Genesis (Part 191)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 42:6-13

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” 10 They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. 11 We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.” 12 He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” 13 And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.”


Joseph sees his brothers again for the first time in a very long time. Naturally he remembers that he dreamed they would bow before him and then he accuses them of being spies. From Ellicott’s Bible Commentary:

(6) Joseph’s brethren came and bowed down themselves before him.—Throughout the land of Egypt Joseph would sell by deputy, and only give general directions; but the arrival of so large a party as Joseph’s ten brethren, each probably with several attendants, would be reported to the governor in person, as certainly was the case with Abraham when he went into Egypt (Genesis 12:14-15). Such visits would happen only occasionally, and the arrival of foreigners was always a matter looked upon with suspicion, especially upon the Arabian frontier.

Here the note gives us an explanation for why they reported to Joseph directly and it makes a lot of sense. The brothers’ delegation was large and Jacob’s family was quite prosperous. They would have been met with suspicion but to some extent it makes sense that they’d also be met with as foreign dignitaries, deserving of higher care. Continuing to verse 7 with The Pulpit Commentaries:

And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but (literally, and) made himself strange unto them. The root נָכַר, to be marked, signed, by indentation, hence to be foreign (Furst), or simply to be strange (Gesenius), in the Hiphil signifies to press strongly into a thing (Furst), to look at a thing as strange (Gesenius), or to recognize, and in the Hithpael has the sense of representing one’s self as strange, i.e. of feigning one’s self to be a foreigner. And spake roughly unto them—literally, spake hard things unto them; not from a feeling of revenge which still struggled in his breast with his brotherly affection (Kurtz), or in a spirit of duplicity (Kaliseh), but in order to get at their hearts, and discover the exact state of mind in which they then were with regard to himself and Benjamin, whose absence it is apparent had arrested his attention, and perhaps roused his suspicions (Keil, Murphy, Wordsworth, ‘Speaker’s Commentary’ And he said unto them,—speaking through an interpreter (Genesis 42:23)—Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan (adding, as if they feared Joseph’s suspicions, and wished to deprecate his anger) to buy food (i.e. corn for food).

I like the picture painted here. Joseph makes himself strange to his brothers – we can assume I think that he did not wish for them to recognize him yet. The note above describes Joseph’s motivations for speaking harshly to his brothers. I think the commentary may be over-reaching what the text says just a bit. It’s possible that he spoke roughly to them in inquiry, but that he also felt negative emotions toward them. Lest we forget, these men – his own brothers – sold him into the slavery he lived in for 13 years.

Also from Ellicott in the same verse:

(7) Joseph . . . spake roughly unto them.—Joseph has been accused of harshness in his treatment of his brethren, and still more so of his father in forcing him to send away Benjamin. The latter was, no doubt, the result of his great longing to see his only brother, and he may not have known how dear he was to Jacob, or have reflected upon the pain which his father would feel in parting with him. Still it was but a temporary separation, to prepare for a happy re-union. As regards his half-brethren, Joseph was obliged to prove them, and he did nothing to them which they did not richly deserve. From the first he probably wished to have his father and Benjamin to dwell with him, and share his good fortune; but if his brethren were still the cruel and heartless wretches which they had shown themselves to have been in their conduct to him twenty years before, we may well suppose that he would justly have left them to their fate. Possibly his first emotion towards them was one of indignation, but it melted away, when, even in but one of them, he saw proof that they were not entirely destitute of better feeling (see Genesis 42:22Genesis 42:24).

The note here also continues a defense of Joseph, but a more tempered one. It points out that Joseph had reason to be harsh with them and that this was only short-lived, anyway. Continuing with Ellicott in verse 8:

(8) Joseph knew.—As this is twice repeated, some suppose that Joseph (in Genesis 42:7) had only a suspicion, from their dress and appearance, that these Canaanites were his brethren; but that when they spake the Hebrew tongue (comp. Genesis 42:23), every doubt was removed. They would not recognize him, as he used the Egyptian language, was clad in a white linen dress, and being but seventeen when sold, had during the twenty years of separation changed in appearance much more than they had.

This note here explains why the brothers did not recognize Joseph. Continuing, Joseph then does what makes the most sense in the moment – he accuses them of being spies. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 42:9

And Joseph remembered (i.e. the sight of his brethren prostrating themselves before him recalled to his mind) the dreams which he dreamed (or had dreamed) of them (vide Genesis 37:5and said unto them, Ye are spies (literally, ye are spying, or going about, so as to find out, the verb רָגַל signifying to move the feet); to see the nakedness of the land—not its present impoverishment from the famine (Murphy), but is unprotected and unfortified state (Keil). Cf. urbs nuda praesidio (Cic; ‘Att.,’ 7.13); taurus nudatus defensoribus (Caes; ‘Bell. Gall.,’ 2.6); τεῖχος ἐυμνώθη (Homer, ‘Iliad,’ 12:399)—ye are come. The Egyptians were characteristically distrustful of strangers,—AEgyptii prae aliis gentibus diffi-dere solebant peregrinis (Rosenmüller),—whom they prevented, when possible, from penetrating into the interior of their country. In particular Joseph’s suspicion of his Canaanitish brethren was perfectly natural, since Egypt was peculiarly open to attacks from Palestine (Herodotus, 3.5).

The interesting thing in the accusation is that it serves a dual purpose. Yes, it is a way for Joseph to test his brothers’ characters. However, the accusation was also just the prudent thing to do in his role as someone governing Egypt. He does his job for Pharaoh by testing them, while this testing also works to further his own personal interests.

What dream does Joseph remember in verse 9? It is likely the following, from Genesis 37:

He said to them, “Hear this dream that I have dreamed: Behold, we were binding sheaves in the field, and behold, my sheaf arose and stood upright. And behold, your sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to my sheaf.”

He spoke ^this dream in Chapter 37 to these ten brothers. Here in Chapter 42 it is fulfilled. He has a second dreams of which he tells his brothers but that one does not appear to be fulfilled just yet – we will get to that. Continuing through verse twelve with The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 42:10-12

And they said unto him. Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come. “They were not filled with resentment at the imputation” cast upon them by Joseph; “or, ff they were angry, their pride was swallowed up by fear” (Lawson). We are all one man’s sons; we are true meni.e. upright, honest, viri bonae fidei (Rosenmüller), rather than εἰρηνικοὶ (LXX.), pacifici (Vulgate)—thy servants are no spies. It was altogether improbable that one man should send ten sons at the same time and to the same place on the perilous business of a spy, hence the simple mention of the fact that they were ten brethren was sufficient to establish their sincerity. Yet Joseph affected still to doubt them. And he said unto them, Nay, but to see the nakedness of the land ye are come—assuming a harsh and almost violent demeanor not out of heartless cruelty (Kalisch), but in order to hide the growing weakness of his heart (Candlish).

Again, the note makes sense of a situation that might not be clear to a modern reader. Mentioning that they are brothers is not definitive proof that they are actually brothers, or that they are not spies – but it is true that if they are brothers, it is unlikely they would all go on a spy mission like this together. Ellicott adds to that in his note for verse 11:

(11) We are all one man’s sons.—Joseph’s brethren had probably expected this accusation, and their answer, as Abravanel points out, is a sound one: for no man would send his whole family on so dangerous an errand. And thus they press their family relations as a proof of their being true, that is, honest, just men, with no evil designs; and Joseph, who was glad in this way to obtain intelligence of his father and Benjamin, finally, after persisting in the accusation until he had learned all he wished to know, accepts their argument as valid.

The note above reminds us that Joseph may be fishing for information about his brother Benjamin and his father Jacob and in verse 13 he gets apparent confirmation that both of them remain alive. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 42:13

And they said, Thy servants are twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest—literally, the little one (cf. Genesis 9:24)—is this day with our father, and one—literally, the one, i.e. the other one, ὁ δὲ ἕτερος (LXX.)—is noti.e. is dead (cf. Genesis 5:24Genesis 37:30)—in which statement have been seen a sufficient proof that Joseph’s brethren had not yet truly repented of their cruelty towards him (Keil); an evidence that time had assuaged all their bitter feelings, both of exasperation against Joseph and of remorse for their unbrotherly conduct (Murphy); a suppression of the truth (Words. worth), if not a direct falsehood (Lawson), since they wished it to be understood that their younger brother was dead, while of that they had no evidence beyond their own cunningly-invented lie (Genesis 37:20) and their own probable surmisings. But in point of fact the inference was natural and reasonable that Joseph was no more, since twenty years had elapsed without any tidings of his welfare, and there was no absolute necessity requiring them to explain to the Egyptian governor all the particulars of their early life. Yet the circumstance that their assertion regarding himself was incorrect may have tended to awaken his suspicions concerning Benjamin.

As the note here points out, Joseph gets much desired information about his family. He may have mixed feelings still, about his brothers. They lie to him that they have a younger brother who is dead (when in fact they knew he might live as a slave.) However, as the comment suggests, there was not an obvious reason either for them to believe Joseph is still living. They were also under no obligation to go into such great detail about their family history.

It is easy to read this section, and the section following, and conclude that Joseph may be acting somewhat cruelly toward his brothers. However, his suspicions of them, on behalf of Benjamin, seem valid.