s needed and people who will humbly and graciously receive any concerns that others bring to them. Those kinds of interactions are normal occurrences in a healthy church.
And of course, the confidence we have as Christians is that no matter how much we struggle and stumble and sometimes fall, God’s love for us remains the same. Because his love isn’t based on our performance or on how good of a Christian we manage to be on any given day but rather on the merits and perfection of his Son Jesus. So, we can face our sins honestly with the understanding that God loves us and accepts us just as much on our worst day as he does on our best day.