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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Genesis 42

 

 

Introduction

JOSEPH

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.


Verses 1-4

The First Visit of the Brothers to Egypt to Buy Corn (Genesis 42:1-38).

Genesis 42:1-4

‘Now Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, “Why do you look one on another?” And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt. Get yourselves down there and buy for us from there, that we might live and not die.” And Joseph’s ten brothers went down to buy corn from Egypt, but Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he said “In case mischief befalls him.” ’

At this stage, of course, they did not know that there were years of famine to come. But things were clearly bad. The rain had not come and their stores of corn were getting low and there was little prospect of renewing it locally, for everyone was suffering in the same way. But then came the news that Egypt had a sufficiency of corn and was willing to sell it to foreigners.

Through the centuries Egypt, with its usually unfailing water source in the Nile, was famed for its agricultural prosperity, and would regularly welcome Canaanites who would come in times of famine, and they would provide for them in return for reward. They were regularly welcomed into the areas across the borders, where they were allowed to stay until the situation improved and they could return to their own place. On one ancient grave relief ‘Asiatics who did not know from what they would live’ are depicted as bowing before the general Haremhab (c1330 BC).

So he had no hesitation in sending his sons to buy corn there. But he refused to let Benjamin go because he still remembered what had (in his own mind) happened to Joseph.


Verse 5

‘And the sons of Israel came to buy among those who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.’

As they travelled to Egypt they found themselves in company with many travelling the same route, for all had been hit by the famine. They would probably have a number of servants with them for much corn would be needed. Others would tend what remained of the once abundant flocks and herds. But the fact that they had ‘money’ (silver and gold - there were no coins in those days) demonstrated that they were not yet poor.

“The sons of Israel.” The narrative switches easily between the two names Jacob and Israel. While the use of two names for the same person in one narrative was not unusual it is probable that the writer wants to make sure that we connect these events both with the patriarchs of the past and with the future Israel. It is a fulfilling of the covenant promises and a preparation for the future.


Verse 6

‘And Joseph was the governor over the land, he it was who sold to all the people of the land, and Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves to him with their faces to the earth.’

It is probable that Joseph had arranged things in such a way that all Canaanites coming to buy food had to approach him. He would not of course be actually selling the food but would be on a seat of honour and approached by those who came, who would abase themselves to him before passing on to those who actually handled the transactions.


Verse 7

‘And Joseph saw his brothers, and he knew them, but he made himself a stranger to them and spoke harshly to them. And he said to them, “From where have you come?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan to buy food.”

When Joseph saw his brothers he knew them immediately, but he did not make himself known. Rather he signalled to his underlings to bring them forward so that he could speak with them. They were probably quite apprehensive at being selected out to speak to this great Egyptian overlord, and were even more so when he addressed them harshly. They must have wondered why they should be picked out. All they could do was answer his questions and hope for the best.


Verse 8

‘And Joseph knew his brothers but they did not know him.’

There was no way in which they would have recognised him. He was dressed in the dignity of his office, with his hair and sumptuous clothing in the Egyptian style, and he was now a mature man changed by the course of years and what he had been forced to go through. Moreover he spoke to them through interpreters and they would not dare to look at him closely but would do so with bowed heads.


Verse 9

‘And Joseph remembered the dreams which he had dreamed about them and said to them, “You are spies. You have come to see the nakedness of the land.”

He had lessons which he wished to teach them. He remembered the dreams of them bowing down to him and was determined they would do it in full measure, for as they spoke with him through the interpreters they would constantly abase themselves to him. He accuses them of being spies come to spy out conditions in the land so as to report back to prospective invaders. The words must have brought a chill to their hearts. The Egyptians could be very severe on their enemies and this man clearly had the power of life and death.


Verses 10-12

‘And they said to him, “No, my lord. It is to buy food that your servants have come. We are all sons of one man. We are true men. Your servants are no spies.” And he said to them, “No, but to see the nakedness of the land you have come.”

They desperately seek to assert their innocence and integrity, but to no avail. The great man does not believe them and again accuses them through the interpreters of coming to find out the weaknesses of the land. So with fear in their hearts they try again.


Verse 13

‘And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.”

They try to present a full picture of themselves so as to allay suspicion. They still think of their family in terms of twelve sons a sign that they have not just been able to dismiss Joseph from their minds. This would suggest a sense of guilt and regret.


Verses 14-16

‘And Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you, you are spies. You will prove yourselves in this way. By the life of Pharaoh you shall not go forth from here unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of your number and let him fetch your brother, and you shall be put in custody so that your words may be proved, whether there is truth in you. Or else by the life of Pharaoh you are surely spies.” ’

Joseph intends that just as he went into slavery and then into custody they too will experience the same. He wants them to taste something of what he had known to see how they will come out of it. Thus he proposes that one should go and return with this supposed youngest son while the remainder are held in custody.

“You shall be put in custody.” Literally, ‘you shall be bound’. But in Genesis 40 ‘being bound’ is mentioned frequently where men clearly had some freedom (Genesis 42:3-5 compare Genesis 39:20). Therefore it may or may not include being restricted with ropes.

To swear by the life of Pharaoh was a solemn oath for the life of Pharaoh was the life of a god. Perhaps he is ensuring that they realise he is a true Egyptian.


Verse 17

‘And he put them all together into custody for three days.’

This may well have been in the same prison where he himself had been held. Certainly it would give them a taste of the terror he had known. He felt that it was something that they should know, and they were not immature young men like he had been.


Verse 18

‘And the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this, and live, for I fear God. If you are true men let one of your brothers be put in custody in your prison house, but you go and carry corn for the famine of your houses, and bring your youngest brother to me. So shall your words be proved right and you will not die.” And they did so.’

On the third day they are brought out of the prison and led before the great Egyptian official. The news was not as bad as they had feared. One brother was to be retained as a hostage, the others would be allowed to return home. But they must return with Benjamin to prove the truth of their words. Then all would live.

“On the third day.” A relatively short time. It was two nights and one day and two part days, regularly called ‘three days’ (Genesis 42:17) and even at times ‘three days and three nights’.

“Do this and live.” He is offering them a chance to save their lives. Thus they realise that the possibility of their execution had been very close.

“For I fear God.” They would not suspect the use of ‘God’ (elohim) for they would consider it the work of the interpreter in explaining the meaning of Joseph’s words.

Your prison house.” Hinting that it might now have been their permanent abode until their execution.

“For the famine of your houses.” There were not just the ten but their households to feed, and this would involve much corn.

“And they did so.” meaning ‘they did as they were told’. A way of saying that they began to make preparation for departure. They do not yet go for the following words occur in the presence of Joseph.


Verse 21-22

‘And they said to one another, “We are truly guilty in respect of our brother, for we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not listen. This is why this distress has come on us.” And Reuben answered them saying, “Did I not speak to you saying, ‘Do not sin against the child’, but you would not listen? See, that is why his blood is now required of us.” ’

This living nightmare that is happening to them brings to their minds the day when their younger brother had pleaded for his life and they had refused to listen. At least it demonstrates that they continually carried it on their consciences. Now they realise that judgment for what they had done is coming on them. And Reuben bitterly forces it home. ‘I warned you,’ he says. ‘And now his blood is being required of us.’ They all thought that by now Joseph was dead.


Verse 23

‘And they did not know that Joseph understood them for there was an interpreter between them.’

Had it not been for this twist in the story we would never have known that Joseph had deliberately been speaking through an interpreter. This reminds us that behind these homely stories is more detail than we are aware of. The ancients were not so much interested in background detail as in the pith of the story. They went to the centre of things and ignored the detail. We have seen this constantly in the stories of the patriarchs.


Verse 24

‘And he turned himself away from them and wept, and he returned to them and spoke to them and took Simeon from among them and bound him before their eyes.’

Joseph overhears what they are saying and it brings tears to his eyes. Whether he actually goes out prior to speaking to them again through the interpreter we are not specifically told. Then he acts promptly. Simeon is placed in custody (‘bound’) and they are made to watch. Whether ‘bound’ includes being tied up with ropes we do not know, although as Joseph wanted to make the greatest possible impression it is quite possible.


Verse 25-26

‘Then Joseph commanded that their vessels be filled with corn, and to restore every man’s silver into his sack, and to give them provision for the way, and this was done to them. And they loaded their asses with their corn and went on their way.’

Joseph now makes sure they are well provided for. Abundance of corn, provisions for the journey and their silver returned, hidden in their sacks.

“Their vessels.” This must refer to their sacks but usually means a vessel. It may, however, signify that anything that could carry corn was filled.


Verse 27

‘And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the lodging place he saw his silver and behold, it was in the mouth of his sack.’

It is stressed that at this stage only one of them finds the silver. It is probable that they would all feed their asses from the one opened sack and they would not dream for one moment that this would be true for them all. It had every sign of being a plant so that they could be accused of theft. There were probably also a number of servants who also bore sacks on their asses, and they would have no silver in them. Jacob had a large household to feed with many retainers.


Verse 28

‘And he said to his brothers, “My silver has been handed back, and see, it is in my sack.” And their heart failed them and they turned to one another trembling, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

The sight of the silver terrifies them and they were filled with fear. This was the worst possible thing that could have happened. It had looked as though things might be resolved reasonably satisfactorily and now this. It was clear things were still as bad as ever. They were clearly marked down as victims.


Verses 29-34

‘And they came to Jacob their father to the land of Canaan, and told him all that had befallen them, saying, “The Man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us for spies of the country. And we said to him, ‘We are true men, we are no spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is not, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ And the Man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I will know that you are true men. Leave one of your brothers with me and take corn for the famine of your houses and go your way. And bring your youngest brother to me. Then I will know that you are no spies, but that you are true men. Then I will set your brother free and you shall trade in the land’.” ’

Jacob has no doubt noted the absence of Simeon and he listens with failing heart to the story unfolded. His problem will be what to do next.

“The Man.” This is an unusual use when used before a further description. It has been suggested from other evidence that the second in command in Egypt was so called in contrast with Pharaoh ‘the god’ (Genesis 42:29 and Genesis 42:33 here and compare Genesis 43:3; Genesis 43:5-7; Genesis 43:11; Genesis 43:14 and especially Genesis 44:26 when we might expect ‘the lord’ or something similar).


Verse 35

‘And it happened as they emptied their sacks that, behold, every man’s bundle of silver was in his sack. And when they and their father saw the bundles of silver they were afraid.’

All the other sacks are now opened as they store the corn, and the remaining silver is found. Their silver has been returned. This could only mean one thing. Their status as traders was rejected. They were marked for destruction.


Verse 36

‘And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children. Joseph is not, and Simeon is not. And you would take Benjamin away. All these things have come on me.” ’

To Jacob this is the end of hope for Simeon. Now he has lost two sons. And yet they expect to be able to take Benjamin as well! ‘All these things have come on me.’ Tragedy has piled up on tragedy as a great burden to be borne and it is all too much for him.


Verse 37

‘And Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him to you. Hand him over to me and I will bring him back to you again.” ’

Reuben is concerned to go straight back to obtain Simeon’s release. He reveals here something very admirable in his character. Things may look foreboding but he is prepared himself to take the risk in order to obtain, if at all possible, his brother’s release, and he is prepared to die in the attempt. But he realises how his father is feeling. So he uses the strongest argument he can. If he does not bring Benjamin back then his father can kill his two sons. He will then fully share in the sufferings of his bereaved father. But his father will have none of it.


Verse 38

‘And he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If mischief befalls him in the way in which you go, then you will bring my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave,” ’

His father refuses the offer. His words reveal how much Rachel had meant to him. She had had only two natural born sons. One is dead. He cannot bear to lose the other. Under no circumstances will he let Benjamin go. Benjamin is all of Rachel he has left. Thus is Simeon left to his fate. But if we think of blaming Jacob we must remember that he has every cause for thinking that Simeon’s fate has already been sealed as is witnessed by the return of the silver. It is clear the Egyptian lord had evil intent towards them and so as far as he is concerned Simeon is now dead as well. And this is how things would have remained had it not been that the famine went on and on and forced the issue.

“My grey hairs in sorrow to Sheol.” Men desired to have a full life and die content. To die in this way was seen as a tragedy, they would surely not want him to die in unrest?

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Genesis 42:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/genesis-42.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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