Studying Genesis 45 1-15

We’re studying Genesis 45:1-15 for Sunday, September 27: the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers that we’ve been following for the past three weeks. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are some notes on this text:
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BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve been following the unfolding of the story of Joseph from the time of his prescient dreams, his brothers’ betrayal which sends him to Egypt as a slave, and the plot twists that land him as the vizier of the land during an international famine, a famine that brings his brothers to Egypt seeking food and afford Joseph an opportunity to hold brother Simeon hostage unless the brothers bring his brother Benjamin back to Egypt with them. [Some notes on the texts here, here, and here.]

Between last week’s episode and this one, the brothers have returned to Canaan; their father Jacob has resisted sending Benjamin to Egypt, but has finally relented out of desperation, and has sent his remaining sons back to Egypt for food, with Benjamin in the personally-responsible care of brother Judah. Jacob has also insisted that the brothers “take some of the choice products of the land” with them as gifts for the vizier, including food – honey and nuts, the ingredients for baklava, among others. One does wonder where they got all this party food in the middle of this famine.

At first everything seems to go smoothly from the brothers’ point of view; the Egyptian official receives them warmly and even invites them to have dinner with him. But at the beginning of Genesis 44, as the brothers start out on the return trip to Canaan, the real nightmare begins: they’re chased down by the ancient Egyptian equivalent of the police, and accused of the theft of a silver cup. The contraband shows up in Benjamin’s grain sack – of course, since Joseph had ordered it put there to begin with. Back they all go, and Judah delivers an impassioned speech begging that Benjamin be allowed to return to Canaan, and offering himself as a slave or prisoner in Benjamin’s place. The echo of that speech is just dying away as our text for this week begins.

Commentators point out that the story up to this point has some elements that might remind us of Jacob’s flight from Laban’s household back in Genesis 31, when Rachel had, in fact, stolen some ritual objects from her father’s house. There are also important reversals or echoes of earlier scenes in this story. The stolen silver cup balances the 20 pieces of silver the brothers received for selling Joseph; Judah, the mastermind of the sale, now offers to become a slave himself; Joseph’s elaborate machinations seem to be a test of his brothers’ character, giving them an opportunity to sacrifice Benjamin in much the way they sacrificed Joseph twenty-odd years before. What will they do this time?

This part of the story shows up in the lectionary on two separate occasions, once as the Old Testament reading for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost Year A – that is, a few weeks ago – and again as the Old Testament reading for the 7th Sunday after Epiphany Year C. Frequent churchgoers are likely to have heard it as a preaching text at least once or twice.
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CLOSER READING: Joseph himself is the focal figure of these verses. God, however, appears emphatically as the author of the plot (vv5-9).

The narrative positions Joseph initially as an isolated figure. In verse one, the Egyptians “who stood by him” are whisked offstage; he stands alone. In verse 4 we learn that his brothers are standing at some distance, as well, since he urges them to “come near” – which they do, at this point presumably because they are shaking in their shoes and don’t dare disobey his imperatives.

Then, over the course of these verses, isolation gives way to intimacy. At the end of the episode, he and his brother Benjamin are hugging each other and crying and the other brothers also become the objects of kissing and anointing with tears.

Joseph is loud. His cries and weeping are heard by everyone in the Pharaoh’s household. By contrast, his brothers are silent, presumably due to terror (v3), and don’t say a word until verse 15 – after they’ve been kissed and wept upon by Joseph. All the words in this scene are Joseph’s.

Joseph’s speech includes two statements of his identity: “I am Joseph” and then, more emphatically, “I am your brother Joseph.” The others need to be told this, since they haven’t recognized him until now.

The speech includes five assertions that Joseph’s being in Egypt and rising to his current high position was an act of God’s sending and making, for the purpose of saving life. In particular a “remnant” (v7), by means of a great deliverance. While staying alive over the next five years of famine will be a great deliverance in its own right, we may also sense some foreshadowing here. The events of this story will position Israel to be dramatically delivered by God from Egypt several hundred years from now.

God, by the way, is Elohim here, in each case.

Joseph invokes God’s agency as a reason for his brothers not to reproach themselves (v5) – or fear Joseph, it seems – for their past evil.

Joseph also mentions “my father” four times during his speech, first asking whether he is still alive, then instructing the brothers to fetch him without delay, and tell him everything they’ve seen of Joseph’s current high position. Joseph himself is a father, to Pharaoh (v8).

Ultimately, Joseph appeals to what’s “right before your eyes” as evidence; the brothers can see that everything he’s been saying came from his own mouth – by implication, in their own language, not through an interpreter.

The whole thing is like a dream. But as we’ve already seen in this story, more than once, the dreams in this story are entirely real, and come from God.
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