Genesis 42-44: Joseph’s Revenge
Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Aug. 13, 2006; Craig Atwood
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. Today is August 13, which is a special day in the Moravian Church. It was on August 13, 1727 that the modern Moravian Church was reborn in Herrnhut, Germany. The old Moravian Church, named the Unity of the Brethren, had been destroyed by the Catholic Church in the 17th century. Descendents of the old Unity of the Brethren, led by Christian David, decided to flee Moravia. They found refuge on the estate of a young nobleman named Count Zinzendorf. Under Zinzendorf’s leadership they built an extraordinary religious community that was guided by the Brotherly Agreement.
On August 13, 1727 they had a communion service to celebrate their new constitution, and the experience of love, forgiveness, and unity was so overpowering they proclaimed that the Holy Spirit had come upon them. Their communion service literally turned into a lovefeast as they ate and sang and prayed together all afternoon. After this they began sending out preachers, teachers, evangelists, musicians, linguists, and others to bring the message of God’s infinite love to all the people of the world.
I mentioned last week that we were having a roof put on our house, and I pleased to say they did a good job. I do not have the answer to the immigration problems in America, but I can say that the men who worked on my roof were the hardest working men I’ve seen in a long time.
Joseph’s Brothers: This week we are continuing our story of Joseph and his brothers. Chapters 42-45 narrate Joseph’s reconciliation with his family in Egypt. This is the longest part of the Joseph tale, and it is far too long to read aloud to you this morning, so I’ll just read portions. It is a little surprising that this part of Genesis is so drawn out. The earlier parts of the Joseph saga, such as his imprisonment, were told with remarkable brevity. Even the rest of Genesis uses an economy of words to tell some very powerful stories, like the binding of Isaac. So why does the author take three long chapters to describe the reconciliation? Clearly this was important to him.
It is possible that the story is so long because the author drew on two or more versions of the original story. Rather than choosing one; he used them both. So we have two stories very skillfully assembled so that the duplication makes sense and adds to the drama of the tale. Another reason this section is so long is that the narrator had to find a way to bring Jacob and Benjamin to Egypt. It is interesting that this is one of the few parts of Genesis that calls Jacob by the name Israel. This was probably to emphasize that it is one not one man who was involved. The nation of Israel went down to Egypt, but the narrator did not want Israel to get to Egypt too easily. Israel belongs in the land of the covenant, the land promised to the descendents of Abraham. The twists and turns of the Joseph narrative show that Israel was unwilling to go into exile again.
There is also a lot of unfinished business to be resolved in this story. There has to be a reconciliation, but there are issues of justice. Part of the tension of the Joseph narrative is that Joseph has grown wiser and more humble, but has he become just and merciful? Have the brothers have changed over the years? Do they regret what they did? Can the wrongs of the past be remedied?
The Story: Let’s look more closely at the story itself. It has five distinct parts. First, is the initial counter between Joseph and the brothers. Second is the brothers’ return to their father. Third is the second encounter between Joseph and the brothers which leads to the arrest of Benjamin. Fourth is the scene when Joseph reveals his identity. Fifth is the reunion between Joseph and Jacob in Egypt. Throughout this narrative, it is Joseph who is controlling the situation and manipulating his brothers, but behind Joseph’s actions is the unseen hand of God.
Leaving for Egypt: As you may recall from last week, Joseph had carefully prepared Egypt for the expected crisis. Since there was food in Egypt, people from many neighboring regions came to buy grain. The famine also affected Canaan, and Jacob decided to send his sons to buy food in Egypt. We saw in the story of Abraham that the patriarchs had journeyed to Egypt in times of famine, but this time is different. The patriarch of the family stayed behind in the tents and sent his sons to bring food back. Clearly, the wandering Aramean, Jacob, had put his wandering to an end.
When we hear of a father sending sons to perform a task, we generally picture them as young men, but that was not the case in this story. Joseph was the second youngest son, and he is a man at this point in the story. At a minimum, he was 30 years old. The brothers were older. We also know from chapter 38 that Judah had a family of his own and had become a tribal leader in his own right. The same would have been true of the other sons of Jacob.
Patriarchy means that grown men with families of their own answer their father’s command and make a difficult and arduous journey. Of course, they probably recognized that Jacob was proposing something prudent. They all needed food, so why not travel together? Ten chieftains with pack animals, money, and servants would have made an impressive troupe coming to Egypt. They did not want to appear as poor beggars coming to Pharaoh’s door. This was to be a business deal, not charity.
Benjamin: The one surprising thing is that Jacob did not send Benjamin with his brothers. It is quite likely that Benjamin was the one who took care of Jacob in his old age and blindness. Later tradition assumed that Benjamin, like Joseph, reflected the beauty of his mother. In the Book of Judges we learn that the tribe of Benjamin was shockingly violent. It was also the tribe that produced the first king of Israel, Saul, who turned out to be paranoid and schizophrenic. Scholars have tried to make some connection between the later stories of the tribe of Benjamin and Jacob’s son in Genesis, but there is not much to go on.
What we know for certain is that Jacob doted on the youngest son of Rachel. The text says that Jacob feared losing Benjamin, which tells us three things. Jacob stilled grieved for Joseph. He was overly protective of the youngest child. He knew that journey to Egypt would be dangerous. The older sons, with their cunning and weapons, could defend themselves, but Benjamin would have been vulnerable. He was young, beautiful, naïve, and did not have a retinue to protect him. A fourth thing we can conclude is that Jacob did not trust his sons to protect their half-brother. They had failed him before.
The First Encounter: When the ten sons of Jacob came to Egypt, they had to deal with the steward of Pharaoh’s realm who had the keys to the granaries. This alone probably shocked them. It would be like coming to the United States to buy grain and having to appear before the Secretary of State. The brothers did not know who this grand and powerful official was, but we do. They did not recognize the man who was dressed as an Egyptian with a headdress and make-up on his eyes. They did not recognize the voice of this man who spoke only Egyptian to them and who had an army of servants at his command. But Joseph knew his brothers.
Joseph did not reveal himself. Perhaps he hoped that they would recognize him; that their hearts would burn strangely in the presence of this great lord. It is possible that he was cautious because he did not know what to do and wanted time to think. He had the power and the authority to throw them into prison, as he was thrown into prison. He had the power and the authority to sell them into slavery as they sold him. Most would say that this was justice. Imagine the temptation that Joseph faced. Had he lain awake in jail fantasying about the revenge he would bring on his brothers one day? Who would blame Joseph for having these faithful brothers cast into dark dungeons or left to die in dry wells? That would be the manly thing; the just thing. It was what Egyptians should do.
The Plot: Joseph will have his revenge in this story, but he was subtle and good. His revenge will be both subtle and redemptive. But first, he needed information. Using the intimidation of his office, Joseph accused the sons of Jacob of being spies and put them in prison. Joseph had his brothers interrogated and learned that they were indeed who he thought they were. More important he learned that his father was still alive. He also learned that Benjamin had not been killed or sold into slavery, the way he feared. The brothers’ attack had been only against him, not his whole family.
Joseph was shrewd, and he devised a plot to bring Benjamin safely to Egypt. He could have sent soldiers to fetch his brother, but that might have led to bloodshed. It would be much better to have the brothers themselves bring Benjamin to him. So he made this the condition of their release from prison. They could prove they were honest men by bringing Benjamin to Egypt.
Bring Benjamin: Joseph’s order forced the brothers to remember the brother they had sold into slavery. They had taken one child from Jacob, and now this Egyptian potentate was asking them to take another child away. They recognized that the two events were connected, but they did not know how. All they knew is that the time of reckoning was upon them. They were going to atone for their sins. Reuben, the eldest, reprimanded the brothers for their old crime that he had been opposed to. The brothers recognized that the harm we do to others tends to rebound against ourselves. This is what philosophers call the moral order of the universe. It does not mean that we are punished for every sin. It certainly does not mean that the troubles we have in life are punishments for sins. Joseph suffered unjustly as we sometimes do. But I think it is true that what goes around often comes around. The scales of justice do balance, but sometimes in unusual ways. At times the scales balance in redemptive ways, as we shall see.
Tears: The text says that Joseph turned away and shed tears when he heard the brothers discussing their crime against him. This is one of the few times that a man cries in the Bible. Was Joseph crying over his lost childhood and the separation from his father and brother? Was he crying because he heard that Reuben had tried to save his life? Was he crying over the revenge that he was plotting? We don’t know, but the tears humanize Joseph. No longer is he the great and powerful lord of all Egypt whose revenge will be terrible. The reader sees that Joseph is a man with a heart and soul who is trying to find the best way to resolve this tense situation.
Hostage and Money: To make sure that these untrustworthy sons of Jacob brought Benjamin to Egypt, Joseph kept a hostage. He chose Simeon. We don’t know why it was Simeon chosen. Perhaps it was because he was the one who led the assault against Shechem that caused problems for the family. He was also the second oldest son and should have protected Joseph but did not. Perhaps Joseph had some special reason to fear Simeon or to make Simeon suffer more than the others. We don’t know, but the brothers watched as Simeon was bound, and then they left. Presumably, Simeon stayed in prison until they returned. Some of have suggested that Joseph was testing the brothers to see if they would leave a brother behind, but they really had no choice. Their father and families in Canaan would starve without the grain. Simeon’s own family would starve. They did the right thing and left him behind.
The odd thing that Joseph did was put the brothers’ money back in their sacks of grain. By doing so, he made the grain a gift to his father. He knew that it was his duty as a son to provide food for his father and family, but he could not do that openly, yet. There may have been a rebuke in this as well, since the brothers had sold him for silver. I think Joseph knew that this act of kindness and generosity would seriously raise the anxieties of the brothers because they could be accused of theft when they returned to Egypt. So, Joseph was able to help his father while making his brothers suffer terribly. That’s every brother’s desire, isn’t. So far, it is not a bad bit of revenge.
It is interesting that one of the few times the brothers mention God, it is when they see the money and panic. They wonder why God put the money their sacks. Without knowing it, they make the important theological observation that God works through humans. It was Joseph who did this.
Jacob: Jacob was not at all happy with the news that his sons brought. Pharaoh’s second-in-command was demanding that Benjamin be brought before him in Egypt. Simeon was held as a hostage, and the sons apparently had stolen the grain from Egypt. The scene is almost comical. Just picture Ricky Ricardo in the role of Jacob here: “Judah, you got some splaining to do!”
But Jacob’s sufferings were real. Had Joseph known the pain he was causing Jacob, he might have chosen a different course of action. Joseph expected that Jacob himself would bring Benjamin to Egypt to rescue Simeon, but Jacob refused to leave Canaan. He was so protective of his youngest son that he was willing to leave Simeon to die in prison. He faced a hard choice, but his decision seems selfish and heartless. Perhaps he was still angry about the slaughter of Shechem or perhaps he was just too wrapped up in grief over Joseph to care about anyone but himself.
In the end, though, hunger did what the hostage could not. In chapter 43, the famine continued, and Jacob knew that the family would need more grain from Egypt. There was no choice now; they would have to meet the demands of the tyrant in charge of the granaries. Jacob, who had once used hunger to cheat his brother out of his birthright now faced a terrible decision. He was about to sell his youngest child, his birthright so to speak, for a bowl of pottage from Egypt. But God was merciful to Jacob. It was Jacob’s beloved son who was offering nourishment to the wandering Aramean. Next week we’ll examine Joseph’s reunion with his family.