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Bible Commentaries
Genesis 44

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter is entitled to special status in the sequence of events which was listed at the beginning of Genesis 37 as a series of eleven episodes in the [~toledowth] of Jacob. The list there, following Skinner and others, appended this chapter either to number six or to number seven; but we shall treat it as a special unit, thus expanding the outline.

The importance of this chapter lies in the narrative of Judah’s offering of himself as a substitute for Benjamin, in which he made an impassioned plea to Joseph on behalf of his brother and his father. In all the writings which have come down from antiquity, nothing surpasses this. Skinner said, “It is the finest specimen of dignified and persuasive eloquence in the O.T.”(F1) We shall give further attention to this under Genesis 44:18 below. We are entitling the chapter:


Significantly, it is Judah who is the hero of this chapter, not Joseph. Joseph indeed was supreme in Egypt, but Judah was supreme among the sons of Jacob, and the events of this chapter entitled him to his place in the ancestry of the Son of God, and to the honor of giving his name to the Glorious One who would stand forever honored upon the sacred page as, “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah” (Revelation 5:5).

The source-splitters are completely frustrated and defeated by this chapter. Speiser admitted that, “There is not the slightest trace of any other source throughout the chapter.”(F2) The significance of such an admission lies in the fact that a variable name for God is found in Genesis 44:16, as well as other factors usually alleged as “proof” of prior sources. The admitted truth that such things are not proof of prior sources here discredits, absolutely, the notion that such things are “proofs” of prior sources anywhere else. As a matter of fact, the whole Biblical record of the providential appearance in history of the Jewish people, their miraculous preservation, divine guidance in their dispossession of the Canaanites, and in time, their deliverance of the blessed Messiah to mankind, exhibits a unity, coherence, and authority that point inevitably to one author of the entire Pentateuch. It is simply impossible that a redactor, or a hundred redactors, even if they possessed a thousand “prior sources,” could ever in a million years have produced anything like the Book of Genesis. It is a person, a man, whose personality lies behind it all, an inspired man, who delivered unto us the Word of God. It is true of the Bible as Walther Eichrodt (quoted approvingly by George Foher and Martin Noth) stated concerning the religion of Israel:

“At the very beginning of Israelite religion, we find charisma, the special individual endowment of a person; and to such an extent is the whole structure based on it, that without it, it would be inconceivable.”(F3)

Nowhere else in the Bible does one encounter this mysterious person of Moses, the author of Genesis, any more than in this chapter. The mind and authority of God appear in every line of it. To appreciate this supernatural quality of the narrative, one should read the tedious, belabored report of the same episode in the works of Josephus. The Bible bears its own imprimitur as the Word of God.

Verses 1-3

“And he commanded the steward of his house, saying, Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth. And put my cup, the silver cup, in the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his grain money. And he did according to the word that Joseph had spoken. As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away, they and their asses.”

Why did Joseph order the actions related here? It is agreed by many that his purpose was that of finding out whether or not his brothers had in any manner changed from the heartless hatred of their father’s favorite son as evidence in their sale of Joseph so long ago. The fine point of the trial Joseph arranged for them was just this: If given the opportunity, would the brothers abandon Benjamin, with a perfectly valid excuse, and, ignoring the grief and distress of their aged father, abandon their brother and return home without him? Everything in the procedure here exhibits that purpose. Even the special partiality shown to Benjamin at the preceding banquet fitted into this purpose of testing the true attitude of the brothers.

Verses 4-6

“And when they were gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, Joseph said unto his steward, Up, follow after the men; and when thou dost overtake them, say unto them, Wherefore have ye rewarded evil for good? Is not this that in which my lord drinketh, whereby he indeed divineth? ye have done evil in so doing. And he overtook them, and he spake unto them these words.”

“And when they were gone out of the city” Willis said, “Unfortunately it is impossible to know what city in Egypt is intended here.”(F4) Although our curiosity would be gratified by having such information, it is characteristic of the divine writings to ignore many things that men would have considered important. It is wrong, however, to make the omission of the name of the city where these events happened an excuse for supposing “some different tradition” is involved, at variance with the frequent mention of place-names connected with the life of Jacob, such as Bethel, Shechem, etc. Keller noted that, “The story of Joseph, like so much of what the Bible relates, has received the most astonishing confirmation.”(F5)

Joseph had taken his steward into his confidence, as indicated when the steward gave permission for all the brothers except Benjamin to return to Canaan.

One of the points of interest here is the matter of that silver cup and Joseph’s use of it for “divination.” “Whether Joseph is conceived of as really practicing divination, or only wishing his brothers to think so, does not appear.”(F6) Many have mentioned the various ways of divination by means of a cup. Sometimes, “Such a divination cup was filled with water, then oil was poured on the water; and the future was predicted on the basis of the forms that appeared on the surface.”(F7) “Mesopotamian sources indicate that … water was poured into oil, or fragments of silver and gold were dropped into water or oil, and a priest or diviner read the message in the way the globules arranged themselves.”(F8) Dummelow gave the name of this type of magic as “hydromancy.”(F9) Regarding the question, whether or not Joseph actually practiced such a thing, we do not consider it out of reason that he actually did so. After all, his mother Rachel stole the false gods of her father, and we have already noted that the evidence in this part of Genesis points to a significant spiritual drift away from the truth in Joseph himself.

Verses 7-10

“And they said unto him, Wherefore speaketh my lord such words as these? Far be it from thy servants that they should do such a thing. Behold, the money which we found in our sack’s mouths, we brought unto thee out of the land of Canaan: how then should we steal out of thy lord’s house silver and gold? With whomsoever of thy servants it be found, let him die, and we will be my lord’s bondmen. And he said, Now also let it be according unto your words: he with whom it is found shall be my bondman; and ye shall be blameless.”

An essential part of Joseph’s trap so carefully laid for the brothers was that of providing them an excellent chance to abandon Benjamin and return to Jacob without him. The steward was in on the arrangements, and therefore, he modified their words by granting immediate freedom for all of them except the one with whom the cup should be found.

The brothers, of course, vigorously protested their innocence, for it was based upon what they were certain was the truth. We are not told whether or not they believed in Benjamin’s guilt, but, apparently, they attributed the disaster as, in some strange manner, a visitation of God Himself upon them for their sins. One cannot fail to appreciate the shock and consternation which came to the brothers, as related in the next verses.

Verses 11-13

“Then they hasted, and took down every man his sack to the ground, and opened every man his sack. And he searched, and began at the eldest, and left off at the youngest: and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. Then they rent their clothes, and laded every man his ass, and returned to the city.”

The brothers met the situation with full honor and filial devotion to the wishes of their aged father. Instead of returning without Benjamin, they accepted the plight of their brother as their very own, tore their clothes, and together returned to the city to face the consequences.

Verse 14

“And Judah and his brethren came to Joseph’s house; and he was yet there: and they fell before him on the ground. And Joseph said unto them, What deed is this that ye have done? know ye not that such a man as I can divine? And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s bondmen, both we, and he also in whose hand the cup is found. And he said, Far be it from me that I should do so: the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my bondman; but as for you, get you up in peace unto your father.”

Joseph was thoroughly testing his brothers. Here they had the opportunity to leave Benjamin and return to their father; but this they resolutely refused to do.

“Judah and his brethren” The priority and leadership of Judah are well-established at this point. He is the one to whom all of them looked.

“They bowed themselves to the ground” This is another fulfillment of the dream that Joseph had dreamed so long ago.

“God hath found out the wickedness of thy servants” Judah by this could not have meant that they were in any manner guilty as charged with reference to the cup. The thing that had haunted the guilty brothers for twenty years was their sinful, unmerciful hatred of their brother Joseph; and time had in no manner healed their guilty hearts. Their wicked act still seared and burned in their souls, and, therefore, in the present disaster, Judah confessed their guilt (in principle) and accepted the horrible penalty threatening them even as the penitent thief on Calvary had done, “as the just reward of our deeds!” This was a plateau of spiritual perception far above anything that Joseph could have expected of his brothers. There would even yet be a climax in this moving drama:

Verses 18-23


“Then Judah came near unto him, and said, Oh, my lord, let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not thine anger burn against thy servant; for thou art even as Pharaoh. My lord asked his servants, saying, Have yea father, or a brother? And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother; and his father loveth him. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for, if he should leave his father, his father would die. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more.”

Verses 24-29

“And it came to pass that when we came up unto thy servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. And our father said, Go again buy us a little food. And we said, We cannot go down; if our youngest brother be with us, then will we go down; for we cannot see the man’s face, except our youngest brother be with us. And thy servant my father said unto me, Ye know that my wife bare me two sons: and the one went out from me; and I have not seen him since: and if ye take this one also from me, and harm befall him, ye will bring down my gray hairs to Sheol.”

Verses 30-31

“Now therefore when I come to thy servant my father, and the lad is not with us; seeing that his life is bound up in the lad’s life; it will come to pass, when he seeth the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants will bring down the gray hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to Sheol.”

Verses 32-34

“For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then shall I bear the blame to my father for ever. Now therefore, let thy servant, I pray thee, abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. For how shall I go up to my father, if the lad be not with me? lest I see the evil that will come upon my father.”

This is the pinnacle of the Joseph story. Here Judah stood forth as a willing sacrifice to spare the life of his brother, and at a time when he might have supposed that Benjamin could have been guilty. After all, the cup was in his sack. Right here was, “the turning point in the relations between Joseph and his brethren.”(F10) In this magnanimous action, Judah earned the right to supplant his brother Reuben as the successor to the patriarchal birthright. It was this heart-breaking plea that opened the fountain of tears in the heart of the long-lost brother then upon the throne of Egypt.

What a transformation had occurred in the life of Judah! Standing before his very eyes, Joseph saw that same hard-eyed brother who had once mercilessly sold him as a slave into Egypt standing there pleading with all of his heart to be made a slave forever in the place of Benjamin! Such a scene was never known before. Joseph’s heart was simply broken by it, and he burst into cries of weeping that were heard all the way to the palace of Pharaoh. A more pathetic scene can hardly be imagined than that shattering emotional storm that swept over the long-estranged brothers. Judah was the hero of the reconciliation. No wonder Jesus Christ himself would be called “The Lion of the Tribe of Judah.” If ever a man earned the right to stand in the ancestry of Jesus and to give his name as one of his titles, Judah did so in that hallowed moment in the palace of Joseph.

Martin Luther said, “I would give very much to be able to pray to our Lord God as well as Judah prayed to Joseph here.”(F11) It will be noted that in our quotation above, we broke this long paragraph recording Judah’s plea into four paragraphs instead of only one as in the ASV. Skinner entitled these successive paragraphs thus:

(1) The recital of the interview in which Joseph had insisted on Benjamin being brought down.

(2) A pathetic description of his father’s reluctance to part with him, overcome only by the harsh necessity of hunger.

(3) A suggestion of the death stroke which their return without Benjamin would inflict on their aged parent.

(4) The speaker’s personal request to be allowed to redeem his honor by taking Benjamin’s punishment upon himself.(F12)

Josephus added to the Biblical record by affirming that, “All of Joseph’s brothers fell down before him weeping, and delivering themselves up to destruction for the preservation of the life of Benjamin.”(F13) However, nothing in the sacred text even hints of such a thing.

“His life is bound up in the lad’s life” (Genesis 44:30). “This is a figure for inalienable affection, as in 1 Samuel 18:1.”(F14)

The use of “lad” as a description of Benjamin “does not suggest that Benjamin was a young boy at the time. Judah used the term as a word of endearment, and naturally because he was several years older than Benjamin.”(F15) This is also the explanation of Joseph’s remark back in 43:29, where he called him, “My son.”

Morris’ comment on this passage is:

In this willingness to give his own life in place of his brother’s, for the sake of his father, Judah became a beautiful type of Christ, more fully and realistically than even Joseph himself, who is often taken by Bible expositors as a type of Christ. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.”(F16)

This comment by Morris is pertinent to the fact that the principal theme of all this section of Genesis, beginning back in Genesis 37, is not Joseph at all, despite the prominence he enjoys in the record. These chapters are the [~toledowth] of Jacob, and it is the fortunes of the Chosen Nation which appear so dramatically upon these pages.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Genesis 44". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/genesis-44.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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