Testing Joseph’s brothers—Genesis 44:14-17

Joseph’s steward detains Benjamin for allegedly stealing Joseph’s silver cup, but permits Joseph’s other brothers to go their way. Instead, they accompany Benjamin as he is escorted back, undoubtedly under guard, to stand before Joseph (Gen 44:13). That Joseph still remained at home (44:14) might surprise the brothers, since work often began at sunrise and Joseph was supervising the distribution of grain (presumably at the moment through subordinates). One who has been hearing or reading Genesis, however, will not be surprised: Joseph undoubtedly plans to allay Benjamin’s fears by revealing himself to Benjamin as soon as possible. Perhaps he might also reveal himself to his other brothers—if they prove trustworthy.

The brothers all prostrate themselves before Joseph, united in their commitment to Benjamin (44:14). Joseph accuses them all (the verb implying “you” is plural in 44:15), although after he hears that only one had the cup (44:16) he insists that he will punish only the one who had the cup (44:17). For the reader or hearer of Genesis, the dialogue drips with irony. Refusing to detain any of the brothers besides Benjamin, Joseph protests, “Far be it from me,” insisting on acting justly (44:17). On the narratorial level, however, this protest may echo the brothers’ protest that they would never have stolen the vizier’s divination cup (44:7); these are two of Genesis’s only three uses of that term of protest. Ironically, it is precisely most of these brothers who years earlier did commit a worse crime than stealing a silver cup; in return for silver, they had stolen their brother (in Hebrew, to “kidnap” is literally to “steal,” as in 40:15; or to “steal a person” or “a life,” as in Exod 21:16; Deut 24:7).

In Gen 44:15 Joseph demands, “What is this deed you have done?”; now in 44:17 he contrasts their misdeed with his justice, since he would not “do” this, using the same Hebrew term. He would send them away “in peace” (44:17), just as he had expressed interest in their peace (43:27; cf. earlier 37:14, with the same Hebrew term). The attentive audience of Genesis may recall that Joseph’s brothers had once refused to even speak with him in peace (37:4, again, the same term).

Joseph, then, will seize only Benjamin. The brothers will not likely mistake this seizure for a trap of Joseph’s design, since this official declines the greater opportunity to enslave them all. Rather than return to their father without Benjamin, however, they would rather support Benjamin as his fellow-slaves (44:16; cf. 44:9). Joseph’s continued insistence on enslaving Benjamin (44:17) reveals to Genesis’s audience that, as far as Joseph is concerned, the test is not yet complete.

Trust, once betrayed, is not easily restored—at least not cheaply. Sin has consequences. Nevertheless, God also often has a plan for restoration.

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