Commentary on Genesis 44

Last updated: December 11, 2009

English Translation (ESV)

1Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, 2and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.

3As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. 4They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? 5Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.'”

6When he overtook them, he spoke to them these words. 7They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing! 8Behold, the money that we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? 9Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” 10He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” 11Then each man quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each man opened his sack. 12And he searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.

14When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”

18Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’

24“When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will go down. For we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ 27Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28One left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces, and I have never seen him since. 29If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

30“Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”

Notes

1-2 Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.

By generously supplying them with provisions in excess of what their money can buy, Joseph makes the brothers’ “ingratitude” appear all the greater when they are apprehended for alleged theft.1

4-5 They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.'”

There is no indication that Joseph actually practices divination. In this verse he simply wants his brothers to believe that he practices divination.

10 He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.”

This counterproposal is meant to see if the brothers will abandon Benjamin as they abandoned Joseph.

13 Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.

That all the brothers suffered such distress is a telling sign of the new sense of unity they had developed. They had already been informed that the innocent will be released (v. 10). Moreover, that they all return to Egypt underscores their commitment to Benjamin. The brothers are of one accord without any grumbling or dissent. For the victims of the ploy the polarities of human emotions have been reached, from the merriment of their successful journey to the woeful depths of their worst thoughts. The gesture of torn clothing recalls the (separate) events of Reuben and Jacob at each one’s discovery of Joseph’s demise (37:29, 34). The narrative conveys again the irony of deserved punishment for the offenders. They were guilty but did not show remorse; now they are innocent and demonstrate deepest agony.2

15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?”

Joseph’s statement when they are again before him is another of the cryptic statements woven through the narrative: “Don’t you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?” On the first level, the brothers are by now certainly willing to accept the truth of that affirmation. The man’s knowledge of them has been uncanny and incredible. Additionally, it is a logical statement to make in connection with this cup, which in 44:5 was identified as a cup for divination. Divination in Egypt was generally only accessible to people of high status. Not much is known concerning the most popular techniques. From Mesopotamia we are familiar with a couple of techniques that use liquids. Lecanomancy functions by observing the shapes that oil makes when poured into water. Hydromancy gains information from the ripples or reflections in the water itself. The brothers would not be surprised that a high official uses such methods.

But it is possible that Joseph insinuates more than this. Divination involves knowledge and interpretation of signs. In the immediate context, Joseph is reading the omens of their behavior to determine whether they are changed men. Indeed, he is using the cup for this divination – but it is far from lecanomancy or hydromancy. Joseph has begun to see God’s plan. In the larger scheme of things, his early dreams had indicated the destiny that he has now fulfilled, and he is beginning to understand what God is doing through him.3

16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.”

He admits their guilt, but he does not mean the charge of theft pending before them. For this allegation was not true. Rather, he has in mind the crime against their long-lost brother. For Judah this mistaken charge against them is recompense for the crime they had not atoned for. There was no human explanation for the peculiar circumstances of the cup. God must have “uncovered [masa’] your servant’s guilt” (v. 16a). The occurrence of masa’ (“to find”) is a play on the discovery of the cup in Benjamin’s bag (“who was found [masa’] to have the cup,” v. 16b; cf. masa’ also in vv. 8, 9, 10, 12, 17). He accepts what appears to be the inevitable punishment that he himself had recommended.4

17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”

With an affectation of self-righteousness, Joseph applies his supreme and final test of their integrity. He confronts the brothers with a dilemma that involves agonizing decisions. They can save their own lives, but this would be disastrous to their father and would be at the expense of their loyalty to Benjamin. If the brothers stay with Benjamin, they cannot bring back food to their father and to their families, who will then die of starvation.5

22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’

Actually, the subject of the Hebrew verb va-met is ambiguous. It may be either Benjamin or the father. In light of verse 31, the latter is the more likely.6

27-29 Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces, and I have never seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

Joseph finally learns what his father believes happened to him.

33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers.

He who once callously engineered the selling of Joseph to strangers out of envy and anger is now willing to become Joseph’s slave so that the rest of his brothers, and especially Benjamin, may be freed and allowed to return to Canaan to rejoin their father.7

34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”

Judah now thinks about his father’s well-being and shows that he has changed since Joseph was sold into slavery.

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.

Walton, John H. Genesis. The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.

1Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 303.

2Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 800.

3Walton, Genesis, 680-681.

4Mathews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 802-803.

5Sarna, JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 306.

6Ibid., 307.

7Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 18-50, 570.

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