If you read through the opening verses of Genesis chapter 44, you’ll find that everything seemed to be going pretty well for Joseph’s brothers. Sure, there had been that little issue of how the money that they owed for their earlier purchases somehow returned home with them on their first trip, but that worked out OK in the end. Besides, they had retrieved their brother Simeon from jail, they got to purchase more food, and they even had lunch with the Egyptian governor. But perhaps the most important thing was that they were able to accomplish all this and still keep their father’s favorite son Benjamin safe from harm.
In fact, it was hard to imagine how things could have worked out better- except for one small thing. You see, Joseph’s brothers were about to find out that the past sometimes has a way of catching up with us when we least expect it…
“Now Joseph gave these instructions to the steward of his house: ‘Fill the men’s sacks with as much food as they can carry, and put each man’s silver in the mouth of his sack'” (Genesis 44:1).
So the night before Joseph’s brothers were scheduled to return back home, Joseph decided to send a special agent out on an unusual mission. His job was simple: he was to enter the area where Joseph’s brothers’ gear was kept and secretly place their money back in their packs.
But that wasn’t all- Joseph also gave his agent some special instructions for one of his brothers in particular…
“‘Then put my cup, the silver one, in the mouth of the youngest one’s sack, along with the silver for his grain.’ And he did as Joseph said. As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys” (Genesis 44:2-3).
So the entire caravan started out at daybreak for the return trip back home. But the group had not been gone long before a member of Joseph’s staff suddenly showed up…
“They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, ‘Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’ When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them” (Genesis 44:4-6).
So what exactly is “divination” and why would Joseph have his servant say this to his brothers? Well, we’ll look at some answers to those questions next.
“…’Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done'” (Genesis 44:4b-5).
One version of this passage says, “What do you mean by stealing my master’s personal silver drinking cup, which he uses to predict the future? What a wicked thing you have done!’” (NLT). Another translation tells us, “This is the chalice my master drinks from; he also uses it for divination. This is outrageous!'” (MSG).
So what exactly did Joseph’s servant mean when he used the term “divination”? Well, divination is the practice of seeking information from a spiritual source other than God. The practice of divination is something that also comes under the same general category as things like fortune-telling, astrology, psychic readings, séances, and the use of tarot cards, Ouija boards and the like.
The particular form of divination that Joseph’s servant referred to here is called hydromancy. This type of divination supposedly involved the ability to tell the future by interpreting the patterns of water in a bowl or cup. It was believed that supernatural beings could communicate through these patterns in a way that would give someone insight into the future. One source says that a precious metal or jewel was sometimes placed in a bowl of liquid for this purpose. Predictions about the future could be then be made based on the way that the light reflected off the object within the bowl. (1)
As far as these types of practices are concerned, one thing that’s certain is that the Bible provides some very clear warnings against such kinds of activities. For instance, one Biblical warning against this type of activity is found in Deuteronomy 18:10-12, a passage that warns people about getting involved with those who attempt to practice divination, witchcraft, sorcery, or other such things. Another example is found in the Old Testament book of 1 Chronicles where we’re told that King Saul died specifically because he went to a medium with a request to bring the prophet Samuel back from the dead (1 Chronicles 10:13).
Instead of following these practices, the Biblical prophet Isaiah provided a good, common sense alternative for anyone seeking to learn about the future when God inspired him to write this…
“Someone may say to you, ‘Let’s ask the mediums and those who consult the spirits of the dead. With their whisperings and mutterings, they will tell us what to do.’ But shouldn’t people ask God for guidance? Should the living seek guidance from the dead?” (Isaiah 8:19 NLT).
(1) Leupold, Herbert Carl, Exposition of Genesis Volume II page 1081
“‘Why did you steal my master’s silver cup? It is the one he drinks from, the one he uses for divination. You have committed a serious crime!'” (Genesis 44:5 GNB).
Just as we saw with an earlier example, the idea that Joseph could foretell the future through divination was part of his strategy to convince his brothers that he was nothing more than a high-ranking Egyptian official. After all, the Egyptians believed in the existence of many gods and it wouldn’t have been unusual for Joseph’s brothers to learn that an Egyptian official was involved in a practice like divination.
But the reality is that a God-honoring man like Joseph would never have actually done something like this. Besides, Joseph had no reason to try and discern the future this way. After all, God had already enabled Joseph to see into the future through his ability to interpret dreams. That God-given ability meant that he had no need to try and predict the future by uselessly gazing into a silver chalice.
So what did Joseph hope to accomplish through this? What did he seek to achieve by setting up this little drama? Well, we’ve already talked about one reason- Joseph wanted to see if his brothers were still the same kind of ruthless individuals who had once attempted to kill him and later sold him into slavery. But Joseph also wanted to find out something else as well; Joseph wanted to see how his brothers would respond when his “stolen” property was found in Benjamin’s gear.
You see, the act of hiding this chalice in Benjamin’s saddle bag allowed Joseph to execute the final piece of his strategy. First, it enabled Joseph to accuse Benjamin of theft and take him into custody. That provided two different benefits:
- It would allow Benjamin to remain safely in Egypt with Joseph if the rest of his brothers decided to abandon him.
- It also meant that Joseph could be secure in the knowledge that his brothers would never have the opportunity to treat Benjamin in the same way they had once treated him.
But… if Joseph’s brothers were willing to stand up for Benjamin and help protect him, then it would prove that they were not the same cruel, merciless individuals they once had been. So in doing this, Joseph placed his brothers in a position where their attitudes would be revealed by their actions- and all he had to do was sit back and see which path they would choose.
“Why have you stolen my master’s silver cup, which he uses to predict the future? What a wicked thing you have done!’” (Genesis 44:5 NLT).
“But (Joseph’s brothers) said to him, ‘Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servants to do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.’
‘Very well, then,’ (Joseph’s servant) said, ‘let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have it will become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame'” (Genesis 44:7-10).
Joseph’s brothers were so certain that they were free of this “stolen” property that they responded by saying, “If you find his cup with any one of us, let that man die. And all the rest of us, my lord, will be your slaves” (NLT). Unfortunately, that was a vow that they would soon come to regret. You see, the problem was not their claim of innocence; the problem was that they made a serious promise without thinking of the possible consequences.
You see, its important to be very careful about making vows, oaths, or promises of this kind. To help understand why, we simply need to look at something that Jesus once said in a message that He gave to His followers…
“‘You have also heard that people were told in the past, ‘Do not break your promise, but do what you have vowed to the Lord to do.’ But now I tell you: do not use any vow when you make a promise. Do not swear by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by earth, for it is the resting place for his feet; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not even swear by your head, because you cannot make a single hair white or black.
Just say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’—anything else you say comes from the Evil One'” (Matthew 5:33-37 GNB).
Jesus’ message reminds us that we should be careful about making statements like the one that Joseph’s brothers made. For instance, have you ever heard of a man named Jephthah? If you’re like most people, the chances are probably good that you’ve never heard of Jephthah and the tragic mistake he once made in taking a foolish oath. We’ll look at his sad story and see how we can avoid making a similar mistake next.
In the Old Testament book of Judges, we find the story of a man named Jephthah. Jephthah was a man who started a successful military operation against a group of Israel’s enemies known as the Ammonites. Unfortunately, for Jephthah, he also made a very foolish promise while pursuing his enemies…
“Meanwhile Jephthah had vowed to the Lord that if God would help Israel conquer the Ammonites, then when he returned home in peace, the first person coming out of his house to meet him would be sacrificed as a burnt offering to the Lord! …When Jephthah returned home his daughter– his only child– ran out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy” (Judges 11:30-31, 34).
This turned out to be a horrible mistake on Jephthah’s part. While Jephthah should have enjoyed a time of great triumph over his enemies, his foolish vow actually turned that triumph into a time of incredible sorrow. If you continue reading the story of this tragic event, you’ll find that Jephthah’s daughter first spent a short time grieving over her fate. When that period of time was complete, the Scriptures tell us that Jephthah’s daughter then “…returned to her father and he did to her as he had vowed” (Judges 11:39).
If Jephthah had only thought about the possible consequences of taking this foolish vow, this awful situation could have been totally avoided. This may be one reason why the Old Testament book of Proverbs tells us, “It is foolish and rash to make a promise to the Lord before counting the cost” (Proverbs 20:25 TLB). It may also be why the New Testament letter of James says, “But most of all, my brothers and sisters, never take an oath, by heaven or earth or anything else. Just say a simple yes or no so that you will not sin and be condemned for it” (James 5:12 NLT).
Fortunately for Joseph’s brothers in the book of Genesis, Joseph’s special agent rejected their oath- but in doing so, he also made a guarantee of his own: “He said, ‘I agree; but only the one who has taken the cup will become my slave, and the rest of you can go free'” (Genesis 44:10 GNB). While it may have appeared to Joseph’s brothers that this man was simply acting mercifully, the real idea was to single Benjamin out to see how his brothers would respond.
So with that, Joseph’s brothers opened their saddlebags to see just what was contained within them.
“‘…Whoever is found to have (my master’s silver chalice) will become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame'” (Genesis 44:10b).
So let’s see what was inside each of Joseph’s brothers’ saddlebags…
“Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city” (Genesis 44:11-13).
So each man opened his pack in age order. One by one, they each discovered that their money had somehow been returned to them, but nothing else other than the grain that they had purchased. Finally, Benjamin’s saddlebag was opened and the truth was revealed- the Egyptian governor’s silver chalice was hidden there along with the grain he had bought.
Joseph’s brothers’ then responded to this discovery by tearing their clothes. This act was recognized in those days as a culturally appropriate sign of personal distress or emotional pain. This means that Joseph’s brothers were not simply upset or annoyed at the fact that Benjamin had possession of this cup- they were absolutely heartbroken over what Joseph’s servant had found.
Now at this point, Joseph’s brothers could have said,“Sorry Benjamin- its been nice knowing you. Hope everything works out for you with that slavery thing in Egypt.” They could have accused Benjamin of being foolish or stupid. They could have used this incident as an excuse to get rid of their little brother just as they had also gotten rid of another little brother so many years earlier. But they didn’t. Instead, they returned to the city with him.
Now before we go on with the story of Joseph and his brothers, there is something important for us to think about regarding this incident. You see, Joseph’s brothers got up that morning with an agenda for their day, but that agenda didn’t include the examination of their personal belongings. Nevertheless, that’s what exactly happened.
So here’s a question: if God showed up unexpectedly one day and said, “Let’s open up the saddlebag of your life and see what’s in there” what would He find? What if God showed up unexpectedly like Joseph’s servant and asked to see what you were carrying? What would God find if he did a spot check on your life today? Remember, the New Testament book of Hebrews 4:13 says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
“The steward searched their bags, going from oldest to youngest. The chalice showed up in Benjamin’s bag. They ripped their clothes in despair, loaded up their donkeys, and went back to the city” (Genesis 44:12-13 MSG).
Although it may not seem obvious at first glance, these actions represented a real change in attitude for Joseph’s brothers. For example, they didn’t ask Benjamin to explain how the governor’s chalice ended up in his bag. They didn’t automatically assume that Benjamin was responsible for stealing this chalice or accuse him of doing something foolish. Instead, they all turned around and headed right back to the city after demonstrating their distress over what had happened.
In other words, all of Joseph’s brothers (and not just some) were willing to go back and stand with Benjamin before the second most powerful man in the country. This indicates that these men had a complete change in attitude from where they once had been.
So let’s see what kind of reception they received once they arrived back in the city…
“Joseph was still in the house when Judah and his brothers came in, and they threw themselves to the ground before him. Joseph said to them, ‘What is this you have done? Don’t you know that a man like me can find things out by divination?'” (Genesis 44:14-15).
Once Joseph’s brothers arrived at the governor’s residence, Joseph proceeded to put on a performance that any actor would be proud of:“What is this thing which you have done? Had you no thought that such a man as I would have power to see what is secret?” (Genesis 44:15 BBE). Again, this was all part of Joseph’s plan to get his brothers to reveal their true motivation- and it left them virtually speechless…
“‘What can we say to my lord?’ Judah replied. ‘What can we say? How can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered your servants’ guilt. We are now my lord’s slaves — we ourselves and the one who was found to have the cup'” (Genesis 44:16).
The evidence was so overwhelming against Benjamin that Judah didn’t even to try and make a defense. But Judah also realized that there was another factor involved as well: “‘…God is punishing us for our sins'” (Genesis 44:16 TLB). So what sin or guilt was Judah talking about? After all, he hadn’t stolen anything- and neither had any of his other brothers (with the possible exception of Benjamin). Why would he confess their guilt over something they didn’t do?
“‘God has uncovered our guilt. Now all of us are your slaves, including the one who had the cup'” (Genesis 44:16b GNB).
Joseph’s brothers weren’t guilty of stealing the silver chalice of this Egyptian governor, but they did carry the guilt of something else. In Judah’s view, this entire incident served as the payback for what they had done to Joseph 20 years earlier. That’s why he said, “‘…God has uncovered your servants’ guilt.'” In other words, Judah didn’t consider this situation to be a mistake, an error, or a stroke of bad luck. Judah (as the spokesman for the group) believed that God had brought about this incident because of the way they had treated Joseph so many years earlier.
So Joseph’s brothers were now willing to take responsibility and admit that they had done something wrong. They made no excuses, justifications, explanations, or rationalizations. Judah basically said, “God has put us in a position where we can do nothing else but admit our guilt.” Its been said that the first step in making something right is admitting that you’ve done something wrong- and that’s what Joseph’s brothers were now willing to do.
However, Joseph decided to offer his brothers one final way out…
“But Joseph said, ‘Far be it from me to do such a thing! Only the man who was found to have the cup will become my slave. The rest of you, go back to your father in peace'” (Genesis 44:17).
Joseph offered his brothers a chance to avoid any further consequences- if they were willing to take the easy way out. If they chose to accept this offer, then everyone but Benjamin would be given the opportunity to leave without any consequences. But while that would certainly be an easy choice, it would also mean repeating the same wrong that they had committed against Joseph 20 years before. You see, Joseph’s brothers had once abandoned him- and now he wanted to see if they were willing to do the same thing to Benjamin
But Joseph’s brothers also had their father Jacob to consider in making this choice. After all, Jacob had been very upset following the disappearance of his son Joseph so many years earlier. Would his other sons now be willing to put their father through that same emotional turmoil again with Benjamin? Would they be willing to save themselves as the expense of their father and youngest brother?
We’ll see what kind of choice Joseph’s brothers made next.
“Joseph told them, ‘I would never punish all of you. Only the one who was caught with the cup will become my slave. The rest of you are free to go home to your father'” (Genesis 44:17 CEV).
So after discovering his silver chalice in Benjamin’s saddlebag, Joseph provided his brothers with an opportunity to return home without suffering any consequences- if they were willing to leave Benjamin behind.
Here was their response…
“Then Judah went up to him and said: ‘Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word to my lord. Do not be angry with your servant, though you are equal to Pharaoh himself. My lord asked his servants, ‘Do you have a father or a brother?’ And we answered, ‘We have an aged father, and there is a young son born to him in his old age. His brother is dead, and he is the only one of his mother’s sons left, and his father loves him.’
Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me so I can see him for myself.’ And we said to my lord, his father loves him.’ But you told your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you will not see my face again.’ When we went back to your servant my father, we told him what my lord had said.
Then our father said, ‘Go back and buy a little more food.’ But we said, ‘We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother is with us will we go. We cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.’ Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One of them went away from me, and I said, “He has surely been torn to pieces.” And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me too and harm comes to him, you will bring my gray head down to the grave in misery'” (Genesis 44:17-29).
One thing that’s easy to overlook in Joseph’s brothers’ decision to sell him into slavery was their heartless disregard for their father Jacob. You see, Joseph’s apparent death caused their father such emotional pain that no one could comfort him- and his sons watched him suffer that pain with the knowledge that it had all been a lie.
But now things were different. Judah mentioned his father repeatedly in his response to Joseph’s offer and emphasized the love that his father had for Benjamin. But Judah wasn’t finished yet, and we’ll look at the rest of his plea next.
Jacob’s sons were in a very difficult situation. Their families were starving back home and now the Egyptian leader who sold them the food they so desperately needed was planning to enslave their youngest brother for the “theft” of his property.
But one of Jacob’s sons stepped up to plead for his youngest brothers’ safe return home. That person was Jacob’ s fourth oldest son, Judah. The centerpiece of Judah’s appeal to this Egyptian governor was his father Jacob’s close relationship with Benjamin, their youngest brother. After explaining the deep emotional bond that Jacob had with Benjamin, Judah went on to talk about what would happen if they were to return home without him…
“‘So now, if the boy is not with us when I go back to your servant my father and if my father, whose life is closely bound up with the boy’s life, sees that the boy isn’t there, he will die. Your servants will bring the gray head of our father down to the grave in sorrow.
Your servant guaranteed the boy’s safety to my father. I said, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, I will bear the blame before you, my father, all my life!’ Now then, please let your servant remain here as my lord’s slave in place of the boy, and let the boy return with his brothers. How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father'” (Genesis 44:30-34).
So Judah made a long and heartfelt explanation concerning the promise he had made to his father regarding Benjamin’s safety. But as honest as his plea was, Judah also made sure to choose his words very carefully. You see, Judah told the Egyptian governor, “…’my father said to us, ‘As you know, my wife had two sons, and one of them went away and never returned. Doubtless he was torn to pieces by some wild animal. I have never seen him since'” Genesis 44:27-28 NLT).
Now Jacob had been speaking of Joseph’s earlier disappearance, but was that really the truth? Well, that’s what Jacob thought had happened, but Judah and the rest of his brothers (with the exception of Benjamin) knew the real truth. In reality, Jacob’s sons had decided to sell Joseph to a group of traveling merchants. Then they allowed their father to believe that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal even though they knew that wasn’t the truth.
“Sir, our father then reminded us that his favorite wife had given birth to two sons. One of them was already missing and had not been seen for a long time. My father thinks the boy was torn to pieces by some wild animal…” (Genesis 44:27-28 CEV).
Although Judah and his brothers knew the real truth about Joseph, they couldn’t tell that part of the story to the Egyptian governor. If they had told the entire truth about Joseph’s disappearance then it would have demonstrated just how ruthlessly they once had treated their younger brother. So Judah made sure to choose his words very carefully. He truthfully communicated what his father said, but left out the fact that he and his brothers were the ones who were really responsible for Joseph’s disappearance.
Then as he continued his plea for his youngest brother Benjamin, Judah went on to say, “Our father’s life is wrapped up with the boy’s life…” (Genesis 44:30 GW). In other words, Judah recognized that Jacob was someone who was emotionally dependent on Benjamin. This should help to remind us of an important truth that we talked about earlier. While its not wrong to emotionally invest in other people, we must remember that people and situations can change, but God doesn’t. Jacob’s experience tells us that our dependence should always be on God first and then on others.
“If he sees that the boy is not with us, our father will die. We, your servants, will indeed be responsible for sending that grieving, white-haired man to his grave” (Genesis 44:31 NLT).
So Judah wasn’t pleading for Benjamin alone- he was also pleading for his father Jacob as well. This is just another demonstration of the attitude adjustment that had taken place in the lives of Joseph’s brothers. Remember that they had allowed their father to mistakenly believe that Joseph had been killed when he disappeared 20 years earlier. At that time, their father’s sorrow and pain over Joseph’s “death” didn’t really seem to affect them at all. But now, Judah was willing to plead with the Egyptian governor to spare his father the pain of losing another son.
20 years earlier, Joseph’s brothers wanted to find a way to dispose of their annoying little brother. But now, Judah was willing to give up his life to provide another little brother with the opportunity to return home to his father. So Judah was someone who stepped up, took responsibility, and demonstrated his willingness to make the sacrifice that would make things right- just as Someone else would do many years later.