1. This section introduces what Genesis commentator Gerhard von Rad refers to as a caesura. I'd never seen the term before reading it here a few weeks ago, that I can remember. But its meaning makes sense. A caesura, named for Julius Caesar, is like a cut in the narrative flow. It's a pause or interruption in the story being told.
As von Rad points out:
Up until the events of ch. 41, Joseph and what became of him was the narrator's subject. From the beginning up to the wholesome measures of the grand vizier the reader did not lose sight of Joseph. In ch. 42, this line is broken.This "break" in the story, of course, is essential to recounting what happens in Joseph's life and, ultimately, how the unseen hand of God can and does work in human history. What happens next proves a truism which by now, I've shared with several generations of Catechism students: Either God gets His way or God gets His way.
2. The section begins with a sarcastic line from Jacob. He considers the situation in which he and his family find themselves, victims of a famine that has hit Canaan, where they reside, as well as Egypt. He turns to his sons and asks, "Why do you keep looking at one another?"
Jacob apparently never held the sons who came to him by way of Leah, Zilpah, and Leah--the -ah mates--in the highest esteem. His preferential treatment toward Joseph, the son of his beloved Rachel, in fact, bred the resentment that caused the ten oldest sons to sell Joseph into slavery. Apparently, the family dysfunctionality, preferential treatment, and parental sarcasm continued during the years of Joseph's slavery.
3. One might wonder how it is that ten sons, grown men with their own wives and families, were taking orders from their old man. This was an intensely patriarchal culture and Jacob continued to call the shots--with a few exceptions that have already been noted in these posts--until he died.
4. Because Benjamin, like Joseph, was the son of Rachel, Jacob didn't allow him to go with the other ten sons to Egypt where, it was learned, an aide to the Pharaoh, his identity unknown to them, was selling grain from stockpiles.
5. It's understandable to me that the brothers wouldn't have recognized their brother. Let me list the reasons, as I see them:
- They thought he was dead. The life of a slave was hard and usually short. It wouldn't have occurred to the brothers that Joseph would still be alive.
- Even if they thought that Joseph might be around, they probably couldn't have imagined that he would by now be governor of Egypt, irrespective of his dreams that so incensed them.
- He would have been attired as an Egyptian royal personage, very different from the clothing he'd once worn as the son of a nomadic shepherd.
6. This section finds Joseph going through an elaborate scheme evidently designed to discern his brother's honesty and trustworthiness. The section is full of many apparent seams that scholars believe reflect the melding of different tellings of the story.
7. Egypt was a place that residents in the area known as Canaan, later to be referred to as Palestine and Israel, often went to, looking for food. Drought was frequent in the stony hills of Palestine. Egypt can usually rely on the waters of the Nile to provide sufficient moisture for grain-farming.
8. Leaving Simeon behind in Egypt, the brothers return to Canaan with food and their money bags filled. Jacob is understandably convinced that yet another of his sons has died. When the food runs out and he becomes desperate, Jacob finally relents to allowing Benjamin go to Egypt with them for more grain, fulfilling the strange request of the still-unidentified Joseph.
As von Rad writes, once Jacob decides to allow Benjamin to take the trip:
...he turns at once to the very practical necessities of this ticklish journey. Bringing gifts to a high official is still practiced in the Orient and is no more than a sign of good breeding.9. Von Rad also points out that what the New Revised Standard Version calls "the choice fruits of the land" can literally be rendered as "strengths, powers of the land."
10. Benjamin receives preferential treatment from Joseph, his full brother. Yet the other brothers display no resentment. They "drank and were marry with" Benjamin.
11. The brothers would have eaten separately from the Egyptians because the Egyptians' religion would have called these Hebrew nomads "unclean."
12. This brings the strange denoument of the Joseph narrative, with its test of the brothers' integrity. When Judah offers himself to take the place of Benjamin as Joseph's slave, his heart is moved and he is convinced that he can reveal his identity to the brothers.
13. It's interesting to me that Judah chooses to reveal the long-ago guilt of he and his brothers respecting to Joseph. The guilt had hung over them for twenty-plus years!
14. Joseph gives the brothers an early indication of his attitude about his years of slavery when he tells them (v.5):
And do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.This isn't fatalism, but faith. Faith sees God working good even in the midst of heartache. Faith understands that God can work good even in tragedy.
Faith doesn't sugar-coat the truth: Joseph acknowledges the guilt of his brothers. But in faith, Joseph also absolves the brothers of that guilt. He points them to the gracious hand of God at work even in what was an evil and painful situation.
Later, we'll see that the brothers will need to be reminded once again of God's grace and Joseph's forgiveness of them. In this, I suspect, they're as human as you and me. (Okay, maybe not you, but me, because I know that God's grace always seems too good to be true.)
[Here are links to the previous installments in this series: