Bible stories : 09 Joseph, part 6.
Part 6 : Pharaoh’s dreams.
1600 - 1700-ish B.C.
It’s bad. The famine. Super bad. People are coming from all over, including Canaan. Huge lines. Joseph’s foresight is paying off big time. Everybody needs grain. Including Jacob. Poor, sad Jacob has sent his ten least favourite sons to get grain. Off they go.
Twenty years have passed since his bros played their little practical joke on Joe. You know, the one where they sold him into slavery and told dad he was dead. Twenty years. So when they show up in Egypt asking to buy grain, it shouldn’t come as a major surprise that they don’t recognize their long-lost bro. They’ve all aged differently, some better than others, but for some reason Joseph much more so than the others. To be fair, he is the youngest as well, except for Benjamin, whom Dad kept home, as he was the second favourite. Joseph looks good, all decked out in royal Egyptian attire and carrying a royal title and the royal name of Zaphnath-Paaneah.
So they show up before Joseph. He knows who they are right away, because they look pretty much the same, except for having less hair, more fat, and looking a lot more sad.
He looks them over. Reuben. Simeon. Levi. Judah. Issachar. Zebulun. Dan. Naphtali. Gad. Asher. Benjamin.
“So…” he muses to himself quietly. “All my half brothers...but no Benjamin. Hmm.”
He turns to his brothers - remember, they do not know who he is - and stands up, slowly facing them, and speaking quietly, because powerful people can afford to speak more quietly and force people to listen hard.
The effect of his whispering is diluted a bit by the fact that he’s actually speaking to an interpreter, Ebo, who tends to speak rather loudly.
Now, you might be wondering why Joseph is using an interpreter. Has he forgotten his native language? No. But he had to learn Egyptian, and there’s no common lingua franca, and Joseph is always thinking ahead and doesn’t want to give away the fact that he is who he is, or knows what he knows, and this is a very great strategy.
It’s called “keeping your cards close to your chest.”
Now, you might also be wondering why Joseph hasn’t gotten ahold of his dad during his time in power. Remember that he was Dad’s fave; Dad loved him the most and it certainly looked like he was going to inherit the birthright, the covenant, all the good stuff that would get passed down...but since his brothers sold him off, he has to assume that his dad has probably picked someone else and therefore moved on. And his brothers...what to do with them? Are they still as horrible as they were two decades ago? Do they have any remorse?
Joseph doesn’t know. But he wants to know. And he’s gonna know.
He turns to Ebo and whispers: “You are spies.”
Ebo turns to the brothers and bellows - “bellows” means “says in a very loud voice” -
“You are spices!”
They look at him in confusion.
Joseph hurriedly pulls Ebo over and pulls him aside, shaking his head. “No no no...spies, not spices.”
Ebo hangs his head. “Sorry sorry sorry, Vizier Zaphnath, I will do better.” He turns again to the brothers and bellows a little louder.
“You are spies!”
He looks over at Joseph with a satisfied smile. Joseph nods back.
The brothers don’t get it. Huh? Simeon steps forward. “Uh, Vizier Zaphnath, we are not spies, we’re here to buy grain.”
Joseph shakes his head vigorously and speaks to Ebo. “Tell them that I know they’re spies and that they’re here to look at our defenses.”
Ebo nods and turns to the brothers, bellowing:
“You are definitely spies, because you smell like spies,
and you are here to look at our fences.”
Joseph motions him over, whispering. “Defenses. Defenses, not fences.”
Ebo nods assertively and loudly corrects himself to the brothers.
“You are spies and you want to spy on our defenses!”
Simeon cautiously takes another step forward. “With all respect, Vizier, we are here to purchase grain on behalf of our father and his family.”
Joseph pulls Ebo aside and instructs him on the questions he wants addressed. Ebo nods. “I got it, Vizier. I’ll be really aggressive and get all the answers you want.” He returns to the brothers with a giant grown.
“No, you are not here for grain.
Why do you all look so ugly?”
He looks over at Joseph and grins.
Joseph groans and shakes his head.
Reuben moves up and pushes Simeon aside. “Great Vizier, we are truly here only for grain. We are not spies.”
Ebo glares at Reuben, saying nothing. The silence stretches out. Joseph watches this unfold, silently. Finally Ebo speaks - he is very much enjoying his role with this group, although he doesn’t quite understand what Joseph is doing.
“You are definitely spies.
Why are you ugly spies who smell and why do you all look alike?”
Reuben clears his throat. “We are, uhh, brothers. We’re here to -”
Ebo interrupts him -
“…are ALL of you here?
Why is your entire family here?
Why would all of you come?
Do you have sisters?
Are they beautiful?
Are there more brothers?
Are they ugly too?”
“Uhh, yes…” Reuben stutters. We’re here so we can buy as much grain as you’ll let us buy. We have sisters, and another brother, but he’s at home.”
“You have one other brother?”
“Yes, he’s the youngest and he’s our dad’s favourite...well, our dad’s favourite since our other brother disappeared a long time ago. Vizier, could we please buy some grain and then we’ll leave?”
Ebo confers with Joseph, then returns.
“I have found a compromise. The compromise is this:
you may not buy any grain,
and I’m going to stick all of you in prison except for one,
and that one will return home to get your other brother,
and then you’ll come back,
and then I can find out whether or not you’re telling the truth.
Sound like a good compromise?”
The brothers are not having a super good day. They ask for a few minutes to talk amongst themselves, and Ebo checks with Joseph briefly, then returns.
“As a compromise to you wanting a few minutes to talk amongst yourselves,
Vizier has decided to put you all in prison for a few days so you can talk there.”
That is what happens. They go to prison for three days, and then return to the throne room. Joseph is not yet there. The brothers huddle around, waiting until Ebo walks in.
“Vizier has decided,”
he bellows from a few feet away,
“that he will keep only one of you here in prison.
We will let you take back grain for your father,
and when you return, you must bring your youngest brother.
That will be the proof we need that you are being honest about not being spies.”
“This is punishment,” Reuben hisses. “For what we did to Joseph. His blood is on our heads. We deserve what we get.”
Joseph strolls in from the back quietly, soaking in their words, though they do not see him yet. Hearing Reuben’s words, he weeps and exits again. Finally, he composes himself and walks in from the front confidently.
He points to Simeon, ordering him bound before the brothers and taken away. Then he pulls aside Ebo and gives him a secret directive.
“Do you need more time to confer?”
Ebo asks with a smile.
“No,” Reuben says.
And they leave.
Zaphnath-Paaneah, the name given to Joseph by Pharaoh, may mean “revealer of secrets”
Why did the brothers appear before Joseph? Was that part of the process in foreigners buying grain - that they needed to appear before the Vizier and introduce themselves, or make the case for how much they could purchase?