The author of the Joseph story is constructing a narrative that is brilliant on both the familial and national levels. On the familial level, we have the story of the sale of one brother, Joseph, into the service of Potiphar, an Egyptian official. Even though Joseph faced enormous difficulties and opposition, and was sentenced to prison for alleged designs on Potiphar’s wife, Joseph never lost hope. Aiding him is the frequent mention of God’s being with Joseph.
But this narrative is overlaid with or interpenetrated with another one, the national story. Famine, predicted by none other than Joseph in his role of dream interpreter (the official English word for it is oneiromancer, or a “prophet/diviner” of the “dream”), falls upon both Canaan and Egypt. Joseph’s family in Canaan faces privation; Jacob, the father, orders his sons to journey to Egypt to buy μικρὰ βρώματα or “a little food” (Gen 42:2). He sends ten sons only and keeps the youngest, Benjamin, with him in Canaan because he doesn’t want to lose this other son that was born to his beloved (and late) wife Rachel. Thus, the ten brothers travel together to buy food. Verse 5 then sets the stage for the story:
ἦλθον δὲ οἱ υἱοὶ Ισραηλ ἀγοράζειν μετὰ τῶν ἐρχομένων ἦν γὰρ ὁ λιμὸς ἐν γῇ Χανααν
“The sons of Israel came to buy along with (others) who were coming; for there was a famine in the land of Canaan.”
The phrase translated “along with (others) who were coming” is, literally, “with the coming ones” (present participle), which gives the sense that there is a teeming multitude in need of food. The word for famine (λιμὸς) appears frequently in our narrative, A corresponding verb λιμώσσω (to starve/be famished) appears vividly and memorably in Psalm 59:14 where the enemies of King David λιμώξουσιν ὡς κύων καὶ κυκλώσουσιν πόλιν, or “will be famished as dogs and will surround the city”)
Perhaps the most memorable appearance of the word λιμὸς in the Septuagint is in its repeated use in Amos 8:11 to describe both physical and spiritual starvation:
ἰδοὺ ἡμέραι ἔρχονται λέγει κύριος καὶ ἐξαποστελῶ λιμὸν ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν οὐ λιμὸν ἄρτου οὐδὲ δίψαν ὕδατος ἀλλὰ λιμὸν τοῦ ἀκοῦσαι λόγον κυρίου
“Behold days are coming, says the Lord, and I will send a famine upon the land, not a famine of bread nor of thirst for water, but a famine of hearing (articular infinitive) the word of the Lord”
So the brothers come to “buy” (ἀγοράζειν, present infinitive, note the root of the word is “agora,” the marketplace of ancient Athens) along with the coming ones because of the severity of the famine. Now we are ready for the story.
Unlike many narratives from our own day, in which we are told that the journey, rather than simply the destination, ought to be celebrated, this ancient narrative knows nothing of either that theory or the nature of the brother’s journey to Egypt. They simply leave Canaan and, next thing you know, they are prostrating themselves before Joseph in Egypt. No tales about raucous nights at the inn along the way or dangers averted or privations suffered or lessons learned en route. They leave Canaan and, by the next verse, they are in Joseph’s presence.
Ιωσηφ δὲ ἦν ἄρχων τῆς γῆς οὗτος ἐπώλει παντὶ τῷ λαῷ τῆς γῆς ἐλθόντες δὲ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ Ιωσηφ προσεκύνησαν αὐτῷ ἐπὶ πρόσωπον ἐπὶ τὴν γῆν
“Joseph was ruler over the land. This man (i.e., Joseph) made it a practice of selling to all the people of the land/earth. The brothers of Joseph, having come, bowed their faces to the ground before him.”
We shouldn’t become too distracted with the ambiguity of γῆ here. It can be “land” or “the earth.” It definitely is “land” (of Egypt) in its first appearance; but its second suggests a broader application—Joseph sells to all comers, from whatever land. The verb πωλέω is one of the two verbs in Genesis for “selling” (the other is πιπράσκω). It’s interesting that πωλέω appears more times in the NT than the 5x-as- long LXX (22x to 12x). Its only other appearance in Genesis is also in the Joseph story (41:56). Its next appearance after that isn’t until the Covenant Code in Exodus, where it takes us into the world of the sale of female slaves (Ex 21:8). Here πωλέω is in the imperfect. You never know how seriously to take the time significance of a Greek verb but here, if we take it as “he was accustomed to sell,” we probably get a good picture of Joseph’s customary activity.
Note there is no break in the Greek text after “γῆς” and before “οὗτος.” The translation reads best, however, if we break it into two sentences. Note the postpositive δὲ, a frequent feature in Septuagint Greek. It can be rendered all the way from a gentle adversative to something closer to “and.” The latter is probably best here.
The brothers show their deference to Joseph by bowing before him. προσκυνέω is a common verb in the LXX for bowing to another. Ancient Hebrew society presented many opportunities for people to bow to each other.