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Did Joseph Sin in Hiding His Identity?

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When Joseph first met his ten brothers as they came to Egypt to buy grain (Genesis 42:5–8), he recognized them, but they did not recognize him. Rather than reveal himself to them right away, he purposefully hid his identity. Part of this may have been because of the timing; his brothers were bowing down to him (42:6), just as he had foretold in his dreams many years before (Genesis 37:5–10). It was these particular dreams that moved his brothers to hatred of him and caused them to sell him into slavery (Genesis 37:19–28). Then, keeping his identity hidden, Joseph even went so far as to accuse his brothers of being potential spies (42:9, 14), jailed them all for 3 days (42:17), then allowed nine of the brothers to go back if they promised to bring their youngest brother (Benjamin) back with them, keeping only Simeon in jail (Genesis 42:18–24).

The charge has been labeled against Joseph by some who say that Joseph was spiteful (if not actually vengeful) here, and at the very least, he was cruel to them by hiding his true identity. There are also some Christians who believe that omitting detail is the same as lying. There are those who therefore claim that Joseph was actually lying to them about his identity, while there are others who do not view this as lying, nor being maliciously deceptive. So there are going to be differences of opinion on this subject, even from people who stand firmly on Scripture as the ultimate authority.

The Art of Deception?

There are instances of concealment in Scripture that were done out of good motives and for noble purposes.

There are instances of concealment in Scripture that were done out of good motives and for noble purposes. Jehosheba, the sister of Ahaziah, hid crown prince Joash for several years from the evil queen Athaliah in 2 Kings 11:2–3. Exodus 2:2 and Hebrews 11:23 mentions the faith of Jochabed who hid Moses for 3 months. Judges 4:17–24 tells the account of Jael, who briefly harbored Sisera so that she could quietly kill him and gain a victory for Israel’s armies. Proverbs 11:13 (NAS) tells us that a trustworthy man conceals secrets.

But there are also cases where deception and omission of detail is severely condemned and punished (Acts 5:1–10). In the case of Ananias and Sapphira, their deception was done with the motive of envy and pride and they were guilty of lying to the Holy Spirit. Joseph’s hiding his identity from his brothers ultimately had restorative and protective motives for his brothers and is perhaps the best example of “non-malicious deception.” Joseph's ultimate plans for good for his brothers was to bring them to Egypt and get them access to the well-watered Nile delta plains for their livestock so that they would not starve during the prophesied prolonged famine (and for their entire lives).

Joseph’s Motives Were Reasonable

Joseph apparently had a method to his plan, he wanted to make sure that his brothers were not the same people who debated killing him and then greedily settled on profiteering by selling him into slavery.

Joseph apparently had a method to his plan, he wanted to make sure that his brothers were not the same people who debated killing him and then greedily settled on profiteering by selling him into slavery. Remember that Joseph had not seen his brothers since that unhappy time. He also likely wanted to make sure that they had not actually harmed Benjamin in the intervening years. His father Jacob doted on his two youngest because they were the sons of Rachel, whom he loved, and Joseph knew that they had resented him, and perhaps was concerned they also were jealous of Benjamin. So Joseph put them in prison to observe them and see what their intents and thoughts were—would they come out bitter, angry, and prideful? Or would they be respectful and introspective of their lives? Simeon was kept to determine if the brothers were honest, and not only concerned with themselves. If the brothers left Simeon thinking he was in prison for good, and “better him than them,” then Joseph would know his brothers were still self-serving and self-centered.

Think of it this way, had Joseph just welcomed them with open arms into Egypt, and they turned out to be not just murderers in thought, but violent murderous men, then chances are they would have been executed in Egypt for their crimes, and possibly dragged down Joseph with them. Joseph had to test them (and yes it was "tough love" that seems harsh to some) at the time, but his real purpose was either clarification that they were wicked men, or restoration and protection of them and their families. Even with this tough love, Joseph still sought the best for his brothers. Had they been dishonorable men, Joseph would have never revealed himself to them, and would have let them return to Canaan, instead of inviting them to come to Egypt.

Did Joseph Show Favoritism to Benjamin to Spite His Brothers or Test Them?

The reason why Joseph gave more to Benjamin (Genesis 43:34) was to see if the brothers showed signs of jealousy during the meal, and the reason he wanted to keep Benjamin was to test and see if his brothers would have left Benjamin to the consequences, or if they really sacrificially loved their youngest brother and would offer to take his place in prison/servitude. Notice the brothers’ reaction when Joseph’s steward found the planted silver cup in Benjamin’s bag (Genesis 44:12) even though the steward had said that only the guilty party was liable (44:10). They did not tell the steward to take Benjamin while they headed back to Israel. Quite the contrary, they tore they clothes, wept and followed the steward back to the city where Joseph was (44:13). Then, Judah showed that he and his brothers had indeed changed and were honorable men by asking to be a slave in the place of their brother (44:33–34). Joseph could then no longer keep up his stern test, but broke down in tears because of the love for his brothers and father (Genesis 45:1–3).

Joseph, in concealing his identity had garnered the information he sought: that his brothers had changed, were remorseful for their treatment of him, and had become a close-knit loving family.

Joseph, in concealing his identity had garnered the information he sought: that his brothers had changed, were remorseful for their treatment of him, and had become a close-knit loving family. Joseph didn’t whitewash his brother’s offenses toward him: he openly reminded them that they had sold him into slavery but that they should not grieve or be angry with themselves over that past sin. For God had sent Joseph there to preserve life, both Egyptian and Israelite (Genesis 45:4–5). After Jacob died, his brothers worried that Joseph’s anger might now show up, but he again reminded them that what they intended for evil, God did for good (Genesis 50:20), and that for his part, Joseph fully intended to be kind to them and their children for the rest of his life (50:21).

The Verdict?

So motivationally, we can see that Joseph was not out for revenge or seeking to do what he could to spite his brothers.

So motivationally, we can see that Joseph was not out for revenge or seeking to do what he could to spite his brothers. His “deception” was not malicious, nor do we ever see Joseph act hatefully to his brothers, even after their father died 17 years later. Concealing his identity was prudent given the circumstances, and Joseph’s endgame was to bless his brothers, not repay evil for evil. While it may be tempting to view this as a case of situational ethics, where the (supposedly harsh) means justify the ends, that is not the case at all. The means were not wicked, just cautious, and the outcome was definitely loving. Much like what God did in Judges 2:21–22 (NKJV), when he no longer drove out the nations that Joshua left when he died, to test “whether they will keep the ways of the LORD, to walk in them as their fathers kept them, or not,” so did Joseph test his brothers to see if they still followed the Lord or not, or if they had become even more cruel since he last saw them. Proverbs 12:23 (NKJV) tells us that “A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims foolishness.” Concealing his identity at the time was prudent, and Joseph was certainly no fool.

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