Studying Genesis 42 6-25

We are studying Genesis 42:6-25 for Sunday, September 20. This is Joseph’s first meeting with his brothers, now that the tables are turned, and they have come to Egypt to buy food for their famished family. A food supply which Joseph controls. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This is the continuation of the story we have been studying for the past two weeks (notes here and here), the story of “Joseph and his brothers.” Our story picks up after a few verses at the beginning of chapter 42, where Jacob commissions the brothers to go to Egypt to buy grain, and pointedly keeps Benjamin home with him because he “feared that harm might come to him.” After what happened to Joseph when the brothers were all together and out of sight, can we blame him?

Our text focuses on the dramatic encounter of Joseph with his brothers – in which Joseph recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him. This asymmetry allows Joseph to terrorize them a bit, set some stringent conditions for the exchange of grain for money, hold one of the brothers [Simeon] hostage, demand to see Benjamin, and set them up for some additional terror when they arrive back in Canaan.

The rest of chapter 42 tells the tale of the brothers’ return to Canaan, their explanation of the situation to Jacob, their discovery of their money in their grain sacks [“Woe is us!! How are we going to explain this??”], and Jacob’s lament – and argument with Reuben.

There’s more drama to come, before the final dénouement and the happy ending – for a while. But we’ll have to get to that next week.

If we were reading the lectionary version of this story, we’d just skip this part. [In other words: it’s another one of those things you won’t know is in the Bible if all you know is the lectionary. I keep mentioning this because I think it matters.]
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CLOSER READING: In v6, the story explicitly positions Joseph as the chief grain negotiator. So, Joseph’s brothers have to come and bow before him. We readers probably now remember those significant dreams from chapter 37; we’re a bit ahead of Joseph himself, who doesn’t remember those dreams until verse 9, and several chapters ahead of the other brothers.

Verse 7 does something linguistically that only Hebrew can do. Joseph recognizes his brothers, but “treats them like strangers” or acts like he doesn’t recognize them. In Hebrew, this is the same root verb, in two different “stems” – that is, verb forms that communicate modifications of the root’s meaning. So it’s a neat little piece of composition.

It’s also the introduction to an elaborate charade on Joseph’s part, which will go on for a good while. We could think about what Joseph is trying to do with this charade … teach the brothers a lesson? Get them back? Buy himself some time to figure out what he really wants to do?

It makes for a good story, whatever Joseph’s motive.

The brothers illustrate with their defensive volunteering of personal data why volunteering personal data is not a particularly astute negotiating strategy. Now “the man” has information he can use as leverage.

The rabbis point out, too, that the brothers are unwittingly prophets in v11, when they say “we are all the sons of one man” – as that “we” includes the 10, and Joseph, whom they don’t yet recognize.

It’s ironic, perhaps, that they describe themselves as “honest” (true, right) men, the implication being “what you see is what you get.” Because while they are NOT spies, neither are they telling the truth about one of the brothers being “no more,” (v13) or about their long-buried family secret.

It may be interesting that Joseph initially emphasizes his seriousness by swearing on Pharaoh’s life (vv15, 16), but then switches to emphasizing his fear of God (v18). The test he sets up is explicitly a matter of life and death, which features imprisonment and a hostage rather than death – a deal that has some elements of similarity with the deal the brothers struck over Joseph back in chapter 37.

The brothers seem to see this, since they read their current plight as payback for their cruelty to Joseph (v21).

Reuben has to say I told you so (v22). Being the eldest, he may not be able to help it. [I can relate.]

Again ironically, while they ignored Joseph’s anguish then (v21), they also fail to see Joseph’s anguish now (v23-24).

Joseph picks Simeon out to be the hostage; the group doesn’t seem to volunteer him. Why Simeon? Possibly because Joseph knows he’s one of the more blood-thirsty of his brothers. According to the rabbis, it’s because he wants to separate him from Levi, so those two don’t cook up another murderous plot, this time against the “Egyptian” governor. Chapter 34 casts a long shadow.

Joseph’s behavior in v25 would be gracious and generous – under other circumstances. In this context, it feels ominous – like the bank making an error in your favor. That never happens. You certainly can’t afford to treat it as a windfall. You just hope you won’t have to repay it with interest.

The word brother(s) appears in the narrative nine times in our verses; of course, the story has to call them something, and “brothers” is the obvious choice, but still, it highlights the fact that this is above all a family story. In verse 22, however, Reuben refers to the Joseph of the past as “the boy,” a word that typically means someone young. It’s a tender term, and it might hint at how time has shifted Reuben’s perspective on the event.

When you are the eldest, and are supposed to be taking care of the baby, and you fail that badly …
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