Genesis 44: Joseph Accuses Benjamin

By Mary Jane Chaignot

All throughout the meal, Joseph is watching his brothers carefully. While they are eating and drinking (or perhaps sleeping it off), Joseph goes to his steward again. He tells him to fill their sacks with as much grain as he can possibly fit in – more than the amount their money would buy. He is to put all their money back as well. And then he tells the steward to put his silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Returning all their money could be viewed as a magnanimous act. But if the steward wonders about the silver cup, he says nothing. Perhaps he thinks Joseph is continuing to show favor to Benjamin, along the lines of serving him portions five times larger than his brothers.

The brothers’ plan is to leave at the crack of dawn. No doubt, they are all a little hung over and not paying much attention to what is going on. The donkeys are packed up, and they’re off with enough grain to last for a while. Simeon has been returned to them; Benjamin is accompanying them. But they haven’t gone very far before Joseph says to the steward, “Go after them, and when you catch up with them, ask them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil?’ When you find the cup, tell them that that’s my cup, the one I use for divination.”

Egyptians rely upon divination. Generally, it works one of three ways. Either water or wine is put into the cup and oil is added, or oil is put in the cup and water or wine is added. People pay good money to diviners to interpret all those little swirls. Will someone have success or failure, children or not? Will a battle be won or lost? Will the sun shine tomorrow? Are the gods looking with favor upon the individual? These are some of the questions diviners would answer. Later on, the Israelites are going to take a strong stand against divination. They believe that anyone relying upon divination is not relying upon God. But Joseph is never censured for having a cup used for divination, which portends just how Egyptian-like he has become. He is completely Egyptian, doing things the Egyptian way, using all the Egyptian tools at his disposal. But he’s still holding on to the God of Jacob. And this is his special cup. It is in plain view during the meal. Perhaps this is so the brothers are sure to recognize it when they see it.

The steward follows Joseph’s orders. When he confronts the brothers, they are stunned. They protest vigorously. They remind the steward that they had even brought back the silver that had been returned to them the last time. So why would they steal silver or gold from Joseph now? And this is the clincher. They continue, “If any of your servants is found to have this, he will die and as for the rest of us, we shall become your slaves.” The only reason they even make this statement is because they are absolutely convinced that the steward is completely wrong. The actual words, however, state that if anyone of them is found to have the cup, that brother will die and all the rest will become slaves. And of course, the steward who knows without a shadow of a doubt that the cup is in there (because he put it there), agrees to it, saying, “Let it be as you say.” But then he tweaks it. He says that the person with whom it is found will be his slave. He will not be killed, just enslaved. The rest can go free. He has to modify it because he already knows how it is going to turn out. He also knows that Joseph wants Benjamin returned to him alive and well.

So each of the brothers quickly looks through his sack. And the steward goes from sack to sack. He starts with the eldest and works his way down to the youngest, possibly following the seating arrangement at the palace. Otherwise, there is no reason he would know the order. Nonetheless, he must leave Benjamin’s sack for last. And of course, the cup is found in his sack. Without saying a word to Benjamin, the brothers tear their clothes and immediately load up their donkeys to return to the city. This is after the steward tells them that they are all free to go home. Because the cup is found in Benjamin’s sack, he is the only one required to return. The rest really are free to go home.

But going home without Benjamin means they must face their father and tell him what has happened. None of them wants to do that. Their only choice is to go back on their donkeys and try to save Benjamin. There is no dissension now. Nor do any of them suspect they are being set up. Now, obviously, they do have other choices. They could have gone somewhere else and lived off the grain, but this time they are acting responsibly. And they are in solidarity with Benjamin. Not a single brother accuses him. Perhaps they believe him to be incapable of such an act. It is unknown whether they are genuinely fond of him or simply unwilling to face their father if he remains behind. In either case, this time they all stick together.

So they go back to the city. Joseph is still in the house when they come in. They all throw themselves on the ground. Of course Joseph shouts, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that one such as I can practice divination?” He might be saying that he needs his cup for divination. Or, more likely, he could be saying that although someone might steal his cup, he would find them out because he is skilled in divination. For that reason, stealing it is a lesson in futility. After all it is his cup. And Joseph, apparently, is quite good at what he does. However, some commentators, knowing how much the Israelites abhor diviners, point out that at no time does Joseph ever report using it for the decisions he makes.

Judah speaks for all when he asks, “What can we say to you? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt; we are now your slaves—we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup.” This is more than they have agreed upon with the steward. But the notion that God has “uncovered their guilt,” implies a sense of justice. Granted, they are not guilty of this crime, but they are guilty of perpetrating a grave injustice upon Joseph and Jacob. For that they stand before Joseph convicted. After all this time, they are willing to concede that God’s justice is just.

Yet Joseph reiterates that he doesn’t want all of them as slaves. While they might be guilty by association, the fact remains that only one of them had the cup in his possession. That is the one who has to stay. In this case, Joseph has no desire to punish all of them for the crimes of one. He emphatically states, “I would never do that to you.” He only wants the one who stole his cup. He tells the rest of them to go home. “Go back to your father and go in peace.” For all intents and purposes, this shall be viewed as a permanent arrangement: Benjamin will reside in Egypt; the brothers will return to Canaan.

But they don’t move. Indeed, Judah steps forward and asks to speak to him. He addresses Joseph as Master, saying, “Don’t get angry. Don’t think I’m presumptuous – you’re the same as Pharaoh.” He then reviews their previous conversations with both Joseph and Jacob. Joseph had initially asked whether their father was still alive and about their brother. They had responded that they have a father who is old and a younger brother born to their father in his old age. His brother is dead so he is the only one left from that mother. “And his father loves him more than anything.”

Joseph had asked to see this brother, but they had said that was not a good idea. “It is impossible. The boy cannot leave his father; if he leaves, his father will die.” Nonetheless, Joseph had insisted. “If your youngest brother doesn’t come with you, you will not be allowed to see me.”

They had relayed all this information to their father once they returned home. When they needed more grain, Jacob had instructed them to return to Egypt. They told him, “We cannot. The only way we can go back is if our youngest brother goes with us.” Judah told him how upset Jacob had become. “If you take him and something bad happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol.”

Judah continues, “If this boy is not with us when we go back to my father, he will die. My father’s life is closely bound up with this boy, and he will die of grief. Your servants will bring our father’s gray head to the grave.” Then he adds one more thing. He tells Joseph that he managed to get Jacob to release Benjamin because he, Judah, has personally guaranteed the boy’s safety. I said, “If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the burden of blame all the rest of my life.”

“So please, let your servant remain here. I will stay as your slave. Just let this boy return home with his brothers. How can I go back to my father, if the boy is not with me? Do not let me see the misery that will come upon my father.” That is the essence of Judah’s speech and he speaks for all of them. This is the first time that the brothers do something completely selfless. Judah is offering to stay; just let Benjamin go back. Indeed, the story has now come full circle. Judah is the one that sold Joseph into slavery; now he is offering to become a slave to Joseph. He awaits Joseph’s response.

Just for the record, notice the silence of Reuben throughout all of this. He is the eldest son; he should have been making this speech. Indeed, all three of the oldest sons remain silent. Why does Judah, the fourth son, have such a big part here? Perhaps it has to do with his future role. He is the progenitor of the most significant tribe. It is possible that this event foreshadows that development. Judah is a good negotiator; Judah has a good heart. Judah needs to be highlighted because he is going to play a huge role in their future, and this is one way the narrator uses to help the reader know that this is the way it should be. Judah not only deserves it, but he also has the leadership skills to handle it.