Genesis 42

Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt in an attempt to procure some food for themselves and those others of Jacob’s family who remain in Canaan, waiting and suffering during the widespread famine. By this point in the saga Joseph has become the vizier (verse six), essentially in charge of everything, and evidently so assimilated to his forcedly adopted home that he is unrecognizable even to his own kin (verse eight: Joseph knows them but they do not know him). The brothers bow low in humility and Joseph’s first dream of Chapter 37 comes true directly, while his second dream (including the “sun” and “moon”: i.e. father and mother) might also arguably be understood as having been fulfilled indirectly since, while not physically present, the beseeching of the parents is surely included in the siblings’ petition. Joseph thereupon sets something of a trap, but also something of a prolonged and somewhat convoluted reconciliation underway: he grants his brothers both the sustenance they need and even returns the money they had paid for it (verse twenty-five), but then also keeps one of them (Simeon) as hostage to force their return with the absent Benjamin (his only brother with whom he shares Rachel as mother) in tow (verses eighteen through twenty). Beyond wanting to see this last brother (or only “full” brother) the text does not tell us what the narrative character Joseph may have had in mind and so we are left to wonder; it does, however, inform the reader of the depth of Joseph’s feeling for all his brothers, and surely too the nostalgia and melancholy that must have been summoned in him at the unexpected reunion. Note how Joseph is portrayed as the brothers speak amongst themselves:

42.23-24a: “They [the brothers] did not know that Joseph understood [i.e. comprehended their conversation, which was being conducted privately but within his hearing], for there was an interpreter between him and them [used, no doubt, by Joseph in order to camouflage his identity]. He [Joseph] turned away from them and wept.”

The story gives us Joseph: an arrogant or at least very naïve young man who dreams of his brothers and even parents prostrating themselves before him, actually tells this to the people concerned, finally upsets his brothers so much that they wish to kill him but instead sell him into servitude, he is taken to Egypt and after an initial rise and fall is made to rise again to astonishing social heights yet remains alone and separated from his birth kin. Those same brothers then come to where he is, begging for assistance and, in the knowledge that they are unaware of who he really is (indeed, they think him dead: see Reuben’s regretful lament in verse twenty-two), Joseph is overcome with emotion. This, naturally, is small wonder: thinking ourselves (as well as we might) into a setting like this we may marvel at Joseph’s self-control in not immediately blurting out everything. Why he does not is another point that the narrative withholds from us, but based on his actions in providing a great amount of nourishment for them to take for distribution to the family in Canaan, and additionally even giving their money back, it hints that Joseph has thoroughly forgiven the violent act which started him on the life journey he is now travelling. (I should add that some find the inclusion of the money bags in the provisions as an entrapment set far in advance à la the goblet incident in Chapter 44.1-17, but that is another situation distanced by both time and immediate context from the current one; moreover, in the overall flow of the events it is hard to imagine that Joseph could have foreseen such in the moment (even if the writer(s) picturing the literary figure did in constructing the tale).) In the wholly unanticipated – and probably not even remotely hoped for it seemed so impossible – happening of his brothers appearing before him and seeking his aid, Joseph opens his heart, gives abundantly, does not begrudge, and is pierced through by the sight of them. The novella of Joseph is one of a person growing ethically, acquiring the skill to place the other centrally and the patience to allow events to unfold with a grace that accepts and adjusts, who learns how to do what he can to effect the betterment of the surroundings wherein he finds himself; the present chapter demonstrates each of these points beautifully.

Genesis 41

The cupbearer from the previous chapter finally remembers Joseph before Pharaoh (verses nine through thirteen), and this being the smoothly built story that it is such happens at precisely the right moment. Pharaoh himself has had dreams which need interpreting, dreams which are in line and of the nature of the previous Joseph-related dreams: weakness superseding strength (his brothers’ sheaves bowing down to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him: 37.6-7, 9), ill following good (the cupbearer being restored then the baker being killed: 40.20-22). Like those, Pharaoh’s visions relate through the symbols of gaunt cows consuming healthy ones and thin ears of grain swallowing full ones (verses two through seven) that firstly will be blessings and thereafter want and much need. On hearing the details Joseph – summoned for the task thanks to the cupbearer – again gives credit to the divine (verse sixteen) before explaining what kind of agricultural conditions may be expected for the next fourteen years. (Incidentally, this being a piece of well-told and positive fiction nothing of the sort happens, but imagine if Joseph had been wrong and the famine never came: would Pharaoh have been pleased to not need the emergency relief, or angered that so much had been stored away? At least the supply side economics made possible would have kept inflation down! And Joseph would have had a good long ride of it before being called into question.) What occurs after this, however, is to me the most intriguing aspect of the tale.

Joseph had been brought in to explain the content of Pharaoh’s dreams, that and no more. The scene is an exquisitely constructed one: The foreigner, fresh from prison, suddenly placed in the Egyptian court – the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth – thanks to nothing more than the happenstance of the cupbearer being reminded (after two long years of Joseph’s languishing!; see verse one) of his own experience with a puzzling dream; anyone would be beside themselves in such a situation. Yet how does Joseph respond? He listens, finds the similarities between the pair of dreams (in fact they are the same dream, as Joseph states in verses twenty-six and thirty-two), and then duly gives to Pharaoh what he wanted: the meaning. Well and good; but Joseph does not stop with merely that: and this now is astonishing. The young, insignificant, outsider nobody in the presence of the most potent authority on the face of the planet keeps talking far beyond what was required of him, and not only does he continue he does so in the form of giving advice on what Pharaoh ought to do (verses thirty-three to thirty-six). This is some chutzpah! In reading these lines we recall that what we have received here from tradition is some form of myth (whether grounded or not – in whatever way – in a person who did exist, or instead in a figure that was completely made up, is largely irrelevant: in either case I do not think we can claim this as a historical account in the way we now reckon history), and so we should not be overly surprised that instead of being hauled away or even executed for his insolence, as indeed the baker had been for who knows what offense (Chapter 40 gives us a picture of Pharaoh as exercising his limitless rights quite arbitrarily), Joseph is granted the benefit of every doubt and not only carefully listened to but believed. That in itself is something of a miracle. What might we take from this tale told so beautifully?

One of the primary lessons that Genesis may be imparting to us through these extended Joseph vignettes (Chapters 37 and 39-50 are all centered on him) may at first appear to be along the lines of the importance of having self-confidence, but it is perhaps a rather more nuanced trait than that. It is not so much that Joseph believes in himself – as certainly he does appear to – but that he believes in what God/“God” has given to him and purposed him with in life. Initially were his dreams of Chapter 37 – as above – that caused him to wrongly take on a kind of arrogance (telling one’s older siblings and parents that they would prostrate themselves before one is not the humblest family position to take!) and which pointedly do not mention deity. The dreams told to Joseph which he deciphers, on the other hand, are each preceded by acknowledging God/“God” as the source and foundation for whatever ability Joseph is about to demonstrate (40.8 and 41.16). Joseph has learned not to trust in himself per se, but to rely on that which he has been invested with, and moreover to find in that a function and aim to fulfill during the days that he has. Like ourselves, he is filled with ignorance as to the whens and the whys – and certainly with regards to the hows and the how longs – but he recognizes an opportunity and seizes it, based in that same assurance and trust. The world is a sticky and messy place and a great many things can go wrong, but what I think Joseph – and much of Genesis – encourages attitudinally is that whatever might eventuate, it is the human place to act for the good of others in a faith that such might truly transpire.