|Topical Bible Study||May 1950|
GOD’S PLAN IN THE BOOK OF GENESIS
Jacob Seeks Food in Egypt
The detailed story of the manner in which Joseph was made food administrator in Egypt is recorded in the Bible, not to inform us as to how the Egyptians were kept from starving during the seven years of drought, but rather that we may know of God’s watchcare over his own people—his chosen people—and the manner in which he preserved them. The account does not inform us just how Jacob learned there was food in Egypt that could be bought. It simply says he “saw that there was corn” there.
Jacob asked his sons a question which reveals that in all the intervening centuries human nature has not changed, and that usually when great trials come upon us we are at a loss to know what to do or which way to turn—“Why do ye look one upon another?” How often it is that we just look at one another as if hoping thus to find the solution to a problem with which we are confronted!
It is quite possible that Jacob was as much at a loss to know what to do as were his sons until he learned that there was food in Egypt. But this was the answer. They need not starve if his sons were willing to make the necessary journey to buy food. Trials which come upon the Lord’s people are seldom lightened without some effort on their part. The Lord provides our needs, but not without our co-operation. God had provided food in Egypt in order that Jacob and his family might be kept alive, but it was necessary that the sons go and get it, and it was a long and hazardous trip for those days.
Jacob had never fully recovered from the shock he received when his sons brought Joseph’s blood-smeared coat and spread it out before him with the implication that his boy had been slain by wild beasts. At that time he intimated that he would continue to mourn for Joseph until he himself died. His continued mourning is indicated in his decision not to let Benjamin accompany the other sons on their trip to Egypt, “lest peradventure mischief befall him.” This shows clearly that Jacob had not forgotten the “mischief” which had befallen Joseph, and that the incident was still a painful memory.
It may be significant that Jacob’s new name, Israel, is used in the narrative when it states that “the sons of Israel came to buy corn among those that came.” The previous chapter shows that the famine was upon all the lands surrounding Egypt, and it seems possible that despite Joseph’s conservation program Egypt could not supply food for all who needed it. This would mean that perhaps not all who sought food from Joseph would be successful. The name Israel means, “The prince that prevails with God.” Israel’s sons were to secure food because their father had prevailed with God and now God would favor him and his family in this their great time of need.
The account indicates that Joseph decided personally who should be permitted to buy, and perhaps how much, of the precious food which he had stored during the seven years of plenty. Apparently he was not willing to trust these important decisions to his subordinates. And so it was that his brethren were brought directly into his presence. He recognized them, but they did not recognize him. He had been a mere lad when they sold him into Egypt, and doubtless had changed a great deal in his maturing years. Since they were more mature at the time, they would not have changed so much. Besides, he was dressed in keeping with his position of honor, and this would tend to disguise his identity.
There is nothing in the account to indicate that Joseph had aught else but sympathy in his heart for his brethren. He spoke roughly to them, and caused them many anxious hours of worry, not because he held any bitterness toward them but in order to bring them to a keen sense of the wrong they had committed and to cause them to confess their guilt. Joseph remembered his dreams, which were prophetic of a time when his brethren would bow down before him and be at his mercy, and now he knew that the time for the fulfillment of those dreams had come.
This would strengthen Joseph’s faith in God still more and, because his heart was pure and humble, would enable him to realize more than ever that God’s hand was overruling in his affairs and therefore there was no cause for him to harbor ill will toward his brethren. As he expressed it later, he saw that it was really God who had sent him to Egypt, and that at the most his brethren—although they aimed to do him harm—were, in reality, only the agency used by the Lord to accomplish this purpose. All of the Lord’s people should endeavor to take this viewpoint of their trials, for it would help them to be kindly disposed toward their enemies.
Joseph’s method of dealing with his brethren was unique. In questioning their identity as he did, and insisting that they were spies, they couldn’t help but be reminded of their long-lost brother and of the sin they had committed in selling him as a slave. First, they became convicted as never before of the wrong they had done their brother, and confessed it to one another. This may have been the first time they had admitted their wrong so freely among themselves.
However, it was still somewhat of a secret guilt, one which, as yet, they were willing to discuss only among themselves. Supposing Joseph to be an Egyptian and not able to understand their language—since he had purposely talked to them through an interpreter—they did not realize he understood what they were talking about; but he did, and he was moved deeply at this evidence that they recognized the wrong they had done.
In the attitude displayed by Joseph in this matter we have an illustration of God’s willingness and desire to forgive. The true spirit of forgiveness—of godlike forgiveness—causes one to rejoice to know that a wrongdoer is beginning to realize his sin and is moving toward repentance. This is God’s attitude toward the entire human race, as shown in the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Here we learn of the joy in heaven over one sinner who repenteth, that one sinner being Adam and his race, all of whom lost life through him.
One with a guilty conscience is prone to attribute evil motives even to the good deeds of others. Joseph out of the goodness of his heart, returned the money his brethren had paid for the food they were taking back to Canaan, but when one of them discovered it they were afraid, and felt that God was in some way punishing them. It was an unusual experience, and since, as they believed, they were dealing with strangers who would not ordinarily be so benevolent, it would have been rather difficult for them to take any other view of the incident.
The nine brethren made the return journey to Canaan safely, but when they reached home they had a real problem in explaining to their father why Simeon was not with them, and that it would be necessary to take Benjamin the next time if they expected to obtain more food. They related their experiences in detail, which reminded them once more of their sin in selling Joseph and letting their father believe he was dead.
Previous to this only one of the brethren had discovered that his money had been returned, but now they found that the purchase money for the sacks of food had been returned to all of them. Then they all became fearful, including Jacob. Jacob had never hinted that his sons had been directly responsible for his loss of Joseph, but on this occasion, nevertheless, he reminded them that both Joseph and Simeon had been with them, and that they returned to him without them. So, he said, “Me have ye bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and ye will take Benjamin away.”
Without realizing it, Jacob was here expressing a truth, particularly concerning Joseph, which must have been very unpleasant for his sons to hear. Reuben assumed a noble position in the matter, offering his own two sons in sacrifice should they fail to bring Benjamin back to his father. At the time his brethren first decided to do away with Joseph, Reuben had opposed the plan. Apparently he possessed a more tender conscience than did the others.
Jacob, up to this point, was determined that Benjamin should not be taken to Egypt, for he could not bear the thought of losing him as he supposed he had lost Joseph. Such a calamity, he said, would bring down his gray hairs with sorrow to the grave. The Hebrew word translated “grave” in this text is sheol. It is the second time it appears in the Bible. Jacob also used it on the first occasion, and in a similar connection.
Sheol is the only Hebrew word in the Old Testament that is translated “hell,” but is usually thus translated only when the text applies to a wicked person. Where the death of the righteous is involved, the translators usually give us the word “grave.” This, of course, is misleading, for it gives the impression that the wicked go to a different place at death than do the righteous. It is especially unfortunate because to many minds the word “hell” conveys the thought of torment in fire and brimstone.
It is interesting to note, however, that Jacob speaks of his gray hair going down into sheol—the death condition. It would be difficult to understand how this could be if sheol is a place of fire. Certainly gray hair would not last long in such a place. Actually, of course, Jacob refers to his gray hair as symbolic of his old age. He was already mourning over the loss of Joseph, and would continue to do so, and now if his sorrow was to be increased through the loss of Benjamin also, his death would be hastened, being already old. In death he would rest unconsciously until the resurrection.
Time was against Jacob’s decision not to let Benjamin be taken to Egypt. The famine continued. The supply of corn which had been brought back from Egypt by his sons was rapidly dwindling and something had to be done, so he again asked the boys to make another trip into the land of the Pharaohs. In reply Judah was the spokesman, and he reminded his father that it simply could not be done unless they were permitted to take Benjamin with them. “If thou wilt not send him, we will not go,” he said to his father.
Jacob was like most of us when faced with a difficult decision, for he was inclined to blame others. He asked the boys why they had dealt “so ill” with him by revealing to Egypt’s food administrator that they had a younger brother at home, who had stayed behind with his father. But Joseph had put the boys in a difficult position by accusing them of being spies, and they had been quite ready to tell the whole truth in order to clear themselves. They could not be blamed for telling the truth concerning their family. As they explained to their father, they were not aware of what the result would be. Jacob doubtless realized this, and after Judah offered himself as surety for the safe return of Benjamin, he yielded to the inevitable.
According to the custom of the time, he instructed that a present should be taken to the “man” with whom they would have to deal in Egypt—“a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and, myrrh, nuts, and almonds.” This evidently was “fruit” which had been stored before the famine, and possibly would be a rare treat in Egypt.
Another evidence of Jacob’s caution were his instructions to take a double portion of money—that is, the amount that had been returned to them on the occasion of their first journey, and a supply sufficient to make the second purchase—“peradventure,” he explained concerning the returned money, “it was an oversight.” In other words, they were to be prepared as far as possible for any emergency that might arise.
After using his best judgment in his instructions to the boys, Jacob fell back on his sure tower of strength, saying “God Almighty give you mercy before the man, that he may send away your other brother, and Benjamin.” Having thus committed the whole expedition into the Lord’s care, Jacob became resigned to whatever the divine will might be in the matter. “If I be bereaved of my children, I am bereaved,” he said. This should not be construed as a fatalistic attitude but, as we have suggested, a humble resignation to whatever the Lord’s will might be in the matter. How little he realized then what a wonderful blessing the Lord had in store for him and for the entire family.
Jacob’s sons carried out his instructions, and when they arrived in Egypt they “stood before Joseph.” When Joseph saw Benjamin with them he gave instructions to the “ruler” of his house to take them into his home and to prepare dinner, explaining that he would be home to dine with them.
Again they became fearful, and little wonder. They had complied with the condition of bringing Benjamin back with them, and now the only thing they could think of to worry about was the money they had found in their sacks on the occasion of their former visit. Wishing to make sure that this would not be held against them, they made an opportunity to explain the situation to the steward of the house, hoping this would pave the way for a more favorable hearing in the matter.
They must have been greatly relieved when the steward said to them, “Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money.” Then he returned Simeon to them. Now they would know that they were not to be accused of stealing the money, that it had been put in their sacks because Joseph had ordered it so. But why he had done so remained unanswered.
The steward’s reference to their God and to the God of their father, indicates that Joseph must have been “witnessing” to his servants, and that this one, at least, had come to have a measure of faith in the God of Jacob. He had put the money in the sacks at the behest of Joseph, yet he explained that their God had given them the treasure. This would indicate that Joseph had let it be known that Jacob’s God was also his God, and that his action in this was on account of their worshiping the same God. He could make this point clear without telling his servants that Jacob was his father.
It was not a simple matter in those days to entertain a group of travelers, and yet when guests were welcome, they were well taken care of. The statement in verse 24 reminds us of how Abraham treated the three angels who appeared to him as he sat in the tent door on the plains of Mamre. See Genesis 18:4. It is also similar to the account given in Genesis 19:2, and 24:32. Providing water for feet washing and feeding beasts of burden were evidently considered essential to proper entertainment of guests.
Joseph was a busy man. After granting his brethren a brief audience in the morning, he continued with his duties at the food administration headquarters, having arranged to meet them in his home for lunch. This gave them a little time. Being assured by the steward that the money incident would not be held against them, they then unpacked their “present,” and prepared to give it to Joseph when he came in. They were leaving no stone unturned in their effort to make a favorable impression on the one who literally held their lives in his hands.
When Joseph came home, they gave him the present, and bowed down before him. Little did they realize that in doing this they were fulfilling the dreams of Joseph which led to their jealousy of him and their determination to get rid of the “dreamer” lest he one day attempt to carry out his dream. Doubtless Joseph recalled his dreams, yet the realization of how they were being fulfilled did not arouse any feeling except sympathy and love for his brethren. Now he had an opportunity to serve his brethren, and like Jesus, of whom he was a type, he believed that the greatest among brethren should be the servant of all.
He inquired concerning the health of their father, and when he saw Benjamin he said, “God be gracious unto thee, my son.” Suddenly he was overcome with emotion, and not wishing as yet to reveal his identity, he asked to be excused, and went off by himself to weep tears of joy in the realization that he was to be reunited with his family.
However, Joseph’s conduct was becoming more and more strange to his brethren, and no wonder. Why should they be treated so royally? When Joseph arranged them at the table it was according to their ages. How did he know their ages? In apportioning the food, Benjamin was especially favored. Why? No wonder they “marveled one at another.” Nevertheless, they did not permit the strangeness of the situation to keep them from being properly friendly with their host. While they did not know what was behind this unusual treatment, they entered into the spirit of the occasion, evidently following the lead of Joseph and “were merry with him,” or, as the margin states, they “drank largely with him.”
Perhaps by now Joseph’s brethren may have begun to think that this time they would procure a supply of food and return to Canaan without being placed in embarrassing circumstances. But God had further lessons for them to learn as we shall see in our next study.