Not only in Egypt *was there now a famine* (the beginning of the seven lean years), there was a famine in Canaan too – the very Canaan where Joseph had been born and raised. News in those parts travelled then nearly as quickly as it does today, so news soon spread in famine-racked Canaan that there was corn to be got in neighbouring Egypt.
Hence Jacob (Joseph’s father) called together ten of his sons and said to them, “Listen boys, I want you all go to Egypt and buy a whole lot of corn and bring it back so we won’t starve.”
“I see little brother Benjamin isn’t here.” said Reuben the eldest son, “He’ll be coming with us, won’t he, Father?”
“’Fraid not, son,” said Jacob. “I’m keeping him by my side. I’ve already lost Joseph, who was special, and I won’t risk losing Benjy as well, who is special too.”
“So the rest us aren’t special, in the way Benjy is and Joseph was, is that it?” said Reuben.
“If you put it that way,” said Jacob.
The brothers, minus Benjamin, set off on the journey to Egypt.
Joseph, although de facto prime minister of Egypt, wasn’t your normal de facto prime minister who considers it infra dignitatem to get his hands dirty. Joseph was very much a hands-on de facto prime minister, and so was happy to get out there and sell some of the stored corn himself to people who needed it.
One day in the city of Ineb-Hedj (later known as Memphis) when Joseph was selling corn there, a group of ten men came up and bowed down before him. Joseph was taken aback, for this behaviour in a market-place was most unusual. Joseph’s mind flashed back to his *long-ago dream* in which he and his brothers were in a field binding sheaves, and his brothers’ sheaves had bowed down to Joseph’s sheaves. The brothers hadn’t taken kindly to this dream when Joseph had told them of it. It was the dream that led the brothers to make plans to throw Joseph down a deep well and leave him for dead.
Joseph had never fully recovered from the trauma of being thrown down the well. The memory still caused him nightmares, from which he would awake screaming. The men bowing before him didn’t at first glance look like his brothers as he remembered them. On the other hand he hadn’t seen them in over twenty years. On a second glance there was something about them that reminded him of them. Could they in fact be his brothers? The longer he looked, the more he became sure they were. Joseph became filled with fury. His upper lip began to tremble. Rivulets of sweat broke out on his forehead.
“Where are you from?” Joseph spat out. But he spat it out in Egyptian, not in his native Canaanite tongue that he only imperfectly remembered.
The brothers, not speaking Egyptian, had brought an interpreter. The oldest brother, Reuben, said through the interpreter, “We have come from Canaan to buy food, for the famine that afflicts Egypt afflicts Canaan also.”
“You look like spies” said Joseph. “Yes, I’m certain you’re spies. You’ve come to spy out the weak points in our defences.”
“No sire,” said Reuben, “we’re honest men, brothers who just want to buy corn. If we can’t, we and our fellow Canaanites back in Canaan, including our old father, will soon be dead from having no food. You wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?”
“If you were Egyptians I wouldn’t. Seeing as you’re Canaanites it would bother my conscience not at all.”
“We’re not Canaanites as such, but Hebrews who found refuge in Canaan.”
“It doesn’t matter to me. Hebrews, Canaanites. You’re foreigners, and therefore likely up to no good. No, I’m going to have you all put in jail and killed.”
“What can we do to convince you you’re wrong about us?”
“You got any other brothers?”
“One other in Canaan, who our father wouldn’t let come with us.”
“It’s a long story, the gist of which is that because another of our brothers got *killed by wild animals* when we last travelled together, Father doesn’t trust us with our youngest brother.”
“Any other brothers I should know about?”
“No, just Benjamin who is with Father, and Joseph, who, because he’s dead from being eaten by wild animals, is necessarily no longer our brother, if you see what I mean.”
“Tell you what. Let one of you stay here in Egypt as my prisoner while the rest of you go back to Egypt and return here with Benjamin. As a bonus, you can take back with you all the corn you can buy. Remember, though, if you don’t return with Benjamin, this’ll indicate to me that you’ve not been telling the truth and that you’re spies. In which case the brother who stays here will be killed. How about it?”
“What if Father still won’t let Benjamin return with us?”
“Then I’ll have the brother you leave here killed. Tell your father this. It’ll concentrate his mind.”
Source: Genesis 42, 1-20