Genesis 42:18-21 (NIV):

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 in prison, while the rest of you go and take grain back for your starving households. But 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.

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 on us.

Why did they immediately jump to that conclusion? Was it because they saw Joseph and he reminded them of his younger self (so they were thinking about it anyway), or did they just feel guilty "in general"?

up vote 3 down vote accepted

We are not told the answer to this question but having had personal experience as a result my own stupidity, let me suggest that after 22 years of guilt over their deception and presumed indirect murder of Joseph, it does not take much to trigger personal recriminations and extreme remorse such as we see here. [I also suspect that some other bad events might have triggered similar thoughts as well.]

Guilt is a very powerful emotion which is why the NT goes to such lengths to deal with it by way of complete forgiveness of sin (Matt 9:2, 5, 6, 12:31, 32, 26:28, Mark 14:24, Acts 8:22, Rom 4:7, James 5:12, 1 John 1:9, 2:12, etc). See Rom 3:23-27.

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