Genesis 43: Joseph’s Brothers Return to Egypt

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Finally, the brothers are ready to go back down to Egypt. They have “the gifts, double the money, and Benjamin.” There is no indication whether Benjamin goes willingly or if he is a reluctant participant. They lose no time in getting back and meeting Joseph. When Joseph realizes that Benjamin is with them, he gives orders to the steward to take them all down to his house, where he will have dinner with them later that day. Obviously, Joseph has had this whole scenario figured out long ago. He gives orders to slaughter “the best calf and prepare the best food.” The steward follows these orders precisely.

But as the brothers are ushered into Joseph’s home, their anxiety increases. Rather than feeling honored by this special invitation, the brothers worry that they are being taken there because of the silver. They expect to be attacked. They think they will be overpowered; they will be seized and imprisoned and have their possessions stolen from them. “He’s going to turn us into slaves and confiscate our donkeys.” Up to this point, they have always been in a public setting. Perhaps they have felt a sense of safety in public, thinking that no one will do anything outrageous to them. The reality is, however, that having ultimate authority, Joseph can have them arrested and imprisoned at will.

Instead, they have been invited to go into his house. They worry that no one will even be aware if something bad happens to them. Everyone in that house is probably on Joseph’s payroll. Everyone knows where their loyalties will lie. Yes, they have been invited for dinner. Perhaps he intends to poison all of them. Worse, they could all be sold as slaves. They recognize the danger because they will be in his space and totally under his control.

And they all feel that this is the end. But they also have to go. They are completely under Joseph’s hand. And he still has Simeon. It would not be appropriate to refuse his offer. Nonetheless, they are extremely frightened. So they go up to his steward and speak to him in the entrance. They haven’t even gone in yet. They begin to explain everything, telling him how they came to Egypt the first time to buy grain. On the way home, they opened their bags and found all the silver—the exact amount they had paid. Now they have brought it back along with huge amounts of other gifts. They don’t know who put the silver back in their bags. They didn’t know it was there until they stopped for the night. None of this information has been solicited. They have volunteered this volley of words as an indication of their anxiety. They also hope to convince him of their innocence. Notice also that among all these details there has been no mention of Benjamin.

The irony, of course, is that this could very well have been the same steward who put the silver in their bags. And he tells them, “It’s okay.” He offers that “your God and the God of your fathers has given you treasures in your sacks.” He uses a word meaning “treasure,” as opposed to just money. There is much more at stake here than simple dollars.

And isn’t it interesting that an Egyptian steward should be talking about “your God” and the “God of your fathers?” That phrase is only used when referring to Yahweh. Perhaps he is simply repeating words Joseph told him to say. If so, then despite all of his Egyptian ways, Joseph is still talking to people about God, the One who is with him, who makes him prosperous that helps him in everything he does. And the people around him all know about that God. It doesn’t say they worshipped that God, but they surely know about him because this steward rattles it right off. The only way he can possibly know anything about God is to repeat words that he has heard from Joseph. It could be that Joseph is living in two worlds at this point. He is as Egyptian as they get. But he also knows that everything that has happened to him is through the God of his fathers. That’s the life that he is living.

Then without further ado, the steward brings Simeon out to be with them. His release is conditioned on them bringing Benjamin to Egypt. Joseph has seen that Benjamin is present, so Simeon is released. The length of his imprisonment is unknown, but one assumes he is also tidied up much like the treatment Joseph receives when he is called to stand before Pharaoh. He has probably been given a change of clothes, a good shower, and a shave. (He is going to have dinner with his brothers at Joseph’s house, after all.) Then he joins his brothers. We would love to know how long this has all taken, but the text doesn’t reveal any clues.

Simeon could easily have been in that prison for a few years. But when he joins his brothers, there is no rebuke. He doesn’t say, “What took you so long? Where have you been?” even though life in an Egyptian prison was not that pleasant. There is nothing to suggest that Joseph has ordered any special treatment for Simeon while in prison – unlike what Potiphar had done for him. We hear nothing about that. We don’t even have any indication that Joseph goes to visit him. It is likely that Simeon has been wallowing in prison this whole time. No doubt he is overjoyed to see his brothers, but Simeon gets no voice in this story.

The brothers are then ushered inside Joseph’s house where they are made to feel comfortable. They receive water to wash their feet and food for their donkeys. They spread out all their gifts as they await Joseph’s arrival. By now they know they are slated to have dinner with him.

As soon as Joseph comes home, the brothers present him with all their gifts and bow down before him again. No doubt their gifts are accepted, but nothing is ever mentioned about the items again. As for the brothers, once more, they are on the ground before him. They must wait until he speaks. He asks first about Jacob – is he still living? They reply, “your servant our father is quite well, very much alive.” Their tone is very conciliatory. More bowing. When Joseph sees Benjamin, he asks if this is the youngest brother, the one they had been talking about to him. Without giving them any time to respond, he says, “God be gracious to you, my son.” It is within his prerogative to bestow kind words on those of lower status, but if the blessing seems unusual to any of the brothers, they say nothing.

Then it states that Joseph is “deeply moved at the sight of his brother and about to burst into tears.” Without any explanation, Joseph hurries out of the room looking for a place to weep. Weeping in public would be uncomely for one of his stature. So he weeps in his room.

One can only imagine the impact this had upon his guests. They were probably pretty perplexed! What had just happened? He has invited them to dinner, but then runs out of the room for no apparent reason! Now they have even more reason to be uncomfortable. They are totally on pins and needles. They have given him the gifts and he accepts them – just before he races out of the room! During this pregnant pause, they are left wondering what is going to happen next. The tension heightens.

After Joseph washes his face and gets himself under control, apparently he comes back out to see his brothers without offering any explanation. He tells his servers to begin. Joseph is served at a separate table. He is not allowed to eat with the others because of his exalted status. The brothers have their own table. The Egyptians are eating separately because to eat with Hebrew people is detestable in their eyes. Foreign people are thought to be unclean. Obviously, this is quite a large room.

The brothers are seated in order of their ages at Joseph’s hand. They look at each other in astonishment, perhaps wondering how he knows that. When they are served, Benjamin’s portion is five times the amount anyone else gets. Yet the text reads, “They all feasted.” The point, then, is not that Benjamin is expected to eat five times as much as anyone else. He is, obviously, being favored – again without explanation. (Much like Joseph was favored with the ornamented coat.) Surely, the brothers notice, but nothing is said about it. None of the brothers says a word. Maybe they feel too intimidated to speak, or perhaps they don’t wish to seem ungrateful. Or maybe they simply don’t care. The atmosphere is quite friendly, and they all feast and drink freely. Actually the Hebrew reads, “They drank and got drunk with him.” The fact that Benjamin has five times what everyone else has is not an issue. Then again, it could be that this is the way it always turns out. Maybe they are used to seeing Benjamin favored. Maybe this is normal fare for them. No doubt, he has been his father’s favorite since the loss of Joseph. But, for the record, none of them comment about that now.

Nonetheless, Joseph is watching all of them. He is watching how his brothers treat Benjamin. He knows that Benjamin is being favored, and he’s watching to see how his brothers handle it. No one makes any snide comments. They are all simply enjoying themselves. In fact, there is no reaction at all. Maybe he is watching to see if things have changed. His relationship with his brothers was tense, but then again, personality wise, Joseph’s actions played a part in that. We have no indication about Benjamin’s personality. He might have been more reticent, shy, or quiet. All those things are unknown because he is given no voice in these texts. All that is known is that they feast freely.