Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Now when Jacob saw that there was corn in Egypt, Jacob said unto his sons, Why do ye look one upon another?XLII.
FIRST VISIT OF JOSEPH’S BRETHREN TO EGYPT.
(1) When Jacob saw.—That is, learned, understood, that there was corn in Egypt. As we have seen (Genesis 37:25), there was a large caravan trade between Palestine and Egypt, and the report would gradually get abroad that food might be purchased there.
Why do ye look . . . —In the second rainless season not only would the flocks and herds begin to languish, but the numerous retainers of Jacob and his sons would also become enfeebled from insufficient nourishment, and begin to die of low fever and those other diseases which follow in the train of famine. Jacob’s words, therefore, mean, Why are you irresolute, and uncertain what to do? And then he encourages them to take this journey as a possible means of providing for the wants of their households.
And Joseph's ten brethren went down to buy corn in Egypt.(3) Joseph’s ten brethren.—Either their cattle and households had been already greatly reduced by the mortality caused by the famine, or each patriarch must have taken a number of servants with him, if the corn carried home was to be enough to be of any real use. We learn, however, that they still possessed flocks and herds when they went down into Egypt (Genesis 47:1), and also households of servants (Genesis 46:5, where see Note). Joseph, moreover, besides the wagons and their contents, sends twenty loads of provisions for the use of his father by the way (Genesis 45:21-23), showing thereby that there were very many mouths to feed. Probably, therefore, there was some small amount of rain in Palestine, though not enough for the support of crops of corn. There would be, however, supplies of milk and flesh, but not much more.
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.(6) Joseph’s brethren came and bowed down themselves before him.—Throughout the land of Egypt Joseph would sell by deputy, and only give general directions; but the arrival of so large a party as Joseph’s ten brethren, each probably with several attendants, would be reported to the governor in person, as certainly was the case with Abraham when he went into Egypt (Genesis 12:14-15). Such visits would happen only occasionally, and the arrival of foreigners was always a matter looked upon with suspicion, especially upon the Arabian frontier.
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.(7) Joseph . . . spake roughly unto them.—Joseph has been accused of harshness in his treatment of his brethren, and still more so of his father in forcing him to send away Benjamin. The latter was, no doubt, the result of his great longing to see his only brother, and he may not have known how dear he was to Jacob, or have reflected upon the pain which his father would feel in parting with him. Still it was but a temporary separation, to prepare for a happy re-union. As regards his half-brethren, Joseph was obliged to prove them, and he did nothing to them which they did not richly deserve. From the first he probably wished to have his father and Benjamin to dwell with him, and share his good fortune; but if his brethren were still the cruel and heartless wretches which they had shown themselves to have been in their conduct to him twenty years before, we may well suppose that he would justly have left them to their fate. Possibly his first emotion towards them was one of indignation, but it melted away, when, even in but one of them, he saw proof that they were not entirely destitute of better feeling (see Genesis 42:22; Genesis 42:24).
And Joseph knew his brethren, but they knew not him.(8) Joseph knew.—As this is twice repeated, some suppose that Joseph (in Genesis 42:7) had only a suspicion, from their dress and appearance, that these Canaanites were his brethren; but that when they spake the Hebrew tongue (comp. Genesis 42:23), every doubt was removed. They would not recognize him, as he used the Egyptian language, was clad in a white linen dress, and being but seventeen when sold, had during the twenty years of separation changed in appearance much more than they had.
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.(9) Ye are spies.—This is the suspicion under which every traveller labours in the East; but in those days the whole Semitic race was especially looked upon in Egypt with distrust, and, as we saw in Genesis 12:15. a chain of fortresses had been built to protect the land from their incursions. Such an arrival, therefore, as that of Joseph’s brethren would be a matter of state, worthy of the attention of the highest officials; and probably they had themselves come prepared to be assailed with the accusation of having political objects in view in their visit.
The nakedness of the land.—That is, its defenceless condition, from the want of fortresses and garrisons. Egypt was chiefly assailable on the side of Palestine, and was often at war with the Hittites there. So also the Hyksos, who subdued Egypt, were Semites from Palestine, and thus there was reason for looking closely at visitors from that quarter.
We are all one man's sons; we are true men, thy servants are no spies.(11) We are all one man’s sons.—Joseph’s brethren had probably expected this accusation, and their answer, as Abravanel points out, is a sound one: for no man would send his whole family on so dangerous an errand. And thus they press their family relations as a proof of their being true, that is, honest, just men, with no evil designs; and Joseph, who was glad in this way to obtain intelligence of his father and Benjamin, finally, after persisting in the accusation until he had learned all he wished to know, accepts their argument as valid.
And Joseph said unto them, That is it that I spake unto you, saying, Ye are spies:(14) That is it . . . —Joseph persists in his charge, because, besides the information which he gained, he also wished to get Benjamin into his power, that he might have him with him. As for his brethren, he had probably as yet no settled purpose, but naturally he would feel great indignation at the treatment he had experienced at their hands, and might not be unwilling to give them some degree of punishment.
Hereby ye shall be proved: By the life of Pharaoh ye shall not go forth hence, except your youngest brother come hither.(15) By the life of Pharaoh.—It was common in ancient times to swear by the king’s life (see 1Samuel 17:55; 2Samuel 14:19 ), and even by the life of Jehovah (2Samuel 15:21; 2Kings 2:2; 2Kings 2:4; 2Kings 2:6). It is only in the stricter morality of the Gospel that such oaths are forbidden (Matthew 5:33-37).
And Joseph said unto them the third day, This do, and live; for I fear God:(18) I fear God (Elohim).—By the use of the name Elohim they would understand that he worshipped the same God as they did. For though he may himself have used the Egyptian word for the supreme Deity, yet doubtless he would take care that the interpreter used the word Elohim.
But bring your youngest brother unto me; so shall your words be verified, and ye shall not die. And they did so.(20) Bring your youngest brother.—Besides his desire to be re-united to his brother, Joseph reasonably felt that the possession of Benjamin would be the best means of inducing his father also to come to him. While substituting a much milder proposal for his former one, that nine should remain in prison, and the tenth go to fetch Benjamin, Joseph nevertheless takes care to make his brethren feel that he was in earnest.
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.(21) We are verily guilty.—They had evidently expected that whatever suspicions might be aroused by their first appearance, all such ideas would disappear upon their explanation of themselves and their purpose. Instead of this they are thrown into prison, abandoned to their reflections for three days, and dismissed only upon the condition of their leaving one brother as a hostage for their coming again accompanied by Benjamin: and as they knew no reason for this, it would fill their minds with fear. But though they were now suffering unjustly, it brought back to their mind their former sin; and the fact that it was so fresh in their memories is a sign of the reality of their repentance.
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.(22) His blood.—Evidently they thought that Joseph was dead, so that the accusation brought against them of falsehood for saying in Genesis 42:13 “one is not” is groundless. Moreover, Jacob uses the same words of Simeon (Genesis 42:36), meaning by it only that he was lost to him.
And he turned himself about from them, and wept; and returned to them again, and communed with them, and took from them Simeon, and bound him before their eyes.(24) He turned . . . and wept.—There was no bitterness in Joseph’s heart, and at their first word of regret he melted. But lest he should lose Benjamin he overcame his feelings, and commanded that Simeon should be bound, choosing him, probably, as the one chiefly guilty of the wrong done him. As soon as the rest had departed, he would probably make his imprisonment as easy as possible, especially as he was detained, not as an evil-doer, but as a hostage.
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.(25) To fill their sacks.—Heb., their vessels. The word includes all their means of transport, and probably they had come with materials sufficient for the removal of a large quantity of corn. They had sacks as well. So in Genesis 42:19, Joseph had commanded them to “carry corn for the famine of their houses.” And as their households were numerous, what would nine sacks of corn avail for their maintenance?
To restore every man’s money into his sack.—It is evident that each one had made his own separate purchase for his own household. The restoration of the money frightened Joseph’s brethren, as they saw in it a pretext for their detention on their next visit. But Joseph could not have meant thus to alarm them, as their fear would act as an obstacle to their coming again accompanied by Benjamin. It is more likely that he intended it as an encouragement, and sign of secret good will.
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.(27) In the inn.—Heb., lodging-place, literally, place to pass the night. It is quite possible that on a route frequented by numerous caravans there were places where a certain amount of protection for the beasts of burden and their attendants had been provided, either by the rulers, or by benevolent people. But Joseph’s brethren would find there at most only walls and water. “The one” who opened his sack is said by tradition to have been Levi. At the end of the verse this sack is called by another name, signifying a travelling-bag, or wallet for forage. The translation of these three different words, vessel, wallet, and sack, indifferently by the last of them, has led to the absurd view, common among commentators, that Joseph’s brethren went down into Egypt, each with one ass and one sack. Hence their astonishment that such an insignificant knot of men should be brought before the governor of Egypt. But the word used in Genesis 42:25 signifies everything into which corn could be put; and the word at the end of this verse is the travelling-bag, which each of the patriarchs carried behind him on his riding ass. Their men would go on foot at the side of the beasts of burden laden with the corn.
It is said here that one only found his money at the lodging-place, and that the rest did not find their money until they emptied their sacks on reaching home. the sacks mentioned here (in Genesis 42:35) were the same as the travelling-bags, for they are expressly so called in Genesis 43:21-23. In Genesis 43:21, however, they tell Joseph’s steward that they all found their money in the mouth of their sacks on opening them at the lodging-place. This was not strictly accurate, but it would have been wearisome and useless to enter into such details. Two things it was necessary to show: the first, that all had found their money; the second, that they had gone too far on their journey homewards to be able to return and give the money back. Probably what is said in Genesis 43:21 was literally true only of one, and he found his money because it had been put in last, and was therefore at the mouth of the wallet. In all the other sacks it had been put in first, under the corn, and so they did not find it until “they had emptied their sacks.”
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?(28) Their heart failed them.—This verse is far more poetical in the Hebrew, where, literally it is And their heart went forth, and they trembled each to his brother. Their courage left them, and they stood looking at one another in terror.
And the man, the lord of the country, said unto us, Hereby shall I know that ye are true men; leave one of your brethren here with me, and take food for the famine of your households, and be gone:(33) Leave one of your brethren.—While acknowledging that the lord of Egypt had spoken “hard things” with them, they do not mention that Simeon was left in bonds, nor even the harsher part of the treatment which they had met with, lest Jacob should be afraid to send Benjamin on their next visit.
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.(36) All these things are against me.—Heb., are upon me, are burdens which I have to bear.
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.(37) Slay my two sons.—Reuben does not suppose that Jacob would really put his grandchildren to death. but simply means to offer his father a strong assurance that Benjamin would run no danger. He regarded the risk as so slight that he was willing to stake the lives of two of his children, perhaps all he then had, upon Benjamin’s safe return. To take such a proposal as meant literally is irrational. But it was but feeble talk, in agreement with the general weakness of Reuben’s character.
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.(38) Then shall ye bring down my gray hairs with sorrow to the grave.—Heb., to Sheol (See Note on Genesis 37:35). Jacob, both here and in Genesis 47:9, speaks as one on whom sorrow had pressed very heavily. Always of a timid and affection Ate disposition, he looks onward now without hope, and sees in the future only dangers and ill-fortune. Probably by this time he had lost Leah as well as Rachel, but the blow that had struck him utterly down had evidently been the loss of Joseph, in whom Rachel had still seemed to live on for him. And therefore now he clung the more warmly to Benjamin, and it is plain that the father’s deep sorrow for the loss of the petted son had softened the hearts of his brethren. They have no grudge against Benjamin because he has taken Joseph’s place, but rather seem to share in their father’s feelings, and their hearts were in accordance with what Judah says in Genesis 44:18-34, that any personal suffering would be cheerfully borne by them, rather than to have to undergo the sight of the repetition of such grief as they previously had themselves inflicted.