Genesis 42 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Genesis 42)

Verse 1. Now when Jacob saw . Moses begins, in this chapter, to treat of the occasion which drew Jacob with his whole family into Egypt; and thus leaves it to us to consider by what hidden and unexpected methods God may perform whatever he has decreed. Though, therefore, the providence of God is in itself a labyrinth; yet when we connect the issue of things with their beginnings, that admirable method of operation shines clearly in our view, which is not generally acknowledged, only because it is far removed from our observation. Also our own indolence hinders us from perceiving God, with the eyes of faith, as holding the government of the world; because we either imagine fortune to be the mistress of events, or else, adhering to near and natural causes, we weave them together, and spread them as veils before our eyes. Whereas, therefore, scarcely any more illustrious representation of Divine Providence is to be found than this history furnishes; let pious readers careful)y exercise themselves in meditation upon it, in order that they may acknowledge those things which, in appearance, are fortuitous, to be directed by the hand of God.

Why do ye look one upon another? Why do ye Men are said to look one upon another, when each is waiting for the other, and, for want of counsel, no one dares to attempt anything. Jacob, therefore, censures this inactivity of his sons, because none of them endeavors to provide for the present necessity. Moses also says that they went into Egypt at the command of their father, and even without Benjamin; by which he intimates that filial reverence at that time was great; because envy of their brother did not prevent them from leaving their wives and children, and undertaking a long journey. He also adds, that they came in the midst of a great crowd of people; which enhances the fame of Joseph; who, while supplying food for all Egypt, and dispensing it by measure, till the end of the drought, could also afford assistance to neighboring nations.

Verse 6. And Joseph was the governor 1 over the land . Moses connects the honor of Joseph with his fidelity and diligence. For although he was possessed of supreme authority, he nevertheless submitted to every possible laborious service, just as if he had been a hired servant. From which example we must learn, that as any one excels in honor, he is bound to be the more fully occupied in business; but that they who desire to combine leisure with dignity, utterly pervert the sacred order of God. Let it be, moreover, understood, that the corn was sold by Joseph, not as if he measured it out with his own hands, or himself received the money for it, seeing that it was set to sale in many parts of the kingdom, and he could scarcely have attended to one single storehouse: but that the whole of the stores were under his power.

Verse 7. He made himself strange unto them . It may be asked for what purpose Joseph thus tormented his brethren with threats and with terror. For if he was actuated by a sense of the injury received from them, he cannot be acquitted of the desire of revenge. It is, however, probable, that he was impelled neither by anger nor a thirst of vengeance, but that he was induced by two just causes to act as he did. For he both desired to regain his brother Benjamin, and wished to ascertain,—as if by putting them to the torture,—what was in their mind, whether they repented or not; and, in short, what had been their course of life since he had seen them last. For, had he made himself known at the first interview, it was to be feared lest they, keeping their father out of sight, and wishing to cast a vail over the detestable wickedness which they had committed, should only increase it by a new crime. There lurked, also, a not unreasonable suspicion concerning his brother Benjamin, lest they should attempt something perfidious and cruel against him. It was therefore important that they should be more thoroughly sifted; so that Joseph, being fully informed of the state of his father's house, might take his measures according to circumstances; and also, that previous to pardon, some punishment might be inflicted which would lead them more carefully to reflect upon the atrocity of their crime. For whereas he afterwards showed himself to be placable and humane; this did not arise from the fact, that his anger being assuaged, he became, by degrees, inclined to compassion; but rather, as Moses elsewhere subjoins, that he sought retirement, because he could no longer refrain himself; herein intimating at the same time, that Joseph had forcibly repressed his tears so long as he retained a severe aspect; and, therefore, that he had felt throughout the same affection of pity towards them. And it appears that a special impulse moved him to this whole course of action. For it was no common thing, that Joseph, beholding so many authors of his calamities, was neither angry nor changed in his manner, nor broke out into reproaches; but was composed both in his countenance and his speech, as if he had long meditated at leisure, respecting the course he would pursue. But it may be inquired again, whether his dissimulation, which was joined with a falsehood, is not to be blamed; for we know how pleasing integrity is to God, and how strictly he prohibits his own people from deceit and falsehoods. Whether God governed his servant by some special movement, to depart without fault, from the common rule of action, I know not; seeing that the faithful may sometimes piously do things which cannot lawfully be drawn into a precedent. Of this, however, in considering the acts of the holy fathers, we must always beware; lest they should lead us away from that law which the Lord prescribes to all in common. By the general command of God, we must all cultivate sincerity. That Joseph feigned something different from the truth, affords no pretext to excuse us if we attempt anything of the same kind. For, though a liberty granted by privilege would be pardoned, yet if any one, relying on a private example, does not scruple to subvert the law of God, so as to give himself license to do what is therein forbidden, he shall justly suffer the punishment of his audacity. And yet I do not think that we ought to be very anxious to excuse Joseph, because it is probable that he suffered something from human infirmity, which God forgave him; for by Divine mercy alone could that dissimulation, which in itself was not without fault, escape condemnation.

Verse 9. And Joseph remembered the dreams . When the boy Joseph had spoken of receiving obeisance, the absurdity of the thing impelled his brethren wickedly to devise his death. Now, although they bow down to him without knowing him, there is yet nothing better for them. Indeed, their only means of safety, is to prostrate themselves at his feet, and to be received by him as suppliants. Meanwhile, their conspiracy, by which they attempted to subvert the celestial decree, lest they should have to bear the yoke, was rendered fruitless. So the Lord forcibly restrains the obstinate, just as wild and refractory horses are wont to be more severely treated, the more they kick and are restive. Wherefore, there is nothing better than meekly to compose the mind to gentleness, that each may take his own lot contentedly, though it be not very splendid. It may, however, seem absurd, that Joseph should, at this time, have recalled his dream to mind, as if it had been forgotten through the lapse of years; which, indeed, could not be, unless he had lost sight of the promises of God. I answer, nothing is here recorded but what frequently happens to ourselves: for although the word of God may be dwelling in our hearts, yet it does not continually occur to us, but rather is sometimes so smothered that it may seem to be extinct, especially when faith is oppressed by the darkness of affliction. Besides, it is nothing wonderful, if a long series of evils should have buried, in a kind of oblivion, his dreams which indicated prosperity. God had exalted him, by these dreams, to the hope of great and distinguished authority. He is, however, cast into a well not unlike a grave. He is taken hence to be sold as a slave; he is carried to a distant land; and, as if slavery would not prove sufficiently severe, he is shut up in prison. And though his misery is in some degree mitigated, when he is released from his iron fetters, yet there was little, if any, prospect of deliverance. I do not, however, think that the hope entertained by him was entirely destroyed, but that a cloud passed over it, which deprived him of the light of comfort. A different kind of temptation followed; because nothing is more common than for great and unexpected felicity to intoxicate its possessors. And thus it happened, as we have recently read, that a forgetfulness of his father's house stole over the mind of the holy man. He was not, therefore, so mindful of his dreams as he ought to have been. Another excuse may probably be alleged; that he, at the moment, compared his dreams with the event. And truly it was no common virtue to apply what was passing, thus immediately for the confirmation of the Divine oracle. For we readily perceive, that those dreams which so quickly recur to the memory, had not been obliterated through length of time. So the disciples remembered the words of the Lord after he had risen from the dead; because, by the sight of the fact predicted, their knowledge became more clear; whereas, before, nothing but transient sparks of it had shined in their hearts.

Verse 15. By the life of Pharaoh . From this formula of swearing a new question is raised; for that which is commanded in the law, that we should swear only by the name of God, had already been engraven on the hearts of the pious; since nature dictates that this honor is to be given to God alone, that men should defer to his judgment, and should make him the supreme arbiter and vindicator of faith and truth. If we should say that this was not simply an oath, but a kind of obtestation, the holy man will be, in some degree, excusable. He who swears by God wishes him to interpose in order to inflict punishment on perjury. They who swear by their life or by their hand, deposit, as it were, what they deem most valuable, as a pledge of their faithfulness. By this method the majesty of God is not transferred to mortal man; because it is a very different thing to cite him as witness who has the right of taking vengeance, and to assert by something most dear to us, that what we say is true. So Moses, when he calls heaven and earth to witness, does not ascribe deity to them, and thus fabricate a new idol; but, in order that higher authority may be given to the law, he declares that there is no part of the world which will not cry out before the tribunal of God, against the ingratitude of the people, if they reject the doctrine of salvation. Notwithstanding, there is, I confess, in this form of swearing which Joseph uses, something deserving of censure; for it was a profane adulation, among the Egyptians, to swear by the life of the king. Just as the Romans swore by the genius of their prince, after they had been reduced to such bondage that they made their Caesar equal to gods. Certainly this mode of swearing is abhorrent to true piety. Whence it may be perceived that nothing is more difficult to the holy servants of God than to keep themselves so pure, while conversant with the filth of the world, as to contract no spots of defilement from it. Joseph, indeed, was never so infected with the corruptions of the court, but that he remained a pure worshipped of God: nevertheless we see, that in accommodating himself to this depraved custom of speaking, he had received some stain. His repetition of the expression shows, that when any one has once become accustomed to evil, he becomes exceedingly prone to sin again and again. We observe, that they who have once rashly assumed the license of swearing, pour forth an oath every third word, even when speaking of the most frivolous things. So much the greater caution ought we to use, lest any such indulgence should harden us in this wicked custom.

Verse 17. And he put them altogether into ward . Here, not by words only, as before, but by the act itself, Joseph shows himself severe towards his brethren, when he shuts them all up in prison, as if about to bring them to punishment: and during three days torments them with fear. We said a little while ago, that from this act no rule for acting severely and rigidly is to be drawn; because it is doubtful whether he acted rightly or otherwise. Again, it is to be feared lest they who plead his example should be far removed from his mildness, and that they should prove to be rather his apes than his true imitators. Meanwhile, it plainly appears what he was aiming at; for he does not mitigate their punishment, as if at the end of three days he was appeased; but he renders them more anxious about the redemption of their brother, whom he retains as a hostage. Lest, however, immoderate fear should deter them from returning, he promises to act with good faith towards them: and to convince them of that, he declares that he fears God, which expression is worthy of observation. Doubtless he speaks from the inward feeling of his heart, when he declares that he will deal well and truly with them, because he fears God. Therefore the commencement and the fountain of that good and honest conscience, whereby we cultivate fidelity and justice towards men, is the fear of God. There appears indeed some probity in the despisers of God; but it soon goes off in smoke, unless the depraved affections of the flesh are restrained as with a bridle, by the thought that God is to be feared, because he will be the Judge of the world. For whoever does not think that he must render an account, will never so cultivate integrity as to refrain from pursuing what he supposes will be useful to himself. Wherefore, if we wish to be free from perfidy, craft, cruelty, and all wicked desire of doing injure, we must labor earnestly that religion may flourish among us. For whenever we act with want of sincerity or humanity towards each other, impiety openly betrays itself. For whatever there is of rectitude or justice in the world, Joseph comprised in this short sentence, when he said, that he feared God.

Verse 21. And they said one to another . This is a remarkable passage, showing that the sons of Jacob, when reduced to the greatest straits, recall to memory a fratricide committed thirteen years previously. Before affliction pressed upon them, they were in a state of torpor. Moses relates that, even lately, they had spoken without agitation of Joseph's death, as if conscious to themselves of no evil. But now they are compelled (so to speak) to enter into their own consciences. We see then, how in adversity, God searches and tries men; and how, while dissipating all their flattering illusions, he not only pierces their minds with secret fear, but extorts a confession which they would gladly avoid. And this kind of examination is very necessary for us. Wonderful is the hypocrisy of men in covering their evils; and if impunity be allowed, their negligence will be increased twofold. Wherefore no remedy remains, except that they who give themselves up to slumber when the Lord deals gently with them, should be awakened by afflictions and punishments. Joseph therefore produced some good effect, when he extorted from his brethren the acknowledgment of their sin, in which they had securely pleased themselves. And the Lord had compassion on them, in taking away the covering with which they had been too long deceived. In the same manner, while he daily chastises us by the hand of man, he draws us, as guilty, to his tribunal. Nevertheless it would profit but little to be tried by adversity, unless he inwardly touched the heart; for we see how few reflect on their sins, although admonished by most severe punishments; certainly no one comes to this state of mind but with reluctance. Wherefore, there is no doubt that God, in order to lead the sons of Jacob to repentance, impelled them, as well by the secret instinct of his Spirit as by outward chastisement, to become sensible of that sin which had been too long concealed. Let the reader also observe, that the sons of Jacob did not only fix their minds on something which was close at hand, but considered that divine punishments were inflicted in various ways upon sinners. And doubtless, in order to apprehend the divine judgments, we must extend our views afar. Sometimes indeed God, by inflicting present punishment on sinners, holds them up for observation as on a theater; but often, as if aiming at another object, he takes vengeance on our sins unexpectedly, and from an unseen quarter. If the sons of Jacob had merely looked for some present cause of their sufferings, they could have done nothing but loudly complain that they had been injured; and at length despair would have followed. But while considering how far and wide the providence of God extends, looking beyond the occasion immediately before their eyes, they ascend to a remote cause. It is, however, doubtful, whether they say that they shall be held guilty on account of their brother, or for their brother's sake, or that they will themselves confess that they have sinned: for the Hebrew noun, Mymsa (ashaimim) is ambiguous because it sometimes refers to the crime committed, and sometimes to the punishment, as in Latin, piaculum signifies both the crime and the expiation. On the whole, it is of little consequence which meaning is preferred, for they acknowledge their sin either in its guilt or its punishment. But the latter sense appears to me the more simple and genuine, that they are deservedly punished because they had been so cruel to their brother.

In that we saw the anguish of his soul . They acknowledge that it is by the just judgment of God, that they obtained nothing by their suppliant entreaties, because they themselves had acted so cruelly towards their brother. Christ had not yet uttered the sentence,

"With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured unto you again," (Matthew 7:2,)

but it was a dictate of nature, that they who had been cruel to others, were unworthy of commiseration. The more heed ought we to take, that we prove not deaf to so many threatening of Scripture. Dreadful is that denunciation,

"Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, and shall not be heard." (Proverbs 21:13.)

Therefore while we have time, let us learn to exercise humanity, to sympathize with the miserable, and to stretch out our hand for the sake of giving assistance. But if at any time it happens that we are treated roughly by men, and our prayers are proudly rejected; then, at least, let the question occur to us, whether we ourselves have in anything acted unkindly towards others; for although it were better to be wise beforehand; it is, nevertheless, some advantage, whenever others proudly despise us, to reflect whether they with whom we have had to deal, have not experienced similar hardships from us. "Our brother," they say, "entreated us when he was in the last extremity: we rejected his prayers: therefore it is by divine retribution that we can obtain nothing." By these words they bear witness that the hearts of men are so under Divine government, that they can be inclined to equity, or hardened in inflexible rigor. Moreover, their cruelty was hateful to God, because, since his goodness is diffused through heaven and earth, and his beneficence is extended not only to men, but even to brute animals, nothing is more contrary to his nature, than that we should cruelly reject those who implore our protection.

Verse 22. And Reuben answered them . Because he had attempted to deliver Joseph out of the hands of his brethren, in order to restore him in safety to his father, he magnifies their fault, in not having, at that time, listened to any prudent counsel: and I understand his words as conveying a reproof for their too late repentance. Whereas Joseph was not yet satisfied with this confession, but retained Simeon in bonds, 2 and dismissed the rest in suspense and perplexity, this was not done from malevolence, but because he was not certain about the safety of his brother Benjamin, and the state of his father's house. For he might justly fear lest, when they found that their wicked contrivance of putting their brother to death, was discovered, they might again attempt some horrible crime, as desperate men are wont to do; or, at least, might desert their father, and flee to some other country. Nevertheless the act of Joseph is not to be drawn into a precedent: because it is not always right to be thus austere. We ought also to beware lest the offender be swallowed up by grief, if we are not mild, and disposed to forgiveness. Therefore we must seek the spirit of discretion from heaven, which shall so govern us that we may do nothing by rash impetuosity, or immoderate severity. This, indeed, is to be remembered, that under the stern countenance of Joseph was concealed not only a mild and placid disposition, but the most tender affection.

Verse 27. And as one of them opened his sack . With what intention Joseph had commanded the price paid for the corn to be secretly deposited in the sacks of his brethren, may easily be conjectured; for he feared lest his father being already impoverished, would not be able again to buy provisions. The brethren, having found their money, knew not where to seek the cause; except that, being terrified, they perceived that the hand of God was against them. That they were greatly astonished appears from their not voluntarily returning to Joseph, in order to prove their own innocence: for the remedy of the evil was at hand, if they had not been utterly blinded. Wherefore we must ask God to supply us, in doubtful and troubled affairs, not only with fortitude, but also with prudence. We see also how little can be effected even by a great multitude, unless the Lord preside among them. The sons of Jacob ought mutually to have exhorted each other, and to have consulted together what was necessary to be done: but there is an end to all deliberation; no solace nor remedy is suggested. Even while each sees the rest agitated, they mutually increase each other's trepidation. Therefore, the society and countenance of men will profit us nothing, unless the Lord strengthen us from heaven.

Verse 28. What is this that God has done unto us? They do not expostulate with God, as if they thought this danger had come upon them without cause: but, perceiving that God was angry with them in many ways, they deplore their wretchedness. But why do they not rather turn their thoughts to Joseph? For the suspicion was natural, that this had been done by fraud, because he wished to lay new snares for them. How does it happen, then, that losing sight of man, they set God as an avenger directly before them? Truly, because this single thought possessed their minds, that a just reward, and such as their sins deserved, would be given them; and, from that time, they referred whatever evils happened to the same cause. Before (as we have said) they were asleep: but from the time that they began to be affected by the lively fear of God's judgment, his providence always presented itself to their view. So David, when, by the inward suggestion of the Spirit, he has learned that the rod with which he was chastised had been sent from heaven, is not distracted or perplexed, though he sees plainly that the evils have proceeded from another quarter; but prays to God to heal the wounds which He had made. It is no common act of prudence, and is at the same time profitable, whenever any adversity overtakes us, to accustom ourselves to the consideration of the judgments of God. We see how unbelievers, while they imagine their misfortunes to be accidental, or while they are bent on accusing their enemies, only exasperate their grief by fretting and raging, and thus cause the anger of God to burn the more against them. But he who, in his affliction, exercises himself in reflecting on his own sins, and sets God before him as his Judge, will humble himself in the divine presence, and will compose his mind to patience by the hope of pardon. Let us, however, remember that the providence of God is not truly acknowledged, except in connection with his justice. Forthough the men by whose hand he chastises us are often unjust, yet, in an incomprehensible manner, he executes his judgments through them, against which judgments it is not lawful for us either to reply or to murmur. For sometimes even the reprobate, though they acknowledge themselves to be stricken by the hand of God, yet do not cease to complain against him, as Moses teaches us by the example of Cain. I do not, however, understand that this complaint was made by the sons of Jacob, for the purpose of charging God with tyrannical violence; but because they, being overcome with fear, inferred from this double punishment that God was highly displeased with them.

Verse 29. And they came unto Jacob their father . Here is a long repetition of the former history, but it is not superfluous; because Moses wished to show how anxiously they made their excuse to their father for having left Simon in chains, and how strenuously they pleaded with him, that, for the sake of obtaining Simeon's liberty, he should allow them to take their brother Benjamin: for this was greatly to the purpose. We know what a sharp dart is hunger: and yet, though the only method of relieving their want was to fetch corn out of Egypt, Jacob would rather that he and his family should perish, than allow Benjamin to accompany the rest. What can he mean by thus peremptorily refusing what his sons were compelled by necessity to ask, except to show that he was suspicious of them? This also more clearly appears from his own words, when he imputes his bereavement to them. For, though their declaration, that Joseph had been torn by a wild beast, had some color of probability, there still remained in the heart of the holy patriarch a secret wound, arising from suspicion; because he was fully aware of their fierce and cruel hatred of the innocent youth. Moreover, it is useful for us to know this; for it appears hence how miserable was the condition of the holy man, whose mind, during thirteen successive years, had been tortured with dire anxiety. Besides, his very silence added greatly to his torment, because he was compelled to conceal the grief he felt. But the chief burden of the evil was the temptation which oppressed him, that the promise of God might prove illusory and vain. For he had no hope except from the promised seed; but he seemed to be bringing up devils at home, from whom a blessing was no more to be expected than life from death. He thought Joseph to be dead, Benjamin alone remained to him uncorrupted: how could the salvation of the world proceed from such a vicious offspring? He must, therefore, have been endowed with great constancy, seeing he did not cease to rely upon God; and being certainly persuaded that he cherished in his house the Church, of which scarcely any appearance was left, he bore with his sons till they should repent. Let the faithful now apply this example to themselves, lest their minds should give way at the horrible devastation which is almost everywhere perceived.

Verse 35. As they emptied their sacks. Here, again, it appears how greatly they had been alarmed in their journey, seeing that each had not at least examined his sack, after money had been found in one. But these things are written to show that, as soon as men are smitten with fear, they have no particle of wisdom and of soundness of mind, until God tranquilizes them. Moreover, Joseph did not act with sufficient consideration, in that he occasioned very great grief to his father, whose poverty he really intended to relieve. Whence we learn that even the most prudent are not always so careful, but that something may flow from their acts which they do not wish.

Verse 36. Me have ye bereaved . Jacob does not, indeed, openly accuse his sons of the crime of their brother's murder; yet he is angry as if, two of his sons being already taken away, they were hastening to destroy the third. For he says that all these evils were falling on himself alone; because he does not think that they were affected as they ought to be, nor shared his grief with him, but were carelessly making light of the destruction of their brethren, as if they had no interest in their lives. It seems, however, exceedingly barbarous that Reuben should offer his two sons to his father to be slain, if he did not bring Benjamin back. Jacob might, indeed, slay his own grandchildren: what comfort, then, could he take in acting cruelly to his own bowels? But this is what I before alluded to, that they were suspected of having dealt perfidiously towards Joseph; for which reason Reuben deemed it necessary to assuage his father's fear, by such a vehement protestation; and to give this pledge, that he and his brethren were designing nothing wicked against Benjamin.

Verse 38. My son shall not go down with you . Again we see, as in a lively picture, with what sorrow holy Jacob had been oppressed. He sees his whole family famishing: he would rather be torn away from life than from his son: whence we gather that he was not iron-hearted: but his patience is the more deserving of praise, because he contended with the infirmity of the flesh, and did not sink under it. And although Moses does not give a rhetorical amplification to his language, we nevertheless easily perceive that he was overcome with excessive grief, when he thus complained to his sons, You are too cruel to your father, in taking away from me a third son, after I have been plundered of first one and then another.

1 jylsh (Hashalit) "Of the Hebrew Shallet and Shilton, is made in Arabic the name Sultan, a title whereby the chief rulers of Egypt and Babylon are still called."—Ainsworth.—Ed.

2 Ainsworth says of Simeon, "He seemeth by this, to have been the chief procurer of Joseph's trouble. He was by nature bold and fierce, as his fact against the Shechemites doth manifest." IF so, this act of Joseph would appear to him, and perhaps to the rest of the brethren, as a special Divine retribution for his cruelty towards Joseph.—Ed.