Genesis (Part 200)

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

Genesis 44:1-5

44 Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him.

As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.’”


Joseph sets out to test his brothers again, and this time he makes Benjamin the focus of the test. It appears that he wants to see how they react when Benjamin is most accused. Will they stand with him or not? If they do, it implies they are better men than when they sold him into slavery. Beginning with The Pulpit Commentaries in verse 1:

Genesis 44:1Genesis 44:2

And he (i.e. Joseph) commanded the steward of his house,—literally, him that was over his hoarse (Genesis 43:15)—saying, Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put every man’s money in his sack’s mouth (as before, but not this time as a test). And put my cup,—גָּבִיעַ, from an unused root, גָּבַע, conveying the sense of elevation or roundness; hence a goblet or bowl, commonly of a large size (Jeremiah 35:5), as distinguished from the כּוֹס, or mailer cup, into which, from the gabia, wine or other liquid was poured (cf. Genesis 40:11)—the silver cup,—τὸ κόνδυ τὸ ἀργυροῶν (LXX.). Bohlen mentions that the religious drinking utensil of the Indian priests is called kundiin the sack’s mouth of the youngest, and his corn money—literally, the silver of his grain, or of his purchase. And he (i.e. the steward) did according to the word that Joseph had spoken.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary adds the following note, as to the cup, mentioned in verse 2:

(2) Put my cup . . . —Rather bowl, as it signifies a large round vessel from which the wine was poured into the drinking cups. Joseph’s purpose apparently was to detain no one but Benjamin, and it was only when Judah spake so very nobly, and pointed out that Jacob’s heart would be broken with grief if he lost the one remaining son of Rachel, made more dear to him by his brother’s fate, that he determined to give a home to them all. He naturally supposed that his father had long since ceased to grieve for himself, and probably even hoped to prevail upon him subsequently to join him in Egypt. But when Judah offered himself for slavery rather than that his father should suffer the grief of seeing them return without Benjamin, Joseph understood that Jacob’s anguish would be great beyond endurance, and he also became aware that his brethren were no longer as heartless as they had shown themselves of old.

The cup is special, and a pretty brazen thing to have been stolen. Joseph wants to see what the other brothers will do for Benjamin under what should seem to them to be dire circumstances – both for Benjamin and for their father who feared Benjamin going on this journey..

Ellicott’s note jumps ahead of this section, with respect to explaining Joseph’s apparent intentions. We can see that Joseph is singling out Benjamin to test the other brothers.

Returning to The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 44:3-5

As soon as the morning was light (literally, the morning became bright)the men (literally, and the men) were sent away, they and their asses. That Joseph did not make himself known to his brothers at the repast was not due to unnatural callousness which caused his heart to remain cold and steeled (Kalisch), or to a fear lest he should thereby destroy the character of his mission which made him the medium of retribution for his brothers (Kalisch), but to the fact that in his judgment either his brothers had not been sufficiently tested, or the time did not appear convenient for the disclosure of his secret. And when they were gone out of the city (literally, they went forth out of the city)and not yet far off (literally, they had not gone far)Joseph (literally, and Joseph) said unto his steward (or man over his house), Up, follow after the men; and when thou dost overtake them, say unto them (literally, and overtake them, and say to them), Wherefore have ye rewarded evil for good? The interpolation at this point of the words, “Why did you steal my silver goblet?” (LXX; Vulgate, Syriac) is superfluous. Is not this it in which my lord drinketh, and whereby indeed he divineth?—literally, and divining he divineth, or maketh trial, in it, the verb נָחַשׁ (from which is derived nachash, a serpent: vide Genesis 3:1) originally signifying to hiss or whisper, and hence to mutter incantations, to practice ophiomancy, and generally to divine. The special form of divination here referred to (κυλικομαντεία, or divining out of cups) was practiced by the ancient Egyptians. “Small pieces of gold or silver, together with precious stones, marked with strange figures and signs, were thrown into the vessel; after which certain incantations were pronounced, and the evil demon was invoked; the latter was then supposed to give the answer either by intelligible words, or by pointing to some of the characters on the precious stones, or in some other more mysterious manner. Sometimes the goblet was filled with pure water, upon which the sun was allowed to play; and the figures which were thus formed, or which a lively imagination fancied it saw, were interpreted as the desired omen” (Kalisch). Traces of this ancient practice of soothsaying have been detected by some writers in the magnificent vase of turquoise belonging to Jam-shoed, the Solomon of Persia. Like Merlin’s cup, described by Spenser (‘Faery Queens,’ 3.2, 19)—

“It vertue had to show in perfect sight
Whatever thing was in the world contained
Betwixt the lowest earth and heven’s hight,
So that it to the looker appertaynd.”

A similar account is given by Homer of the cup of Nestor; and Alexander the Great is reported to have possessed a mystic goblet of a like kind. It is said that in the storming of Seringapatam the unfortunate Tippeo Saib retired to gaze on his divining cup, and that after standing awhile absorbed in it he returned to the fight and fell (vide Kitto’s ‘Cyclopedia,’ art. Divination). Ye have done evil in so doing.

Did Joseph practice divination? We can jump ahead a bit and look at verse 15, too.

15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?”

Ellicott comments on this issue:

(5) Whereby he divineth.—Cup divination was common in Egypt in ancient times, and was a kind of clairvoyance, the bowl being partly filled with water, and the eye of the diviner fixed upon some one point in it till, wearied with gazing, a state of half stupor was induced, during which the mind, freed from the control of reason, acted in a manner parallel to its operation in dreams. The same effect can be produced by gazing intently on a globe of glass, and other such things. In Genesis 44:15, Joseph asserts that he practised this art, and innocently. Though used now generally for imposture, there is in clairvoyance a real physical basis, which would be inexplicable in an unscientific age; and the genuine piety and goodness of Joseph would not raise him above the reach of the superstitions of his time.

The commentaries on this topic struggle because the text here is somewhat vague. He might indeed practice divination, he might do so innocently (as speculated above), or alternatively, he might just tell his brothers that he does, as part of the larger ruse to test them, though he does not do so in reality. If he does though, then what about Leviticus?

Leviticus 19:26 “’Do not eat any meat with the blood still in it. “’Do not practice divination or seek omens.

It might be that this command from Leviticus is more nuanced than we read initially. Alternatively, perhaps the Biblical patriarch just misbehaves in his participation in this practice. The Bible is replete with examples of patriarchs misbehaving.

There is an argument to be made that Joseph and many other ancient Israelites did practice divination and that at least some of that practice may have been condoned. Included below is an excerpt from an article on that topic by Dr. Jonathan Stökl, titled Ancient Israelite Divination: Urim ve-Tummim, Ephod, and Prophecy.

In the Prophets, Israelite leaders such as Joshua, Saul, David, and Ahab use divination to help them make decisions, just as their ancient Near Eastern counterparts did. The Torah sidesteps the divinatory character of these objects and practices, and instead, emphasizes their ritual and religious character.

Urim ve-Tummim

Exodus describes the Urim ve-Tummim as objects that Aaron is to wear in his breast-piece:

שמות כח:ל וְנָתַתָּ אֶל חֹשֶׁן הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֶת הָאוּרִים וְאֶת הַתֻּמִּים וְהָיוּ עַל לֵב אַהֲרֹן בְּבֹאוֹ לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת מִשְׁפַּט בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל עַל לִבּוֹ לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה תָּמִיד.

Exod 28:30 Also put the Urim ve-Tummim in the breast-piece of judgment (mishpat), so they may be over Aaron’s heart whenever he enters the presence of YHWH. Thus Aaron will bear judgment (mishpat) of the Israelites over his heart before YHWH always.

The text here refers to Aaron wearing the breast-piece of “judgment” (mishpat) with the Urim ve-Tummim inside over his heart and “bearing judgment before God always.” In other words, they are part of his priestly garments and have no active function.

Urim ve-Tummim in Numbers

The description of the Urim ve-Tummim here contrasts with that in Numbers 27, according to which Elazar is to receive “judgment” (mishpat), i.e., a decision, from God through the Urim, and communicate this judgment to Joshua:

במדבר כז:כא וְלִפְנֵי אֶלְעָזָר הַכֹּהֵן יַעֲמֹד וְשָׁאַל לוֹ בְּמִשְׁפַּט הָאוּרִים לִפְנֵי יְ-הוָה…

Num 27:21 He (Joshua) is to stand before Elazar the priest, who will obtain decisions (mishpat) for him by inquiring of the Urim before YHWH…

It is unclear from this, or from any Torah, passage how exactly the Urim ve-Tummim functioned, and scholars have offered some suggestions based on other biblical passages.

Saul Uses the Urim ve-Tummim

The classic example comes from the story of Saul’s attempt to understand why his troops failed in battle. The LXX text reads as follows (1 Sam 14:41; the Hebrew in the brackets is a retroversion from the Greek):

ויאמר שאול אל י-הוה אלהי ישראל [למה לא ענית את עבדך היום. אם יש בי או ביונתן בני העון הזה, אלהי ישראל, הבה אורים. ואם ישנו העון הזה בעמך ישראל] הבה תמים.[1]

Saul said to YHWH: “God of Israel, [why have you not answered your servant today. If the fault is in me or in Jonathan my son, O’ God of Israel, give Urim, and if the fault lies within your nation Israel,] give Tamim [Tummim].”

This passage suggests that the Urim ve-Tummim were a form of lot, cast to decide between two options.[2]


The ephod described in Exodus is a precious tunic worn by the high priest that has two stones attached to it, upon which the names of the Israelite tribes were carved:

שמות כח:יב וְשַׂמְתָּ אֶת שְׁתֵּי הָאֲבָנִים עַל כִּתְפֹת הָאֵפֹד אַבְנֵי זִכָּרֹן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָשָׂא אַהֲרֹן אֶת שְׁמוֹתָם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה עַל שְׁתֵּי כְתֵפָיו לְזִכָּרֹן.

Exod 28:12 attach the two stones to the shoulder-pieces of the ephod, as stones for remembrance of the Israelite people, whose names Aaron shall carry upon his two shoulder-pieces for remembrance before YHWH.[3]

The statement that the ephod stones should be “for remembrance” implies a passive function. In contrast, several non-Torah texts, suggest that the ephod was a divinatory instrument.

David Consults the Ephod

For example, Abiathar the priest, who served David before he was king, had an ephod, which David made use of to receive answers to questions (1 Sam 23:9-12):

שמואל א כג:ט וַיֵּדַע דָּוִד כִּי עָלָיו שָׁאוּל מַחֲרִישׁ הָרָעָה וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל אֶבְיָתָר הַכֹּהֵן הַגִּישָׁה הָאֵפוֹד.

1 Sam 23:9 When David learned that Saul was planning to harm him, he told the priest Abiathar to bring forward the ephod.

כג:י וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׁמֹעַ שָׁמַע עַבְדְּךָ כִּי מְבַקֵּשׁ שָׁאוּל לָבוֹא אֶל קְעִילָה לְשַׁחֵת לָעִיר בַּעֲבוּרִי. כג:יאהֲיַסְגִּרֻנִי בַעֲלֵי קְעִילָה בְיָדוֹ הֲיֵרֵד שָׁאוּל כַּאֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע עַבְדֶּךָ יְ-הוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַגֶּד נָא לְעַבְדֶּךָ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה יֵרֵד.

23:10 And David said, “O YHWH, God of Israel, your servant has heard that Saul intends to come to Keilah and destroy the town because of me. 23:11 Will the citizens of Keilah deliver me into his hands? Will Saul come down, as your servant has heard? O YHWH, God of Israel, tell your servant!” And YHWH said, “He will.”

David asks Abiathar to use the ephod to answer a yes-no question of very practical, military significance: Will King Saul attack Keilah to get to David? After receiving a confirmation that this will happen, David continues with another yes-no question that is answered:

כג:יב וַיֹּאמֶר דָּוִד הֲיַסְגִּרוּ בַּעֲלֵי קְעִילָה אֹתִי וְאֶת אֲנָשַׁי בְּיַד שָׁאוּל וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה יַסְגִּירוּ.

23:12 David continued, “Will the citizens of Keilah deliver me and my men into Saul’s hands?” And YHWH answered, “They will.”

As a result, David leaves Keilah with his men.[4] Again, these questions are not “judgment” (mishpat) in the sense of law but are practical military questions.

Divination and ANE Kings

David’s questions to the ephod are typical of ancient Near Eastern divination. Ancient Near Eastern kings, including the kings of Israel and Judah, faced problems similar to modern governments; first and foremost, they faced the ever-present question of war or peace.

As part of deciding whether or not to go to war, ancient Near Eastern kings sometimes made use of highly trained diviners, who could interpret natural phenomena that they believed revealed the gods’ views such as:

  • Astrologers who interpret the movements of celestial bodies,
  • Haruspices who interpret the anatomy of the livers of sacrificial animals,
  • Dream interpreters,[5]
  • Augurs who would read the flight of birds,

These are just a few examples of the many sorts of specialists trained in the arts of reading and interpreting signs.[6] If the omens were auspicious, the kings might choose war; if inauspicious, they could go on campaign at a later date or avoid it altogether. The practice of some Israelite kings to consult with priests who had objects like the Urim ve-Tummim or the ephod is a version of this kind of divinatory consultation.

I do not know that one could assert, definitively, that Joseph was or was not a diviner. However, I think you could assert that some of his famous abilities are at least perceived to be adjacent to that practice.

I recommend reading the entire article. The topic probably cannot be covered thoroughly, in an individual blog post, but it is interesting. I also wonder to what extent if any Rachel’s family may have played into Joseph’s (potential) practice. He was unique among his brothers in having prophetic dreams and interpreting them. Perhaps this is something that derives specifically through his mother Rachel (who stole idols from Laban and who used mandrakes to assist in becoming pregnant.)