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.

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