Thursday, August 24, 2006

Genesis 42

Genesis 42: Joseph’s brothers go to Egypt for grain


As we read in the last chapter, there is now famine in Egypt, and the Egyptians have been buying grain back from Joseph. But the famine is not restricted to Egypt; Jacob and his remaining sons are also experiencing it.

So Jacob decides to send his sons to Egypt, to buy some grain.
When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” (verses 1–2)
He doesn’t send all of his sons, though; the older sons go to Egypt, but Jacob keeps Benjamin, his youngest, with him. He has already lost Joseph, and doesn’t want to lose Benjamin too.

So the brothers go to Egypt, where Joseph is now the governor of the land, meaning that he is in charge of selling them the grain. However, although Joseph recognizes his brothers, they don’t recognize him. So what does he do? He plays with them:

As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them. “Where do you come from?” he asked.

“From the land of Canaan,” they replied, “to buy food.”

Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, “You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

“No, my lord,” they answered. “Your servants have come to buy food. We are all the sons of one man. Your servants are honest men, not spies.”

“No!” he said to them. “You have come to see where our land is unprotected.”

(verses 7–12)

They try to convince Joseph that they are not spies, but he seemingly won’t listen. Finally, he devises a test for them: They have to return home, and then come back to Egypt, bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin with them. Surely this must seem odd to the brothers, but they don’t know what to do. And their first thought is about their brother Joseph, whom they had sold into slavery:

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 upon us.”

Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” They did not realize that Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

(verses 21–23)

Interestingly, although the brothers had simply sold Joseph into slavery, they seem to assume that he’s dead. Or maybe they just never told Reuben the whole story, and he thinks Joseph is dead, just like Jacob does.

Finally, Joseph allows the brothers to return back to their father. He has one of them—Simeon—thrown in jail, as collateral, and tells the rest of them that they must return, with Benjamin, in order to get Simeon back. He then gives them the grain they have purchased and sends them on their way. But he also, unbeknownst to them, returns their silver! He hides it in the bags with the grain.

So by the time the men get home, they’re thoroughly confused. They don’t know why this governor wants them to return with Benjamin, they don’t know where the silver came from, and why it’s in their bags, and they’re not sure if they’ll ever see Simeon again.

Not surprisingly, Jacob isn’t happy with the situation either:
Their father Jacob said to them, “You have deprived me of my children. Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you want to take Benjamin. Everything is against me!” (verse 36)
Reuben tries to convince Jacob that they have to go back to Egypt, or they won’t see Simeon again, but Jacob refuses to listen. Reuben even tells Jacob that Jacob can put both of Reuben’s sons to death, if Simeon and Benjamin don’t return, but that doesn’t convince him. (Not surprisingly, in my mind; what kind of satisfaction would that give Jacob, if it came to that? “My sons are dead, I guess I’ll kill my grandsons, too!”)

As the chapter closes, Jacob is still not willing to send his sons back to Egypt.


This story between Joseph and his brothers—starting here and continuing to Genesis 45—is, to me, one of the strangest in the Bible. Not because anything miraculous happens, but simply because of the psychology involved. Why does Joseph play these games with his brothers? Revenge? Is he teaching them a lesson? Is he simply confused, and not sure what to do?

That being said, a possible clue as to the motivations for his actions appears in verse 9: “Then he remembered his dreams about them and said to them, ‘You are spies! You have come to see where our land is unprotected.’” (emphasis added). Remember that Joseph had previously dreamed that his brothers, and even his parents, would one day bow down to him. I find it interesting that he thinks about these dreams, before he puts his brothers through the hoops.

Also, it may be obvious, or it may not, but I’ll mention it anyway: People in Old Testament times often used the title “my lord” as a term of respect. It’s not blasphemous or anything, just an honorific title.

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