God’s rescue sometimes takes the form of a sudden reversal, a kind of event J.R.R. Tolkien called a “eucatastrophe.” It’s a turn around, a lightening of a dark time, a happy ending where none was expected. These kinds of endings happen, not because we overcome all odds and triumph through our abilities. They happen because the universe is made of light and our Maker is Love. He gives at times what Tolkien called “a sudden and miraculous grace” in a world where sorrow and failure have existed so that in the time of blessing we will understand the joy of God’s eucatastrophe (see Tolkien’s essay, “On Fairy Stories”).
So it was with Joseph. The verbs describing Pharoah’s sudden actions to release Joseph are dramatic: וַיִּשְׁלַח vayishlach “and he sent,” וַיִּקְרָא vayiqra’ “and he summoned,” וַיְרִיצֻהוּ vayritzuhu “and they hastened him.” Joseph for his part must quickly wash and shave himself to be ready to appear. The whole dramatic turnaround is described as follows: “Then Pharaoh sent for and summoned Joseph and they hastened to bring him out from the pit. He shaved, changed his clothes, and he came before Pharaoh.”
What will bring the eucatastrophe for the world? What specifically will cause peace to fall on the earth and bring a dramatic turnaround? The vision of Isaiah in chapter 2 describes it as the nations deciding they want to know God’s insight, to find out how God can beat their swords into plowshares and make war disappear. The nations will seek it through Israel, the prophetic and priestly people. It will go out from Jerusalem. Torah and prophecy and wisdom will save humanity.
The writers of the Joseph story see the repository of God’s wisdom and truth, entrusted to Israel, as the blessing with which Israel will bless the nations. It is hard to disagree.
Pharaoh’s dream of cows (1-4), Pharaoh’s dream of stalks of grain (5-7), the magicians cannot interpret (8), the cupbearer at last remembers Joseph (9-14).
The Joseph story is not only about Joseph and his brothers and the peoples of the Near East. It is also a larger story about Israel and the nations and how the Abrahamic blessing works. Joseph is a figure for Israel and he brings blessing to the nations (saving Egypt and the surrounding nations). The thing that makes the nations turn to Joseph/Israel is divine revelation. The nations (Pharaoh, Egypt) must turn to Israel to know God’s will and promises.
Torah declared to us the pattern of mutual blessing in the Abrahamic promise in Genesis 12:3, “I will bless those who bless you and the one who curses you I will curse.” This pattern is evident in the Joseph story: the nations receive God’s word from Israel, in turn the nations bless Israel, in turn God blesses the nations (see R. Kendall Soulen, The God of Israel and Christian Theology).
As for Joseph, he is freed from a long imprisonment, and so will Israel be in a long exile. The description of his release from prison is dramatic: “He was rushed from the dungeon; he had his hair cut and changed his clothes, and he appeared before Pharaoh”.
It will happen suddenly that Israel and many from the nations will find deliverance too. In the second part of Isaiah, the people in exile were promised that they had suffered long enough and a dramatic reversal was soon to come. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” said the prophet, “her time of service has ended . . . she has received double from Adonai’s hand for her sins” (Isa 40:2). “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert,” (Isa 43:19).
The thing that brought reversal for Joseph was divine revelation. The nations sought out the “torah” of Israel, as it were, the divine insight given to a prophet of the clan of Abraham. Their desire to know what instruction God might have led them to suddenly release Joseph. So it will be someday, when the world wants to know God’s way of peace, as it says in Isaiah, “that he may teach us his ways” (Isa 2:3).
In the ancient world, prophecy and divination were both popularly practiced. Divination involves a person using secret arts and accumulated knowledge to “read” the future in some way. Prophecy moves in the opposite direction of divination, as it involves a god communicating with a person to “reveal” the future (or the present, a divine message about current conditions and how to please the deity).
The Torah forbids divination (with a very few sanctioned exceptions, such as the Urim and Thummim of the priests). Abraham Joshua Heschel (Prophets, Part II, pg. 238) says, “Divination, which is an act initiated by man, is often accompanied by the feeling of wringing a secret from the gods.” But prophecy, on the other hand, is founded on the belief that “God is the one who demands and judges.”
There was a widespread belief that dreams were secret communications from the gods. Heschel shows, however, that the Bible repeatedly declares dreams alone to be insufficient (pg. 241). So this Joseph story asserts that Pharaoh’s dream alone was not enough, but that God specifically disclosed the interpretation to his prophet, Joseph.
What are we to make of the existence of prophecy and God’s use of it at certain times in history? Heschel brilliantly sums up prophetic theology: “The fundamental thought of the Bible is not creation, but God’s care for his creation” (pg. 264).
The Joseph story is a foreshadowing on a smaller scale of something much larger. One crisis in history localized to a certain region of the world (the famine in Egypt and the surrounding lands) becomes a picture of a more epic reality (the problem of death and evil inflicting the whole world). The relationship between God and the nations is pictured here. God’s way of revealing himself to save humanity is by means of prophecy and wisdom given to Israel and through Israel shared with the whole world. God’s care for his creation is seen in that he reveals to us what he wants from us, what is killing us, and a promise that he will save us.
Joseph says God, not he, will answer (15-16), Pharaoh’s dreams recounted (17-24), Joseph gives God’s answer (25-32), Joseph’s wisdom and counsel (33-36), Pharaoh recognizes divine power in Joseph (37-38).
The writer of the Joseph story, this part being written by E (an unknown author from the northern kingdom of Israel), believes that divine revelation to Israel is what brings wisdom and blessing to the nations. Joseph denies being the interpreter, claiming instead that God reveals meanings to him. בִּלְעָדָי אֱלֹהִים יַעֲנֶה אֶת־שְׁלוֹם פַּרְעֹה bil’adai Elohim ya’aneh et-shelōm Pharaoh, “Not I, but God will answer concerning Pharaoh’s welfare” (literally “will answer [concerning] the peace of Pharaoh”). Joseph is being used by God as a prophet, a vessel through whom revelation comes.
The reader might also notice in Joseph an attitude which will later come to characterize King David as well. Both Joseph and David were figures who understood in confusing times the centrality of divine revelation and power.
The whole Joseph story prefigures Israel’s later history, demonstrating how the Abrahamic promise works. Thus, Joseph blesses the gentiles with divine revelation and is himself blessed with liberation and exaltation. The mutual blessing principle of Genesis 12:3 continues to assert itself.
Joseph uses the language of revelation and prophecy in vs. 25: אֵת אֲשֶׁר הָאֱלֹהִים עֹשֶׂה הִגִּיד לְפַרְעֹה ‘et asher haElohim ōseh higgid lePharaoh, “God has declared to Pharaoh what he will do.” Similarly vs. 28 says God “has shown” Pharaoh what he will do. Vs. 32 adds that כִּי־נָכוֹן הַדָּבָר מֵעִם הָאֱלֹהִים ki-nachōn cadaver mei’im haElohim, “because this thing has been determined by God,” and וּמְמַהֵר הָאֱלֹהִים לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ umemaher haElohim la’asatō, “he will soon being it about.” This is the language of a deity who cares about human history, not one who is aloof. God is revealing these events to his prophet in order to save those who hear the message and act on it.
What’s in a name? In this part of the Joseph story the reader would have to say, “Sometimes a heap of inexpressible feelings and meaning.”
Joseph descended for a long, agonizing time, only to ascend dramatically. Can we understand joy without first having a painful education in its opposite? Can we appreciate as much good fortunes that came easily and which have always accompanied our lives? In the life to come, would we enjoy the reveries and bliss half as much if we’d not experienced this present purgatory?
“Doubly fruitful” is a name for a son that some people might not understand. Knowing Joseph’s story, the name (Ephraim אֶפְרָיִם) is fitting for the tribe that will become largest among all within Israel. “He who causes forgetfulness” is a poignant sort of name, one people might ask you about if you name your child Manasseh (Menasheh מְנַשֶּׁה in Hebrew).
The clarity of these names is perhaps brought out all the more by the profusion of inscrutable names in the story. Who is Potiphera and why is her name almost identical to Potiphar? The meaning of Joseph’s Egyptian name, Zaphenath-paneah, is elusive.
But the names of Joseph’s sons ring with meaning. “God has made me forget all my hardship,” said Joseph. “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
When we are looking for simple thanksgiving prayers to offer God, could we do better than either or both of these?
Joseph is made a ruler of Egypt (39-43), Joseph is married to Asenath and begins his administration (44-46), Joseph implements the plan for mass storage of grain (47-49), Joseph’s two sons (50-52).
This section conveys the good things that come to Joseph in keeping with the covenant promise and also how events follow the pattern of mutual blessing (as per Genesis 12:3). Joseph foreshadows the ideal relationship between the clan of Abraham and the nations, between Israel and the gentiles. Joseph blesses a nation, which returns the blessing back to him, resulting in other nations also being blessed in a cycle of deliverance for the entire region. But an intra-family drama is occurring on another layer of the story.
The famine is what will bring the family, specifically the brothers, to stand before the very one they cast out and despised. They did not bless Joseph and, at first, he does not bless them either. But in time, he sees change and goodness in some of his brothers (especially Judah) and relents.
Several untranslatable words and names occur in this part of the story. In vs. 43, the people shout “Abrek!” to Joseph as he passes in the chariot. Following a rabbinic interpretation, most English translations render this “bow,” but Sarna argues the meaning has been lost. The name given to Joseph, Zaphenath-paneah, is also unknown, but may mean something like “God speaks” or “creator of life” (Sarna). The city On is later known as Heliopolis, a great center of Egyptian religion. Potiphera, though a name similar to Potiphar, is different enough to realistically refer to a different person (cf. 37:46).
But other names ring with meaning in this story. Joseph’s sons receive names fitting with their meaning in Joseph’s experience of an ascent from sorrow to blessing. Ephraim (related to the root parah) means either “doubly fruitful” or “fruitful place.” Manasseh (Menasheh, a Piel participle from nashah) means “he who causes forgetfulness.” These meanings are explained by the brief sayings in vss. 51-52.
GENESIS 41:53 – 42:18
We don’t understand ourselves as well as we think we do. There are differing depths in our soul and some hurts go deeper than we can comprehend. We imagine if we can show a good face in our outer self, the part we see in the mirror and the one others see when they look at us, then we have conquered our bitterness and overcome our wounds. We are at our worst in cases where denial of our problem goes hand in hand with acting out to try and cope.
“God has made me forget all my affliction,” Joseph had said. Then his brothers showed up looking to buy grain.
It’s not that the rituals and prayers and acts of self-care and healing are meaningless. It’s a good thing when Joseph rejoices in his sons and reflects on how his heart is healing. But we should not underestimate bitterness and pain. And we should not think that healing is a simple process, occurring once and then putting the illness in our soul behind us for life. The disease, when it strikes again, picks up right where it left off.
Joseph knows his brothers are not spies. His actions are purely retributive. He may excuse his actions and say what he is doing is to test them, to see if there is good in them, or to help them repent. It feels good to think of worthy motives for our actions when they stem from pain deep inside us but the problem is it’s a damned lie. Joseph just wants to see them suffer.
Later in the story, Joseph will say, “You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” The same can be said of this vengeful charade he puts his brothers through. It may be that Joseph’s harshness is good for the brothers, especially Judah. But the acting out is not something healthy for Joseph and it is not actually something good. Worst of all, Joseph’s actions nearly kill his father with grief about possibly losing Benjamin. What has Jacob done to Joseph to deserve such abuse? We tend to hurt people who don’t deserve it when our behavior stems from hurts in our soul.
Joseph will recover from this. He will repent and have love in his heart again and cry. But he will do a lot of damage before the happy ending comes.
The famine happens as Joseph foretold (41:53-57), Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt for grain (42:1-5), Joseph conceals his identity and tests his brothers (6-18).
Egypt was the bread basket for the surrounding lands. Flood plain irrigation was usually much more drought proof than lands relying on rain, but sometimes even what is dependable can fail us. In years when the Nile did not flood the almost always dependable supply of grain in Egypt dried up. The entire region faced starvation, especially if this happened more than one year in a row.
The drama of Joseph’s family resumes in this section. The brothers face measure for measure justice unknowingly and Jacob, who had deceived others repeatedly, is once again about to fall victim to deceivers through the bitter fallout between his sons.
Joseph puts his brothers to the test quite harshly, putting them in bondage as they did to him. How will they stand up to the strain of imprisonment? Sarna suggests he may also have wished to see how rivalries would affect their decision regarding which brother to send back to Jacob to fetch Benjamin.
John Goldingay calls Joseph out here for bad behavior (Genesis for Everyone: Part II). He remarks on the claim Joseph has just made, that he had forgotten his sorrows and thus named his son Manasseh. “It would be understandable if he has some simmering resentment and if in his naming of Manasseh he is simply kidding himself about having forgotten it all,” remarks Goldingay. As he goes on to say, God could be using Joseph’s actions in the lives of the brothers, even if Joseph’s motives include dark things like bitterness and vengeance.
GENESIS 42:19 – 43:15
For whatever reason among the sons of Jacob, two in particular tried to stop the plan against Joseph and wanted to save him. Reuben and Judah’s remorse over what happened to their brother and their desire to fix a bad situation is coming out even now, years after the fact. וְגַם־דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ vegam-dammō hineh nidrash, “And now for his blood comes a reckoning,” says Reuben.”
So when they come to their father with the news — Simeon is hostage in Egypt and they must bring Benjamin with them to get more grain — Reuben volunteers to take responsibility. “Kill my two sons,” he offers, “if I fail to return the boy to you.” It’s a terrible thought, that he could offer comfort to his father by killing his own sons. The thought, no doubt, is that just as Jacob has now lost two sons, Reuben volunteers to lose two. It is as if he thinks more tragedy will somehow bring relief from this situation. He is identifying with Jacob’s pain and bereavement but not thinking clearly otherwise.
Only when things get desperate, when rations are so low that starvation looms, only then do they contemplate again going back and bringing Benjamin with them. Simeon has been imprisoned a hostage the entire time. Judah takes responsibility and this time succeeds in persuading Jacob. וְחָטָאתִי לְךָ כָּל־הַיָּמִים vechata’ti lecha kōl-hayammim, “I will stand guilty before you for all time,” says Judah, if he fails to bring Benjamin back.
It’s a terrible thing to contemplate: a life without redemption. Being guilty forever, having no possibility of ever being or feeling good and worthy ever again. Losing all hope of forgiveness from anyone or yourself or from God. Sometimes this is the reality of what people feel, people who have done terrible things.
Judah is not finished righting his part in the wrong of the brothers. He will do more. By the end of the story, his standing will have changed. For his foolish and wicked part in participating in something that went way too far, he will extricate himself from unending guilt by changing and dining better. “Remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes,” says God, “cease to do evil; learn to do good” (Isa 1:16-17). “Though your sins are as scarlet they will be white like snow” (Isa 1:18).
Joseph sends them to bring Benjamin (19-20), the brothers unwittingly reveal their remorse in front of Joseph (21-23), Joseph chooses Simeon as hostage and sends them away (24-26), return to Canaan (27-28), Jacob’s grief and refusal (42:29-38), the second journey with Judah as a guarantor for Benjamin (43:1-15).
The deception in which Joseph hides his identity and pretends not to understand the language of the the brothers provides the perfect literary setting for a revelation of honesty. The brothers unwittingly confess to their crime in Joseph’s hearing, bringing him some satisfaction and a bit of emotional release.
Intent on choosing one of the brothers as a hostage, Joseph’s obvious choice would be Reuben, the oldest. But since Joseph has just heard Reuben berating his brothers for not saving Joseph, the choice of a hostage nows falls to Simeon, the next oldest. One theme in the story is the rivalry between the Israelite tribes. The actions of the brothers prefigure later rivalries in Israel’s history. The author implies that Israel is negatively affected by this competition which prevents unity. So, for example, the tribe of Simeon is doomed by their ancestor’s actions. Simeon, for his wrong in the matter of Shechem (34:25) will amount to nothing as a tribe, becoming absorbed into the territory of Judah.
Meanwhile, with Simeon hostage, the brothers return to Canaan and find they have been deceived again. Joseph has arranged for their payment for grain to be put back in their sacks. Their fear increases yet again. The demand, if they return to Egypt for more grain, is that they should bring Benjamin, the other child of Rachel, the one Jacob will not let go.
Only two things make the second trip to Egypt happen: desperation in light of the famine and Judah’s surety to his father for Benjamin’s life. We see here Judah taking responsibility, showing remorse for his part in Joseph’s tragedy and sympathy for his father’s pain in losing Joseph. The redemption of Judah is working itself out in the story.
It’s not difficult to see that blessing is the theme of the book of Genesis. Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply…’”. “And God blessed Noah and his sons,” (Gen 9:1). Then he said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you.” Melchizedek blessed Abraham. God said of Ishmael, “I have blessed him.” In Abraham’s later years we read, “Adonai had blessed Abraham in all things” (24:1). As the book continues, the lives of the patriarchs are filled with scenes of an elder blessing a younger.
Rebekah’s family blessed her before sending her to marry Isaac (24:60). Jacob offered to bless Esau, his oldest son, but Jacob tricked the aging patriarch into blessing him instead (27:4 and following). Esau pitifully begged, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” (27:34). God repeatedly blessed Jacob.
And now in the present story, upon seeing his younger brother Benjamin, Joseph blesses him.
What is the writer telling us with all these blessings? Life has both tragedy and blessing and every person will come forth with some of both. But blessing is what we pursue. The Torah will go on to pronounce blessings and curses over Israel depending on whether Israel decides to pursue supernatural blessings or not. The blessings of Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28 describe a paradise on earth, with freedom from hunger, war, disease, and fear.
Blessing represents the good potential in human destiny and it lies completely in God’s hands and in the ways he gives us to pursue it. Blessing is that joy we seek but cannot quite grasp. It is the beautiful thing almost painful to perceive since our lack of it causes us to yearn. Some have described our pursuit of it as vanity and a chasing after wind.
But God tries, through his prophets, to persuade us to believe. “Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver?” (Isa 50:2). “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God” (Isa 41:10). “I will make a road in the wilderness and streams in the desert” (Isa 43:19). “I will bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay” (Isa 46:13). “In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you” (Isa 54:8).
The brothers with Benjamin are received in Joseph’s private home (16-18), the brothers ask the steward about the money in their packs (19-23), they are received with hospitality (24-25), the brothers present their gift and bow before Joseph (26-28), Joseph blesses Benjamin (29).
Joseph’s behavior continues to be enigmatic to the brothers. Though he has accused them of being spies and has been holding Simeon hostage all this time, now he throws them a feast and seemingly welcomes them with open arms. Of course he is not through playing dangerous games with them and Joseph’s greatest act of treachery is yet to come.
The house steward is apparently in on the game Joseph is playing with his brothers. He tells them that their God, the God of their fathers, must have caused their money to appear in their packs because, he insists, he received their payment. We know that Joseph deliberately had the money replaced in their sacks, so the steward’s words are a lie (see 42:25).
Then Joseph sees his youngest brother, Benjamin, the son of his mother as well as his father. His first reaction is typical of the patriarchs and a major theme of the book. He blesses him. אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי Elohim yachnecha beni, “God show favor to you, my son!” (with “son” here being in an idiomatic sense, a slightly older man referring to a younger one).
GENESIS 43:30 – 44:17
Who we are is in some way determined by the people who come before us. Father. Mother. Siblings. Grandparents. It’s unfair that we inherit attitudes and patterns that keep us from being completely free. We did not ask for the lingering resentments and the games of rank and importance that come with family dynamics, but inherit them we did.
Joseph lines his brothers up by seniority and then he heaps bitterness on his brothers and, though Jacob is not present at this meal, onto his father as well. He has Benjamin served with a much larger portion than his brothers. If the Hebrew is literal, Benjamin’s portion is five times as much!
The pain of Joseph’s life has been caused specifically by disputes over rank and seniority, by resentment about favoritism and a father whose love all of the brothers desired. The cycle has been a long one. Jacob himself resented that his father preferred Esau and the guilt that followed Jacob through years of his life was about how he stole that favored status from Esau and left his old brother barren and devastated.
The grandfather played favorites. The father, a true son of his father, has done the same. The children suffer jealousy and resentment and they have acted out in cruel retaliation which is now coming back on their own heads.
But Judah has the right idea. He seeks to unify the brothers. If one of them will suffer, Judah’s determination is that they will all suffer together. He may not be able to save Benjamin and keep his father, Jacob, from grief completely. But at least they can remain together, taking the punishment now as one, with no rank or seniority but only togetherness.
It is a sad truth that the right answer tends to come to us only in extreme circumstances. הִנֵּה מַה־טּוֹב וּמַה־נָּעִים שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם־יָחַד hineh man tov umana’im shevet achim gam yachad, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!”
Joseph is overcome (30), the meal and Benjamin’s favor (43:31-34), Joseph tests them again (44:1-2), Joseph’s agents catch them on the way to arrest them (3-10), the brothers rend their clothes as the silver cup is found in Benjamin’s sack (11-13), Joseph states his intention to keep Benjamin as a slave (14-17).
One purpose of the meal scene here may be to call to mind the meal the brothers were eating in chapter 37 while Joseph was in the pit. At the first meal, the brothers were mistreating Joseph. At the second, he is mistreating them.
Vs. 32 is an interesting note about Egyptians and their taboo rule against dining with Hebrews. Most likely Semitic people, including Hebrews, were regarded as barbarians, people who lived outside of the order important to the Egyptians. Hebrews were “other” and dining with them was taboo. Perhaps this note is here to foreshadow the soon coming problems between the Hebrews and Egypt.
Joseph is emotional, but his emotions do not cause him to put a stop to his charade. He has the brothers seated according to a strict arrangement by seniority. He serves Benjamin, the current favorite of his father, five times as much food as the others (literally “five hands,” perhaps an idiom for “several times as much”). It is as if Joseph is protesting the idea of favoritism and showing by this arrangement how much the family dynamic has hurt him and his brothers.
In the end he offers them yet another terrible choice and does so through yet another charade, this time planting a valuable cup in Benjamin’s sack. If the brothers stay with Benjamin, they cannot take the food home and save their families and their father. If they abandon Benjamin, they will break their assurances to their father and slay him with grief.
Judah is the spokesman for the group. Even though he and his brothers are innocent of the theft of the cup, he takes responsibility as if they were guilty. His strategy is to be true to his father and, if there is going to be imprisonment, to keep them all together and to stay with Benjamin. He does not care for his own freedom any longer but is desperate to make the best out of a bad situation.