Genesis 44 Bible Commentary

John Calvin’s Bible Commentary

(Read all of Genesis 44)

Verse 1. And he commanded the steward of his house . Here Moses relates how skillfully Joseph had contrived to try the dispositions of his brethren. We have said elsewhere that, whereas God has commanded us to cultivate simplicity, we are not to take this, and similar examples, as affording license to turn aside to indirect and crafty arts. For it may have been that Joseph was impelled by a special influence of the Spirit to this course. He had also a reason, of no common kind, for inquiring very strictly in what manner his brethren were affected. Charity is not suspicious. Why, then, does he so distrust his brethren; and why cannot he suppose that they have anything good, unless he shall first have subjected them to the most rigid examination? Truly, since he had found them to be exceedingly cruel and perfidious, it is but an excusable suspicion, if he does not believe them to be changed for the better, until he has obtained a thorough perception and conviction of their penitence. But since, in this respect, it is a rare and very difficult virtue to observe a proper medium, we must beware of imitating the example of Joseph, in an austere course of acting, unless we have laid all vindictive feelings aside, and are pure and free from all enmity. For love, when it is pure, and exempt from all turbid influence, will best decide how far it is right to proceed. It may, however, be asked, "If the sons of Jacob had been easily induced to betray the safety of Benjamin, what would Joseph himself have done?" We may readily conjecture, that he examined their fidelity, in order that, if he should find them dishonest, he might retain Benjamin, and drive them with shame from his presence. But, by pursuing this method, his father would have been deserted, and the Church of God ruined. And certainly, it is not without hazard to himself that he thus terrifies them: because he could scarcely have avoided the necessity of denouncing some more grievous and severe punishment against them, if they had again relapsed. It was, therefore, due to the special favor of God, that they proved themselves different from what he had feared. In the meantime, the advantage of his examination was twofold; first, because the clearly ascertained integrity of his brethren rendered his mind more placable towards them; and secondly, because it lightened, at least in some degree, the former infamy, which they had contracted by their wickedness.

Verse 2. And put my cup, the silver cup . It may seem wonderful that, considering his great opulence, Joseph had not rather drunk out of a golden cup. Doubtless, either the moderation of that age was still greater than has since prevailed, and the splendor of it less sumptuous; or else this conduct must be attributed to the moderation of the man, who, in the midst of universal license, yet was contented with a plain and decent, rather than with a magnificent style of living. Unless, perhaps, on account of the excellence of the workmanship, the silver was more valuable than gold: as it is manifest from secular history, that the workmanship has often been more expensive than the material itself. It is, however, probable, that Joseph was sparing in domestic splendor, for the sake of avoiding envy. For unless he had been prudently on his guard, a contention would have arisen between him and the courtiers, resulting from a spirit of emulation. Moreover, he commands the cup to be enclosed in Benjamin's sack, in order that he might claim him as his own, when convicted of the theft, and might send the rest away: however, he accuses all alike, as if he knew not who among them had committed the crime. And first, he reproves their ingratitude, because, when they had been so kindly received, they made the worst possible return; next, he contends that the crime was inexpiable, because they had stolen what was most valuable to him; namely, the cup in which he was accustomed both to drink and to divine. And he does this through his steward, whom he had not trained to acts of tyranny and violence. Whence I infer, that the steward was not altogether ignorant of his master's design.

Verse 5. Whereby indeed, he divineth . 1 This clause is variously expounded. For some take it as if Joseph pretended that he consulted soothsayers in order to find out the thief. Others translate it, "by which he has tried you, or searched you out;" others, that the stolen cup had given Joseph an unfavorable omen. The genuine sense seems to me to be this: that he had used the cup for divinations and for magical arts; which, however, we have said, he feigned, for the sake of aggravating the charge brought against them. But the question arises, how does Joseph allow himself to resort to such an expedient? For besides that it was sinful for him to profess augury; he vainly and unworthily transfers to imaginary deities the honor due only to divine grace. On a former occasion, he had declared that he was unable to interpret dreams, except so far as God should suggest the truth to him; now he obscures this entire ascription of praise to divine grace; and what is worse, by boasting that he is a magician rather than proclaiming himself a prophet of God, he impiously profanes the gift of the Holy Spirit. Doubtless, in this dissimulation, it is not to be denied, that he sinned grievously. Yet I think that, at the first, he had endeavored, by all means in his power, to give unto God his due honor; and it was not his fault that the whole kingdom of Egypt was ignorant of the fact that he excelled in skill, not by magical arts, but by a celestial gift. But since the Egyptians were accustomed to the illusions of the magicians, this ancient error so prevailed, that they believed Joseph to be one of them; and I do not doubt that this rumor was spread abroad among the people, although contrary to his desire and intention. Now Joseph, in feigning himself to be a stranger to his brethren, combines many falsehoods in one, and takes advantage of the prevailing vulgar opinion that he used auguries. Whence we gather, that when any one swerves from the right line, he is prone to fall into various sins. Wherefore, being warned by this example, let us learn to allow ourselves in nothing except what we know is approved by God. But especial)y must we avoid all dissimulation, which either produces or confirms mischievous impostures. Besides, we are warned, that it is not sufficient for any one to oppose a prevailing vice for a time; unless he add constancy of resistance, even though the evil may become excessive. For he discharges his duty very defectively, who, having once testified that he is displeased with what is evil, afterwards, by his silence or connivance, gives it a kind of assent.

Verse 7. And they said unto him . The sons of Jacob boldly excuse themselves, because a good conscience gives them confidence. They also argue from the greater to the less: for they contend, that their having voluntarily brought back the money, which they might with impunity have applied to their own use, was such a proof of their honesty, as to make it incredible that they should have been so blinded by a little gain, as to bring upon themselves the greatest disgrace, together with immediate danger of their lives. They, therefore, declared themselves ready to submit to any punishment, if they were found guilty of the theft. When the cup was discovered in Benjamin's sack, Moses does not relate any of their complaints; but only declares, that they testified the most bitter grief by rending their garments. I do not doubt that they were struck dumb by the unexpected result; for they were confounded, not only by the magnitude of their grief, but by perceiving themselves to be obnoxious to punishment, for that of which their conscience did not accuse them. Therefore, when they come into the presence of Joseph, they confess the injury, not because they acknowledge that the crime has been committed by them, but because excuse would be of no avail; as if they would say, "It is of no use to deny a thing which is manifest in itself." In this sense, they say that their iniquity has been found out by God; because, although they had some secret suspicion of fraud, thinking that this had been a contrivance for the purpose of bringing an unjust charge against them, they choose rather to trace the cause of their punishment to the secret judgment of God. 2 Some interpreters believe that they here confessed their crime committed against Joseph; but that opinion is easily refuted, because they constantly affirm that he had been torn by a wild beast, or had perished by some accident. Therefore, the more simple meaning is that which I have adduced; that although the truth of the fact is not apparent, yet they are punished by God as guilty persons. They do not, however, speak hypocritically; but being troubled and astonished in their perplexed affairs, there is nothing left for them but the consciousness that this punishment is inflicted by the secret judgment of God. And I wish that they who, when smitten by the rod of God, do not immediately perceive the cause, would adopt the same course; and when they find that men are unjustly incensed against them, would recall to mind the secret judgments of God, by which it becomes us to be humbled. Moreover, whereas Judah speaks in the name of them all, we may hence infer, that he had already obtained precedence among his brethren. And Moses exhibits him as their head and chief, when he expressly states that he and the rest came. For though the dignity of primogeniture had not yet been conferred upon him, by the solemn judgment of his father, yet it was intended for him. Certainly, in taking the post of speaker for the rest, his authority appears in his language. Again, it is necessary to recall to memory, in reference to the language of Joseph, what I have before said, that although at first he had endeavored to ascribe the glory to God, he now sins in pretending that he is a soothsayer or diviner. Some, to extenuate the fault, say that the allusion is, not to the art of augury, but to his skill in judging; there is, however, no need to resort to forced expositions for the sake of excusing the man; for he speaks according to the common understanding of the multitude, and thus foolishly countenances the received opinion.

Verse 16. Behold, we are my lord's servants . They had before called themselves servants through modesty; now they consign themselves over to him as slaves. But in the case of Benjamin they plead for a mitigation of the severity of the punishment; and this is a kind of entreaty, that he might not be capitally punished, as they had agreed to, at the first. 3

Verse 17. God forbid that I should do so . 4 If Joseph intended to retain Benjamin alone, and to dismiss the others, he would have done his utmost, to rend the Church of God by the worst possible dissension. But I have previously shown (what may also be elicited from the context) that his design was nothing else than to pierce their hearts more deeply. He must have anticipated great mischief, if he had perceived that they did not care for their brother: but the Lord provided against this danger, by causing the earnest apology of Judah not only to soften his mind, but even to draw forth tears and weeping in profusion.

Verse 18. Let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word . Judah suppliantly asks that leave may be given him to speak, because his narrative was about to be prolix. And whereas nobles are offended, and take it angrily, if any address them with too great familiarity, Judas begins by declaring that he is not ignorant of the great honor which Joseph had received in Egypt, for the purpose of showing that he was becoming bold, not through impertinence, but through necessity. Afterwards he recites in what manner he and his brethren had departed from their father. There are two principal heads of his discourse; first, that they should be the means of bringing a sorrow upon their father which would prove fatal; and secondly, that he had bound himself individually, by covenant, to bring the youth back. With respect to the grief of his father, it is a sign of no common filial piety, that he wished himself to be put in Benjamin's place, and to undergo perpetual exile and servitude, rather than convey to the miserable old man tidings which would be the cause of his destruction. He proves his sincerity by offering himself as a surety, in order that he may liberate his brother. Because ajx (chata) among the Hebrews, sometimes signifies to be in fault, and sometimes to be under penalty; some translate the passage, "I shall have sinned against my father;" or, "I shall be accused of sin;" while others render it, "I shall be deemed guilty, because he will complain of having been deceived by my promise." The latter sense is the more appropriate, because, truly, he would not escape disgrace and censure from his father, as having cruelly betrayed a youth committed to his care.

1 "Jamblichus, in his book on Egyptian mysteries, mentions the practice of divining by cups. That this superstition, as well as many others, has continued even to modern times, is shown by a remarkable passage in Norden's Travels. When the author, with his companions, had arrived at Dorri, the most remote extremity of Egypt, or rather in Nubia, were they were able to deliver themselves from a perilous condition, only through great presence of mind, they sent one of their company to a malicious and powerful Arab, to threaten him. He answered them, 'I know what sort of people you are. I have consulted my cup, and found in it, that you are from a people of whom one of our prophets has said, There will come Franks under every kind of pretense to spy out the land. They will bring with them a great multitude of their countrymen, to conquer the country and to destroy all the people.'"—Egypt and the Books of Moses. p. 40.—Ed.

2 See verse 16.

3 On the whole of this verse, Dr. A. Clarke remarks, "No words can more strongly mark confusion and peturbation of mind. They no doubt all thought that Benjamin had actually stolen the cup." He also thinks it probable that this very cup had been used by Benjamin at the dinner.—Ed.

4 "God forbid" is an expression frequently used by our translators, both in the Old and New Testament, where the name of God does not occur in the original. The term here used as the same meaning as Absit in Latin, and Mh< ge>noito in Greek. Literally this passage would read, "Far be it from me to do so." See also verse 7.—Ed.