Wednesday of Week 14 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Genesis 41:55-57; 42:5-7, 17-24

Today’s reading finds us in Egypt with Joseph, the second youngest son of Jacob’s twelve sons. We have skipped the whole saga of how Joseph came to be sold into slavery by his brothers, and the gradual process by which he rose from being a Hebrew slave to becoming the Pharaoh’s right hand man. This was largely due to his ability to interpret dreams and to his personal integrity. It was Joseph who had predicted the famine that is now on the land, and Joseph who had made preparations to deal with it when it came.

As the effects of the famine began to be felt in Egypt, the people cried out to the Pharaoh for food. The Pharaoh referred the people to his grand vizier, his most senior official: “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” Such was his confidence in the ability of his chief official (who was, of course, an Israelite – a point that would not be lost on those hearing this story read to them.)

Joseph threw open the granaries where, because of his foresight, the surplus of previous harvests had been stored and sold the grain to the Egyptians. But the famine was not confined to Egypt and people came “from all over the world” to buy grain from Joseph.

The land of Canaan was also affected so Jacob’s sons also made the same journey with others to get food. And it was Joseph, as the effective ruler of the country, to whom they all had to go. Jacob had kept his youngest son, Benjamin, behind with him in case his other sons might not be able to return.

As the sons of Jacob come into the presence of the chief minister, they bow down before him, their faces touching the ground. This is exactly what Joseph had foretold they would be doing when, many years before, he told them the dream he had of their sheaves of wheat bowing down before his (Gen 37:5-9). And it was this dream which had so angered them that they sold him into slavery. Now they come to the same brother – still unrecognised by them – to be saved from death. How ironic! How God works in strange ways to help us!

Joseph, of course, recognised his brothers but said nothing at this stage. Instead he treated them as if they were strangers and threw them into prison for three days with the prospect of even worse things to come. They were getting a taste of the treatment he had experienced as a result of their rejection.

On the third day, Joseph told them they could save their lives if they did what he wanted. They could rely on him because “I am a man who fears God”. He spoke to them very severely and earlier had accused them of being spies. They can take grain back home with them for their families but they have to leave one of their brothers behind as a pledge. Then, after they get home, they are to bring back their youngest brother, Benjamin, whom Joseph had never seen – otherwise they will be condemned to die.

The brothers immediately began to discuss among themselves their situation. They knew that Jacob, now an old man, would be very reluctant to let Benjamin fall into the hands of the Egyptians. But they had little choice and the brothers agreed to Joseph’s conditions.

At the same time, they realised that all this was a just punishment for the way they had treated their brother Joseph:

We saw his misery of soul when he begged our mercy but we did not listen to him and now this misery has come home to us.

Reuben, the only one who was against Joseph being killed, now blamed his brothers for their present situation.

You did not listen, and now we are brought to account for his blood.

They presumed Joseph was long dead.

They said all this in Joseph’s presence, not realising that he understood every single word. When he addressed them, he had spoken through an interpreter. He now hurriedly leaves their presence and breaks down in tears. Such tenderness on the part of a high-ranking official is rare in the Hebrew Testament.

When he returned to their presence he had one of the brothers, Simeon, bound before their eyes as a hostage for the production of Benjamin on their next visit. He also gave orders that the brothers’ bags were to be filled with grain and that the money taken from them should be given back to each man. He also gave them provisions for their journey home (this last paragraph is not in our reading today). Tomorrow we will see the happy outcome of this drama.

For obvious reasons much of this lovely account of Joseph (beginning in chap 37) has to be left out but it is well worth reading the whole story, one of the most touching in the whole of the Old Testament, a beautiful story in its own right.

Joseph stands out as a man of great compassion, a man of strong and sensitive feelings, and a person of the utmost integrity. He would have been a rarity in his day and even in our own. As we read this story we could perhaps reflect with some profit on our own sense of justice, compassion, and the level of our integrity in our dealings with friends, colleagues and strangers.

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