Genesis 43 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Genesis 43)

Verse 1. And the famine was sore in the land . In this chapter is recorded the second journey of the sons of Jacob into Egypt, when the former supply of provision had been exhausted. It may, however, here be asked, how Jacob could have supported his family, even for a few days, with so small a quantity of corn: for, suppose it to be granted that several asses were conducted by each of the brethren, what was this to sustain three hundred persons? 1 For, since Abraham had a much larger number of servants, and mention has been made above of the servants of Isaac; it is incredible that Jacob was so entirely destitute, as to have no servants left. If we say, that he, being a stranger, had been compelled to sell them all, it is but an uncertain guess. It seems to me more probable that they lived on acorns, herbs, and roots. For we know that the orientals, especially when any necessity urges, are content with slender and dry food, and we shall see presently, that, in this scarcity of wheat, there was a supply of other food. I suppose, therefore, that no more corn had been bought than would suffice to furnish a frugal and restricted measure of food for Jacob himself, and for his children and grandchildren: and that the food of the servants was otherwise provided for. There is, indeed, no doubt that the whole region had been compelled to resort to acorns, and fruits of this kind, for food for the servants, and that wheaten bread was a luxury belonging to the rich. This was, indeed, a severe trial, that holy Jacob, of whom God had engaged to take care, should almost perish, with his family, through hunger, and that the land of which he was constituted the lord, in order that he might there happily enjoy the abundance of all things, should even deny him bread as a stranger. For he might seriously doubt what was the meaning of that remarkable promise, I am God Almighty, grow and multiply: I will bless thee. It is profitable for us to know these conflicts of the holy fathers, that, fighting with the same arms with which they conquered, we also may stand invincible, although God should withhold present help.

Verse 3. And Judah spake unto him, saying . Judah seems to feign something, for the purpose of extorting from his father what he knew he would not freely grant; but it is probable that many discourses had been held on both sides, which Moses, according to his custom, has not related. And since Joseph so ardently desired the sight of his brother Benjamin, it is not surprising that he should have labored, in every possible way, to obtain it. It may also have happened that he had caused some notification or legal summons to be served, by which his brother was cited to make his appearance, as in judicial causes. This however deserves to be noticed, that Moses relates the long disputation which Jacob had with his sons, in order that we may know with what difficulty he allowed his son Benjamin to be torn away from him. For, though hunger was pressing, he nevertheless contended for retaining him, just as if he were striving for the salvation of his whole family. Whence, again, we may conjecture, that he suspected his sons of a wicked conspiracy; and on this account Judah offers himself as a surety. For he does not promise anything respecting the event, but only, for the sake of clearing himself and his brethren, he takes Benjamin under his care, with this condition, that if any injury should be done to Benjamin, he would bear the punishment and the blame. From the example of Jacob let us learn patient endurance, should the Lord often compel us, by pressure of circumstances, to do many things contrary to the inclination of our own minds; for Jacob sends away his son, as if he were delivering him over unto death.

Verse 11. Take of the best fruits . 2 Though the fruits which Moses enumerates were, for the most part, not very precious, because the condition of holy Jacob was not such that he could send any royal present; yet, according to his slender ability, he wished to appease Joseph. Besides we know that fruits are not always estimated according to their cost. And now, having commanded his sons to do what he thought necessary, he has recourse to prayer, that God would give them favor with the governor of Egypt. We must attend to both these points whenever we are perplexed in any business; for we must not omit any of those things which are expedient, or which may seem to be of use; and yet we must place our reliance upon God. For the tranquillity of faith has no affinity with indolence: but he who expects a prosperous issue of his affairs from the Lord, will, at the same time, look closely to the means which are in his power, and will apply them to present use. Meanwhile, let the faithful observe this moderation, that when they have tried all means, they still ascribe nothing to their own industry. At the same time, let them be certainly convinced that all their endeavors will be in vain, unless the Lord bless them. It is to be observed, also, in the form of his supplication, that Jacob regards the hearts of men as subject to the will of God. When we have to deal with men, we too often neglect to look unto the Lord, because we do not sufficiently acknowledge him as the secret governor of their hearts. But to whatever extent unruly men may be carried away by violence, it is yet certain that their passions are turned by God in whatever direction he pleases, so that he can mitigate their ferocity as often as he sees good; or can permit those to become cruel, who before were disposed to mildness. So Jacob, although his sons had found an austere severity in Joseph, yet trusts that his heart will be so in the hand of God, that it shall be suddenly mounded to humanity. Therefore, as we must hope in the Lord, when men deal unjustly with us, and must pray that they may be changed for the better; so, on the other hand, we must remember that, when they act with severity towards us, it is not done without the counsel of God.

Verse 14. If I be bereaved . Jacob may seem here to be hardly consistent with himself; for, if the prayer which Moses has just related, was the effect of faith, he ought to have been more calm; and, at least, to have given occasion to the manifestation of the grace of God. But he appears to cut himself off from every ground of confidence, when he supposes that nothing is left for him but bereavement. It is like the speech of a man in despair, "I shall remain bereaved as I am." As if truly he had prayed in vain; or had feignedly professed that the remedy was in the hand of God. If, however, we observe to whom his speech was directed, the solution is easy. It is by no means doubtful that he stood firmly on the promise which had been given to him, and therefore he would hope for some fruit of his prayers; yet he wished deeply to affect his sons, in order that they might take greater care of their brother. For, it was in no common manner that Benjamin was intrusted to their protection, when they saw their father altogether overcome and almost lifeless with grief, until he should receive his son again in safety. Interpreters, however, expound these words variously. Some think that he complained, because now he was about to be entirely bereaved. To others, the meaning seems to be, that nothing worse could happen; since he had lost Joseph, whom he had preferred to all the rest. Others are disposed to mark a double bereavement, as if he had said, "I have lost two sons, and now a third follows them." But what, if we should thus interpret the words, "I see what is my condition; I am a most wretched old man; my house, which lately was filled with people, I find almost deserted." So that, in general terms, he is deploring the loss of all his sons, and is not speaking of a part only. Moreover, it was his design to inspire his sons with a degree of solicitude which should cause them to attend to their duty with greater fidelity and diligence. 3

Verse 16. And he said to the ruler of his house . Here we perceive the fraternal disposition of Joseph; though it is uncertain whether he was perfectly reconciled, as I will shortly show, in its proper place. If, however, remembering the injury, he loved his brethren less than before, he was still far from having vindictive feelings towards them. But because it was something suspicious that foreigners and men of ignoble rank should be received in a friendly manner, like known guests, to a banquet, by the chief governor of the kingdom, the sons of Jacob would conceive a new fear; namely, that he wished to cast them all into chains; and that their money had been craftily concealed in their sacks, in order that it might prove the occasion of accusation against them. It is however probable, that the crime which they had committed against Joseph, occurred to their minds, and that this fear had proceeded from a guilty conscience. For, unless the judgment of God had tormented them, there was no cause why they should apprehend such an act of perfidy. It may seem absurd, that unknown men should be received to a feast by a prince of the highest dignity. But why not rather incline to a different conjecture; namely, that the governor of Egypt has done this for the purpose of exhibiting to his friends the new and unwonted spectacle of eleven brethren sitting at one table? It will, indeed, sometimes happen that similar anxiety to that felt by Joseph's brethren, may invade even the best of men; but I would rather ascribe it to the judgment of God, that the sons of Jacob, whose conscience accused them of having inhumanely treated their brother, suspected that they would be dealt with in the same manner. However, they take an early opportunity of vindicating themselves, before inquiry is made respecting the theft. Now, freely to declare that the money had been found in their sacks, and that they had brought it from home to repay it immediately was a strong mark of their innocence. Moreover, they do this in the very porch of the house, because they suspected that, as soon as they entered, the question would be put to them.

Verse 23. Peace be to you . Because Mwls (shalom,) among the Hebrews, signifies not only peace, but any prosperous and desirable condition, as well as any joyful event, this passage may be expounded in two ways: either that the ruler of Joseph's house commands them to be of a peaceful and secure mind; or that he pronounces it to be well and happy with them. The sum of his answer, however, amounts to this, that there was no reason for fear, because their affairs were in a prosperous state. And since, after the manner of men, it was not possible that they should have paid the money for the corn which was found in their sacks, he ascribes this to the favor of God. For though true religion was then almost extinct in the world, God nevertheless caused some knowledge of his goodness always to remain in the hearts of men, which should render them responsible. Hence it has happened that, following nature as their guide, unbelievers have called every peculiarly excellent gift Divine. Moreover, because corruption was so prevalent, that each nation deemed it lawful to worship different gods, the ruler of Joseph's house distinguishes the God worshipped by the sons of Jacob from Egyptian idols. The conjecture, however, is probable, that this man had been imbued with some sense of religion. We know how great was the arrogance of that nation, and that it supposed the whole world besides, to be deceived in the worship of gods. Therefore, unless he had learned something better, he never would have assigned so great an honor to any other gods than those of his own country. Moreover, he does not ascribe the miracle to the God of the land of Canaan, but to the peculiar God of their father. I, therefore, do not doubt that Joseph, though not permitted openly to correct anything in the received superstitions, endeavored, at least in his own house, to establish the true worship of the one God, and always held fast the covenant, concerning which, as a boy, he had heard his father speak. This is the more to be observed, because the holy man could not swerve, even in the least degree, from the common practice, without incurring the odium of a nation so proud. Therefore, the excellency of Joseph is commended in the person of his steward; because without fear of public envy, he gives honor, within his own walls, to the true God. If any one should ask, whence he knew that Jacob was a worshipped of the true God; the answer is ready; that Joseph, notwithstanding his assumed severity, had commanded that Simon should be gently treated in prison. Though he had been left as a hostage, yet, if he had been regarded as a spy, the keeper of the prison would have dealt more harshly with him. There must, therefore, have been some command given respecting the humane or moderate treatment of him. Whence the probable conjecture is elicited, that Joseph had explained the affair to his steward, who was admitted to his secret counsels.

Verse 25. Against Joseph came at noon-day . It is doubtful whether this was the ordinary hour of dining among the Egyptians, or whether Joseph, on that day, sat down earlier than he was accustomed to do, on account of his guests. It is, however, most likely that the usual custom of dining was observed. Although, among the people of the East, there might be a different manner of living, dinners were in use, not only among the Egyptians, but also in Judea, and in other neighboring regions. Yet it is probable that this was to them, also, in the place of a supper, both because they would sit long at table, and our quick method of eating would not have been tolerable to people in those heated climes; especially when they received guests with greater luxury than usual, as it will presently appear, was done at this time. The washing of the feet, (as we have seen before,) was a part of hospitality, and intended to relieve weariness; because, in those parts, the feet might easily become inflamed whenever they journeyed on foot. It was also more honorable, according to ancient custom, that a portion of food should be sent to each from Joseph, rather than that it should be distributed by the cook. But because these things are trivial, and are not conducive to piety, I only slightly touch upon them; and would even omit them entirely, except that, to remove a scruple from the minds of the unskillful, is sometimes useful, if it be but done sparingly and with brevity.

Verse 32. Because the Egyptians might not eat, etc . 4 Moses says they might not eat with the Hebrews, because they abhorred it, as being unlawful. For seeing that their religion forbade it, they were so bound, that they could not do what they did not dare to do. This passage teaches us how great was the pride of that nation; for, whence did it arise that they so utterly detested the Hebrews, unless because they thought themselves alone to be pure and holy in the world, and acceptable to God? God, indeed, commands his worshipers to abstain from all the pollutions of the Gentiles. But it behaves any one who separates himself from others, to be himself pure and upright. Therefore superstitious persons vainly attempt to claim this privilege for themselves, seeing they carry their impurity within, and are destitute of sincerity. Superstition, also, is affected with another disease; namely, that it is full of pride, so that it despises all men, under the pretext that they are vicious. It is asked, however, whether the Egyptians were separated from Joseph, because they regarded him as polluted: for this the words of Moses seem to intimate. If this interpretation is received, then they esteemed their false religion so highly, that they did not scruple to load their governor with reproaches. I rather conjecture, that Joseph sat apart from them, for the sake of honor; since it would be absurd that they, who disdained to sit at the same table with him, should be invited as his guests. Therefore it is probable that this distinct order was made by Joseph himself, that he might maintain his own dignity; and yet that the sons of Jacob were not mixed with the Egyptians, because the former were an abomination to the latter. For though the origin of Joseph was known, yet he had so passed over to the Egyptians, that he had become as one of their body. For which reason, also, the king had given him a name, when he adorned him with the insignia of his office as chief governor. Now, when we see that the church of God was, at that time, so proudly despised by profane men, we need not wonder that we also, at the present day, are subjected to similar reproach. Meanwhile, we must endeavor to keep ourselves pure from the filth of the world, for the Lord's sake; and yet this desire must be so at tempered, that we may be alienated from the vices, rather than from the persons of men. For on this account does God sanctify his children, that they may beware of the vices of the unbelievers among whom they are conversant; and nevertheless may allure, as many as are curable, to a participation of their piety. Two things are here to be attended to; first, that we may be fully persuaded of the genuineness of our faith; secondly, that our excessive and fruitless fastidiousness may not entirely alienate many from the Lord, who otherwise might have been won. For we are not expressly commanded so to abhor the wicked, as not eat with them; but to avoid such association as may subject us to the same yoke. Besides, this passage confirms what I have before said, that the Hebrews had derived their name, not from their passing over the river; (as some falsely imagine,) but from their ancestor Heber. Nor was the fame of a single small and distantly situated family, sufficiently celebrated in Egypt, to become the cause of public dissension.

Verse 33. The first-born according to his birthright . 5 Although of the sons of Jacob four were born of bond-women; yet, since they were the elder, they had precedence of their younger brethren, who had descended from free-born mothers; whence it appears that they had been accustomed by their father to keep this order. What, then, some one may say, becomes of the declaration, "the son of the bond-woman shall not be heir with the son of the free-woman?" Truly, I think, since Ishmael was rejected, by the divine oracle proceeding from the mouth of Sarah, as Esau was afterwards, Jacob was fully taught that he had as many heirs as he had sons. Hence arose that equality which caused each to keep his place, first, middle, or last, according to his age. But the design of Moses was to show, that although Benjamin was the youngest, yet he was preferred to all the rest in honor; because Joseph could not refrain from giving him the principal token of his love. It was, indeed, his intention to remain unknown; but affection so far prevails, that, beyond the purpose of his mind, he suddenly breaks out into a declaration of his affection. From the concluding portion of the chapter we gather, what I recently intimated, that the feast was unusually luxurious, and that they were received to it, in a liberal and joyful manner, beyond the daily custom. For the word rks (shakar,) they "were merry," signifies, either that they were not always accustomed to drink wine, or that there was more than ordinary indulgence at the sumptuous tables spread for them. Here, however, no intemperance is implied, (so that drunkards may not plead the example of the holy fathers as a pretext for their crime,) but an honorable and moderate liberality. I acknowledge, indeed, that the word has a double meaning, and is often taken in an ill sense; as in Genesis 9:21, and in similar places: but in the present instance the design of Moses is clear. Should any one object, that a frugal use of food and drink is simply that which suffices for the nourishing of the body: I answer, although food is properly for the supply of our necessities, yet the legitimate use of it may proceed further. For it is not in vain, that our food has savor as well as vital nutriment; but thus our heavenly Father sweetly delights us with his delicacies. And his benignity is not in vain commended in Psalm 104:15, where he is said to create "wine that maketh glad the heart of man." Nevertheless, the more kindly he indulges us, the more solicitously ought we to restrict ourselves to a frugal use of his gifts. For we know how unbridled are the appetites of the flesh. Whence it happens that, in abundance, it is almost always lascivious, and in penury, impatient. We must, however, adhere to St. Paul's method, that we know how to abound and to suffer need; that is, we must take great care if we have unusual plenty, that it does not hurry us into luxury; and, on the other hand, we must see to it, that we bear poverty with an equal mind. Some one, perhaps, will say, that the flesh is more than sufficiently ingenious in giving a specious color to its excesses; and, therefore, nothing more should be allowed to it than necessity demands. And, truly, I confess, we must diligently attend to what Paul prescribes, (Romans 13:14,)

"Make not provision for the flesh to fulfill the lusts thereof."

But because it greatly concerns all pious people to receive their food from the hand of God, with quiet consciences, it is necessary for them to know to what extent the use of food and wine is lawful.

1 Dr. A. Clarke supposes the assess to have amounted to several scores, if not hundreds. The latter supposition seems improbable.—Ed.

2 Literally, "Fruits of the song;" alluding to the songs which were sung over the ingathering of harvest.—Ed.

3 There is, however, another interpretation of the passage which is worthy of attention. In our version, the words are, "If I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved;" but the expression, of my children, is not in the original. The close translation is simply, "If I be bereaved, I am bereaved." And this may be the language of entire resignation to the will of God. Jacob had had a severe struggle in his mind, before he could give up his beloved Benjamin: But having at length succeeded, he seems now freely to surrender himself and his family to the divine will. "If I am bereaved, I am bereaved." I know the worst, and I am prepared to meet it. Ainsworth says, "A like phrase is in Esther 4:16, 'If I perish, I perish.' Both of them seem to be a committing of themselves, and of the event of their actions, unto God in faith; which, if it fell out otherwise than they wished, they would patiently bear."—Ed.

4 "At the entertainment to which Joseph invited his brethren, they sat apart from the Egyptians, while Joseph was again separated from both. The author [Moses} shows the reason of this in the remark, 'Because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians.' Herodotus also remarks, that the Egyptians abstained from all familiar intercourse with foreigners, since these were unclean to them, especially because they slew and ate the animals which were sacred among the Egyptians. The circumstance that Joseph eats separately from the other Egyptians is strictly in accordance with the great difference of rank, and the spirit of caste, which prevailed among the Egyptians."—Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 39.—Ed.

5 "It appears that the brothers of Joseph sat before him at the table, while, according to patriarchal practice, they were accustomed to recline. It appears from the sculptures, that the Egyptians also were in the habit of sitting at table, although they had couches."—Egypt and the Books of Moses, p. 39.—Ed.