Commentary on Genesis 42

Last updated: December 6, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1When Jacob learned that there was grain for sale in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you look at one another?” 2And he said, “Behold, I have heard that there is grain for sale in Egypt. Go down and buy grain for us there, that we may live and not die.” 3So ten of Joseph’s brothers went down to buy grain in Egypt. 4But Jacob did not send Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, with his brothers, for he feared that harm might happen to him. 5Thus the sons of Israel came to buy among the others who came, for the famine was in the land of Canaan.

6Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. 7Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” 8And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. 9And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

12He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13And 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 no more.” 14But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. 15By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. 16Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” 17And he put them all together in custody for three days.

18On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: 19if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, 20and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so. 21Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.” 22And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.” 23They did not know that Joseph understood them, for there was an interpreter between them. 24Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes. 25And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.

26Then they loaded their donkeys with their grain and departed. 27And as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey fodder at the lodging place, he saw his money in the mouth of his sack. 28He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

29When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, 30“The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. 31But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. 32We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ 33Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. 34Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.'”

35As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid. 36And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.” 37Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.” 38But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

Notes

6 Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground.

Joseph’s boyhood dreams are being fulfilled (37:7, 9). “But the fulfillment does not exactly match the original dream, which included his father (sun) and mother (moon) and eleven brothers (stars) coming and bowing down to the ground before him (37:10). Here there are only ten brothers and no parents.”1

8 And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.

There are many reasons why the brothers would not recognize Joseph: They assume he is dead; he is probably clean shaven; he speaks to them in Egyptian through an interpreter (v. 23); he is wearing the trappings of his Egyptian office; he has an Egyptian name (41:45). What is true at the physical level is also true at the spiritual level. Their failure to recognize Joseph here but emulates their failure to recognize the Joseph that God was preparing him to be in ch. 37. The brothers are lacking in both recognition (ch. 42) and insight (ch. 37).2

9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.”

“Despite his zeal to ‘forget’ (41:51) his difficult past, he cannot escape it. It is facing his painful past that leads the way to his deliverance from the past.”3 The “nakedness of the land” refers to any defects in Egypt’s fortifications that a spy would want to make note of.4

14-16 But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.”

The true purpose of Joseph’s test is to see whether his brothers have reformed. By keeping Simeon (v 24) behind he gives the brothers a chance to abandon a brother to prison and slavery as they had done to him (ch 37).

18-20 On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you will live, for I fear God: if you are honest men, let one of your brothers remain confined where you are in custody, and let the rest go and carry grain for the famine of your households, and bring your youngest brother to me. So your words will be verified, and you shall not die.” And they did so.

It is not clear whether Joseph originally planned for only a three day imprisonment or whether he now changed his mind so that his family back in Canaan would not die of hunger.

21 Then they said to one another, “In truth we are guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the distress of his soul, when he begged us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has come upon us.”

Only now do we learn that Joseph did not passively accept the brutal treatment from his brothers.

22 And Reuben answered them, “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy? But you did not listen. So now there comes a reckoning for his blood.”

Reuben apparently believes Joseph is dead. In 44:20 Judah also states that he believes Joseph is dead.

24 Then he turned away from them and wept. And he returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes.

It is not said why Simeon was the one imprisoned. Was he the one who led the others in persecuting Joseph? Since Reuben, the firstborn, had tried to save him, did he choose to detain the second born, Simeon? Did he want his brothers to return with the second born son of Rachel and so detained the second born son of Leah?

25 And Joseph gave orders to fill their bags with grain, and to replace every man’s money in his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This was done for them.

Joseph’s motivation here is unclear. Was he testing their integrity, applying psychological pressure, or acting generously?

Sternberg raises the possibility that Joseph is here engaging in role-duplication that forces the brothers to face their past. That is, Joseph recalls a time when his brothers placed a higher premium on money than they did on Joseph’s life. They had no qualms about being enriched at his expense. Here Joseph creates a parallel circumstance to that situation. Now it is Simeon’s life that is on the line. Will they gladly accept the money and conveniently ignore Simeon, or will the well-being and release of Simeon be uppermost in their minds and control their behavior and choices?5

28 He said to his brothers, “My money has been put back; here it is in the mouth of my sack!” At this their hearts failed them, and they turned trembling to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?”

Not only were they accused of being spies but now they could be accused of being thieves.

29-34 When they came to Jacob their father in the land of Canaan, they told him all that had happened to them, saying, “The man, the lord of the land, spoke roughly to us and took us to be spies of the land. But we said to him, ‘We are honest men; we have never been spies. We are twelve brothers, sons of our father. One is no more, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.’ Then the man, the lord of the land, said to us, ‘By this I shall know that you are honest men: leave one of your brothers with me, and take grain for the famine of your households, and go your way. Bring your youngest brother to me. Then I shall know that you are not spies but honest men, and I will deliver your brother to you, and you shall trade in the land.'”

[T]hey tactfully omit the fact that they were all imprisoned for three days, and instead of saying Simeon “was detained in custody” (vv 19, 24), they euphemistically state that he asked them to “leave one brother of yours with me,” as though he were being treated as Joseph’s honored guest. They also omit Joseph’s warning about executing them if they fail to produce Benjamin (v 20), inventing instead a promise that they could “travel freely” or trade in the land (v 34; cf. 34:10). Finally, they say nothing about the discovery of money in their sacks (vv 27-28). This all-too-bland account of their trip to Egypt, designed to allay Jacob’s fears, seems to have left him unpersuaded, for no comment by him on their mission is recorded. He must have thought, “Whatever they say, Simeon has not come home and Benjamin is now being demanded too.”6

35 As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack. And when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were afraid.

It is obvious that all the brothers must have dipped into their packs for food or fodder in the course of their six-day (or so) return journey. Therefore, each must have discovered his money long before reaching Canaan. As a matter of fact, that is what they tell Joseph on the next trip (43:21). We must assume, therefore, that they had prearranged to tell their father nothing of this and to stage the “discovery” in his presence.7

36 And Jacob their father said to them, “You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin. All this has come against me.”

Jacob may believe that his sons sold Simeon into slavery in return for the money and that they had earlier sold Joseph into slavery. Reuben’s peculiar outburst in the next verse may be an attempt to deny Jacob’s accusation while not admitting that it is partially true (for they did sell Joseph into slavery).

37 Then Reuben said to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you. Put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you.”

Reuben’s offer of his two sons if he fails to bring back Benjamin from Egypt is hardly therapeutic. His invitation to Jacob to execute his grandsons is not what Jacob relishes. He has lost, he thinks, two sons. How would the loss of two grandsons ameliorate that? In some ways Reuben parallels Lot. Neither can live with the alternative that now confronts him. Lot would rather give the townsmen his two virgin daughters than his guests (19:8). Reuben would rather have Jacob put to death his own two sons rather than see his father having to survive the anguish of living without his beloved Benjamin. Thus both make an overstatement. Whatever the reason for making this offer (he is the oldest son? he wishes to prevent Benjamin meeting the same end as Joseph? [note Reuben’s use of the verb lahasibo in 37:22 to return Joseph to Jacob, and his use of the same verb in 42:37 to return Benjamin to Jacob, asibennu]), Reuben’s offer is magnanimous (as well as foolish). He declares that if he does not bring Benjamin back safe and sound, he is to be held liable, whatever the cause of his failure. He is willing to lose two of his four sons if he is unable to rescue one of Jacob’s eleven sons.8

38 But he said, “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he is the only one left. If harm should happen to him on the journey that you are to make, you would bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to Sheol.”

Benjamin is the only son left of his mother as far as Jacob knows.

Bibliography

Hamilton, Victor P. The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament 1B. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Mathews, Kenneth A. Genesis 11:27-50:26. The New American Commentary Volume 1B. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2005.

Sarna, Nahum M. JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis. 1st ed. Jewish Publication Society of America, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Genesis 16-50. Word Biblical Commentary 2. Thomas Nelson, 1994.

1Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 406.

2Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 519.

3Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 777.

4Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 293.

5Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 529.

6Wenham, Genesis 16-50, 410.

7Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 296.

8Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 536.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s