Read Genesis 44:1–17
There were some tense moments for Israel’s sons as their shopping trip for food had begun, especially when Joseph’s steward directed them to Joseph’s house. They feared the worst, proclaimed their innocence, showed him the money, and offered the gifts. Lots of bowing did not hurt their cause either. But in the end, Joseph hosts his brothers and some Egyptians at a feast. The tensions melt away as food is consumed and drink is imbibed. Everyone is left feeling really good as evening falls, and the brothers then sleep, intending to return home in the morning.
Joseph plans to trap his brothers (44:1–5)
Joseph works together with his own steward in order to set up this “sting operation.” This is not quite the same thing as entrapment, in which a person will be tempted to commit a crime. Rather, Joseph wants a situation to be set up that will extend his test of his brothers. They have claimed to be innocent men, and he has overheard the brief discussion they had about guilt (Gen. 42:21,22). They have talked a good line: do they walk the same good line? Joseph’s plan will serve to uncover what is really going on in their hearts.
Joseph tells his steward to fill their grain sacks generously (“as much food as they can carry”). He will appear good beyond expectations. But into the sacks will go their money (again!), and his own silver cup will go into Benjamin’s sack. The beloved son of father Israel either will be the object of the brothers’ protection, or, he will be another brother abandoned to his fate in Egypt. Which will it be? Time will tell. Joseph is testing them.
The brothers had partied with Joseph the day before, and the night of sleep now has passed. The donkeys are loaded with grain, and they set out on the way home. We can only imagine that the men must have felt great relief and even joy for the most recent events. Consider this: the harsh ruler who controlled the grain had released Simeon and even hosted them at a feast. He had acted so kindly to Benjamin, the young brother concerning whom all in the family had worried. Obviously this harsh ruler has softened toward these men from Canaan, and their actions had proven that they were innocent men, honest men. Taking Benjamin along, although a gamble (humanly speaking), had paid off. The donkeys were loaded down with grain for the household in Canaan. Father Israel would see all of his living sons again (Simeon and Benjamin included), and there was plenty of groceries as well. Does it get better than this?
However, this delightfully pleasant picture will end very soon. Joseph is scripting the events as they unfold; he knows what he is doing. Probably the evening before, Joseph’s steward is given his lines with which to confront the men. They are to be accused of stealing a very personal item that Joseph uses, his silver cup. This theft is described as repaying good with evil. The master of the steward has shown such great kindness and hospitality to these foreigner visitors, and now look what they have done: stolen this special cup! It is ironic that the brothers had earlier sold Joseph to the Midianite merchants for silver. Now they will be accused of stealing silver in the form of a cup. Some scholars think that this silver cup was no small object, perhaps something approaching the size of a punch-bowl (see Currid, Genesis, 11:310).
The term “divination” is used in verse 5. Some pagan cultures would read omens by pouring water and oil into such sacred cups (bowls) and then studying how the liquids flowed or mixed together. This is something on the order of reading animal entrails or watching the flight of birds. Stealing such an object was viewed as a very serious crime, the penalty for which could be either death or being reduced to a slave. It is most likely that Joseph is playing a role here and not actually one who used such divination.
Joseph’s steward “finds” the silver cup (44:6–13)
The steward easily overtakes the men, who have not traveled a great distance at all. Hearing these charges, the brothers immediately proclaim their innocence. “Not guilty!” is their plea. They are prepared to make a vigorous defense. They remind the steward that they had brought the silver back from Canaan. Who would have ever expected them to do something like that? If they had gone to such extremes over the earlier cash they had found in their sacks, then surely no one could accuse them of taking anything from the Egyptian ruler. So certain are the brothers of their innocence that they pronounce their own sentence: the guilty person should be executed, while all the rest of the brothers could be reduced to slavery. Obviously they must have all proclaimed their innocence before any search has started. “Not me! I don’t have this silver cup.” With this their sure belief, would the brothers have dared to pronounce such a possible sentence against themselves?
It is noteworthy, however, that the Egyptian steward lightens the sentence. He says in verse 10 that the guilty man would become a slave, while the rest would be free from blame. The possibility of escape from judgment is held up at this point, but it is only a moot point here: the brothers are convinced that no silver cup will be found. So what difference does it make to talk about any possible punishment?
The sacks are quickly unloaded from the donkeys. The steward also knows in what order to proceed: start with the oldest brother and move toward the “guilty” one, the youngest. The text says nothing about any of their money being found: the object of the search—and thus of narrative and dramatic tension—is the silver cup. We suspect that each brother breathes a sigh of relief, or perhaps feels (maybe says?), “See, I told you so,” when no cup is found in his sack.
There is another irony in this story, a parallel from an earlier incident. When Jacob had left his father-in-law Laban in Genesis 31, Laban is outraged that Jacob has left with his (stolen?) daughters, Jacob’s wives, Leah and Rachel. Laban is also very upset that his teraphim were taken, and he searches the group to find these teraphim. Jacob does not know that Rachel has them in a saddle-bag on her camel, just as the brothers were very unaware that the silver cup is in Benjamin’s grain sack. One difference, of course, is that Laban never finds the stolen teraphim as Rachel remains seated. But the Egyptian steward, Joseph’s accomplice in this sting, finds the “missing” silver cup. Jacob had been allowed to depart with Leah and Rachel, but the brothers of Joseph will not be so fortunate. When the last grain sack is searched, the cup is found.
At this point, the brothers feel the world collapsing around them. Shocked and numb with grief and disbelief, they tear their clothes. Reuben had done the same thing years earlier when he came back to his brothers, only to find that Joseph was sold and therefore gone (Gen. 37:29). Here, all the brothers tear their clothes, a symbolic action as if to say that their world has “come apart” as emotional pain rips through their hearts. They have no choice: they are under arrest, so to speak, since the steward has undoubtedly come out with some armed guards. They must return to the city and face “the man,” the owner of the silver cup.
Joseph offers his brothers a plea bargain (44:14–17)
When listening to news stories about people arrested and accused, we often hear about prosecutors offering a plea bargain arrangement with the accused. The prosecution may lessen the charge in order to get a conviction. The brothers had been so confident of their collective innocence that they were ready to call upon themselves harsh penalties (verse 9). Even the steward had said such was not necessary: only the guilty would be the slave, while the rest could continue on their journey home.
The issue in this portion of Scripture is the fate of Benjamin. What will happen to him? And with that, what role, if any, will the other sons of Israel play in whatever happens to Benjamin? The arrest is part of the test: what kind of men are they now? In earlier audiences, the men had bowed in proper Near Eastern fashion as subjects before a mighty ruler. But in verse 14 they simply fall to the ground, men reduced to utter helplessness. They literally throw themselves upon the mercy of the court.
Joseph proceeds to give them a tongue-lashing about their crime of stealing, suggesting that he was able to discover their guilt by divination. The brothers had witnessed the incredible ability of Joseph to seat them according to birth order and age; it is believable to hear him say that he could know who the “guilty” party is. And yet, they all know this simple fact: they did not steal the cup. How in the world will they be able to convince “the man” that they really are innocent?
Do not fail to notice the man that is quietly identified as the leader of the brothers. Reuben, Simeon, and Levi are not the apparent leaders. Verse 14 says, “Judah and his brothers came in.” It is Judah, the fourth son, who leads in making the opening remarks for the defense (verse 16). Judah continues to emerge in the story as the son on the rise. This will set the stage for the speech that Judah will give during this trial Joseph has with these men.
Judah says “we.” He mentions “your servants’ guilt,” using the plural. He states the verdict: “we are now my lord’s slaves,” again speaking in the plural. But Joseph suggests, “Let’s make a deal.” He proposes that it would be unjust to enslave them all. No, only the guilty should have to pay. He shows them all an open door: you’re all free to go home in peace. Only the guilty brother, Benjamin, will stay behind as a slave. Joseph does not say that he will execute Benjamin. Will the brothers take this bait? Will they escape, coming home (again) with another son of beloved Rachel missing? What does love demand in such a case? Being filled with terror and with a desire to survive and live, what might they do? What would you do?
Rev. Mark Vander Hart is the Professor of Old Testament at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana.
Lesson 10: Points to ponder and discuss
1. Joseph knows that his brothers have a strong sense of guilt about what they had done to him many years earlier. But he sees that they did what he demanded, namely, they have brought young brother Benjamin along. So why does Joseph keep up these bit of a charade? Why does he not reveal himself to his brothers now? What more does he need to know about his brothers?
2. Joseph’s brothers are not sinless men, but they are not guilty of the theft of which they are accused. What does the Scripture teach us about God’s people being falsely accused? How should we respond in such circumstances? (Think of the many Psalms that address this; e.g., Psalms 26, 28, 44, etc.)
3. Joseph tests his brothers so that they might show what is really in their hearts at this point in redemptive-history. How is this similar to the test that righteous Job suffers? Does the Lord allow such tests today in the lives of some of His saints? Eventually the brothers find out who is testing them. Does Job ever get a similar insight on why he suffers and is tested as he is?
4. Collective guilt and individual responsibility: how are these two elements at work in this story? How do they play out in other places in redemptive history? Read Ezekiel 18.
5. The brothers are terrified by the judgment that may be brought against them. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ also faced the utter horror and terror of God’s awesome justice against sin. He faced hellish agony on the Cross. What did Christ pray then? What did He do there for us?