This passage describes one of the saddest stories in the history of God's kingdom. It is important as we read it to recall that what we are reading is primarily about the providence of God. His providence is seen in the life of Joseph personally, but it is also seen in his arrangement of events that would bring the descendants of Abraham into Egypt.
We can see in Joseph a picture of Jesus. For example, Joseph is like Jesus in that he is the persistent servant of his father, determined not to rest until he has found his brothers. Further, he is like Jesus in that he suffered cruel treatment at the hands of those he had come to help.
The account also suggests that Reuben was trying to take seriously his role as oldest son. Yet he was not prepared to do so in an obvious way. Instead he tried to do it secretly, and because he did, he was not successful. Perhaps his brothers would have listened if he had possessed the courage to speak the truth. This is a reminder that if we want to be effective for God we should have the courage to speak the truth in every situation.
The sins of Joseph's brothers are clearly described. They were marked by callousness, deceit and disrespect for their father. Why did God allow this to happen to Jacob? He had deceived his own father when he tricked him into giving him the blessing that his father wanted to give to Esau. Sometimes God in his providence lets us taste the bitterness of our sins. Yet we also know that God was working in providence to bring great blessings to Jacob and his family through Joseph. And what he did for Jacob he does for each of his people.