If your High School days were anything like mine, you probably spent a good deal of time fantasizing about some future scenario in which you’ve somehow become wildly successful. Perhaps you’re a movie star, or you suddenly discover that you have magic powers, or you invent some new operating system that makes you a billionaire several times over. The method is unimportant – what matters is that you get to come back to your school and see all the people who used to treat you badly grovel at your feet.
Genesis 42 marks the beginning of some Jewish scribe’s High School fantasy.
Back in Canaan
Canaan is suffering the same starvation that is afflicting the rest of the world, and Jacob (who isn’t called Israel a single time in this whole chapter, despite Genesis 35:10) finds out that there’s food over in Egypt. He sends ten of his sons over to buy some grain, withholding Benjamin, fearing “that harm might befall him” (Gen. 42:4). We can let it slide this time since Benjy is the baby of the family.
But the rest of the boys pack up and head off to Egypt to buy grain.
Confrontation in Egypt
This is where the High School fantasy begins. The brothers arrive in Egypt and come to the governor (who, for some reason, appears to be overseeing all cases of grain exchange for a country in which everyone in the whole world is coming for grain). They prostrate themselves, not knowing that the governor is actually Joseph and that they are unwittingly fulfilling his dream/prophecy.
By this time, Joseph has learned to speak Egyptian and he’s using a translator to talk to his brothers. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. It’s all very Shakespearian in its silliness.
The brothers explain that they want to buy grain for their family back in Canaan, but Joseph keeps insisting that they’re actually spies come to Egypt to scope out any weaknesses (a legitimate concern, says my study bible, for the Egyptian frontier faced Canaan and was vulnerable to attack). The brothers insist that they are just there to buy grain. Joseph insists that they are spies. This argument continues for longer than is rhetorically necessary.
To prove that they aren’t in fact spies, the brothers explain that they are on a mission for their father and that they are ten of twelve sons. One son remained with dad and one son has died. Joseph holds Simeon hostage and sends the rest of the brothers back to get Benjamin. Bringing Benjamin would confirm their story. I’m really not sure how this would work – why would someone lie about having a brother? Couldn’t they just as easily be ten spies with a brother at home as ten traders with a brother at home?
But the brothers really aren’t in a position to contradict Joseph.
Here’s where it gets rather quirky. The brothers see some similarities between selling their one sibling to the Egyptians and leaving their second sibling as a hostage with the self-same people. They talk amongst themselves about this, wondering if this is punishment for their behaviour towards Joseph all those years ago. Reuben, who had nay-sayed at the time, takes the opportunity to land an “I told you so.” Unbeknownst to them, the Egyptian governor is Joseph and can understand their Hebrew perfectly.
The brothers return to Canaan
Joseph sells the grain to the brothers and sends them on their way, along with provisions for their journey and, secretly, all the money they had come with for grain-buying.
On the way home, one of the brothers opens a sack of grain to feed his ass (*immature giggle*) and finds his money bag intact. He tells the others and “at this their hearts failed them” (Gen. 42:28).
When they get to Canaan, they get to tell their father some bad news for a second time. The penning scribe, in all his rhetorical wisdom, chooses at this point to quote the brothers explaining the whole situation to their father. Had I been an editor at the time, I could have easily whittled this door-stop of a book down to a fraction of its current size. Just saying.
“As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed” (Gen. 42:35). Yeah, except that this already happened in Genesis 42:37-38. So did it happen at a lodging place during travel, or did it happen once they get home?
Jacob gets pretty upset that he’s lost Joseph and then Simeon and now may lost Benjamin as well. Reuben tries to convince him to take Joseph at his word, offering the lives of his own two sons if he should fail to return Simeon and Benjamin (Gen. 42:37). One might argue that his sons’ lives are not his to bargain with, but that would be a decidedly un-Biblical view.
But even the prospect of possibly slaying two children isn’t enough to entice Jacob. “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he only is left” (Gen. 42:38). To which his ten other sons surely respond: “What are we? Chop suey?”