Sermon: The Cain Test

If you have a Bible with you, feel free to open there with me to Genesis 42. Genesis 42, beginning in verse 1. Genesis is the first book in the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy. If you don’t have a Bible with you, just open your ears to hear God’s word this morning. 

We have been spending this summer working our way through the story of the sons of Jacob. Jacob has twelve sons. Joseph, the favorite, the chosen heir, but not the oldest, is loved by his father and hated by his brothers. One day, out to check on his brothers in the field, they strip Joseph of his special robe his father gave him, throw him into a cistern, then later take him out and sell him to some slavetraders. Twenty years pass and Joseph has been a slave, has been in prison, but now has been elevated over all of Egypt and has been used by God to feed the world. We ended last week with a wide angle lens, where all the world comes to Joseph to buy grain. Joseph is God’s means of blessing the whole world. Yet as we pick up the story this morning, we zoom in. The focus shifts from Joseph’s work in feeding the world to the fate of the family of Jacob, to the reconciliation of the brothers. From the scope as wide as the world, it shifts down again to one family. 

It’s Genesis 42, beginning in verse 1. But before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Prayer

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God: 

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you keep looking at one another? I have heard,” he said, “that there is grain in Egypt; go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. But Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he feared that harm might come to him. Thus the sons of Israel were among the other people who came to buy grain, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan. 

Now Joseph was governor over the land; it was he 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. When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Joseph also remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them. He said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man, we are honest men, your servants have never been spies.” But he said to them, “No, you have come to see the nakedness of the land!” They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father in the land of Canna, and one is no more.” But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I said to you; you are spies! Here is how you shall be tested; as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! Let one of you go and bring your brother, while the rest of you remain in prison, in order that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you, or else, as Pharaoh lives, surely you are spies.” And he put them all together in prison for three days.

On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here where you are imprisoned. The rest of you shall go and carry grain for the famine of your households and bring your youngest brother to me. Thus your words shall be verified and you shall not die.” And they agreed to do so. They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.” Then Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to wrong the boy? But you would not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” They did not know that Joseph understood the, since he spoke to them through an interpreter. He turned away from them and wept; then he returned and spoke to them. And he picked out Simeon and has him bound before their eyes. Joseph them gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to return every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. This was done for them. 

They loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. When one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money at the top of the sack. He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in my sack!” At this they lost heart and turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke harshly to us, and charged us with spying on the land. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men, we are not spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father, one is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in the land of Canaan.’ Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. Bring your youngest brother to me, and I shall know that you are not spies but honest men. Then I shall release your brother to you, and you may trade int he land.’”

As they were emptying their sacks, there in each one’s sack was his bag of money. When they are their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed. And their father Jacob said to them, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has happened to me!” Then Reuben said to his father, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should come to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

A few years back, I went home for my high school class reunion. It was a good eight hour drive and a couple hours in I picked up a friend from the translation who had, since high school, become Roman Catholic and was training to be a priests. It was great to talk theology for six hours in the car with someone I disagreed with but respected. At least, that is something I find enjoyable, but pastors are a weird breed. We learned a lot from each other. By the time we pulled into the reunion, our friends had gotten wind of our arrival and we were a walking joke: A pastor and a priest get out of a car…

Like most reunions, it was fun and weird. But I remember looking at this group of people I had not seen in years and thinking, “Some of you have not changed at all in all those years.” Some of us had. A few of us had less hair to go around. A few of us had a bit…more of us to go around. While the years clearly changed our bodies, our hairlines and our waistlines, the question was really, had we changed at all? Were we the same people now that we had been all those years ago? 

This is Joseph’s question when he sees his brothers for the first time in twenty years. A famine has struck the world, reaching all the way to the land of Canaan, where the sons of Jacob live. Jacob hears that there is grain in Egypt and sends his sons down, holding only Benjamin, whose name means ‘the son of my right hand,’ the new beloved son and heir, back. The brothers go down to Egypt and bow themselves before the governor asking for food.

Only the governor is their brother Joseph. Joseph recognizes them immediately. The same faces, the same mannerisms, the same hair cut some twenty years later and he knows them. These are his brothers. 

Yet this is not a warm welcome. There are no hugs, jokes, and happy tears here. Verse seven says, When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke harshly to them.

We might wonder at first why Joseph doesn’t reveal himself to his brothers, why he treats them so poorly and with such suspicion. Remember the last time he saw them and where they are now. These brothers hated him with murderous hatred and comfortable sacrificed him to slavery to get him out of the way. They resented his elevation, ganged up on him, and tried to ruin his life. But now, Joseph has all the power and they are the weak ones. They are hungry and in anguish, crying out in need, and Joseph is the one with power. I believe that Joseph does not reveal himself to them because he knows that if he does he cannot trust the sincerity of their response. They are desperate. If they found out it was Joseph in front of them, Joseph who had the power of life and death, they might easily say anything they think Joseph will believe. They will protest at how sorry they are, how much they have changed, beg for forgiveness, but it could all be a ruse. It could all be self-serving talk to get themselves out of a jam. If he reveals himself now, he could not trust their words to reveal their hearts. 

Because Joseph needs to know: do people change? 

They might look the same, but are they the same? Twenty years have passed – Joseph has been dragged through the pit. The last he saw them, these brothers sat down for a meal by the cistern to eat while he cried out in anguish. Have they changed? Had God been working in their hearts or were they the same wicked men as before? If they have an opportunity to fill their bellies again while one brother suffers, would they do the same thing? Have they changed at all?

Can a person change? 

This is what Joseph is seeking to uncover about his brothers. 

So Joseph puts them to the test. First, he accuses them of being spies to see what they will reveal about themselves. They have not forgotten Joseph. Verse 13: They said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” Even as they tell of their family, Joseph – the brother they threw into prison – still weighs upon them. Though ten of them stand before him, they say they are a family of twelve brothers. Though they do not admit their role in the fate of the brother who is no more,’ he has not been forgotten. In fact, as we will learn, that day with Joseph has been weighing on them all for more than twenty long years.  

Next, Joseph places them in prison for three days, giving them a small taste of what they put him through. A couple days when Joseph spent years. He promises that one can go and get Benjamin while the rest languish. Are they willing to endure hardship for the sake of others, of their family and father back in the land who will go hungry without them? Have they changed from the men who sat by the pit eating while Joseph cried out? 

Last, Joseph puts them in an even closer scenario to what he endured long ago. After three days in prison, he gives them a way to prove their honesty. One brother will left behind in the pit of prison, the others sent off with food to fill their stomachs with the charge to bring their youngest brother back to Joseph. One brother left for dead while the others go their way. This is their test. 

The brothers themselves immediately recognize the situation. Verse 21: They said to one another, “Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.”

We can see the parallels in their words. Anguish for anguish. We are now paying the penalty. What we did to Joseph now has come back upon us. Again, one brother is left in the pit while the other go their way, but have they changed? Will they leave Simeon like they did Joseph? 

Joseph overhears this conversation and turns aside to weep. He must have seen the beginnings of remorse, the first steps of repentance in them there, but the test is not over. 

Joseph’s next action makes the connection even more poignant. He returns the money they paid for the grain. They find money in the sacks, as if they were repaid or compensated for leaving the brother behind. Was it twenty pieces of silver, like they received for Joseph long ago? We don’t know, but when they see the money they lose heart and tremble. There is a recognition. It is debatable whether Joseph intended them to see this connection or not, but it seems clear in their minds. They feared that, accused of stealing, their cause was lost and Simeon would never be released, but they likely also saw their own past coming back in this money. They had left their brother in the pit and received money in exchange – again. Before with Joseph their hearts were not moved, but now they tremble and wonder just what God is doing to them. 

At the end of the chapter, Jacob is not willing to trust his own sons. They come back with the story and the sacks full of grain and money, but Jacob can only see more destruction. Joseph gone, Simeon gone, he will not risk Benjamin. Whenever the brothers go out, one seems to be sacrificed, one is left for dead. Jacob did not send Benjamin in the first place because he feared for his safety, perhaps a lingering uneasiness from when Joseph went out with the brothers. An inkling in the back of his mind that the story of the brothers doesn’t quite fit. The plight of Simeon only reinforces Jacob’s concerns. Benjamin will not be risked. Even with Reuben’s willingness to put his own sons up as collateral against the safety of Benjamin – a disturbing proposal – Jacob will not bend. 

As the chapter ends, the test is not over. We have not yet seen whether the brothers have changed, whether they can pass the test. 

As we consider what God is saying to us through this story, this test, let’s take a moment to consider just what kind of test Joseph gave to his brothers. 

Joseph tests to see if they are willing to put a brother’s life ahead of their own gain. He gives what I call the “Cain Test.” This type of story goes all the way back to Genesis 4. The older brother, Cain, was jealous of his younger brother, Abel, whose offering was pleasing in the sight of God. Instead, of seeking God’s face and asking what would have pleased the LORD, Cain murders his brother. When confronted by God, Cain says, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

That is the test: Are you your brother’s keeper? Twenty years ago, the brothers of Joseph were Cain, jealous and twisted in rage that sought to destroy Joseph. But in the years that followed, had they become someone new? Had sorrow and repentance pierced their heart so that they were changed by the LORD to be people who keep instead of kill their brother?

The ‘Cain Test’: Are you your brother’s keeper? Will you keep and protect your brother at the cost of our own interests, or will you sacrifice him to get ahead? This is what Joseph wants to see. This is what he is looking to find out as he puts his brothers to the test. Will they be their brother’s keepers? 

At the end of the chapter, we don’t know how the story will end. This ending, this non-ending, invites us to place ourselves in the story, to finish the story with our own lives, our own response. 

The chapter ends like the parable of the two brothers in Luke 15, where the older brother is invited to leave behind his bitterness and join in the celebration for the brother who was lost. In that parable, we don’t know what the brother will do, but in telling it this way, Jesus invites us to finish the story with our own response. In a similar way, like a parable, this chapter invites us to consider our place in the story and gauge our response. 

The brothers have spent a life putting themselves first. Long ago, they cut off and cut out Joseph because he was the favorite of their father, because he was the one given dreams. But now, when faced with the same situation again, will they be their brother’s keeper?

Will we look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others? Will we keep our brothers and sisters in the church? Will we care for them above our own gain, our own convenience, our own comfort? 

I don’t know what lies in your past. I don’t know your sorrows or regret, words spoken or left unspoken, actions taken or missed. I know mine. 

I said my reunion was fun and weird, but it was also hard. There were people I didn’t want to see. People I had not treated well when I was in High School. People who had mistreated me. Some were there and some were not. That reunion was not just about rekindling old friendships, but a place of reflection. Was I the same as I had been all those years ago? If placed in the same situation today that I was then, would I be my brother’s keeper? 

The open-ended test of the brothers should cause all of us to pause, reflect, and pray. As we look back on months and years, be thankful for all the transformation God has already brought about in you, but also be honest about where there is much more to be done, and then pray that by God’s grace, you would have the strength to do today what you did not do then. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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