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There appears to be a confusing / contradictory sequence of events occurring when Joseph's brothers first appear before him in Egypt.

Refer to Breishit 42:16 - 19

In v. 16, Joseph tells to his brothers to send one person back to bring down their other brother, and the rest of them will be imprisoned in Egypt.

Apparently, that didn't happen, or Joseph didn't wait to see if it would happen, since, in verse 17, he imprisons all his brothers for 3 days.

Finally, in verse 19, Joseph says, one of your brothers will be imprisoned, here, and the rest of you can go back to bring your other brother. It seems like the opposite of the original arrangement.

Why did Joseph change the entire arrangement between verses 16 and 19?

  • perhaps the switch was a matter of "showing mercy" by moving to a softer position? or it was out of consideration for his father? or perhaps both? – Isaac Kotlicky Dec 30 '16 at 13:08
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According to Rav Hirsch and others the entire setup (including the apparent change of mind) was part of his plan. Rav Hirsch points out that he did this to impress on them the seriousness of their position and the power that he held over them. Rav Hirsch points out that they had originally seen him as the bureaucrat in charge of retail selling. This was to show them that he was the number two in Egypt, only a little below the "god-king" (Par'o). He could imprison all of them at a whim. Allowing them to all go, leaving only one hostage was actually a major softening of his position. It also allowed them to be tested to see what they would do as well as separating them form the one who might push for a violent solution and be the most obdurate.

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In The Rav Thinking Aloud on Bereishis page 377-384 there is a beautiful answer. In short, the Rav answers that to achieve forgiveness for a sin it is not necessary to suffer as much as the sin itself should warrant. You can suffer far less as a settlement (see all his proofs there) when its coupled with Teshuva. Yosef says (Bereishis 42:18) "Zos Asu Vechyu" - this (3 days in jail) is what you need to do to live by way of obtaining kapparah for the 20 years that I was enslaved for. The brothers realized that (Bereishis 42:21) Aval Asheimim Anachnu Al Achinu - "we sinned by kidnapping our brother." There was a recognition of the Chet and Teshuva so it was enough to just have three days in jail as a Kapparah for the 20 years that Yosef was enslaved.

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