The Life of Joseph (Genesis 37:2 to Genesis 50:26)
In this section we have the life of Joseph from beginning to end. It quite clearly bears within it the stamp of a deep knowledge of Egypt, its customs and its background, and could not have been written by anyone who did not have that deep knowledge, and who was not familiar with things at court. The correct technical terms are used for court officials. And the whole of Joseph’s stay in Egypt is clearly written against an Egyptian background without the artificiality which would appear if it was written by an outsider.
The Second Visit of the Brothers - Joseph Makes Himself Known (Genesis 43:1 to Genesis 45:28)
The Brothers Again Meet the Egyptian Vizier (Genesis 43:1-34)
‘And the famine was sore in the land. And it happened that when they had eaten up the corn which they had brought out of Egypt their father said to them, “Go again. Buy us a little food.” ’
The famine continued and grew worse. No crops grew, those water holes which had survived the first onslaught now dried up, the cattle and sheep grew thin and scrawny. And the corn store became emptier and emptier. Meanwhile Simeon was mourned as Joseph had been for they knew they would see him no more. Jacob’s intransigence had seen to that.
At length it had to be accepted that there would be no possibility of even the most meagre of harvests and as the corn store became depleted Jacob took the only possible course. He had no choice. He asked his sons once more to take silver to Egypt to buy corn. But he had not met the proud and stern Vizier of Egypt, and his sons had, and a fierce argument ensues.
‘And Judah spoke to him, saying, “The Man did solemnly declare to us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face except your brother be with you.’ If you will send our brother with us we will go down and buy you food. But if you will not send him we will not go down, for the Man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face except your brother be with you.’ ” ’
Judah speaks up for his brothers. It is all right for Jacob, he does not have to face the Man. But they know what he is like and the terror he induces. And they know what he is likely to do with them if they return without Benjamin. There are no circumstances in which they will go unless Benjamin goes with them. They do not want to share Simeon’s fate.
The fact that Simeon is not mentioned is deliberate on the part of the writer. He wants his readers to recognise that as far as the family is concerned Simeon’s fate is now irrelevant. He has previously been sacrificed to Jacob’s obstinacy and obsession with his youngest son.
Reuben takes no part in all this. His father had previously rejected his offer and he has given up. Indeed something appears to have happened to him. Trying circumstances bring leaders to the fore and the reaction to the famine seems to have brought Judah into a position of leadership. He may well have proved the most resilient when everyone else was despairing. Everyone now looks to him.
“See his face.” They will not be able to approach the great man but will instead be arrested.
‘And Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the Man whether you had yet a brother?” And they said, “The Man asked us firmly (literally - ‘asked us asking’) about ourselves and about our relatives, saying, ‘Is your father yet alive? Have you a brother?’ And we told him according to the tenor of these words. Could we possibly have known that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?”
In his grief and fear Jacob is being quite unreasonable. They had had no reason to withhold the information and they knew that to have given even a hint of deceit would have been their downfall. The only significance they had seen in the close questioning was the suspicion that they were spies.
“They said” - now the other brothers are joining in. They are all agreed that they cannot face the Man without having Benjamin with them. They would immediately be killed as spies.
‘And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be surety for him. At my hand you will require him. If I do not bring him to you and set him before you I will have sinned against you for ever. For unless we had lingered surely we would now have returned a second time” ’
Judah realises how difficult it is for his father and he offers himself as the guarantee of Benjamin’s return. It is clear that the position is desperate. Unless they do go only death awaits them and their families.
“The lad.” Benjamin is probably about thirty, but in the eyes of his far older brothers he is still ‘a lad’, the baby of the family.
“I will have sinned against you for ever.” Clearly a powerful oath basically taking all guilt on himself with all that that would mean for his future.
“Unless we had lingered - .” They have already waited longer than they should have done because of Jacob’s obstinacy. By now their case was so desperate that they should have been to Egypt and back again with further corn. The non-mention of Simeon may suggest that they have now practically given up hope for him, or alternately the certainty that his fate will not affect his father’s decision one way or another. In this incident Simeon is irrelevant. Jacob does not come well out of it. Meanwhile Simeon has been lingering and languishing in an Egyptian prison.
‘And their father Israel said to them, “If it is so now, do it. Take of the choice fruits of the land in your vessels, and carry the Man down a present, a little balm and a little honey, spicery and myrrh, nuts and almonds. And take double the amount of silver in your hand, and carry again in your hand the silver that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. Take also your brother and arise, go again to the Man, and El Shaddai (God Almighty) give you mercy before the Man that he may release to you your other brother and Benjamin. And if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” ’
“If it is so, now do it.” We would say, ‘if it must be so’. Jacob is very reluctant but accepts the inevitable. The prospect of starvation leaves them with no alternative. He suggests they take with them a gift. This was a normal courtesy when approaching a high official and a sign of good breeding.
“The choice fruits (literally ‘strength”) of the land.’ These have not been quite so badly affected by the famine. They grow on bushes and trees which are less susceptible. The honey is wild bees’ honey which was used then instead of sugar (see Ezekiel 27:17).
They must also take double the silver so as to replace that which was sent back as it must surely have been an oversight. That is all they can hope. The alternative would leave them with no hope anyway.
“El Shaddai give you mercy before the man -.” He prays that the One Who promised they would become a company of nations protect them before the high official of that great nation Egypt.
The meaning of ‘El Shaddai’ is not yet apparent to us but the LXX translates it as ‘the Almighty’. Whenever God is mentioned under the name of El Shaddai it is in relation to many nations, not just to the family tribe. To Abraham in Genesis 17 ‘you shall be the father of a multitude of nations (hamon goyim)’, and Ishmael is a part of that covenant, to Isaac as he blesses Jacob in Genesis 28:3 ‘that you may be a company of peoples’ (liqhal ‘amim), to Jacob at Bethel in Genesis 35:11 ‘a nation and a company of nations (uqhal goyim) shall be of you’, and again to Jacob in Genesis 48:4 reference is made to ‘a company of peoples’ (liqhal ‘amim). It is in recognition of this fact that Jacob now speaks of El Shaddai when he sends his sons back to Egypt to obtain the release of Simeon and entrusts them with Benjamin (Genesis 43:14). It is Yahweh as El Shaddai, the sovereign God over the whole world, who has the power to prevail over the great governor of Egypt. This may also be why Isaac used this title of Yahweh when he sent his son into a foreign land.
“That he may release to you your other brother and Benjamin.” How little the other brothers mean to him compared with Benjamin is made clear here. He does not even mention Simeon’s name. His release is of secondary importance. What matters is that Benjamin is not held. We can see now why the brothers had not mentioned the release of Simeon as an argument. They knew their father’s thoughts.
“And if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” A final note of resignation. His hand has been forced by the famine. He may even lose all his children but he can do nothing about it. The choice is to risk that or the death for all.
‘And the men took that present, and they took double silver in their hand, and Benjamin, and rose up and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph.’
They took what was necessary, the present, the double silver --- and Benjamin, the one whose value had delayed things for so long. The long and fearful journey is passed over in a sentence. The tension, the fears, the apprehension, and then the arrival. But at least they were brought into the Man’s presence and that was something.
‘And when Joseph saw Benjamin with them he said to the steward of his house, “Bring the men into the house, and kill and make ready, for the men will dine with me at noon.” And the men were afraid because they were brought into Joseph’s house, and they said, “We have been brought in because of the silver that was returned in our sacks the first time, that he may seek occasion against us and fall on us and take us for bondmen, and our asses.” ’
When Joseph sees Benjamin his heart is full and he tells his steward that he will eat with the men at noon and that he must prepare a feast. His steward is, of course, an important person in his own right. Meanwhile Joseph must continue ‘overseeing’ the sale of the corn.
But when they are brought to his splendid house, well guarded by Egyptian soldiers and magnificent beyond their dreams, they are fearful as to what it means. Their minds return to the silver that had mysteriously appeared in their sacks and they remember how they had thought it was a plant. Now they are sure of it. It has been planted on them so that an excuse can be found to enslave them and take their possessions.
“Fall on us.” They have a vision of the Egyptian guards suddenly pouncing on them and carrying them off to prison.
‘And they came near to the steward of Joseph’s house and they spoke to him at the door of the house.’
Coming up to the great house they are filled with fear and as they approach the door they catch up with the steward and try to speak up on their own behalf, probably through an interpreter.
‘And said, “Oh my lord. We did indeed come down at the first time to buy food, and it happened that as we came to the lodging place that we opened our sacks and behold every man’s silver was in the mouth of his sack, our silver in full weight. And we have brought it again in our hand. And we have brought other silver down in our hand to buy food. We do not know who put the money in our sacks.”
The brothers are trying to summarise the story as quickly as possible before they are brought into the house, thus they have to abbreviate what happened. They remember vividly the moment that they first found the silver in one of the sacks and telescope what happened into a few scared, hurried words. Thus the finding of the silver in all the sacks is described as happening at the same time, although we know from earlier that that happened later when they arrived home. It is the primary point that they want to get home. They found the silver in their sacks. They have only a few moments, so detail is of secondary importance. Then they assure him earnestly that they have brought it back with other silver for new purchases.
‘And he said, “Peace be to you. Don’t be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks. I had your money.” And he brought Simeon out to them.’
The reply suggests that the steward has been well coached by Joseph. He has been told exactly what to say when the obvious questions come up.
“Peace be to you.” ‘Shalom’ - a standard greeting put in Hebrew form, possibly by the interpreter, although it may be that Joseph’s steward was familiar with their language and thought forms, being chosen by Joseph for that very reason.
“Your God and the God of your father.” Let them be assured that it is their God Who has provided for them. ‘The God of your father’ was also the way in which Laban described Jacob’s God (31:29). It is a way of being courteous when details of Who the God is are not well known. Let them be assured that their own tribal God is looking after them.
“Has given you treasure.” He is suggesting that he does not know what was exactly involved in the ‘treasure’ they found. It was not the silver they had paid over, for he had received that.
“And he brought Simeon out.” The steward had Simeon waiting to greet his brothers just inside the gate, and he is brought out to welcome the brothers. What relief must have flooded their souls when they saw him alive and well. Things were definitely beginning to look up.
‘And the man brought the men into Joseph’s house and gave them water, and they washed their feet. And he gave their asses provender. And they made ready the present for when Joseph came at noon, for they learned that they would eat bread there.’
Suddenly, to their bewilderment, everything has changed. They are being treated as welcome guests. Water is provided for them to wash their feet. (The steward no doubt ‘brings’ it through servants). Their tired and thirsty asses are taken and well looked after. They are told that they would be eating with the great lord. This especially must have given them strength, for to eat with someone was a sign of peace. With some hopes that things might not be so bad after all they get their present ready for when the great lord arrives.
‘And when Joseph came home they brought him the present which was in their hand into the house and bowed themselves down to him to the earth.’
On Joseph’s arrival they bring their present and present it, bowing down to the ground, for they are still greatly in awe of him and aware that the slightest failure to show him honour could change the situation against them. So again are Joseph’s dreams fulfilled.
‘And he asked them of their welfare, and said, “Is your father well, the old man of whom you spoke? Is he still alive?” ’
The question, put through an interpreter, would be recognised as simply a formal courtesy. They could not know with what eagerness Joseph awaited their reply. It has now been some long time since he has seen them.
‘And they said, “Your servant, our father, is well, he is still alive.” And they bowed the head and made obeisance.’
The writer is stressing the fulfilment of the dreams. As they give a positive but deferential reply they again make full obeisance.
‘And he lifted up his eyes and saw Benjamin his brother, his mother’s son, and said, “Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.”
The writer is deliberately prolonging the welcome. He wants us to feel what Joseph felt. He is seeing his own blood brother after so long a time. And he gives him his blessing. The words come through an interpreter so that they are not aware of which god he refers to. Little do they realise that it is the God Whom they too worship.
“My son.” An indication of friendship from a great lord to a young man.
But in the end it is all too much for Joseph. As lord of Egypt he cannot give way to his feelings in front of his servants and he goes aside into a private room to compose himself.
‘And Joseph acted hurriedly, for his heart was filled with longing for his brother, and he wanted somewhere to weep, and he entered his private room and wept there. And he washed his face, and came out, and he restrained himself and said, “Serve the food.” ’
The brothers are totally unaware of his feelings. They see him leave for a while and little do they realise that he has gone to weep. But he releases his feelings in his own private apartments and then hides the evidence, washing his face and composing himself. Then he comes out and commands that the meal be served.
‘And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians who ate with them by themselves, because the Egyptians are not allowed to eat bread with Hebrews, for that is an abomination to them.’
Joseph, as vizier and lord of Egypt eats at his own table. None may share with him for they are not of sufficient rank. The Egyptians who have been invited also sit at their own table. It would be ceremonially improper for them to mix with ‘foreigners’. Egyptians looked down on non-Egyptians, especially until they could speak Egyptian. They looked on them as not really human. And the brothers sat at their own table, separate from both.
‘And they sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright, and the youngest according to his youth. And the men marvelled with one another.’
They were no doubt informed that they must follow protocol and sit in order of seniority, the firstborn probably being nearest to the great lord’s table.
“The men marvelled with one another.” The circumstances are so different from what they had been anticipating that they can only be filled with wonder. This great show of favour by the vizier has astonished them. Little are they aware of the real reason for it.
‘And he took and sent portions to them from before him. But Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs. And they drank and were merry with him.’
To receive a portion from the great lord’s table was a sign of favour and a great privilege. And Benjamin received five times more than the others, a sign of special favour. The ‘five times’ is significant. Five was the Egyptian number of completeness.
“And they drank and were merry (drank largely) with him.” Their fears are now forgotten. They drink merrily and without restraint. All appears to be well.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 43". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany