68. Genesis 42:1 – 45:3

III. D. 4. continued

e) Joseph Deceives His Brothers (Genesis 42:1 – 45:3)

As the first year of the famine was proceeding, in 1869 or 1868 b.c., Israel sent the ten older brothers of Joseph down to Egypt to buy grain. In most of the world, the food supply was seldom more than sufficient, so a famine would be felt quickly. Isaac had died while Joseph was in prison. Though Benjamin would have been about twenty by this time and old enough to go on the trip, Israel was still playing favorites. To keep Benjamin at home for fear of what might happen to him was another way of saying that if harm came to one of the older brothers then it would be acceptable. Israel didn’t really mean it like that, but it would have felt like he meant it that way. The older brothers were growing up though, and what would have caused bitterness twenty years previously was not as large an issue as it would have been.

The famine was not a total absence of all food. They had almonds, raisins, and dates, but they were lacking in the foods that are staples, particularly grain. Large herds are good to have, but for a shepherd eating much meat is like eating the future. It takes a long time to build up a herd. Further, if grain was in short supply, then grass was probably also in short supply and so the herd would already be having a difficult time. Milk production would have been down as well. As a source of protein and calories, grain and beans or peas have been the primary sources ever since men switched to agriculture from hunting.

Each of the brothers brought his own money; this suggests that each of them was buying grain for his own household, and the family wealth had been divided into eleven separate camps according to the inheritance laws. The money they brought was not what we think of as money, but was gold or some precious metal that could be weighed and traded for goods. Some wealthy merchants of the time would have made their own coins with their gold, but most traders, like Israel’s family at this point, would not have had coinage.

Surely Joseph was expecting a visit from his brothers. At first perhaps he didn’t know that the famine extended as far as Canaan, but as the first desperate Canaanites came to him he must have thought about his family and how they were doing when so much of the rest of the world was starving. He would have been on the look out for them. So when Joseph’s brothers arrived it is not surprising that he recognized them at once even though it had been twenty years since he had seen them. Ten brothers from the land of Canaan would have been noticeable anyway.

Joseph would not personally have dealt with everyone who came to buy grain; that would have been too big a job for him. But it would have been more important to have close control over foreigners who came to buy grain. The grain had been stored primarily for the welfare of the Egyptian people and Pharaoh would have insisted that his overseer make sure that if grain was to be sold to foreigners enough was saved for the Egyptians. We can reasonably imagine that Joseph had a staff specifically assigned to interview all foreigners, and they may have been told to be on the look out for people like his family. He would have wanted to be there if anyone from his family did come, and it is likely that he was remembering his own dreams from his youth. It is also natural that Joseph’s brothers did not recognize him in Egyptian dress, ruling the land. Who would have thought?

Given that Joseph would have been expecting his brothers, his harsh treatment of them appears to be planned, not a spontaneous act as if he had been caught unprepared and didn’t know how to react and went by instinct. It would be a natural human response to get even and, though Joseph stands out as one of the most exemplary characters in the book of Genesis, certainly he was an ordinary human with a fallen nature. Speaking harshly to the brothers would have also been consistent with the overall Egyptian attitude toward foreigners at that time. To give them a taste of what they had done to him, he threw them into prison for three days, the prison in the house of his old master, Potiphar, that he knew so well. He may have wanted to get even with his brothers (especially Judah, Simeon, and Levi), but he didn’t want to harm his father or Benjamin. So he chose one of them, Simeon, probably the one who had treated him the worst, bound him before their eyes and sent them home with both food and their money.

Joseph’s tears were for himself; he remembered what it felt like when they turned away from his pleading. He was not yet ready to forgive them, however. He knew they would have to come back eventually and he made it as uncomfortable for them as possible by putting their money back in their bags. Of course, he didn’t want to take money from his father, but it was not that scruple which made him return the money. He wanted to alarm his brothers, to make it awkward for them to return, to make it necessary for them to return to Egypt as people who must look guilty. It was a subtle revenge, but perfectly fitting to the circumstances.

The brothers were quick to guess what was going on, and Reuben was quick to say “I told you so”. even after more than twenty years their consciences still hurt them regarding Joseph, and they were quick to ascribe their troubles as punishment for their guilt. They were right that their troubles were coming upon them because of their crime in selling Joseph, but they did not know the real process behind it all. Hence they were both right and wrong in regard to their situation. They interpreted it as the judgment of God against them. They may have thought, briefly, that some man had put the money back and must be trying to make them look like thieves, but who would want to do that? There was no reason to think the man in command would have done such a thing, no reason to suspect anyone of wanting to do such a thing. It must have been God who was out to punish them for their sin.

But they were wrong. It was because of their guilt, but it was not God who was punishing them. At least not in the sense that God wanted Joseph to treat them this way. Revenge is so thoroughly forbidden in the rest of Scripture that we must understand that Joseph was not acting on God’s behalf here. They were suffering the natural consequences of their crime, though through a tortuous chain of events that would not naturally have occurred. It was not God who was behind it, but it was God as well.

Reuben was the first to offer his own children in exchange for Benjamin shortly after their return. As the eldest he was responsible to take the lead, but as the disgraced eldest he was refused. But Judah was in the middle of his spiritual crisis at this point, tricked by Tamar into coping with his own short-comings. Judah had come a long way in spiritual maturity, in coming to grips with his own sinfulness. His greater depth of character is evidenced by his willingness to put himself and his children forward as guarantees for Benjamin’s safety, though it was not his place to do so, and though that kind of offer doesn’t actually make any sense.

In all of the family discussions about a second trip into Egypt, the welfare and fate of Simeon was not mentioned at all until Israel finally sent them off. Israel did love Simeon and did mourn his loss, but he was terrified of losing Benjamin. The nine brothers could not help but notice that he was willing to leave Simeon in prison, possibly for life, rather than risk Benjamin, and if so then he would equally be willing to leave them all in prison. It was his favoritism that had started the conflicts to begin with, but now, at least with Reuben and Judah, there was some healing of the old bitterness. It was not that Israel had changed or apologized or even realized that he had hurt them; nothing had changed for the better externally. But internally they had gotten beyond their bitterness. It is not that they were beyond the pain, but they were beyond the resentment. Their father’s betrayal of them no longer dominated their choices. They were free.

In the end hunger drove him to risk Benjamin where love of Simeon could not. And so the nine brothers returned to Egypt with Benjamin, probably near the beginning of the second year of the famine. They tried to defuse any trouble they might be in for the returned money by bringing double the money and taking the previous payment to Joseph’s steward before they even saw Joseph. It would have been puzzling when he refused to take the money. It could only add to their apprehension when Joseph had them brought to his own house, rather than to his “office”. As harsh as Joseph had been on their first visit, it would be impossible for them to trust in Joseph’s good will. It must have looked to them like some kind of trap, though they had been effectively trapped as soon as the donkeys (not camels; camels were for professionals who traded over long distances) set foot across the border. But they were in no position to refuse the invitation. They might have been reassured when the steward brought Simeon out to them: surely the man wouldn’t have released Simeon if he only intended to arrest them all again. Simeon had been in a position to hear gossip about Joseph and even to learn what was really going on if he had known the language. But Joseph would have taken care that no one talked to him.

At this point Joseph was about thirty-eight years old, Benjamin was about twenty-one, and they had not seen each other in twenty years. It was not the memory of Benjamin that moved Joseph so deeply. It was the idea of Benjamin that stirred him. To have a real brother, a real family to which he could belong, which he could love and be loved by; only having such a family could heal the pain of being sold as a slave. Even so, simply seeing Benjamin once again, from a distance, as it were, only made it worse, only made him more fully aware of what he didn’t have. He had to run from the room to cry because he was in such inner turmoil. He wanted to just accept them, I think, to let the past be the past and move on, but he couldn’t quite let it go, and he really didn’t know if they could be his family, not again, but finally. He was angry, he was in great pain, and he was determined to play out this charade to the end.

The Egyptians could not eat with Hebrews, just as later the Jews could not eat with Gentiles, so to keep up the pretence Joseph had to eat apart from the brothers. But even as thoroughly adopted as he was, second in command of Egypt, son-in-law to an Egyptian priest, he could still not eat with the Egyptians. He could hold power and marry into a prominent Egyptian family, but power cannot overcome some barriers, and the racial barrier between Joseph and the Egyptians would always be there however long he lived in Egypt, however much authority he had. The brothers did not detect that barrier, however. A person trained in twentieth century detective fiction might have noticed that Joseph did not eat with his own staff, and might have deduced that Joseph was not Egyptian, and then might have remembered the dreams of an obnoxious kid brother from years before, but of course they didn’t notice or didn’t think. We wouldn’t have either in their place, despite our mystery-story background.

But what really might have given the ruse away was when he seated the brothers in order of their age, grouped according to who their mother was, and then gave Benjamin five times as much food as the rest. Sherlock Holmes would have deduced immediately that the great second-in-command over Egypt was in fact Joseph, but not these guys. But Sherlock Holmes did not believe in magicians, whereas they did. Joseph was supposed to be an Egyptian seer, so that explained how he knew the order of the family and the half-brothers from the full brothers, and it made them even more afraid. Even so, the brothers didn’t remember those obnoxious dreams that egged them into selling Joseph in the first place, they didn’t connect the few dots they had, and neither would we have. How many of us notice or think about what is going on around us? How many of us are on the alert for any mystery in our lives, especially when we are afraid? Very few of us. Things like conspiracies don’t happen to ordinary people like us. If Joseph’s brothers thought about it much – and they probably didn’t – then they would have ascribed it to the man’s magical powers, divination or whatever.

Joseph’s revenge was perfect. He knew his father, his father’s favoritism, and he figured that his father was now pouring it all onto Benjamin. He would have figured how things stood with the other brothers bringing Benjamin, how they would have had to guarantee his safety to their father. So he framed Benjamin for stealing his cup of divination to give him an excuse to arrest Benjamin. He wanted to put them into a position where at least the older of the brothers would have to face the prospect of slavery and prison in exchange for the brother who stood in Joseph’s place. But to make the trap as painful as possible, he let them think for a short time that they were getting away and that all was well. He timed his steward to overtake them just as they were beginning to relax about the trip and to think that they would make it home OK.

The brothers should have been a bit more cautious in answering the steward. They knew they weren’t guilty of taking the cup, but then again all their money had been returned on the first trip. How had that happened? Who had put it back? Truthfully, they had no idea what they might find when they opened their sacks, and their past experience should have warned them to be careful. Once burned, twice careful, but once burned was not enough for them. Finding the cup in Benjamin’s sack was the crown on Joseph’s revenge. What hope had they of ever escaping?

Joseph received them harshly, boasting of his ability to divine. It was enough to scare the brothers that he was the lord over all of Egypt, but that he was a magician of real power as well would have perfected their fear. All that remained was for him to close the trap, and as he was probably hoping, it was Judah that approached him to intercede for Benjamin. Levi would have been the other primary instigator of Joseph’s troubles, but it was Judah who had actually sold him. At first Judah offered that they all stay as his slaves in place of Benjamin, ten in exchange for one. But Joseph wanted to tighten the screws a bit. He wanted them to face the prospect of going home to their father deprived of his last son, like they had gone home to him twenty years before without Joseph. He wanted them to face the prospect of confessing to their failure to their father, like they should have done twenty years before. He wanted them to remember what they did to him and to show some remorse. He wanted to know if they regretted it.

It was Judah’s speech that did it. Judah proved to Joseph that he had grown to love his father, that in spite of the favoritism, in spite of the injustice to himself, in spite of any resentment he could reasonably feel, he had learned to forgive his father and love him even in his dysfunction. Then Joseph knew there had been a real change in Judah, and that there was real hope they could become a family. Then Joseph was able to forgive his brothers.

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