14 And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies:
15 Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.
16 Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.
Joseph repeats his accusation that they are spies. He suggests that their story is clearly false, and that he cannot believe it unless they bring the one brother out of eleven that is absent. In other words, “if you expect me to believe that all ten of you are brothers in one family, then bring along another member of your kin to confirm it.”
The account from earlier in Joseph’s life seem to suggest that Benjamin was born before Joseph was sold into Egypt, so this was presumably not a ploy to meet the lad for the first time. Several have speculated that Joseph’s chief concern might have been instead to ascertain that Benjamin was well taken care of. After all, he had very personal reasons to distrust the sons of Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah, and the way they behaved towards the sons of Rachel.
The solution that Joseph suggests is extreme. Keep all of the brothers in imprisonment, except for one, who will be permitted to go and retrieve the youngest brother, Benjamin. Only if the storied son is revealed will all the others be allowed to go free.
What isn’t clear is whether Joseph is giving the brothers any alternative. If they didn’t agree to this exchange, would they have been free to leave, just without any of the grain they needed? Or were they locked into the situation now, whether they liked it or not?
9 And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.
10 And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come.
11 We are all one man’s sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.
12 And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.
13 And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.
It seems a sudden and strange accusation to call this group of men traitors. Obviously, Joseph knows that his brothers have a sneaky and destructive streak, not only because of how they treated him, but because of their tricking and slaughtering the men in the city of Shalem. But it seems doubtful to me that he genuinely expects his brothers to be here for anything other than buying the grain as they have claimed. More likely it seems to me that he was casting around for a reason to keep them engaged with him for a while longer. To what end, perhaps even he does not yet know, only that he will keep them in play until he can decide what to do with them.
The response of Joseph’s brothers, doubling down on their heritage makes me wonder if they felt the appearance of ten men together was what Joseph had found suspicious. Did they think he saw this was an excessive emissary to buy grain, and so they needed to explain why so many of them were here together?
Unfortunately we don’t have any explicit insights into either party’s inner thoughts in this exchange. Regardless, in the brothers’ haste to explain themselves, they let slip some crucial information that Joseph will be able to use in his charade. One of their brothers is absent, and one of their brothers “is not.” Now he can turn the focus of the conversation to the matter of missing brothers and prove where their hearts are on the matter.