Genesis 42
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 42 (E (J).) Joseph’s Brethren in Egypt

1–5.    The descent into Egypt.

6–17.  The first interview with Joseph.

18–26.  The second interview.

27–38.  The return to Canaan.

The whole of this chapter, except Genesis 42:5-6 a, 27, 28, is probably from the E narrative. The dramatic interest of the story is admirably sustained. Joseph delays to disclose his identity, until by a succession of tests he has been convinced of his brethren’s honesty.

Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?
1–5. The Descent into Egypt

1. look one upon another] In silence, as if desperate. Jacob’s words indicate the energy and resourcefulness of the old man, as compared with the helpless despondency of the sons.

And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.
2. down thither] Egypt being regarded as on the low ground, in comparison with Palestine; cf. Genesis 12:10, Genesis 13:1, Genesis 43:4; Genesis 43:15, Genesis 46:3-4.

And Joseph's ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.
3. ten brethren] Jacob’s sons are here mentioned, not as heads of families, or as separate householders, but as the capable male members of a single family. The whole ten are needed, in order to carry back enough corn.

But Benjamin, Joseph's brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him.
4. mischief] See Genesis 42:38. Jacob dares not part with Benjamin, for whom, both as his youngest child and as the surviving son of Rachel, he has special affection. On this trait the whole narrative turns, cf. Genesis 42:38, Genesis 44:20; Genesis 44:30-31.

5 (? J). And the sons of Israel, &c.] “Sons of Israel,” cf. Genesis 45:21, Genesis 46:5. The verse reads like the commencement of a new section; while the words “for the famine, &c.” are not necessary after Genesis 42:1-4. The change from the name of “Jacob” (Genesis 42:1-4) to that of “Israel” is another indication that this verse is drawn from a different source of narrative from Genesis 42:1-4.

And the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came: for the famine was in the land of Canaan.
And Joseph was the governor over the land, and he it was that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph's brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him with their faces to the earth.
6–17. The first Interview with Joseph

6. governor] The late, and not very common, word here used in the Hebrew (shâlît) denotes the position of “Grand Vizier1[59]

[59]    On the “Grand Vizier” of Egypt, see Appendix E, The name of one of the Hyksos kings, Salatis, presents a resemblance to shâlît, which has been remarked upon (Budge, Hist. Eg. iii. 146, note 1).

,” “the T’ate,” or chief officer of state: see note on Genesis 41:42. It is akin to our word “Sultan,” and rendered “ruler” in Ecclesiastes 7:19; Ecclesiastes 10:5.

he it was that sold] We need not suppose that Joseph in person always conducted the business transactions; but a group of foreign purchasers would be brought into his presence to be interrogated.

bowed down themselves] Cf. Genesis 42:9. Joseph’s dreams are fulfilled: see Genesis 37:7; Genesis 37:9-10.

And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food.
7. knew them] Joseph at once recognized his brethren. They did not recognize him. From a boy he had become a man; they were grown men when they sold him, and were comparatively unaltered. He in stature, dress, hair, and ornament must have been wholly changed from the rough shepherd lad of Canaan. According to E (Genesis 41:1; Genesis 41:47) more than nine years, according to P (Genesis 37:2, Genesis 41:46) more than twenty years had elapsed, since he had been separated from his home in Canaan.

made himself strange] In order to account for Joseph’s treatment of his brethren, the two most common explanations have been that he sought (1) to prove them, and (2) to punish them. His motives were, doubtless, mixed. The welfare of his father and of his own brother is uppermost in his thoughts. As he does not see them, he doubts whether the brethren who had treated him so shamefully will have maintained any regard for the life of his aged father or his young brother. He assumes a tone of harshness which he does not feel; and suffers a vein of generous hospitality and munificence to mingle with severity in the treatment of his brethren, so as to add to their mystification and confusion.

And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.
9. Ye are spies] The pretext for this sudden accusation lies in the constant exposure of the Egyptians, on their eastern border, to raids and attacks from nomad hordes of Asiatics. Joseph’s words are therefore quite natural. LXX κατάσκοποι, Lat. exploratores.

the nakedness of the land] Referring not to the desolation produced by the famine (as Targum of Onkelos), but to the weak and unprotected parts of the frontier: so the Lat. infirmiora terrae: the LXX τὰ ἴχνη τῆς χώρας = “the tracks (?) of the country,” is perplexing. Symm. τὰ κρυπτά.

And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come.
We are all one man's sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.
11. true men] Lit. “straight,” i.e. genuine and above suspicion.

And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.
And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.
13. We … twelve brethren] In this verse, as in Genesis 42:32, it appears that Joseph’s brethren proffer this information of their own accord, in order to convince the ruler that they were simple private persons. According to J (Genesis 43:7, Genesis 44:19), Joseph extracted the information by direct questioning.

one is not] See Genesis 37:30.

And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies:
14. That is it that I spake] Joseph seems to say that their claim to be all the sons of one man is improbable and suspicious. If these suspicions are to be removed, their statements must be verified. Their statement was either the needless embroidery of a falsehood, or it was a detail of actual life that could easily be proved. Joseph’s real object is to find out about Benjamin, whether he was alive, and well treated by his brothers. It is a delicate touch in the story, that he abstains from cross questioning them about the brother that “is not.”

Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.
15. by the life of Pharaoh] An Egyptian form of oath, in the sense of “as sure as Pharaoh is alive to punish, or avenge.” Dillmann says, “the oath is very suitable here, as the Egyptians honoured their kings, ὡς πρὸς ἀλήθειαν ὄντας θεούς (Diod. i. 90),” i.e. as truly divine. The oath by the life of the king is found in an Egyptian inscription of the 20th century b.c.

Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether there be any truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye are spies.
And he put them all together into ward three days.
17. put them … into ward] i.e. “in charge, or safe keeping”; as in Genesis 40:3. Not “in prison,” as in Genesis 39:20. Joseph’s treatment sounds to us harsh and cruel. Arbitrary confinement, however, was, and is, only too common in the East. The brethren would be a prey to the sickening dread either of being brought out only to be executed, or of being prevented from returning to their homes.

Joseph himself had endured a long experience of captive life in Egypt.

And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God:
18–26. The second Interview

18. for I fear God] See notes on Genesis 20:3; Genesis 20:11, Genesis 22:12, Genesis 39:9. Cf. Leviticus 25:43; Nehemiah 5:15. Joseph reassures his brethren by representing to them that the potentate of Egypt is one who recognizes the universal Divine law of right and wrong. He fears God, who protects the stranger and the defenceless. Perhaps there is a reference to his brothers’ disregard of this fear of God in their former treatment of himself. He, in his treatment of them, has before his eyes the fear of God.

If ye be true men, let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison: go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses:
19. let one of your brethren] Joseph’s previous sentence in Genesis 42:16, by which one brother should be sent back, while the remainder should be kept in prison, is here reversed. The three days’ interval had moderated Joseph’s threat and his first appearance of indignation. The change to a more generous treatment is part of his whole policy: see note on Genesis 42:6.

But bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die. And they did so.
And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.
21. We are verily guilty] The words of Joseph’s brethren represent the vitality of conscience after a long interval of years. They have the traditional belief that calamity will overtake the guilty. Cf. the words of Elihu, Job 36:6-14.

his soul] See note on Genesis 12:13. Cf. Genesis 27:4; Genesis 27:25.

this distress] The same word is used by them to denote their present state of trouble and Joseph’s former agony of mind, when they threw him into the cistern to die. It is the law of retaliation, “distress” for “distress,” cf. Exodus 21:24. Joseph’s treatment works well; cf. Isaiah 26:16; Hosea 5:15.

And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required.
22. And Reuben answered] See Genesis 37:21-22. Reuben, according to E, believed Joseph to have been killed (Genesis 37:30), and had no knowledge of his being “kidnapped.” He can appeal to good intentions, but not to courageous action.

his blood is required] For this phrase see note on Genesis 9:5. Cf. 2 Chronicles 24:22. His disappearance meant to his brethren his death. Reuben’s interference had prevented them from shedding Joseph’s blood (Genesis 37:22), but they were morally guilty of his life.

And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter.
23. an interpreter] The services of interpreters would be necessary for the maintenance of intercourse between Egyptian rulers and the inhabitants of Canaan. The Tel el-Amarna tablets shew that between the kings of Canaanite cities and the court of Egypt, communications were carried on in the Assyrian language, as a kind of lingua franca. For other examples in the O.T., illustrating difficulties of communication between nationalities speaking different languages, see 2 Kings 18:26; Ezra 4:7.

And he turned himself about from them, and wept; and returned to them again, and communed with them, and took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes.
24. wept] Cf. Genesis 43:30. Joseph’s feelings are deeply stirred by overhearing words that indicate his brethren’s contrition for their inhuman conduct towards himself.

Simeon] Simeon was selected to be retained in prison as the next oldest after Reuben. Reuben may have been spared, either for his previous kindness, or because, as the eldest, he would be responsible for carrying the report to Jacob. That Simeon was also the most cruel is an inference from Genesis 34:25 and Genesis 49:5-7, taken in conjunction with the present passage. The retention of Simeon provided a pledge tor the return of the others; which otherwise might be rendered improbable through fear of further harshness from “the lord of the land.” The return of their money and the gift of “provision” are meant also to stir their feelings.

Then Joseph commanded to fill their sacks with corn, and to restore every man's money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way: and thus did he unto them.
And they laded their asses with the corn, and departed thence.
And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the inn, he espied his money; for, behold, it was in his sack's mouth.
27–38. The Return to Canaan

27. one of them] Anticipating Genesis 42:35. Lit. “the one,” i.e. the others followed. This verse and Genesis 42:28 are from J, according to which the money is found in the sacks at their first lodging place; see Genesis 43:21. According to E, the money is found in their sacks, when they reach their home (see Genesis 42:35). A word for “sack,” ’amtâhath, a very unusual one, occurs twice in Genesis 42:27 (end), 28, and thirteen times in chs. 43, 44 (J), but not in Genesis 42:35 or elsewhere in the O.T.

the lodging place] i.e. “the shelter,” or wayside quarters, where they could rest during the night. Cf. Exodus 4:24; Jeremiah 9:2. There is, perhaps, scarcely sufficient warrant for us to assume that this was a khan, or road-side inn. Such places hardly existed. A rough shelter, a meagre encampment of black tents, with a scanty protection of a few sticks, brushwood, and blankets, behind which the men and asses would rest, is perhaps all that is meant.

And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, it is even in my sack: and their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, What is this that God hath done unto us?
28. their heart failed them] J’s account, as we see in Genesis 43:21, must originally have represented the opening of all the sacks, and the finding of all the money, at the “lodging place.” As, however, in E this general discovery is not made until their return to their father, J’s narrative is here restricted to the experience of one of the brethren, and to the consternation it produced amongst them.

God hath done] They are conscious (1) that the thing is mysterious; (2) that they might be accused of robbery; (3) that their secret guiltiness is somehow being visited by a Power which knew all.

And they came unto Jacob their father unto the land of Canaan, and told him all that befell unto them; saying,
The man, who is the lord of the land, spake roughly to us, and took us for spies of the country.
30. took us for spies] Lit. “put us as spies.” Probably the words “in ward” should be supplied, as LXX ἔθετο ἡμᾶς ἐν φυλακῇ; the Lat. putavit nos renders as the English versions.

And we said unto him, We are true men; we are no spies:
We be twelve brethren, sons of our father; one is not, and the youngest is this day with our father in the land of Canaan.
And the man, the lord of the country, said unto us, Hereby shall I know that ye are true men; leave one of your brethren here with me, and take food for the famine of your households, and be gone:
33. corn for the famine of your houses] The expression “take the famine of your houses” is so strange, that probably the word for “corn” is to be supplied, as in the parallel passage in Genesis 42:19. It is supplied in the versions, LXX, Syr. Pesh. and Targ. Onk.: LXX τὸν δὲ ἀγορασμὸν τῆς σιτοδοσίας τοῦ οἴκου ὑμῶν = “the purchase of food for your house”; Lat. cibaria domibus vestris necessaria.

And bring your youngest brother unto me: then shall I know that ye are no spies, but that ye are true men: so will I deliver you your brother, and ye shall traffick in the land.
34. shall traffick in the land] The Vulg. paraphrases ac deinceps quae vultis emendi habeatis licentiam.

And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man's bundle of money was in his sack: and when both they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid.
35. And it came to pass, &c.] This verse, interposed between the brethren’s report and their father’s reply, seems to emphasize the difficulty of their position; the money has been returned, and Simeon is a prisoner.

And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away: all these things are against me.
36. have ye bereaved] Jacob, in his distress of mind, accuses his sons of being the cause of the loss, first of Joseph, and then of Simeon. Unwittingly he enforces the reproaches of their own conscience.

against me] or, as R.V. marg., upon. Cf. Genesis 16:5, Genesis 27:12. Jacob is the sufferer. The Heb. preposition admits of either rendering. Cf. Lat. in me haec omnia mala reciderunt; LXX ἐπʼ ἐμὲ ἐγένετο ταῦτα πάντα.

And Reuben spake unto his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to thee again.
37. Reuben] Reuben is here again prominent; cf. Genesis 42:22. His words, offering his two sons as a pledge for the safe return of Benjamin, imply that a second journey to Egypt is regarded as a necessity and as a peril. Notice that here Reuben has two sons; in Genesis 46:9 (P) four are mentioned.

Reuben here, as elsewhere in the E narrative, acts as leader; in the J narrative, it is Judah who makes a similar offer (Genesis 43:2). Reuben acknowledges the patriarchal authority of the head of the family over the lives of his children. Cf. Genesis 31:32.

And he said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.
38. he only is left] i.e. of the sons of Rachel.

mischief] Cf. Genesis 42:4; Exodus 21:22-23.

bring down my gray hairs, &c.] See note on Genesis 37:35; cf. Genesis 44:31. Jacob’s prediction in these passages is probably intended to heighten the contrast presented by the dignity and happiness of his end as recorded in chaps. 48–50.

the grave] Heb. Sheol. See ch. Genesis 37:35.

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