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 Broken Journey - Seeming Catastrophe - The Final Test (Genesis 44:1-34)
‘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 silver in his sack’s mouth, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, and his corn silver.” And he did what Joseph had said.’
The plot thickens. It is clear that Joseph now aims to test his brothers with the steward’s connivance, and it is already clear from 43:23 that the steward is aware of much of what is going on. Thus in accordance with instructions he provides full sacks of food which include their silver returned and Joseph’s cup in Benjamin’s sack.
‘As soon as the morning was light the men were sent away, they and their asses.’
With what joy the brothers went on their way. Simeon had been restored, their sacks were full and Benjamin was safe. All was well. And what a story they had to tell of their feasting in the house of the Egyptian Vizier himself. But then came the further twist.
‘And when they had left the city and were as yet no great distance Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them say to them, “Why have you rewarded evil for good? Is not this cup the one in which my lord drinks, and by which indeed he divines? You have done evil in so doing.” And he overtook them and spoke to them these words.’
Joseph now sends his steward after the brothers to call them to task because of the cup. It is stressed that the cup is a special one, for it not only has a use for drinking but it is also his divining cup. It is thus a sacred object and the penalty for such a theft is death (compare 31:30-32). Whether Joseph actually used the cup for this purpose we do not know, but every great man in Egypt would have his divining cup. The divining would be carried out by specialists. Divining with a cup was a common practise in the ancient world. Small objects were placed in the cup and the future was deduced by the effect produced on the liquid.
‘And they said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as this? God forbid that your servants should do such a thing. Look, the silver which we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought again to you from the land of Canaan. How then would we steal out of your lord’s house silver or gold? With whoever of your servants it be found, let him die and we also will be my lord’s bondmen.’
The brothers are appalled and indignant at his accusation. They are confident that they have proved their honesty. Such an idea is inconceivable. They are not thieves. And equally confidently they declare that they are ready for the full penalty to be applied if it be true, death for the perpetrator and slavery for themselves.
‘And he said, “Let it now be as you have said. He with whom it is found shall be my bondman, and you shall be blameless.’
“As you have said.” Not in the detail but in the fact of punishment. The servant lessens the sentence. Joseph does not want to drive his brothers too far. The guilty man will become a bondman and the rest will be seen as blameless and can go free. This was not in accordance with ancient practise which demanded collective responsibility. Those who consorted with a guilty man were themselves seen as guilty, as the brothers had themselves admitted.
‘Then they acted hurriedly and every man took his sack to the ground, and every man opened his sack. And he searched and began at the eldest and finished at the youngest, and the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack.’
The search is described. They act with the speed of the innocent and each opens his sack. The silver found in each sack is passed over without comment. The servant is not interested in it, he knows exactly what he is looking for and where to find it. The brothers, watching in a daze are mute. They have become used to finding silver in their sacks. Perhaps, as they see it, it also begins to dawn on them that the cup will also be found. They know now that they are simply the victims of a determined effort to destroy them.
The writer balances his work well. To comment on the silver would be to draw out the situation too much and to overload the narrative. The servant has already previously accepted that any silver in their sacks comes from God (Genesis 43:23). No one pretends it is important. All know that what matters is the silver cup. That is a different matter. And everyone but the brothers know where it is.
So the servant proceeds with his search. It is all really a charade. He knows exactly where to find it, he put it there himself. And at length he produces it from Benjamin’s sack.
‘Then they tore their clothes and every man loaded his ass and returned to the city.’
The joy of freedom and success has gone. They accepted that the verdict of guilty was a foregone conclusion. ‘They tore their clothes’, an accepted way of conveying despair and sorrow. And their minds were numb. They could not understand what had happened. But they knew what it meant. Did they believe Benjamin was guilty? Probably not. The cup had appeared in some strange way just like the silver. They simply accepted that fate was against them.
‘And Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, and he was still there. And they fell on the ground before him. And Joseph said, “What is this deed that you have done? Do you not realise that such a man as I can indeed divine?”
As in a nightmare the brothers return to the house where they had spent the previous day in such jollity and relief. And hopelessly they abase themselves before him. Any fight has gone out of them.
Judah is mentioned individually because he is the one who has taken responsibility for Benjamin and will be the key player in what follows. But Reuben has fallen into the background and it would seem that for whatever reason Judah is now seen as the leader (compare Genesis 43:3; Genesis 46:28).
Joseph professes to be scandalised, and declares that they must recognise that he is a man who sees through things. He is no ordinary man, he can see what others cannot see. He can ‘divine’. It is possible that he has a small doubt about whether the brothers might be beginning to get suspicious about all the ‘coincidences’ and is trying to counter it by explaining how he has been able to act with such accuracy, but he need not have worried. They are far too overwhelmed to even think in those terms.
‘And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What words can we use? Or how shall we clear ourselves? God has found out the iniquity of your servants. Behold, we are my lord’s bondmen, both we and also he in whose sack the cup was found.”
Judah speaks up for them all. On their behalf he accepts that they have no argument. The cup has been found. There is little point in arguing innocence.
“God has found out the iniquity of your servants.” This is not so much an admission of guilt as a surrender to the past. It is probable that he has in mind what they had done to their long lost brother. He recognises that they are now being punished for that. The impossible circumstance in which they now find themselves can only be due to God’s long arm which has reached out into the future to punish them. He has found them out. Whatever the circumstance as regards the cup they are not innocent, as they all know. So they accept the inevitable.
It is noteworthy that they do not refer back to the steward’s promise that only the guilty one should be accountable (Genesis 44:10). They accept their collective guilt and do not dream of going back without Benjamin. Besides the steward may not have been speaking for his lord and this is no time for arguing fine points before this great lord. And the fact is that they have just given up.
‘And he said, “God forbid that I should do so. The man in whose hand the cup was found, he shall be my bondman. But as for you, get up in peace to your father.” ’
Joseph is thoroughly testing them out. What will they do about Benjamin? Will they sacrifice him like they sacrificed Joseph previously? He tells them that only the guilty man would be punished. The remainder go free. He will see if they will now return home and save their own lives and inform their father that sadly he has lost another son. But these men are no longer what they once were.
The words of Joseph raise a spark in Judah’s heart. This man is clearly no harsh avenger. He is almost reasonable. Perhaps then he will listen to a plea. So he approaches closer to him, no doubt abasing himself to the ground, and prepares to put his case. But he recognises that his approach and suggestion might well give great offence to one who has shown such mercy.
‘The Judah came near to him and said, “Oh my lord, let your servant I pray you speak a word in my lord’s ears. And do not let your anger burn against your servant for you are as Pharaoh.”
Judah assures the great man that he recognises his greatness. Indeed he is depending on it. He is surely great enough to listen to a case that a lesser man may not be able to listen to. He is above accountability for he is as Pharaoh himself with total power. He begs that he will listen patiently to what he has to say.
He probably feels he has little hope in succeeding, recognising that his words may well bring wrath on himself, but he is determined to do what he can whatever the cost. He does not know, as we do, that this is exactly what Joseph is waiting and longing for.
“My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father or a brother?’ And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age, a younger one,’ and his brother is dead, and he is all that is left of his mother, and his father loves him.”
Judah is now determined that the Man will realise the full position, for he knows it is the only hope. Perhaps there is something in this Man who has been such an enigma, that will move him to mercy. First then he establishes the position of the young man in his father’s affections.
“A child of his old age.” One on whom in his old age he depended for personal care and support, and the only son of his mother. Of course the Man will not realise how important Rachel had been to Jacob, but Judah does.
“And you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me that I may set eyes on him.’ And we said to my lord, ‘The young man cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ And you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother come down with you, you will see my face no more.’ ”
This is an expansion on the words in Genesis 42 but we must recognise that more was said than was recorded there. The point is again to emphasis the importance of the young man to his father. Without realising it Judah is showing how much he has changed. Now his concern is not for himself but for his father, and he does not mind about his father’s favouritism.
“That I might set my eyes on him.” In other words that he may show him favour. Now he intends to show him anything but favour.
“And it happened, when we came up to your 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 is with us then we will go down. For we cannot see the Man’s face except our youngest brother be with us.’ ”
This verse strongly confirms the suggestion that ‘The Man’ is an important title. Judah would hardly have described the Egyptian Vizier simply as ‘the man’ when speaking in his presence. Compare his obsequiousness elsewhere.
“And your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons, and the one went out from me, and I said “Surely he is torn in pieces” and I have not seen him since. And if you take this one also from me and mischief befall him, you will bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave (to sheol).’ Now therefore when I come to your servant my father and the young man be not with us, seeing that his life is bound up with the young man’s life, it will happen that, when he sees the young man is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the grey hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to the grave.”
Judah recognises how important Benjamin is to Jacob, so important that if he loses him he will die. He pleads with the Man to recognise his filial responsibility towards an old man, something recognised by all races.
Now Judah comes to the nub of his argument. He has offered himself to his father as a guarantee that the young man will go back. If he goes back without Benjamin he will carry his own burden of guilt for ever, and be for ever guilty before his father. This he cannot bear. So he pleads that the Man will let him take Benjamin’s punishment. But he is not just thinking of himself. He is also thinking of the effect on his father. He cannot bear to think of what it will do to his father.
Joseph sees here a different man from the one who callously sold him into slavery. And that, together with the thought of his father’s sufferings and the love he has for his family, determines him to bring the whole affair to an end.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 44". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany