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Genesis: Joseph Deceives His Brothers

This lesson is a part of an audio course Why Read Genesis by Robert Garland

It just so happens that Joseph's prison-mates include Pharaoh's baker and chief butler. And now dreams, which were his undoing before, come to his rescue. Each has a dream and they don't know what it means. So Joseph says to them, Aren't dreams sent by God, and politely requests that they describe their dreams to him. Joseph tells the chief butler that his dream means he will be restored to his former position, whereas the baker's dream means he will be executed.

"Please put in a good word for me to Pharaoh," Joseph says to the chief butler. "I'm entirely innocent."

Joseph's interpretation of the two dreams turns out to be spot on. The butler gets his old job back, whereas the baker is hanged.

The chief butler forgets all about Joseph, however, and that might have been that, were it not for the fact that the Lord was with Joseph, as we've seen. The poor fellow languishes in prison for two more years until the moment comes when Pharaoh has two dreams. His dreams trouble him and it is now – finally – that his chief butler recalls the Hebrew guy who interpreted his dream correctly. Pharaoh hurriedly sends for Joseph, but before he's brought before him, he gets all spruced up by having his hair shaven and being provided with some decent clothes. Notice once again the importance of clothes – they keep marking important shifts in the narrative.

Pharaoh recounts his dreams to Joseph, who tells him that they mean that there are going to be seven good years of harvest followed by seven bad, so he should stockpile for the bad years because it's all fixed by God, and he should also, while he's about it, choose someone who is discerning and wise "and set him over the land of Egypt." And who might that discerning and wise person be, do you think? Well, Pharaoh hums and ha's, but he can't find anyone better than Joseph so at the age of 30 Joseph becomes a senior administrator, in fact the senior administrator, in the whole of Egypt.

Moreover, the lean years aren't limited to Egypt. They affect the entire Middle East, including Canaan. Chapter 41 ends with the statement: "All the countries came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was so harsh everywhere."

There's now a scene change and we're back in Canaan with Jacob and his sons. Jacob tells them to go and buy grain in Egypt because otherwise they'll all starve. So ten of them set off. He keeps back his youngest, Benjamin, for fear something might happen to him. And when they appear before Joseph, they all bow – thus fulfilling his dream at age 17. He recognises them but they don't recognize him no doubt because he has a shaved head, speaks Egyptian, etc. He presumably picked up Egyptian in prison and at this point he's clearly bi-cultural. He immediately accuses them of being spies and throws them in prison, just as they threw him in the pit, and orders one of them to go and fetch Benjamin. Then after three days, he relents and says, Only one of you has to stay here. The rest of you can depart with the grain, but you still have to bring your youngest brother back because otherwise the brother who stays behind will die.

The brothers now begin to feel remorse for what they did to Joseph, whereupon Reuben, who, as we've seen already, has a conscience, says I told you so. This is what you get for behaving badly. What they don't know is that Joseph understands what they're saying because they're speaking through an interpreter. He's very moved and he turns away and weeps. It won't be the last time he weeps. The brothers leave Simeon behind, Joseph orders their sacks to be filled with grain, and off they go.

On the way back to Canaan, however, one of them discovers that money has been placed in his sack. "What has God done to us?" they all ask. Suddenly they've all become very religious. When they return home, they tell their father all that "the man, the lord of the country" as they call Joseph, did. Then they all open their sacks and discover that the money they paid for the grain has been placed back in all their sacks. And now they're super afraid. Whereupon Jacob has a meltdown. "I've lost Joseph, and now Simeon, and I'm about to lose Benjamin," he moans. And this is where Reuben again shows some moral character. "Slay my two sons, if I don't bring Benjamin back alive," he tells his father.

After all the grain has been devoured, once again Jacob tells his sons to journey to Egypt. This time, however, Judah intervenes. He tells his father they have to take Benjamin with them. If they don't "the man" won't give them any grain. He adds, "I'll hold myself accountable. If I don't bring him back, I'll bear the blame forever." This is the new Judah – the Judah who has accepted blame for what he did to Tamar.

Again the brothers set off, this time with enough to pay double the price of the grain, plus with a present for "the man" – local goodies – balm, honey, nuts, myrrh, almonds, spices, etc., plus the money they found in their sacks. Joseph receives them most hospitably. He tells them he got their money the first time so God must have put the other money in the sacks. They do a lot of bowing and scraping, and then, when they introduce Benjamin to him, Joseph is overcome with emotion and has to rush out of the room to weep.

He sets a meal before them but he doesn't eat with them because it was forbidden for Egyptians to eat with Hebrews as Genesis tells us – so once again the brothers eat without Joseph, as they did at the pit.

When they're about to depart, however, Joseph plays the same trick as before. Again their money is placed in their sacks but this time he also places a silver cup in Benjamin's sack. And then he sends his steward after them and the steward charges them with theft, examines all the sacks, finds all the money and the cup in Benjamin's sack. Whereupon the brothers now tear their clothes. So now the clothes motif is reversed: instead of Joseph being deprived of his clothes, his brothers voluntarily shed theirs.

They're brought before him again, and this time they don't just bow but they prostrate themselves. Joseph appears to be angry and again Judah takes the lead. He admits their collective guilt and says we're now your slaves. No, says Joseph, only Benjamin will be my slave.

Judah now "came near to Joseph" – notice that detail – and delivers a very long speech s. He explains the sad situation of their father – in fact he uses the word "father" no fewer than eleven times. He also makes reference to the fact that one of his sons – Joseph of course – was torn to pieces. Judah's whole point is to get Joseph to accept him as a slave instead of Benjamin.

"How can I return to my father without the lad?" Judah demands. "I couldn't bear to see the suffering that would afflict my father."

What a profound psychological change Judah has undergone!

In the next lesson we'll discuss Joseph's response.

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Written by

Robert Garland