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“The Awakened Conscience”

Genesis 42:1-38
Bob DeGray
October 12, 2008

Key Sentence

One of the roles of affliction is to awaken the conscience.


Introduction: Caught by Famine (Gensis 42:1-5)
I. Joseph further afflicts his brothers (Genesis 42:6-17)
II. The consciences of Joseph’s brothers are awakened (Genesis 42:18-28)
III. The awakened conscience looks at things differently (Genesis 42:29-38)


On June 16, 1901 the Washington Post published the following tidbit in a regular column called “Men Met at Hotel Lobbies”. "I heard Dr. Conan Doyle tell a good story during a trip I made to London last winter," said George D. Aldrich at the Arlington last night. "He said that at a dinner party the guests began discussing the daily discoveries made to the detriment of people occupying high stations in life. Dr. Doyle said it had always been his opinion there was a skeleton in the closet of every man who reached the age of forty. This led to a discussion, some of the guests resenting the idea that there was something concealed in everyone’s past.

“As a result of the controversy it was suggested his view be tested. The diners selected a man whom all thought an upright Christian, whose word was accepted as quickly as his bond and who stood with the highest in every way. 'We wrote a telegram saying 'All is discovered; flee at once" to this pillar of society,' said Dr. Doyle, 'and sent it. He disappeared the next day and has never been heard from since.'"

The Book of Proverbs says ‘the wicked flee though no one pursues.’ – we call it a guilty conscience. Today, as we continue to study Genesis, we will see the conscience at work and learn that when there’s true guilt, the awakening of a guilty conscience is a good thing; When there’s temptation, the voice of an active conscience is a good thing. And one of the roles of affliction is to awaken the conscience.

Before we look at the text, we need to define ‘conscience’. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary says conscience is “the awareness of a moral or ethical aspect to one's conduct together with the urge to prefer right over wrong.” Another definition says “a moral judgment that opposes the violation of a previously recognized ethical principle and that leads to feelings of guilt if one violates such a principle”

This fits the basic New Testament text on the conscience. In Romans 2 Paul says “Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.” So all people have a conscience, given by God in common grace to restrain the evil of fallen humanity. The conscience often accuses us and occasionally defends us.

The conscience, however, isn’t all powerful. Scripture teaches that it can be weak, it can be seared, it can be corrupted, it can be wounded. And without the Holy Spirit it is powerless to prevent men from sin, lawbreaking and rebellion against God. On the other hand, in believers, it is used by the Holy Spirit to awaken knowledge of past sin and inform present choices. That’s the role we’ll see in Genesis 42.

Introduction: Caught by Famine (Gensis 42:1-5)

The setting is famine, which began after seven years of good crops in Egypt, and spread to the whole area. Gen. 42:1-5 When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, "Why do you just keep looking at each other?" 2He continued, "I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die." 3Then ten of Joseph's brothers went down to buy grain from Egypt. 4But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph's brother, with the others, because he was afraid that harm might come to him. 5So Israel's sons were among those who went to buy grain, for the famine was in the land of Canaan also.

We see immediately that this dysfunctional family is still dysfunctional. Apparently in the face of crop failures and water shortages, Joseph’s brothers are not actively trying to fight starvation and loss, but are sitting around in despair staring at one another. Jacob, their father, finally has to rouse them: “Okay, I’ve heard there is some grain in Egypt; get yourselves up and go there, so that we don’t die.”

But Jacob still has problems of his own, specifically favoritism. Having lost Joseph, he clings even more desperately to Rachel’s other son, Benjamin, who would, by this time, be more than twenty years old. His father is still holding him to himself and doesn’t trust his brothers with him. We suspect he still blames the others for the loss of Joseph, which is of course the truth, though he doesn’t yet know it.

I. Joseph further afflicts his brothers (Genesis 42:6-17)

So the stage is set for the dramatic encounter between Joseph and those who afflicted him. Genesis 42:6-17: Now Joseph was the governor of the land, the one who sold grain to all its people. So when Joseph's brothers arrived, they bowed down to him with their faces to the ground. 7As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. "Where do you come from?" he asked. "From the land of Canaan," they replied, "to buy food." 8Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.

9Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, "You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected." 10"No, my lord," they answered. "Your servants have come to buy food. 11We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies." 12"No!" he said to them. "You have come to see where our land is unprotected." 13But they replied, "Your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man, who lives in the land of Canaan. The youngest is now with our father, and one is no more."

14Joseph said to them, "It is just as I told you: You are spies! 15And this is how you will be tested: As surely as Pharaoh lives, you will not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16Send one of your number to get your brother; the rest of you will be kept in prison, so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth. If you are not, then as surely as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!" 17And he put them all in custody for three days.

Discerning Joseph’s motives is difficult. The narrator first links Joseph’s harsh speech to his recognition of his brothers, and implies he may be giving them a taste of their own medicine: he has the power of life and death over them. But in verses 8 and 9 Joseph’s harshness is linked to his recall of his dream, in which eleven brothers, not ten, bowed to him. This suggests he may be developing a strategy, based on his dream, to discipline and test his brothers and to get Benjamin down to Egypt.

Some say Joseph is acting completely without a revenge motive. He’s simply playing his role in accomplishing God’s purposes by drawing his family into reconciliation and down to Egypt. Others say this is Joseph taking revenge; his harshness and imprisonment are retribution. Personally I think Joseph is fighting the desire to take revenge. His conscience, which we know to be effective from his encounter with Potiphar’s wife, is at work in his dealings with his brothers. He’d like to treat them harshly and take revenge, but his godly conscience opposes it. So he appears to waver between revenge and compassion: it’s the influence of an active conscience.

II. The consciences of Joseph’s brothers are awakened (Genesis 42:18-28)

After his brothers have spent three days in prison, Joseph is more ready to deal compassionately with them. Verse 18: On the third day, Joseph said to them, "Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19If you are honest men, let one of your brothers stay here in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. 20But you must bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified and that you may not die." This they proceeded to do.

Notice that Joseph specifically mentions his fear of God as the motivation for this revision to the plan. Joseph’s conscience has been at work; he will not be overly harsh with his brothers for the sake of revenge because he does not want to offend God. The fear of God is evidence of a godly conscience, a spirit informed conscience at work.

So he had originally said to them “you all stay here and send one to get your brother.” Now he says “You all go, but leave one to insure that you come back with your brother.” He will allow them to return to Canaan with enough grain to feed their starving families. But he knows they will run out of grain again soon enough, and when they return they must bring their youngest brother with them.

And just as conscience has been at work in Joseph, so conscience has been awakened in his brothers during their three days in prison. Verse 21 They said to one another, "Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that's why this distress has come upon us." 22Reuben replied, "Didn't I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn't listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood."

The word translated ‘being punished’ in verse 21 carries a strong implication of guilt: because we are guilty in the matter of our brother we are being punished.’

This is the conscience at work: they’re not guilty of spying as Joseph charged, but they are guilty, and their time in prison has reminded them of that guilt. When they ask the question ‘why is this happening?’ they know its ‘because of what we did to Joseph.’

God sometimes uses affliction to awaken godly conscience, the honest recognition of guilt. Therefore, when you’re in difficult circumstances, don’t suppress the desire to examine yourself for potential guilt. I want to say this carefully, because I know Satan will often use false guilt to depress and paralyze God’s children. But that doesn’t mean all guilt is false guilt. There is such a thing as true guilt that needs to be remembered and confessed, sin forsaken and hurt made right where possible.

Theologian Vern Poythress wrote a column recently in World magazine titled “Feeling guilty? Then you probably are, and Christ is the remedy.” He says “a young woman student came into a campus pastor’s office to ask why she had guilt feelings about living with her boyfriend. The pastor gave the Biblical answer: You feel guilty because you ARE guilty. The guilt feelings are a warning that you have to attend to your relationship with God and stop doing what rebels against his will.”

Poythress agrees that we can find cases where people feel guilty for something not their fault or responsibility, “But such cases are exceptional. The main reason for guilt feelings is guilt. . . Pop psychology has succeeded in convincing many people that guilt feelings are always a bad thing. Supposedly, guilt feelings are a sign of an unhealthy psyche, and must be alleviated by pumping up our self esteem.”

“But . . “, Poythress says, “people have to face some hard truths. Much as our culture might want to deny it, guilt remains the underlying problem. . . we can face guilt only when we have assurance that Christ has provided a remedy by taking away our guilt on the cross. “He himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed.”

Recognition of true guilt, identified by an inward awareness, given to us by the Holy Spirit, through the conscience, is a necessary step before we can embrace what Christ did or even why we need him. Recognition of true guilt is essential.

Therefore God sometimes uses affliction to awaken our consciences, our consciousness of true guilt, as he did for Joseph’s brothers. This is an important use of affliction, and when afflicted it is important for us to examine ourselves for sin. Even when the affliction has multiple causes and purposes, as it usually does in God’s sovereignty, it is appropriate to use it as a springboard for self examination.

A great Biblical example of this is the instruction James gives about sickness and prayer. James 5:13 “Is any one of you suffering? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. 14Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. 16Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

Do you see the connection? Confession is part of the healing process for one afflicted with sickness. Suffering helps to lead us to a place of confession. After the incident with Bathsheba, David wrote “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4Day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. 5Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgression to the Lord’– and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” Do you see it? Sometimes God uses affliction to awaken the conscience.

One of the most heart-rending accounts of this is Sheldon VanAuken’s A Severe Mercy which he calls "the spiritual autobiography of a love rather than of the lovers." Van Auken chronicles the powerful romantic love he experienced with his wife, Davy. Later, while studying at Oxford, Sheldon and Davy developed a friendship with C.S. Lewis, under whose influence and with much intellectual scrutiny they accepted Christ. But as their devotion to God intensified, Sheldon realized that he was no longer Davy's primary love – God was. With this discovery began a growing jealousy – of God.

Then Davy succumbed to a fatal illness. VanAuken was grief stricken. But through pains-taking reveries, and in corresponding with C. S. Lewis, he discovered in God "a mercy as severe as death, a severity as merciful as love." He learned that her death "brought me as nothing else could do to know and end my jealousy of God. It saved her faith from my assault. ...And it saved our love from perishing."

Sometimes affliction is a severe mercy. In fact commentator Bruce Waltke calls his section of theological reflections on today’s text “Severe Mercies” and says “God, through the famine, initiates the saving process by forcing the family to confront their past and each other. . . [He] reminds the ten brothers of how they treated Joseph and for the first time they recognize the Moral Governor of the universe at work in their lives. Their consciences are awakened to confess their guilt and to fear God.”

This softening of the brothers is the testimony Joseph needs to continue with God’s plan to bless his family. Vs. 23: They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter. 24He turned away from them and began to weep, but then turned back and spoke to them again. He had Simeon taken from them and bound before their eyes. 25Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, to put each man's silver back in his sack, and to give them provisions for their journey. After this was done for them, 26they loaded their grain on their donkeys and left.

27At the place where they stopped for the night one of them opened his sack to get feed for his donkey, and he saw his silver in the mouth of his sack. 28"My silver has been returned," he said to his brothers. "Here it is in my sack." Their hearts sank and they turned to each other trembling and said, "What is this God has done to us?"

Notice, of Joseph, that he is now fully awake to his conscience, and weeps when he hears the contrition of his brothers. Notice of the brothers that God is now on their lips, just as he was on Joseph’s in the previous chapter. They have been awakened to an awareness and a fear of God by the affliction of the famine and of the prison.

Joseph’s motive in putting the money in their sacks has received much debate. Some say Joseph did it to make them squirm, knowing that when they returned they could be accused of theft. Others say Joseph did it to show grace, to not drain the family’s fortune. I tend to agree: I think Joseph was like some people we’ve known who are forever trying to casually leave a twenty dollar bill on the counter to cover some cost we’ve incurred. He wanted to bless his family, but still believed the dream-foreseen time had to come when all eleven brothers were gathered before him. So he detains Simeon and sends them back with firm orders to bring Benjamin.

III. The awakened conscience looks at things differently (Genesis 42:29-38)

The rest of the chapter is quickly told, as these conscience-awakened brothers begin to deal with their still-bitter father. Verses 29 to 38: When they came to their father Jacob in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them. They said, 30"The man who is lord over the land spoke harshly to us and treated us as though we were spying on the land. 31But we said to him, 'We are honest men; we are not spies. 32We were twelve brothers, sons of one father. One is no more, and the youngest is now with our father in Canaan.' 33"Then the man who is lord over the land said to us, 'This is how I will know whether you are honest men: Leave one of your brothers here with me, and take food for your starving households and go. 34But bring your youngest brother to me so I will know you are not spies but honest men. Then I will give your brother back to you, and you can trade in the land.'"

35As they were emptying their sacks, there in each man's sack was his pouch of silver! When they and their father saw the money pouches, they were frightened. 36Their father Jacob said to them, "You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!" 37Then Reuben said to his father, "You may put both of my sons to death if I do not bring him back to you. Entrust him to my care, and I will bring him back." 38But Jacob said, "My son will not go down there with you; his brother is dead and he is the only one left. If harm comes to him on the journey you are taking, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in sorrow."

To their father, the brothers minimize the troubles they had in Egypt; they don’t mention the imprisonment nor that Simeon has been left behind in chains.

But they do tell Jacob that the one in charge of Egypt required that them to bring their brother Benjamin back with them as evidence of their honesty. His presence would prove to the stranger that they were telling the truth. But the money in their sacks, no matter what motivated Joseph to put it there, has the dual effect of making them fear God and fear the circumstances. It made it even more dangerous for them to go back to Egypt to get the next round of grain.

And Jacob is distraught. I don’t believe the brothers have told him about Joseph yet, since they don’t know it’s Joseph they are dealing with, but still Jacob says “You have deprived me of my children; Joseph is no more, now Simeon is no more, and if you take Benjamin I will have lost everything.” Jacob’s conscience is not yet awake: he clings to his favoritism despite the fact it might lead to starvation for his family.

Reuben makes a well-intentioned but poorly thought out attempt to persuade his father: “You can kill both my sons if we don’t bring Benjamin back to you.” But even Jacob was wise enough to know more killing wouldn’t put things right. What good would it do to kill others when the death of his favorite would certainly cause him to die of a broken heart.” So, while the grain holds out, he vetoes the idea of a return trip.

So what have we seen? God can use adversity to awaken the conscience. Said another way, the Holy Spirit uses adversity in the lives of believers to draw their attention to sins they have committed or are becoming vulnerable to. God used the famine and the apparent hostility of Joseph to bring these ten brothers to their first real recognition of what they had done. He also used the arrival of the brothers to walk Joseph through the temptation to revenge without giving in to it.

God can use your affliction and your circumstances to awaken your conscience. I’m not saying that every affliction involves unconfessed sin. But it can. Maybe you and your spouse had a horrible season of hurtful interaction some time ago. You’re living together in relative peace, but the hurt of that episode still stands as a barrier between you. God can use adversity to help you. When you say to God and to your spouse, sincerely, from the heart “I’m sorry; I was wrong; will you please forgive me,” you go a long way toward relieving the stress of that conflict.

Or maybe you’ve had some hidden sin, some one time event or some debilitating habit that has caused barriers between you and other people. Joseph’s brothers had this one act of cruelty that couldn’t be papered over, couldn’t be forgotten. They needed to recognize and confess that sin. Have you got a skeleton in your closet? Maybe the stresses, the difficult circumstances, the affliction and even the trials that you are going through are God’s gracious way of getting your attention, awakening your conscience, opening your ears to the Holy Spirit’s voice so that you can confess and be forgiven by the Father, confess and be reconciled to others, confess and be at peace with yourself. God sometimes uses affliction for just this purpose.