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Genesis 42:7-9

We note right away the inequality in perception between the brothers at this point. Joseph, the ruler of the land, will recognize his brothers immediately, and treat them harshly, but the brothers have no reason to believe they are dealing with anyone other than an unknown, gruff, high-level Egyptian official. We as readers see the world now through Joseph’s eyes, because we see what he sees.  Here is what he sees (Gen. 42:7):


ἰδὼν δὲ Ιωσηφ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοῦ ἐπέγνω καὶ ἠλλοτριοῦτο ἀπ᾽ αὐτῶν καὶ ἐλάλησεν αὐτοῗς σκληρὰ καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῗς πόθεν ἥκατε οἱ δὲ εἶπαν ἐκ γῆς Χανααν ἀγοράσαι 


“When Joseph saw his brothers he recognized them and made himself a stranger towards them/becoming an Other/Foreigner and spoke harsh words to them.  He said to them, 'From where have you come?' And they said, 'From the land of Canaan—to buy food.'"


Though the narrative, as it develops, will occasionally present Joseph’s mental or psychological state before he reveals himself to his brothers, here we have no indication of how he feels inside.  We don’t know if he is shocked, gratified, repulsed or curious about his brothers.  We just know that he acts towards them in a most interesting way.
That way is captured by the Greek verb ἠλλοτριοῦτο, an imperfect middle indicative. The finite verb is  αλλοτριοω. We can see the “other” in the first part, and I have tried to preserve that “otherness” in my translation.  Usually it is rendered “to become estranged from” or “estrange oneself from” them. But even if we caress the word “estrange” for a minute, we are taken into my arena of “otherness” or “becoming a foreigner,” for “estrange” is to “alienate.”


I have also rendered my translation as “the Other” because of the central role that concept of otherness is increasingly playing in historical discourse today.  Post-colonial studies, one of whose goals is to expose the twisted legacy of colonialism, puts a lot of emphasis on the concept of the Other. It mostly functions in a colonial context where the Oppressor, in order to maintain order, has to see people under his authority as “Others” who are different from the “Self.” But rather than isolating himself fully from the “Other” he must maintain a sufficient identity with the Other in order to make his control unequivocal.  The “Other” lacks his own identity and integrity and can be described as “the foreign”—it is one who does not belong to the group, does not have the same customs or language as the dominant group and, ultimately, even has an improper existence with the ruler/self.


In this instance, Joseph is both becoming the Other and treating them as the Other, as Foreigners, as having no status except that status he will vouchsafe to them. Thus, it is fully expected for him to address them harshly.  The vivid word that captures that harshness is σκληρός, which may be rendered “hard/hard to bear/rough/harsh.” We easily see the English word “sclerotic” or “sclerosis” behind it. We learn later that Joseph speaks to them through an interpreter, so we have the irony of Joseph having to become the Other in language in order to treat them as the Other and maintain the distance between them. 


A rich scenario of concealed identity, power, dependence and vulnerability is opening to us, and much of it is thanks to that powerful verb αλλοτριοω.


                                                Genesis 42:8-9  Spies!


Joseph has become the Other and is treating his brothers as if they are Other from him. Now we will learn that this harsh treatment is just a prelude to an accusation.  Here is the Greek of the two verses.


ἐπέγνω δὲ Ιωσηφ τοὺς ἀδελφοὺς αὐτοῦ αὐτοὶ δὲ οὐκ ἐπέγνωσαν αὐτόν.
καὶ ἐμνήσθη Ιωσηφ τῶν ἐνυπνίων ὧν εἶδεν αὐτός καὶ εἶπεν αὐτοῗς κατάσκοποί ἐστε κατανοῆσαι τὰ ἴχνη τῆς χώρας ἥκατε.


“Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they themselves didn’t know who he was.

And Joseph recalled the dreams he himself had and said to them, ‘You are spies.  You have come to scrutinize/check out closely the very footprints of the land.”


We are the sovereign reader here.  We, as the sovereign reader, know more than the all of the brothers. For example, unlike them we know that this is Joseph with whom they are speaking. We also know more than Joseph.  That is, we know (but Joseph doesn’t) that Benjamin has been left behind. Though the verb for “recognize” (ἐπιγινώσκω) appears frequently in the LXX (about 90x), it has a particularly fraught meaning in Genesis.  People “recognize” or “don’t recognize” things and their life is never the same again.  For example, after Rebekah and Jacob plotted to deceive Isaac, Jacob comes to his father and presents himself as if he is Esau.  Gen 27:23 says that he (Isaac) didn’t “recognize” (οὐκ ἐπέγνω) him. The verb appears again in the confrontation between Jacob and Laban over the stealing of Laban’s household gods, when Laban couldn’t recognize any of his goods (Gen 31:32).  Finally, when Jospeh’s coat of many colors is shown to the aged Jacob, the text says that “he recognized” (ἐπέγνω) it and concluded that a wild beast had devoured Joseph.   “Recognition” is almost never a good thing in Genesis.


Joseph recognizes his brothers and this act of recognition triggered memory.  μνάομαι may be rendered “I recall” or “am reminded of,” and it takes the genitive case here.  Joseph literally remembers dreams that he “saw” (εἶδεν).  But then, at that moment, he comes out with the damning accusation that sets the tone for the next three chapters:  “You are spies” (κατάσκοποί).  The κατά prefix should be translated as an intensifier, with the underlying verb, σκοπέω, being “to investigate” or “check out.”  It is easiest to remember if you render it “scope it out.”  Though it appears several times in the LXX, the verb κατασκοπέω is a New Testament hapax, occurring only in Gal 2:4, and carrying a sinister intent in that passage.


This allegation is then made more specific with the vivid κατανοῆσαι τὰ ἴχνη.  Again, if we take the prefix as an intensifier, we see the verb as meaning “to scrutinize” or “to know thoroughly.”  The word ἴχνη, “tracks or footprints,” only appears once in Homer (Ody. 17.317) but we see it regularly in Classical Greek. Just as your tracks leave an indelible impression on the soil, so this word and Joseph’s use of it leave us with a powerful image.  Interestingly enough, Classical Greek (Aeschylus Libation Bearers 227) introduces the verb ἰχνοσκοπέω, which would have been a perfect one for the LXX translators in this context.  But, alas, it was rare, and it was likely that they didn’t know the verb.  Where is Aeschylus when you need him?

Genesis 42:10-13
Back to Septuagint Page

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