Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?
This statement always struck me as comical, despite the fact that famine is no laughing matter. I have this mental picture of the sons sitting around an empty dinner table just staring blankly at each other, like the vultures in Disney’s Jungle Book. But, the meaning is probably more along the lines of them all looking (ra’ah) to each other for leadership — and not finding it.
So, Jacob takes charge:
And he said, Behold, I have heard that there is corn in Egypt: get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die.
And Joseph’s ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.
Though, perhaps the brothers weren’t so much clueless as cautious. The trip to Egypt is apparently somewhat risky; at least too risky for the beloved Benjamin:
But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob sent not with his brethren; for he said, Lest peradventure mischief befall him.
Still, seeing even ten of his brothers was a dream come true for Joseph — literally:
And Joseph [was] the governor over the land, [and] he [it was] that sold to all the people of the land: and Joseph’s brethren came, and bowed down themselves before him [with] their faces to the earth.
Its difficult for me to imagine the conflicting emotions that must’ve run through Joseph’s breast as he regarded his brothers bowing (shachah) at his feet. Vindication? Relief that they’re alive? Joy at seeing them again? Or anger at their past treatment? Even the possibility of revenge?
I suspect his first instinct is to stall for time, perhaps to see if they recognized him. Which they did not:
And Joseph saw his brethren, and he knew them, but made himself strange unto them, and spake roughly unto them; and he said unto them, Whence come ye? And they said, From the land of Canaan to buy food. And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.
Then, suddenly, he comes up with a plan:
And Joseph remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said unto them, Ye [are] spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come.
What is going on here? It seems as if initially the shock of seeing them caught him off guard. Then he remembers (zakar ) his dreams (chalowm) — presumably of his family bowing down to him — and that inspires him to launch into a little spy (ragal) charade that takes up the next few chapters. What’s up with that?
I suspect the key clue is that the dreams, especially the second one, showed eleven brothers and his father (as well as one mother) bowing down to him: he took this as a sign that Jacob and Benjamin would still be alive, but he wanted proof. Hence, a typical Joseph spur-of-the moment sophisticated plan to find out.
This implies that those two were the only reason Joseph would want to be reunited with his family; perhaps understandable, given his past relations with the other ten brothers. Not good, but understandable.
The brothers, knowing nothing of all this, are probably quite shook up by the accusation:
And they said unto him, Nay, my lord, but to buy food are thy servants come. We [are] all one man’s sons; we [are] true [men], thy servants are no spies.
A strange connection drawn between shared sonship (ben) and veracity (ken). My best guess is that Joseph claimed the size of the group to be suspicious: why send ten grown men rather than one supervisor and a bunch of donkey herders? Joseph apparently pushes the questioning until he gets the data he seeks:
And they said, Thy servants [are] twelve brethren, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest [is] this day with our father, and one [is] not.
Then seizes on it to set his plan in motion:
And Joseph said unto them, That [is it] that I spake unto you, saying, Ye [are] spies:
Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.
3. Threat (bad cop)
Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and ye shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proved, whether [there be any] truth in you: or else by the life of Pharaoh surely ye [are] spies.
And he put them all together into ward three days.
5. Reassurance (good cop)
And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; [for] I fear God: If ye [be] true [men], let one of your brethren be bound in the house of your prison: go ye, carry corn for the famine of your houses:
6. Ominous warning
But bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die. And they did so.
I must say, its a masterpiece of psychological manipulation, and not a little creepy. By threatening to keep all but one, then switching to only keeping one, he appears both magnanimous and terrifying: a great way to keep them in awe. And, knowing Joseph, I suspect he wasn’t surprised that this made their life flash before their eyes:
And they said one to another, We [are] verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.
Reuben at least has the hollow pleasure of finally saying “I told you so” after 20+ years:
And Reuben answered them, saying, Spake I not unto you, saying, Do not sin against the child; and ye would not hear? therefore, behold, also his blood is required.
Come to think of it, I suspect Joseph’s pleasure is also ringing a bit hollow right now as he sees the anguish of his brothers:
And they knew not that Joseph understood [them]; for he spake unto them by an interpreter. And he turned himself about from them, and wept;
Not that it keeps him from continuing his plan:
and returned to them again, and communed with them, and took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes.
He even has a few more tricks up his sleeve:
Then Joseph commanded to fill their sacks with corn, and to restore every man’s money into his sack, and to give them provision for the way: and thus did he unto them.
I wonder if he couldn’t bring himself to take their money, or was just playing with their minds. Regardless of intent, he achieves the latter effect:
And as one of them opened his sack to give his ass provender in the inn, he espied his money; for, behold, it [was] in his sack’s mouth. And he said unto his brethren, My money is restored; and, lo, [it is] even in my sack: and their heart failed [them], and they were afraid, saying one to another, What [is] this [that] God hath done unto us?
Sometimes unexpected blessing is harder to take than appropriate suffering. I wonder what Jacob made of this mad tale:
And they came unto Jacob their father unto the land of Canaan, and told him all that befell unto them; saying,
And it came to pass as they emptied their sacks, that, behold, every man’s bundle of money [was] in his sack: and when [both] they and their father saw the bundles of money, they were afraid.
I’d be creeped out (yare’) too. Its like a bad horror movie, down to the children disappearing one by one:
And Jacob their father said unto them, Me have ye bereaved [of my children]: Joseph [is] not, and Simeon [is] not, and ye will take Benjamin [away]: all these things are against me.
Of course Jacob is borrowing trouble; Benjamin is not yet gone, Simeon is in good hands, and even Joseph isn’t dead. But its hard to have faith amidst suffering; perhaps even more so when the thing you idolized (i.e, Joseph) has been taken away.
Reuben, bless his heart, tries to step up to the plate:
And Reuben spake unto his father, saying, Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee: deliver him into my hand, and I will bring him to thee again.
Alas, Jacob doesn’t even have faith in him.
And he said, My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he is left alone: if mischief befall him by the way in the which ye go, then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.
Ironically, Jacob will have to let go of his second son to receive the first, though he doesn’t realize it. Though the story of his father might have clued him in to that.
God, what a messed up family. Lord, help me to see the idols I still carry with me, which distort my family relationships and weaken my faith in you. Teach me to move from manipulation to redemption, that I may speak the same language as those I love and be reunited with them in truth. Help me to trust in the dreams you’ve given me, of life and health and healing. Amen.
About the Title:
It occurs to me that I should start explaining, or at least identifying, the allusions used by the titles — otherwise even I won’t be able to figure them out a few years from now! Today’s title is taken from Children of the Corn, an early Stephen King movie popular during my adolescence (though I never saw it).