17 And he put them all together into ward three days. 18 And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God: 19 If ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison: go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses: 20 But bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die. And they did so.
Yesterday I wondered whether Joseph’s brothers had the option to just leave Egypt without any grain, but today’s verses suggest not! They are all put into prison as Joseph finalizes his plans for them.
What must they have thought during those three days of imprisonment? I would imagine it was a frightening ordeal with an uncertain future. So far as we know, they had never been subjected to a confinement such as this. I imagine that if I were in their shoes, I might have a strong sense of being treated unfairly. After all, they were innocent of what they had been accused of, so they were being imprisoned unjustly.
Except it wasn’t quite that simple, was it? They were innocent of the crime Joseph had accused them of, that of being spies, but they were deserving of imprisonment for other reasons. They had betrayed their brother and sent him to be unjustly imprisoned, and so, according to the balance of justice, they deserved to be imprisoned also. And as we will see in tomorrow’s verses, this sense of karmic retribution was not lost upon them at all.
What a relief it must have been for the brothers when Joseph came and lessened his earlier demands. He tells them that he fears God, which presumably is meant to assure him that he is a man of his word, and that if they follow his instructions, they can trust him to keep his end of a bargain. Then, instead of requiring all but one of them to stay in prison while the other is sent to retrieve Benjamin, he reverses the ratio. Only one brother must stay imprisoned, and all the others are free to go retrieve the missing brother. Not only this, but he will even send them home with the grain that they came to buy in the first place.
Given the alternatives mentioned before, it is an offer they can’t afford to refuse.