Genesis 42:18-22, Changing the Rules
Joseph has repeatedly mentioned the baseless allegation that his brothers were spies, but his repeated use of the term “spies” has been the means for extracting valuable information from them. He learns that their father is still alive back in Canaan; he also gets them to admit that there is a younger (νεώτερον) brother. Taking advantage of these admissions, Joseph says he will keep all of the brothers save one in prison in Egypt and send one to go fetch the youngest brother to bring him back to Egypt. But then he decides to pack them all off to prison for a few days so he can think about it.
Three days later, the brothers emerge only to find the rules have changed. Joseph is speaking:
19 εἰ εἰρηνικοί ἐστε ἀδελφὸς ὑμῶν εἷς κατασχεθήτω ἐν τῇ φυλακῇ αὐτοὶ δὲ βαδίσατε καὶ ἀπαγάγετε τὸν ἀγορασμὸν τῆς σιτοδοσίας ὑμῶν 20καὶ τὸν ἀδελφὸν ὑμῶν τὸν νεώτερον ἀγάγετε πρός με καὶ πιστευθήσονται τὰ ῥήματα ὑμῶν εἰ δὲ μή ἀποθανεῗσθε ἐποίησαν δὲ οὕτως.
“If indeed you are peaceful men, let one of your brothers be held securely in prison and you yourselves (i.e., the rest of you) go along and take away the purchase of your grain, and then lead your younger brother to me. In this way your words will be confirmed. But, if not, you shall die. And this is exactly what they did.”
This won’t be the last time that the rules change in the encounter between the brothers in Egypt. The original plan was for all except one to stay in Egypt, but now, after three days, Joseph decides that one brother alone should stay in prison, while the others return to Canaan to fetch the younger brother. Is this supposed to be taken as a sign of Joesph’s mercy toward the brothers—only incarcerating one of them? But even if it is a sign of mercy, we have a more ominous tone in verse 20. For the first time in the narrative, Joseph uses the verb for “you will die” (ἀποθανεῗσθε). The brothers returning to Canaan could be forgiven if they are confused at this juncture. One the only hand nine of them get to go back home to Canaan instead of one; but on the other hand, the man in Egypt has threatened them with death, and not just with the words “you are spies.” The last three Greek words of verse 20 state, in matter-of-fact language, that the new rules were set. “They did so.”
[Note the unusual phrase at the end of verse 19: τὸν ἀγορασμὸν τῆς σιτοδοσίας ὑμῶν, or “the purchase of your grain.” We can see the verb for “buy” in the first noun and “food” in the second, but those words are rarely used in the entirety of Greek literature].
Now the self-accusations and recriminations begin among the nine brothers who are set to return. We the reader are privileged to eavesdrop on their conversation, and we will learn to our surprise just a few verses later that Joseph is also able to listen in on what the brothers think is a private conversation. The words of verse 21 are raw and powerful:
καὶ εἶπεν ἕκαστος πρὸς τὸν ἀδελφὸν αὐτοῦ ναί ἐν ἁμαρτίᾳ γάρ ἐσμεν περὶ τοῦ ἀδελφοῦ ἡμῶν ὅτι ὑπερείδομεν τὴν θλῗψιν τῆς ψυχῆς αὐτοῦ ὅτε κατεδέετο ἡμῶν καὶ οὐκ εἰσηκούσαμεν αὐτοῦ ἕνεκεν τούτου ἐπῆλθεν ἐφ᾽ ἡμᾶς ἡ θλῗψις αὕτη
“And each one said to his brother, ‘Oh no! We have done it now! We are at fault because of what we did to our brother, when we ignored/disregarded the distress of his soul when he implored us earnestly. But we didn’t listen to him. This distress has come upon us because of this.”
The language of this verse is incredibly rich, with three of the verbs using prefixes to intensify their meanings, and with a repeated use of a word θλῗψις (distress/tribulation) that was so “loaded” in meaning as the centuries went by that it became the word to describe the “Great Tribulation” through which all will go at the end time, according to early Christian theology (Revelation 7:14). That is, the author through these devices gives us a signal regarding the emotional temperature of this exchange.
The first verb, ὑπερείδομεν, doesn’t appear in the NT and is rare in the LXX. We can read it directly from the word: “over” and “look/see.” “We overlooked or disregarded or ignored the distress of his soul.” The event referred to of course is the sale of Joseph to passing traders in Gen. 37. What is fascinating in verse 21 is the recognition of Joseph’s soul distress, which is not mentioned in Gen. 37. But now that the brothers recognize this in their conversation with each other, we take the opportunity to “re-read” the powerful and sad story of Gen. 37:20ff and now “see” Joseph’s distress. Then, we have the unusual verb κατεδέετο, which is made up of the usual verb “to beg” but the intensive prefix κατα, so that it takes on the meaning of “earnest imploring.” Finally, the verb εἰσηκούσαμεν is stronger than the simple ακούσαμεν (“we heard”), and is best rendered, “we paid no attention/didn’t listen at all” to him. Joseph’s θλῗψις of soul is now reflected in the θλῗψις of the brothers. It is almost as if there is some great cosmic balancing act of torment going on now, and that balancing act is captured by the same word being attached to Joseph and the brothers.
The brothers are returning to Canaan with their supplies of food, but it isn’t a joyous return. Far from it. Distress is their felt reality. They know they will have to tell their father everything. They may have purchased food, but they have also unwittingly
purchased for the family a load of tribulation. And things will just keep getting worse.