Genesis 42:10-13, Giving Joseph the Crucial Information
The verbal tussle over whether the brothers are spies continues in these four verses, but Joseph cleverly draws out crucial information from the brothers to turn the screws on them even tighter. In my days as a litigation attorney I learned the phrase “to open the door”—i.e., if the other side mentions a fact, even in passing, it becomes fair game to explore, and exploit, for your client’s benefit. That’s what happens here. Let’s read the text:
10 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν· οὐχί, κύριε, οἱ παῖδές σου ἤλθομεν πρίασθαι βρώματα· 11 πάντες ἐσμὲν υἱοὶ ἑνὸς ἀνθρώπου· εἰρηνικοί ἐσμεν, οὐκ εἰσὶν οἱ παῖδές σου κατάσκοποι. 12 εἶπε δὲ αὐτοῖς· οὐχί, ἀλλὰ τὰ ἴχνη τῆς γῆς ἤλθετε ἰδεῖν. 13 οἱ δὲ εἶπαν· δώδεκά ἐσμεν οἱ παῖδες σου ἀδελφοὶ ἐν γῇ Χαναάν, καὶ ἰδοὺ ὁ νεώτερος μετὰ τοῦ πατρὸς ἡμῶν σήμερον, ὁ δὲ ἕτερος οὐχ ὑπάρχει.
“But they said, ‘Not so, my lord! Your servants have simply come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are peaceful men. Your servants are not spies. But he said to them, ‘Not so! But you have come to see the tracks/footprints of the land.’ They responded, ‘Your servants are twelve brothers from Canaan, and lo, the younger one is with our father today, and the other one doesn’t exist.’”
The Greek is simple and straightforward, but its power is unrivaled in the Scriptures. For example, one ought not to ignore the immensely powerful irony of οὐχ ὑπάρχει in verse 13. The brothers are talking directly to Joseph, looking straight at him, and their words here are “the other one (i.e., Joseph) doesn’t exist.” That is, the person we are talking to doesn’t exist anymore!
You wonder if Joseph, for a fleeting moment, wanted to rip off his Egyptian disguise and show himself as who he really was to his brothers. But the nature of the pain Joseph gradually imposes on his brothers, as he tightens the screws, until Genesis 45 is calculated to inflict the maximum personal insecurity on the brothers. I look at it as a sort of “equalization of terror,” where Joseph now is interested in making sure the brothers suffer the same level of despair, distress and instability as he felt when tossed into the pit and then sold into Egypt. Personal and familial healing might only arise when both parties recognize their equal vulnerability.
We not only have the hugely ironic οὐχ ὑπάρχει here in verse 13, but we also see Joseph skillfully drawing information out of his brothers by refusing to act “reasonably” with them. That is, Joseph needs to get more information about the family from the brothers so that he can use it against them. But he can’t betray his knowledge of family dynamics. The brothers willingly must give up damning information. How is Joseph to proceed when all of these factors must be taken into consideration?
Joseph employs a common but often overlooked psychological and rhetorical dynamic to elicit damning information from the brothers. He just doesn’t seem to want to listen to them. Note the flow of the conversation:
You are spies.
No, we have come to buy food. We are sons of one man. We are peaceful.
Nope, you are spies.
Ok. . .we are sons of one man, and the younger is back in Canaan.
Bingo! Joseph gave them just a little rope to hang themselves and they willingly complied! That is, they g gave him much more information than they intended at first. He wanted them to admit information (about brother Benjamin) that he, Joseph, could skillfully use against them. So, he continues to stonewall them, speaking the harsh words, refusing to credit anything they say. The desperation of the brothers finally leads them to confess the existence of a younger brother. Thus, verse 13 is doubly powerful: it reveals damning information about Benjamin’s existence, and it ironically confesses Joseph’s non-existence.