Genesis 43

Two aspects of this chapter stand out to me: An acceptance and an assurance. The surrounding events are largely a repeat of the previous portion, in which Joseph’s brothers travel to Egypt to seek relief from the effects of the famine that is still causing much suffering throughout the wider region. Once there they are met by Joseph, who appears severe but inwardly is struggling to control his feelings in the charged atmosphere of the reunion of which only he is aware (verses thirty through thirty-one have him hurrying out of the room to avoid bursting into tears and washing his face to regain composure before returning). Again the brothers are treated handsomely – served from Joseph’s own table (verse thirty-four) – enjoying the kind of hospitality one would expect to be reserved for guests of far higher ranking than foreigners asking for handouts. Narratively we might describe all this as a repetition of storyline with a heightening of emotional tension.

Note, however, Jacob’s (referred to here by his “earned” name of Israel; see 32.29) important background role in these happenings. He had never wanted his second son by his beloved Rachel to make the journey south, worrying that he too might be lost in the way which (he thinks) Joseph was (42.4: “for Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, since he feared that he might meet with disaster”), yet now he is faced with a demand delivered vicariously through Judah that unless Benjamin too undertakes the errand it will not be successful (verses three through five). Jacob’s initial response is to blame the brothers for having loose lips:

43.6: “And Israel said, ‘Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man [i.e. Joseph, whom everyone thinks is “merely” the Egyptian vizier] that you had another brother?’”

Confronted by circumstances beyond his control, and having it emphatically explained to him that without Benjamin all will come to naught, Jacob quickly assents and comes up with a plan that he thinks will improve the chances for a favorable outcome. What is interesting here is that although on the surface of things Jacob simply leaves the matter up to fate, he does try to tip the balance (as it were) with the inclusion of a number of delicacies as gifts, and double the original money to replace what was earlier returned to them (see 42.35) along with the amount for the present (hoped for) procurement. Is this faith on Jacob’s part, or does he think his back is to the wall and there is nothing for it but to try and hope? Is there really a difference between those two options? Does not very much of life call for just such a response? These are the words placed in the mouth of the Jacob character:

43.13-14: “‘Take your brother too; and go back at once to the man. And may El Shaddai [intriguing to now find this earlier moniker, last seen in 35.11 although it will appear again; the appellation is self-applied by the divine in speeches to both Abraham and Jacob in 17.1 and 35.11, but Isaac uses the term too in 28.3] dispose the man to mercy toward you, that he may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved.’”

Assurance now; and this comes from quite an unexpected source. The brothers are told that they are to be brought into Joseph’s house and become terrified at what might be in store for them, even thinking they could be arrested and enslaved (verse eighteen). They decide that the best course of action is to come clean to Joseph’s house steward, outlining everything that occurred on their last trip concerning the money they had tried to use to pay for the food they received which somehow (!) was returned to them, and moreover how they have sought to rectify this with what they brought down on this occasion. The steward – presumably a regular Egyptian like everyone else in the tale save Joseph and his brothers – proclaims an announcement of another sort of faith, one that is not grounded in the perception of difficulty but rather in perfect peace, stating:

43.23a: “He replied, ‘All is well with you [i.e. the brothers]; do not be afraid. Your God, the God of your father, must have put treasure in your bags for you. I got your payment.’”

In 42.25, where it is described how Joseph ordered the money to be put back into each of the brother’s bags, we are not told by whom this was done; was it the house steward or another servant? Had Joseph given the house steward money from his own holdings to keep the appearance of the brothers having paid? Would a person in Joseph’s position in the ancient world ever personally handle or deal with money? (After all, royal families in our own day typically do not, and although Joseph was not royalty he was reportedly second only to Pharaoh.) The reader is left with these questions, but in the context one gets the impression that the house steward is winking; or perhaps his is a mind (/heart) that goes beyond culture and recognizes providence wherever it is found.

No comments: