Joseph Plants His Silver Cup [Genesis 44:1-17 Study]

Joseph tests his brothers' readiness for reconciliation by planting his silver cup inside Benjamin's sack. How will Joseph's brothers respond?

Joseph Plants His Silver Cup [Genesis 44:1-17 Study]
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  • In our last episode, we left off with Joseph’s brothers amazed at the warm reception they had received from Egypt’s prime minister.
    • They had returned to Egypt bringing gifts, double the money, and their youngest brother Benjamin.
    • Joseph’s steward tells his brothers that the books were balanced. No money was owed. The money they had found in their sacks was placed by their God. Simeon was released unscathed, unharmed.
    • They were seated at a table arranged by birth order, with the odds of this occurring randomly at less than 1 in 300,000.
    • And even though Benjamin was shown favoritism, given 5 times as much food in his portion, all the brothers were joyous with no hint of envy.
  • So now we come to the start of Genesis 44.

Genesis 44:1-17 Outline

  • Placement of the Silver Cup with Benjamin (v.1-5)
  • Discovery of the Silver Cup with Benjamin (v.6-13)
  • Pronouncement of Guilt on Benjamin (v.14-17)

1. Placing the Silver Cup with Benjamin (v.1-5)

Gen. 44:1   Then he commanded the steward of his house, “Fill the men’s sacks with food, as much as they can carry, and put each man’s money in the mouth of his sack, 2 and put my cup, the silver cup, in the mouth of the sack of the youngest, with his money for the grain.” And he did as Joseph told him. 3   As soon as the morning was light, the men were sent away with their donkeys. 4 They had gone only a short distance from the city. Now Joseph said to his steward, “Up, follow after the men, and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? 5 Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this.’”

  • So after the lunch meal, Joseph commands his steward to fill his brothers’ sacks with food, as much as they could carry. Also, just like the first time, he instructs his steward to also put each man’s money in their sacks.
  • In the English Standard Version, the translation that I’m reading from, in verse 1 and throughout this narrative, the word “money” is actually the Hebrew word kesef which can be translated “white metal” or silver. This Hebrew word for silver, kesef is used 20 times from Genesis 37 to 44. And you remember that the first instance of this word for silver was in Genesis 37 when Joseph’s brothers sold Joseph to the Midianite traders for twenty shekels of silver.
  • It’s not coincidence that Joseph is now using silver as a test to the character of his brothers and their readiness for repentance and restoration.
  • So not only was Joseph’s steward commanded to place the silver money back into the brothers’ sacks, he also placed Joseph’s silver cup in the sack of the youngest brother Benjamin. The return of the money this second time was not consequential. Joseph’s prized silver cup of divination is what matters.
  • The next day, the brothers were sent back to Canaan, and shortly thereafter, Joseph commanded his steward to overtake his brothers and accuse his brothers of ingratitude and theft.
  • Now I wonder what Joseph’s steward was thinking. The first time money was returned to these men, the steward probably just assumed Joseph was magnanimous. And perhaps the same conclusion could be made with the return of the silver money the second time.
    • But to divest his irreplaceable silver cup to the youngest brother, the one who was given a fivefold increase in food during the festive meal, that must have been difficult to conceive.
    • And now to accost his brothers and accuse them of theft, the steward must have been scratching his head to understand the underlying intentions of his master.
    • Nevertheless, the steward does exactly as his master had instructed.
  • Let me make one more comment on this silver cup. Why was this silver cup so special.
    • Drinking cups and goblets could be easily replaced. Divination goblets were not.
    • The practice of Mesopotamia and Egypt was ubiquitous and important. Often oil would be poured into water, or vice versa. “When the water and oil were mixed, their configurations and shapes were studied by the diviner.”
    • This practice is later prohibited when Moses received the Law from God. (Leviticus 19:26; Deuteronomy 18:10)
    • Because of this prohibition, many question whether Joseph truly would have practiced divination. I don’t think we can be dogmatic here, but I think he probably did. Since the Torah was not given yet, Joseph was not under the Mosaic law and covenant.
  • So let’s continue reading the second section beginning in verse 6.

2. Finding the Silver Cup with Benjamin (v.6-13)

Gen. 44:6   When he overtook them, he spoke to them these words. 7 They said to him, “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing! 8 Behold, the money that we found in the mouths of our sacks we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house? 9 Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.” 10 He said, “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent.” 11 Then each man quickly lowered his sack to the ground, and each man opened his sack. 12 And he searched, beginning with the eldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 Then they tore their clothes, and every man loaded his donkey, and they returned to the city.

  • So the steward did exactly as Joseph had instructed. He overtakes the brothers and accuses them of ingratitude and pilferage.
  • Notice how the brothers respond. “Far be it from your servants to do such a thing!” Far be it.
    • This Hebrew phrase that is translated “far be it” is often used to introduce an oath.
      • Job said in Job 34:10, “Far be it from God that he should do wickedness.”
      • Joshua similarly spoke “Far be it from us that we should forsake YAHWEH to serve other gods.
      • Joseph will soon use this exact phrase in verse 17.
    • I would venture to guess that most of us have been falsely accused. And often, the natural human response is indignation. And we see Joseph’s brothers frustrated when they heard this false accusation. “Why does my lord speak such words as these? Far be it from your servants to do such a thing!”
    • But having a fuller knowledge of these narrative, we see that it was consistent within the brothers’ character to steal.
    • Remember the treachery of Simeon and Levi with their mass slaughtering of the men at Shechem. These men were mass murderers.
    • These same brothers were fully intending to murder Joseph before trafficking him as a slave for 20 shekels of silver. They have lied and concealed their sin from their father for the last 20 years.
    • Far be it for them to do such a thing? No, it would have been fully within their character and capacity to do such a thing.
  • The brothers responded with one argument and one assertion
    • The argument is found in verse 8. Because they had returned the money they had found inside their sacks from their first trip, it was not consistent for them to now steal silver or gold from Joseph on this second trip.
  • The assertion is found in verse 9. “Whichever of your servants is found with it (that is, the silver cup) shall die, and we also will be my lord’s servants.”
    • Their father Jacob made a similar rash vow. Remember back in Genesis 31 when Laban accused Jacob’s household of stealing his household idols. Not knowing that his wife Rachel had stolen the idols, Jacob said, “Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live.”
    • And here we have the brothers making a promise that seemed at best unwise. How could they forget that they had found their money returned to their sacks during their first trip.
  • Notice the steward’s response. He accepts their condition, but he narrows his judgment to punishing only the guilty one. “Only the one with whom it is found shall be my slave; the rest of you shall go free.”
  • And so we see Joseph’s brothers frantically lowering their sacks to reveal their contents. They were sure that they would be exonerated once the evidence had been examined.
  • The steward started with the Reuben, the eldest. He examined the sacks one by one in birth order. Finally he came to the youngest brother Benjamin, and there the silver cup is discovered, in Benjamin’s sack.
  • The first clause in verse 13 reads, “then they tore their clothes.”
    • The act of tearing one’s clothes was a typical display of intense sorrow and grief.
    • When their father Jacob had learned of Joseph’s supposed death back in Genesis 37:34, “he tore his garments and put sackcloth on his loins and mourned for his son many days.”
    • Joshua tore off his clothes after his army’s defeat at Ai in Joshua 7.
    • Jephthah tore his clothes when he realized he would need to kill his one and only daughter because of his rash vow to God in Judges 11.
    • David tore his clothes after learning of the death of King Saul in 2 Samuel 1.
    • The prophet Elisha, after he sees Elijah leaving him being carried up to heaven, tore his clothes in two pieces in 2 Kings 2.
  • One short clause: “they tore their clothes.” But this clause has profound significance. It contrasts their animosity toward Joseph with their genuine care for Benjamin. These brothers 20 years ago did abandon their younger brother before returning home. In fact, their abandonment of Joseph was far worse. But here 20 years later, there is no abandonment.
    • They tore their clothes, loaded up their donkeys, and everyone returned to Egypt to accompany Benjamin.
  • Let’s now read the final section of today’s passage beginning in verse 14.

3. Pronouncing Judgment on only Benjamin (v.14-17)

Gen. 44:14   When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”

  • Notice that at the start of verse 14, the narrator introduces the brothers as “Judah and his brothers.” At the start of Genesis 37, Reuben, the eldest brother, was the leader. He was the one who persuaded the brothers to spare Joseph’s life temporarily by throwing him into the cistern pit.
  • But we see Judah gradually ascend in influence and character.
  • While Jacob was unmoved by Reuben’s rhetoric in Genesis 42, he was finally persuaded to let Benjamin go to Egypt when Judah gave his surety guarantee. And now in this return to Egypt, Judah becomes the spokesperson.
  • First, the brothers bow down to Joseph a third time. This prostration to Joseph has become a repetitive theme.
  • Next, Joseph asserts his keen insight and alludes to his practice of divination.
    • Again, there is debate as to whether Joseph engaged in this ancient practice. Perhaps this statement was a part of the charade that Joseph was playing in front of his brothers to mask his true identity as their fellow Hebrew brother.
  • Now Judah speaks, but in a sense, he was speechless.
    • “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak?”
    • Basically, Judah is saying that he has no defense. They are guilty. “God has found out the guilt of your servants.”
    • Judah was not necessarily confirming the guilt of Benjamin and the brothers’ guilt by association. Perhaps though this was a part.
    • I think Judah and his brothers were still weighed by the guilt of the sin they had committed against Joseph. And they are realizing that they are now reaping what they had sown.
    • Judah resigns to accept the consequences that all the brothers with Benjamin would become indentured slaves to the prime minister forever.
  • But notice that Joseph rejects the notion that the other brothers receive judgment.
    • The same phrase that was used by the brothers in verse 7 is now used by Joseph in verse 17. “Far be it from me that I should do so!”
    • Only Benjamin will become my slave. As for you and the rest of your brothers, go in peace (shalom) to your father.”
  • Of course, Joseph knew full well that the brothers would never be able to go back to their father in peace (shalom). If they returned to their father Jacob without Benjamin, for the rest of their lives, they would remain in anguish.
  • What happens next is the climax of this narrative, and we’ll cover Judah’s plea for Benjamin in our next episode.

Bible Studies on the Story of Joseph

  1. Introduction to the Joseph Narrative in Genesis
  2. Joseph the Dreamer (Genesis 37:2–11)
  3. Joseph Sold to Slavery (Genesis 37:12–36)
  4. Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
  5. Joseph Tempted by Potiphar's Wife (Genesis 39)
  6. God Remembers Joseph in Prison (Genesis 40)
  7. Pharoah's Dreams Interpreted (Genesis 41:1–36)
  8. Joseph Made Prime Minister (Genesis 41:37–57)
  9. Jacob's Sons' First Trip to Egypt (Genesis 42)
  10. Jacob Accepts Judah's Guarantee (Genesis 43:1–14)
  11. Joseph Reunites with Benjamin (Genesis 43:15–34)
  12. Joseph Plants His Silver Cup (Genesis 44:1–17)
  13. Judah's Plea for Benjamin (Genesis 44:18–34)
  14. Judah Becomes Surety for Benjamin (Genesis 44)
  15. A Portrait of Forgiveness (Genesis 45:1–8)
  16. It Is Enough (Genesis 45:9–28)
  17. Prepared to Die (Genesis 46)
  18. God Rescues Egypt (Genesis 47:1–26)
  19. "God Will Be With You" (Genesis 47:27–48:22)
  20. Lion of Judah: When All Is Said and Done (Genesis 49)
  21. God Meant It For Good (Genesis 50)