Genesis 42:23
And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
Genesis 42:23. He spake by an interpreter — Joseph’s pretending not to understand their language was a wise piece of art, as by that means he discovered their real sentiments, as it appears they spoke to one another in their own language without reserve before him, probably when the interpreter was gone forth.

42:21-24 The office of conscience is to bring to mind things long since said and done. When the guilt of this sin of Joseph's brethren was fresh, they made light of it, and sat down to eat bread; but now, long afterward, their consciences accused them of it. See the good of afflictions; they often prove the happy means of awakening conscience, and bringing sin to our remembrance. Also, the evil of guilt as to our brethren. Conscience now reproached them for it. Whenever we think we have wrong done us, we ought to remember the wrong we have done to others. Reuben alone remembered with comfort, that he had done what he could to prevent the mischief. When we share with others in their sufferings, it will be a comfort if we have the testimony of our consciences for us, that we did not share in their evil deeds, but in our places witnessed against them. Joseph retired to weep. Though his reason directed that he should still carry himself as a stranger, because they were not as yet humbled enough, yet natural affection could not but work.After three days, Joseph reverses the numbers, allowing nine to return home, and retaining one. "This do and live." Joseph, notwithstanding the arbitrary power which his office enabled him to exercise, proves himself to be free from caprice and unnecessary severity. He affords them a fair opportunity of proving their words true, before putting them to death on suspicion of espionage. "The God do I fear." A singular sentence from the lord paramount of Egypt! It implies that the true God was not yet unknown in Egypt. We have heard the confession of this great truth already from the lips of Pharaoh Genesis 41:38-39. But it intimates to the brothers the astonishing and hopeful fact that the grand vizier serves the same great Being whom they and their fathers have known and worshipped; and gives them a plain hint that they will be dealt with according to the just law of heaven.

"Carry grain for your houses." The governor then is touched with some feeling for their famishing households. The brothers, though honoring their aged father as the patriarch of their race, had now their separate establishments. Twelve households had to be supplied with bread. The journey to Egypt was not to be undertaken more than once a year if possible, as the distance from Hebron was upwards of two hundred miles. Hence, the ten brothers had with them all their available beasts of burden, with the needful retinue of servants. We need not be surprised that these are not especially enumerated, as it is the manner of Scripture to leave the secondary matters to the intelligence and experience of the reader, unless, as in the case of Abraham's three hundred and eighteen trained servants, they happen to be of essential moment in the process of events. "Your youngest brother." Joseph longs to see his full brother alive, whom he left at home a child of four summers. "Verily guilty are we concerning our brother."

Their affliction is beginning to bear the fruit of repentance. "Because we saw the distress of his soul when he besought us, and we would not hear." How vividly is the scene of Joseph's sale here brought before us. It now appears that he besought them to spare him, and they would not hear! "This distress." Retribution has come at last. "His blood is required." Reuben justly upbraids them with their hardness of heart. Their brother's blood is required; for murder was intended, and when he was sold his death was pretended. "The interpreter was betwixt them." The dragoman was employed in holding conversation with them. But Joseph heard the spontaneous expressions of remorse, coming unprompted from their lips. The fountain of affection is deeply stirred. He cannot repress the rising tear. He has to retire for a time to recover his composure. He now takes, not Reuben, who was not to blame, but Simon, the next oldest, and binds him before them: a speaking act. He then gives orders to supply them with corn (grain), deposit their money in their sacks without their knowledge, and furnish them with provision for the way. Joseph feels, perhaps, that he cannot take money from his father. He will pay for the corn out of his own funds. But he cannot openly return the money to his brothers without more explanation than he wishes at present to give.

17-24. put them … into ward three days—Their confinement had been designed to bring them to salutary reflection. And this object was attained, for they looked upon the retributive justice of God as now pursuing them in that foreign land. The drift of their conversation is one of the most striking instances on record of the power of conscience [Ge 42:21, 22]. No text from Poole on this verse.

And they knew not that Joseph understood them,.... For what is above related they spoke in his presence and hearing; but speaking to one another in the Hebrew language, and he being an Egyptian, as they took him to be, they did not imagine that he could understand them, and therefore were not at all upon their guard in what they said: and what confirmed them in this was:

for he spake unto them by an interpreter; which he the rather chose to do, that they might have no suspicion of him; and which shows, that though there was a likeness between the Hebrew language and the Egyptian in many things, yet in some they differed, and the difference was such that there was need of an interpreter, where the parties did not understand both languages: this interpreter between Joseph and his brethren, according to the Targums of Jonathan and Jerusalem, was Manasseh, the eldest son of Joseph, and so Jarchi; which is very improbable, he being but a child at this time, if not an infant; see Genesis 41:50.

And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spake unto them by an interpreter.
EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
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.

Verse 23. - And they knew not (while they talked in what they imagined to be a foreign dialect to the Egyptian viceroy) that Joseph understood them; - literally, heard (so as to understand what was said) - for he spake unto them by an interpreter - literally, for the interpreter. (חַמְּלִיצ, the hiph. part., with the art., of לוּצ, to speak barbarously, in the hiph. to act as an interpreter), i.e. the official Court interpreter, ἑρμηνευτής (LXX.), was between them. Genesis 42:23On the third day Joseph modified his severity. "This do and live," i.e., then ye shall live: "I fear God." One shall remain in prison, but let the rest of you take home "corn for the famine of your families," and fetch your youngest brother, that your words may be verified, and ye may not die, i.e., may not suffer the death that spies deserve. That he might not present the appearance of despotic caprice and tyranny by too great severity, and so render his brethren obdurate, Joseph stated as the reason for his new decision, that he feared God. From the fear of God, he, the lord of Egypt, would not punish or slay these strangers upon mere suspicion, but would judge them justly. How differently had they acted towards their brother! The ruler of all Egypt had compassion on their families who were in Canaan suffering from hunger; but they had intended to leave their brother in the pit to starve! These and similar thoughts could hardly fail to pass involuntarily through their minds at Joseph's words, and to lead them to a penitential acknowledgement of their sin and unrighteousness. The notion that Joseph altered his first intention merely from regard to his much afflicted father, appears improbable, for the simple reason, that he can only have given utterance to the threat that he should keep them all in prison till one of them had gone and fetched Benjamin, for the purpose of giving the greater force to his accusation, that they were spies. But as he was not serious in making this charge, he could not for a moment have thought of actually carrying out the threat. "And they did so:" in these words the writer anticipates the result of the colloquy which ensued, and which is more fully narrated afterwards. Joseph's intention was fulfilled. The brothers now saw in what had happened to them a divine retribution: "Surely we atone because of our brother, whose anguish of soul we saw, when he entreated us and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us." And Reuben reminded them how he had warned them to no purpose, not to sin against the boy - "and even his blood...behold it is required" (cf. Genesis 9:5); i.e., not merely the sin of casting him into the pit and then selling him, but his death also, of which we have been guilty through that sale. Thus they accused themselves in Joseph's presence, not knowing that he could understand; "for the interpreter was between them." Joseph had conversed with them through an interpreter, as an Egyptian who was ignorant of their language. "The interpreter," viz., the one appointed for that purpose; בּינות like Genesis 26:28. But Joseph understood their words, and "turned away and wept" (Genesis 42:24), with inward emotion at the wonderful leadings of divine grace, and at the change in his brothers' feelings. He then turned to them again, and, continuing the conversation with them, had Simeon bound before their eyes, to be detained as a hostage (not Reuben, who had dissuaded them from killing Joseph, and had taken no part in the sale, but Simeon, the next in age). He then ordered his men to fill their sacks with corn, to give every one (אישׁ as in Genesis 15:10) his money back in his sack, and to provide them with food for the journey.
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