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Why Did Joseph Call His Brothers ‘Spies’? | Q&A


How was Joseph showing love to his brothers by calling them spies? 


The story of Joseph is often recognized as both showing the history of Joseph and also a prophetic picture of the relationship between the Lord and His earthly people, Israel. So, we will trace Joseph’s personal relationship to his brothers and drop hints about how the story relates to Christ’s relationship to Israel. We will also see how this story applies to our lives.

The story of Joseph covers several chapters from Genesis 37 through Genesis 50. So, we will summarize the parts of the story that show the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. 

Honored Son Sold to Midianite Traders

In Genesis 37 we learn that Joseph was a favorite son of Jacob. He had dreams of his future glory which annoyed his brothers and even his father (vs 3; vv 5-11). He was sent to find out how his brothers were doing while they took care of the family’s herds of sheep. His brothers saw him coming and planned to destroy him. They actually sold him to a caravan of Midianite traders going to Egypt (vv 25-36). 

The parallel to the Lord Jesus is seen in Him coming to Israel as their Messiah (Matt. 2:1-2), His rejection because of who He was (Matt. 26:64,65), and Israel’s loss of their Messiah (Matt. 23:39). 

Joseph Honored in Egypt

For this discussion we skip over the strange incident involving Judah and Tamar recorded in Genesis 38. In chapters 39-40, Joseph’s rise to prominence in Egypt is described. While Israel is set aside, the Gentile world has been blessed by Israel’s Messiah, the Christ. (Hos. 3:4; 2 Cor. 3:14) But, there is a day coming when through trial they will be brought to acknowledge God’s grace to them. (Zech. 12:10; Rom. 11:26-27). 

The Need of Jacob’s Family and Joseph Unrecognized

In Genesis 42, Joseph’s brothers again become prominent in the story. Famine has engulfed “all the earth” (Gen. 41:57) and Joseph’s brothers, except for Benjamin, are sent to Egypt to buy food. Joseph is a powerful leader in Egypt and oversees all the distribution of food. So, his brothers eventually come face-to-face with Joseph, but they do not recognize him. He recognizes them. 

Joseph’s behavior toward his brother’s might seem strange if we forget that the work of God in our souls is to bring repentance leading to salvation. This is the reason why Joseph acts toward his brethren the way he does. 

Discipline Leading to Repentance and Forgiveness

In Genesis 43 and 44, we find that Joseph tests his brothers in such a way as to lead them to a point where they realize that they are completely helpless. We find a similar discipline of God in the story of Jonah. We all must come to the point where we realize we are incapable of saving ourselves. That is why Joseph called his brothers “spies.” As spies they would be completely at the mercy of Pharaoh, or Joseph as Pharaoh’s representative. They were without hope. Even today, spies are subject to being executed. That is exactly where we stand before God. When we realize our condition and ask for mercy, He is ready to save. 


We must notice one more incident. After their father Jacob dies, the brothers become fearful that Joseph might turn against them. We read in Genesis 50:15-21, that they sent an appeal to Joseph. But, Joseph was evidently saddened by their lack of trust in him and said, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” I mention this final conversation because we are often similarly doubtful of God’s goodness toward us even after we are saved. God wants us to rest in the security of His love toward us. 

  • Grant, F. W., The Numerical Bible: The Pentateuch, Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1903, pp 102-136. 
  • Grant, L. M., Comments on the Book of Genesis, Beamsville: Believers Bookshelf Canada, 2009, pp 183-237.
  • Knapp, C., A Fruitful Bough, Sunbury: Believers Bookshelf.

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