Genesis 43 – Where God Is, Who God Is, and How We See God

Genesis 43 Bible with Equal Exchange 71 percent Cacao Very Dark Chocolate

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Today’s PassageGenesis 43

Today, as Joseph continues to use his position of authority to mess with his brothers, I want to take a look at two questions: where has God been in Joseph’s life, and how do people talk about him?

We’ll move through the early parts of the narrative quickly. If we begin Joseph’s story in Genesis 37, God isn’t mentioned at all as Joseph has his dreams and his brothers sell him into slavery. God is there, however, when Judah’s sons Er and Onan die; in fact, he’s instrumental in their deaths because they are respectively evil and displeasing (Genesis 38:7, 9). And as we’ve discussed, the God who was there to kill Er and Onan is also there to ensure that Joseph prospers in Potiphar’s house. Even when Joseph is imprisoned on false pretenses, the same God is there to ensure that he prospers in prison.

And here’s where it gets interesting. When the narrator mentions that God kills Er or Onan, or that God is with Joseph, he uses God’s name, YHWH. However, for the most part, whenever a character refers to God, they almost invariably use the Hebrew word for deities, el in the singular, elohim in the plural. I initially supposed this was because God had not told the Hebrews his name yet, and would not do so until Moses encounters him in the burning bush (Exodus 3:13-15). But Jacob actually calls God by that name (Genesis 32:9, 49:18). You see where it says “Lord?” In the Hebrew, that’s “YHWH.” It would seem that somewhere along the line Jacob somehow got to know God by name. But more often, you’ll find people saying el or elohim.

And that’s how Joseph tends to talk about God. He tells Potiphar’s wife that to betray his master’s trust would be to “sin against God” (39:9). In prison, he tells the cupbearer and baker, “Do not interpretations belong to God?” (40:8). He frames his insight into Pharaoh’s dreams as a gift from God, not any innate talent or power of his own, intended to give Pharaoh knowledge of what God plans to do in the near future. And Pharaoh affirms Joseph’s perspective: “Since God has informed you of all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you are” (41:39). In each of these cases, it’s elohim.

But isn’t there in fact only one God, the one true God? Upon first glance, it’s hard to square Joseph’s use of the plural with the central notion of Jewish monotheism: that, if I may paraphrase, “gods that are not YHWH are scarcely gods at all.” However, when Joseph says that God is doing this or that, he invariably uses a singular verb with the plural elohim, a practice we see other characters and passages employ in the Hebrew scriptures. Hindsight will incline Christians to view this as expressing the Trinitarian plurality of God within his oneness, a single God in three persons. I can only imagine how Joseph understood it whenever he said, in effect, “Gods has told Pharaoh what Gods is going to do” (41:28, Grammatically Absurd Jackson Ferrell Version). And I can only speculate to what extent the Hebrew grammar of the account reflects the Egyptian language that Pharaoh and Joseph spoke with each other.

In his lines, Pharaoh only uses elohim as the object of prepositions or the subject of an unconjugated infinitive, never with verbs conjugated in the singular or plural. So I honestly don’t know if he’s gotten the point that there is this one God above all other powers. Which deity or deities does he understand as the source of Joseph’s insight? He isn’t letting us into his head on this one.

So, let’s move on to today’s chapter, in which at least one attitude is a little clearer. Jacob’s family needs food again, and the ten brothers aren’t going to get it if they don’t bring back Benjamin (and food money, both money to buy new food and the initial food money that mysteriously made its way into their grain sacks). Jacob eventually concedes: “Take your brother also, and arise, return to the man; and may God Almighty grant you compassion in the sight of the man” (43:13-14). Jacob calls God by the name El Shaddai, a name that calls back to God’s promises to Abraham (17:1-5) and is as much about God’s sufficiency as his omnipotence. God’s strength is sufficient to preserve Benjamin and bring back Simeon, and to incline the Chief Operations Officer of Egypt to look favorably on the returning Hebrew sons.

And he does, of course, because he’s secretly their brother. After the brothers cautiously and deferently offer an explanation of the double-money situation to Joseph’s house steward, he reassures them that things are cool. “Be at ease, do not be afraid,” he tells them. “Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks; I had received your money” (43:23). Which is utter horse waste; the steward did not have the money, the brothers did. But the steward has adopted that funky plural-God-with-a-singular-verb way of talking about the God of the Hebrews. Whether Joseph told him to use these exact words or the steward is doing so on his own initiative, I’m inclined to think his words convey the spirit of what Joseph wants to get across to his brothers.

God is taking care of the family. And he’s doing so in spite of Joseph’s prevarications.

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