Warm reception

Zaphenath greeted the travelers as they made their way into the courtyard, and he instantly recognized the eyes of his mother in the face of Benjamin. He called for his steward and said, “These men will dine with me at noon. Escort them into the house, and prepare a feast, sparing no expense.”

The steward followed his orders, and the brothers found themselves in a large chamber with high ceilings. Its walls were adorned with color drawings of battle scenes, harvest festivals, and royal weddings. Three servants came in, dressed in loincloths, each carrying a bowl of water and a towel. Two more servants followed with a pitcher of water and cups. They all smelled strongly of incense.

Judah lifted a foot tentatively as a servant cradled his heel in his hand and began wiping off the dust. He whispered to Reuben. “Is this a trap?”

Reuben shrugged, his eyes watching the entrance to the room. He looked into his cup and gave it a sniff before taking a sip. It was pure water, refreshing to the taste.

“It’s about the money,” Judah said, his eyes blinking rapidly. “He brought us here to make us slaves.”

Seeing the steward come in, Reuben approached him. “Lord, there’s been a misunderstanding,” he began to explain. “We paid for grain on our first trip, but after we left the city to return home, we found that we still had every shekel in our possession.” Then motioning to a large sack he had brought in, he said, “We’ve brought the money back in addition to money for more grain.”

The steward put up a hand. “Relax, your God must have worked some good magic. I got your money on the first visit.”

At that moment, Simeon walked in, unchained. He looked as mean as usual but relatively healthy. “Hello, brothers,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Did you miss me?”

“Now, when you’re finished here, we’ll adjourn to the dining hall,” the steward said, clapping Reuben on the back. “Your donkeys are already feasting in my barns.”

Inspiration: Genesis 43

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Hard bargain

The famine worsened, and soon they consumed all the grain brought back from Egypt.

“Go back to Egypt,” Israel told his sons. “Bring back enough to feed us awhile longer.”

Judah said, “The man gave us a grave warning. If we return to Egypt without our brother Benjamin, we’ll be captured, killed, and put on display. And you and the rest of your house will die of starvation.”

“He’s right, Father,” Reuben said. “If Benjamin doesn’t go with us, we don’t go.”

Israel’s face reddened, and his eyes tightened. “What have you done? Why did you tell the man you had another brother?”

Reuben answered, “The man wouldn’t stop asking questions about where we came from. He accused us of being spies from the north.”

“We insisted that we were godly men from the same father,” Zebulun added, “and that we also had a brother at home.”

“He called us liars,” Judah said. “He wouldn’t relent. How were we to know he’d require us to return with Benjamin?”

Israel’s eyes turned cold and hard.

“Dear Father,” Judah coaxed. “By God’s mercy, put Benjamin in my charge and give us leave.”

The brothers inched forward, anticipating their father’s response.

“Look at you, Father,” Judah persisted. “You’re famished, and your family will starve soon.”

“We’d be there and back twice by now,” Dan chimed in.

Judah said, “I’ll vouch for Benjamin. If he dies, I die.”

Israel saw that he was outnumbered and out of options. “Go on then,” he relented. “Present gifts to the man. Take balm. Take honey, gum, resin, pistachios, and almonds. And take twice the amount of money you paid the first time. It was likely an oversight you can make right.”

“And what about our brother,” Judah asked.

“Take him, and may God be merciful when you face the lord of Egypt.” Israel slumped in his chair and lowered his gaze. “I heart goes with you.”

The brothers embraced their father and made ready the provisions and money for the journey. Hoisting Benjamin on a donkey, they followed the trail west toward the vast and opulent land of Egypt.

Inspiration: Genesis 43

Money returned

On the way out of the city, Zebulun opened his sack of grain to feed his donkey, when he noticed his purse half-buried in the grain. It was full!

“Look, brothers,” he said. “My money has been returned to me.”

The brothers stopped and looked inside their sacks. They were dismayed to find that every shekel used to buy grain was still in their possession.

“We’ve stolen from the man,” Dan gasped. “What has God done to us?”

The brothers reached their father’s house as the sun was going down, and they relayed their misadventures to him. When they showed Israel their full bundles of money, his countenance changed from concern to despair.

“You stole from the ruler of Egypt,” he sighed. “Joseph is dead, Simeon is taken captive, and now you would take my beloved Benjamin away.”

“And yet we must. For Simeon’s sake,” Judah said.

Israel shook his head.

Reuben stepped forward. “My two sons’ lives for Benjamin,” he vowed. “If I don’t return him to you alive, you can kill them both.”

“Madness!” Israel shouted. “You should listen to yourself sometime. Benjamin’s brother was ravaged in the wild, and the road to Egypt is treacherous. If he came to harm, I couldn’t bear it. I’d join him in the grave.”

So, Israel his sons’ request for Benjamin.

Inspiration: Genesis 42

Alternative plan

After three days, Zaphenath sent for the prisoners.

The brothers presented themselves and pressed in meekly before their Egyptian lord.

“Do what I say, and you’ll live to tell about it,” he said through his interpreter. “If you’ve told me the truth, you’ll have no objection to elect one among you to stay here in my prison while the rest take the grain you’ve purchased to your father and his people. Return with your youngest brother.”

The brothers all looked at one another in confusion. Their lord would release all but one of them instead of imprisoning all but one.

“This we will do,” Reuben answered with a most humble bow. “We give thanks for your kindness.”

“Do as I have instructed, and you’ll be vindicated and live,” Zaphenath emphasized. “I fear God, so I’ll have no innocent blood on my hands.”

They all nodded in agreement, then spoke quietly among themselves.

“This is all happening because of what we did to Joseph,” Judah said.

“We’re paying the price for his innocence,” Dan added.

“We’re paying for his blood,” Reuben corrected.

“Joseph begged for mercy, and we betrayed him,” Simeon said. “We’ve cursed ourselves.”

Reuben elevated his gaze. “I told you not to hurt him,” he said, his eyes glistening with tears.

They stood before Zaphenath, and all the brothers wailed in sorrow. They didn’t know that Zaphenath understood every word they spoke in Hebrew. They didn’t realize they wept for the blood pumping in the veins of their Egyptian lord.

Zaphenath turned away from his brothers, whose cries echoed off the chamber walls, and he wept privately. Then, having composed himself, he returned. Pointing a finger to no one in particular, he commanded, “Bind him!”

The guards brought Simeon forward and fastened heavy chains around his wrists, his ankles, and his neck. He was led out of the great hall.

Zaphenath ordered his officers to fill eight bags of grain and collect the amount owed from each brother. They did exactly as they were instructed, then provided food for the brothers’ journey, loaded their donkeys with grain, and sent them on their way.

Inspiration: Genesis 42

Zaphenath’s test

Word spread throughout the land. Egypt had grain for sale. When the news reached Israel, he gathered his sons and said, “What are you all waiting for? Go to Egypt and buy us grain, so we don’t die out here!”

Israel’s ten oldest sons packed their camels and left for Egypt, joining the travelers in Canaan who sought relief from the famine. Benjamin didn’t go with them, because Israel was afraid that he might get hurt. Benjamin was his only living reminder of Rachel, the wife he loved.

Of course, Joseph, now called Zaphenath, governed the entire land, and he was the distributor of grain to everyone. When his brothers came and knelt before the great viceroy, they bowed with their faces to the ground.

Zaphenath recognized them instantly, but he treated them as strangers. “Where are you from?” he asked gruffly through his interpreter.

“We come from Canaan to purchase food from your stores,” Reuben answered for his fellow travelers. It was clear they didn’t recognize their brother at all.

Zaphenath remembered the dream he had as a boy, and how one day he knew that eleven brothers would bow before him. Among Israel’s sons, Zaphenath counted only ten. Where’s Benjamin? he asked himself.

“You’re spies,” he said. “You’ve come to see where our gates weak.”

Judah answered, “Lord, your servants have only come to buy enough grain to feed our family. We all share the same father, a man of God. We wouldn’t lie to you.”

“No, you’re spies, I’m sure of it,” he said as he stood from his royal seat. “Guards, remove these—”

“No, lord, we’re your servants!” Reuben pleaded. “We come from Canaan. Our youngest son is with our father and our other brother is dead.”

“Ah, a test, then!” Zaphenath shouted. “This will be how you prove yourselves: One of you shall go back home, collect your youngest brother, and bring him to me. The rest of you will wait in prison for their return. If you don’t come back with your brother, as surely as Pharaoh lives, you’re spies. And you don’t want to know what I do to spies.”

The brothers agreed to the test as if they had a choice, and the captain of the guard escorted them to the prison until the great lord of Egypt considered which brother to release.

Inspiration: Genesis 42

Joseph rules

Pharaoh said, “Joseph of the Hebrews, God has shown you something no one else has seen. Therefore, it suits you to rule over my house and my people. The only thing I will withhold from you is the throne.”

Pharaoh took off his signet ring and placed it on Joseph’s finger. Then he addressed the servant at Joseph’s side. “Dress the new governor in quality linens,” he said, “and give him a gold chain.”

Outfitted like a king, Joseph mounted the general’s chariot, and the officers of the guard escorted him through the city streets. Servants prepared the way in front of his royal train, shouting, “Bow your knee, your master is in your midst!”

Later that evening, Pharaoh and Joseph met in Pharaoh’s counseling chambers. “You need a name,” he told his new confidant. “We’ll call you Zaphenath-Paneah.”

“Thank you, Lord.”

“And you’ll have Asenath, the priest’s daughter, as a wife. Without your consent, no one moves a muscle in the entire land of Egypt.”

And so it was with Joseph, now Zaphenath.

Zaphenath left the palace on frequent business trips for the next seven years. The earth yielded an abundant volume of food, and he would make sure a fifth of the produce from the fields were freighted to the storehouses in every city. Soon there was such a surplus of grain, he stopped tallying up each shipment.

During this time, Zaphenath also fathered two sons with his wife, Asenath. He named his firstborn Manasseh, saying, “God caused me to forget my troubles and my brothers.” He named the second son Ephraim, saying “God has let me prosper in a land of hardship.”

Soon enough, just as Pharaoh had dreamed, the famine began. In every land, far and wide, the famine’s effects devastated the people, but Egypt had bread and plenty of it. The people came in droves from all over the world to seek the exalted god of Egypt for food.

Pharaoh said, “Go see Zaphenath-Paneah.”

Zaphenath opened wide the doors of the storehouses and sold grain to all who needed food.

Inspiration: Genesis 41

Pharaoh’s dreams

A couple of years passed, and Pharaoh had a dream. He was standing on the bank of the Nile when suddenly seven of the most well-fed cows came up out of the water and started munching on the reeds. Then, seven more cows, wretched and famished, came up for air and swallowed up the pretty cows. Pharaoh woke up and turned over in his bed.

Falling asleep again, he dreamed of seven fat ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Then, seven wind-blasted and small ears sprouted up and choked out the quality shoots. Pharaoh woke up again, troubled by all he’d seen in the night.

He recounted these disturbing images to every Egyptian magician in the vicinity, but no one knew how to interpret them. Then he called for every “wise man” and seer in the district. Again, he told them his dreams, but no one offered an answer to their meaning.

Then the chief cupbearer spoke up. “How could I be so stupid?” he asked, giving his forehead a sound palm slap. “When the baker and I went to prison, we both had dreams during the same night. A young Hebrew, he interpreted our dreams correctly, for he foretold of my vindication and the baker’s demise.

“You’re right to ask the question,” Pharaoh said. “How could you be so stupid?” Then he turned to a servant guarding the hall entrance. “Bring me the Hebrew at once!”

Joseph shaved his head, changed his clothes, and presented himself low to the ground before the ruler of all Egypt.

“I’m told you’re an interpreter of dreams,” he said to the thirty-year-old prisoner.

Joseph lifted his head and answered, “I don’t interpret them, but God will give the answers you seek.”

“Whatever,” Pharaoh said, skeptical of the Hebrew holy roller. “Look, I was standing by the Nile, and seven fat cows came up to feed on the grass. Then seven skinny cows came after them and swallowed up the fat cows. The seven skinny cows were still skinny. In my second dream, I saw seven fat ears of grain on one stalk. Then, seven withered ears came up and choked out the healthy ones. The magi were unable to give me an answer. What say you?”

“Is that all?” Joseph asked.

“Indeed.”

“They’re both the same dream,” Joseph said. “God has revealed to you what He’s about to do.”

Pharaoh wasn’t any closer to divining the meaning of his dreams. “Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what God has so clearly revealed to me.”

“Lord,” Joseph continued, “The seven fat cows and the seven fat ears are seven years of harvest. The seven skinny cows and the seven thin ears are seven years of famine. Like I said, God has given you the meaning of your dream.”

“Indulge me,” Pharaoh said, impatiently. “Are you giving me the weather forecast for the next fourteen years?”

“Precisely, Lord,” Joseph said, standing to his feet. “And as sure as the god of Egypt has dreamed it, it will come to pass.”

Pharaoh scratched his goatee. “Anything else?”

Joseph bowed. “If it pleases my Lord, let Pharaoh put an expert in charge of agriculture. Elect district managers to collect one-fifth of the land’s produce for the next seven years. Store up grain reserves in every city, under your authority, of course. When the famine comes, you’ll be a hero.”

By the time Joseph finished what he had to say, his face was perceptibly radiant. The guards approached to escort him from Pharaoh’s presence.

“Wait,” Pharaoh said. “Is there any other like him? This man hosts the spirit of God Himself.”

Inspiration: Genesis 41

Interpreting dreams

Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were thrown into the prison where Joseph carried out his duties. Potiphar put Joseph in charge of their well-being while confined below his house.

One night, both incarcerated officers had disturbing dreams. When they woke up the next morning, Joseph could see they were sorely vexed. “Why do you look so troubled?” Joseph asked them during breakfast.

“We both had dreams last night,” the cupbearer said. The baker added, “But we have no one to interpret them.”

Joseph answered, “Doesn’t all meaning come from God? Tell me your dreams.”

The cupbearer shot an apprehensive glance to the baker and then unfolded his dream to Joseph.

“I saw a vine,” the cupbearer began, “with three branches on it. The vine bloomed and bore clusters of plump, luscious grapes. I took and squeezed the juice of the grapes into Pharaoh’s cup and presented it to him.”

Joseph said, “The three branches are three days in which time Pharaoh will restore your position as cupbearer. When you’ve settled into your rightful place, I pray you to mention me to Pharaoh so I can get out of this place. I was stolen from my Hebrew lands, and now I’m wrongfully imprisoned underneath the captain of the guard’s house.”

The baker’s countenance changed when he heard the favorable interpretation of the cupbearer’s dream. “I dreamed there were three baskets stacked on my head,” he said, looking hopeful and eager. “In the top basket, an assortment of baked goods were being devoured by birds.”

Joseph said, “The three baskets are three days in which time Pharaoh will lop off your head and hang you from a pole. The birds will devour your flesh. Sorry, dude.”

The baker’s face grew ashen.

Three days later, on Pharaoh’s birthday, the ruler gave a lavish feast for his servants. He released his chief cupbearer and chief baker from the prison and restored the cupbearer to his former position. As for the baker, he was hanged on a pole just as Joseph described.

The cupbearer forgot all about Joseph and the accuracy of his dream interpretations.

Inspiration: Genesis 40

Prospering servant

The Ishmaelites sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard. But because God’s presence stayed with Joseph, he became prosperous in his Egyptian master’s employ.

Joseph never missed an opportunity to acknowledge the divine qualities in his master, and as a result, Potiphar softened in his rule over others. Potiphar saw that his servant was blessed, so he put him in charge of everything he had. Potiphar emulated Joseph, whom he deeply respected, and God blessed him and his dominion.

Joseph was a handsome man, and Potiphar’s wife lusted after him.

“Come and lie in my bed,” she said to the young servant.

Joseph refused and tried to reason with her. “Don’t you see,” he said as she pulled on his tunic, “Your husband has trusted me with everything he owns, and he doesn’t have to worry about me cheating him in any way. He’s given me every liberty except for you, his wife. How could I ever betray his trust and sin against God?”

Every day, Potiphar’s wife would come to see Joseph and try to seduce him, but he refused to break his master’s trust. One day, she was fed up with asking, so she just went for Joseph. She grabbed hold of his tunic violently and ordered him, “Lie with me!”

Joseph slipped out of her grasp and ran out of the house, leaving the tunic dangling from her hand.

She cried out for her servants, who immediately came to her. “My husband brought a Hebrew into this house, and he’s defiled it! He tried to force himself on me, but I cried for help, and he fled.” She repeated this story to her husband when he returned from the field.

Potiphar went into a rage and shut Joseph away in prison beneath his house. But in prison, God never left Joseph alone. He showed consistent kindness to Joseph through the warden, who put Joseph in charge of all the prisoners. Like Potiphar before him, the warden trusted Joseph so much that he had no concerns of revolt or subterfuge. There, even in prison, God made all of Joseph’s work prosper.

Inspiration: Genesis 39

Judah’s twins

“Come, let’s spend time together at my lodgings,” Judah propositioned the veiled woman, not realizing that the temple prostitute was his daughter-in-law, Tamar.

“And what’s in it for me?” Tamar asked with a sly smile.

“A baby goat from my flocks when I reach Timnah,” Judah said.

“And I should just believe you’ll keep your promise?” Tamar asked. “I need collateral.”

Judah carried little of monetary value when he traveled. “What shall I give you, as I have nothing but the clothes on my back?”

Tamar smiled. “I’ll take your signet ring and the cord it dangles from on your neck. Or is your identity worthless?”

Judah took the ring of his family seal and handed it to her.

“And your staff,” Tamar added.

Judah handed over his staff and brought her to his bed.

After Tamar got what she was after, she left Judah’s tent and went back home and changed her clothes.

After seeing his sheepshearers in Timnah, Judah sent his friend Hirah back through Enaim to make good on his promise and to recover his signet, cord, and staff. Hirah looked all over Enaim for her without success.

He asked the local citizens, “Where can I find the temple prostitute who waits by the east gate?” But no one knew who he was talking about. “We run a clean town. No prostitutes here.”

Hirah went back and gave Judah the bad news. Judah answered, “Well, let her keep my belongings. We’ll become a laughing stock if we keep looking for her.”

Three months later, Judah heard some disturbing news. “Tamar, your sons’ widow, has been whoring around and now she’s pregnant.

“Bring her here to be burned alive,” Judah commanded indignantly.

Tamar faced her father-in-law, who had already prepared a pyre for her in the square. She carried with her a broad-bottomed satchel.

“The owner of these belongings is the man who has made me pregnant,” she said, throwing the satchel at his feet. “Take a look, and know who the father is.”

Judah opened the satchel and turned white as a ghost. There he found his signet, cord, and staff.

Falling to his knees, he hung his head and said to those gathered around, “She’s in the right, and I’m in the wrong. I promised her my son Shelah, and I failed to fulfill it.”

Tamar gave birth to twins, and Judah never slept with her again. During childbirth, one child put his hand out, so the midwife tied a red thread around its wrist to mark who would be born first. But when he withdrew his hand, his brother came out before him. They called the firstborn “Perez,” Breach, and his brother with the red thread, they named “Zerah,” Bright.

Inspiration: Genesis 38