Blessings, curses

“Gather around,” Israel told his sons as they entered his tent in the cool of the evening. “I want to tell you what to expect in the coming days.”

All twelve sons presented themselves before their patriarch, each anticipating a blessing to carry them forward after his death.

“Reuben, my firstborn, the might of my youth, great in rank and power,” Israel began. “You went in and defiled your father’s bed. You’re unstable and your best days are behind you.”

Reuben fell to his knees and began to weep.

“Simeon and Levi,” Israel continued. “Brothers of violence, woe to those who would join in your company. In anger you kill men, and in jest, you slaughter innocent animals. You’re divided as brothers, and you’ll be scattered as tribes in Israel.”

Simeon and Levi slumped where they stood, the lines in their faces betraying a lifetime of wrath.

“Judah.”

Judah straightened his spine, bracing himself for whatever came next.

“Judah, your brothers will bow before you and praise you, and your enemies will fall under your yoke. You’re a lion’s cub, drawing vitality from the kill. When you stretch out like a lion, who dares to rouse you? The king’s scepter will remain in your hand, its base will rest at your feet until your people come with their tribute and obedience. The traveler will come into your land and tie his colt to the nearest vine, for wine will be as abundant as water.”

Judah closed his eyes and let out the breath he’d been unconsciously holding.

“Zebulun, you’ll settle on the seashore of Sidon, a safe harbor for coming ships. Issachar, you’d sooner nap between the sheep pens than to earn your keep and enjoy your freedom, so you’ll be a slave to others. Dan, you’ll serve as the justice of the peace among the tribes. Like a viper who strikes the horse’s heel, your bite will bring the rider down swiftly.”

Israel paused, as if in thought. He looked up and sighed deeply. “Save us, Lord,” he expelled, looking as if he would faint.

Judah stepped forward to steady the man, but Israel held up his hand. “We wait for you, Lord.”

Judah stepped back, and the tent was silent for a few minutes. Then Israel continued.

“Gad will be overtaken by bandits, but he’ll get his revenge. Asher will prepare food fit for kings. Naphtali will be a free-range deer, and his offspring will be nimble and beautiful. And Joseph…”

Israel reached out his arms, and his beloved son knelt at his feet.

“Joseph is a flourishing tree by a brook, his branches scaling the castle walls. Archers attack with brutality to no avail. He nocked his bow by the steady hand of God, the guiding Shepherd, the Rock of Israel. The God of your father will continue to steady your hand and bless you with gifts from the heavens above and from the depths below, blessings of nourishment and fertility. My blessings are greater than all the bounty that the timeless mountains have provided, and they rest upon your head. My son, you are set apart from your brothers.”

Joseph kissed his father’s hand and returned to stand among his brothers.

“Benjamin, my joy, you are a hungry wolf. In the morning you hunt your prey, and in the evening you share the spoils.”

Israel drew himself onto the bed and leaned his head on the banister.

“I’m prepared to be gathered to my ancestors. By Joseph’s word, I’ll be buried at Machpelah Cave near Mamre Oaks, purchased by my grandfather, Abraham, who is buried there with his wife, Sarah. My parents, Isaac and Rebekah, are buried there. My wife, Leah, is buried there.”

Then, Isaac drew his final breath.

Inspiration: Genesis 49

Israel’s relocation

Joseph gave his brothers food and fresh, clean garments for the journey back to Canaan. He gave his brother Benjamin five changes of clothes and three hundred pieces of silver.

Then he loaded ten male donkeys with select Egyptian goods and ten female donkeys with grain, bread, and other foods for the journey to Canaan and back.

“Don’t fight along the way,” Joseph said with a grin. “Especially you, Simeon and Levi. And don’t sell anyone to traders, Judah.”

When the brothers arrived home, they immediately went to Israel’s tent to give him the news. “Joseph is alive, and he’s the ruler of all Egypt!”

Israel didn’t believe them until he heard how Joseph revealed himself and what he said. When he looked out of his tent and saw the wagons and donkeys, Israel’s spirit was enlivened. He felt like a new man.

“What are we waiting for?” he asked. “Let’s go and live under the care of the one who saved us from death!”

On the way to Egypt, they passed through Beersheba, the place where his grandfather Abraham made a pact with a king. Israel, no longer as young as he used to be, began to doubt the safety of his travels. He found the remnants of an old altar there and offered sacrifices to the God of Abraham and Isaac.

Then he heard the voice of God in the night.

“Jacob, don’t be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there you will become the nation I promised to your father’s father, Abraham. I’ll be there with you when you go down to Egypt, and after your beloved Joseph closes your eyes with his own hands, I’ll be with you as you go back up.”

The next morning, Israel journeyed west toward the land of Egypt. His sons carried Israel, the sons’ wives, and sixty-six children in wagons, with a train of livestock and goods acquired in Canaan following behind them.

As the caravan of Israel neared the land of Goshen, seventy in number, he sent his son Judah ahead to announce their arrival.

Joseph’s chariots entered Goshen shortly after Israel and his family arrived, and the brothers greeted the young viceroy and his entourage with fresh water. They led Joseph to a shade tree where his father was resting.

When Israel saw his son, he stood and embraced him. Joseph wept on his father’s neck for several minutes.

“I can die peacefully,” Israel said, holding his son close, “now that I know you’re alive and well.”

Joseph composed himself and addressed his brothers and their father. “I’m on my way to present myself to Pharaoh. I’ll tell him my family has come from Canaan to settle here. When you see Pharaoh, and he asks about your occupation, tell him, ‘Your servants are shepherds, like our fathers before us.’ Because shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians, he’ll “force” you to settle here in nearby Goshen.”

Inspiration: Genesis 45, 46

Judah’s plea

The brothers returned to the palace and fell at Zaphenath’s feet.

“What is this evil deed you have done? Were you not aware that I am a man of deep insight?” Zaphenath asked them.

Judah spoke up. “Tell us how to make amends. Our God has seen our guilt and has repaid us for what we’ve done. We have come to serve you in your house. If Benjamin is a slave, then his brothers are slaves along with him.”

“You speak nonsense,” Zaphenath replied. “The guilty party acted alone, and he alone will be my slave. No, go to your father in Canaan and live in peace.”

Judah stood up. “My lord,” he said, taking a step closer, “I pray, allow me to speak without getting angry at your servant. You’re like Pharaoh in wisdom and splendor.”

“Very well. Speak.”

“My lord, you accused us of being spies. We told you that we have a father who is old and a younger brother, born in his old age. He’s the only son left of his mother’s children because his brother is dead. You ordered us to bring him to you, to prove that we weren’t spies. We told you Benjamin couldn’t leave our father, who loves his son more than his own life. You insisted, taking Simeon captive and threatening to sever our relationship if we didn’t return with Benjamin. We went back to Canaan and told our father everything. Our father, Israel, refused to release Benjamin to us. After our rations were gone, he told us to go buy more food. We refused, having remembered your words, lest we take Benjamin with us. Our father said, ‘The wife I loved gave me two sons before she died. One has surely been ravaged by wild animals. If you take Benjamin, and he is hurt, I will die along with him.’ If we don’t return to Canaan with Benjamin, our father, whose life is entwined in Benjamin’s, will go to the grave, full of sorrow. I have vouched for his life, and I would rather die than return to my father without my brother. Now, release my brother, and I will serve you in his place. Let Benjamin return to the father who loves him more than life itself.”

Inspiration: Genesis 44

Benjamin detained

Zaphenath summoned his steward and said, “Take these men’s empty sacks and overfill them with food. Then put their money back at the top of each sack.”

“Yes, lord,” the steward said.

“Take my cup,” Zaphenath continued, “and put it in the sack that belongs to Benjamin, the youngest brother.”

The brothers didn’t understand the Egyptian tongue and didn’t know what was happening.

“Yes, lord.” The steward took the royal cup and left the assembly.

The next morning, the brothers loaded their donkeys and took to the road leading out of the city. They hadn’t gone far when Zaphenath directed his steward again.

“Go, overtake the brothers on the road and ask, ‘Why have you betrayed your lord who treated you with love and compassion? He has given you everything, and yet you’ve stolen his silver cup!’”

So the steward and his retinue overtook the brothers, who had just begun their long journey into the harsh wilderness to Canaan.

“Halt! Why have you stolen your lord’s silver cup when he treated you with so much respect? Does he not drink from his cup and use it to divine the will of God?”

Reuben, in shock, replied, “Why are you accusing us of this? We’d never do that! We brought back the money we found at the top of our sacks on our first visit. Stealing from our lord doesn’t make any sense.”

“Nevertheless, you have done this evil thing. This is how Israel’s sons repay Egypt’s hospitality.”

“If you find our lord’s cup in anyone’s possession,” Judah said, white knuckles clutching his staff, “put him to death.”

“More than that, “Reuben added, “we will all return with you and become slaves in your house.”

“By my lord’s will, who is merciful,” the steward said, dismounting his horse, “whoever has the cup will return with us as a slave of the house. The rest of you may go free.”

Every brother dropped his sack to the ground and untied it. The steward went around to every bag, beginning with Reuben the elder and ending with Benjamin the younger.

“What have we here?”

When the steward found the cup in Benjamin’s sack, his men tied Benjamin’s wrists and escorted him back to the palace.

The brothers tore their garments and lamented until the sun shone directly overhead. Then, just as they had done earlier that morning, they fastened their loads, but instead of going home, they went back to the city.

Inspiration: Genesis 44

Benjamin’s portion

After they had washed their feet and quenched their thirst, the brothers were led into a large dining hall, more lavish than the meeting hall.

Reuben took from his bag all the gifts Israel told the brothers to present to the lord, Zaphenath.

When Zaphenath entered with his guards and servants, the brothers bowed low to the ground and presented their gifts of gum, resin, nuts, balm, and honey. A servant gathered up the commodities on an oblong tray and left with the platter stacked high.

“We accept your gifts. Sit, sit,” Zaphenath said through his interpreter. He leaned forward with a hand on his knee. “How’s your father? Is he well?”

The brothers sat at the table, taken aback by the lord’s courtesy and his concern over their father’s well-being.

“Your servant Israel is alive and well, my lord,” Reuben answered.

Zaphenath walked over to Benjamin and looked into his eyes.

“You must be the youngest son of Israel,” he said, quirking an eyebrow and smiling. “God’s grace be upon you, son.”

Zaphenath turned away abruptly and left the hall. As he exited, tears gushed from his eyes. Great affection welled within him as he cried in a private chamber for several minutes.

Then he washed his face, composed himself, and re-entered the hall. “Serve us our meal!” he ordered. Servants from every corner of the room who had been standing in wait for the master’s orders served the brothers a feast fit for kings. At a separate table, the Egyptian household ate, and Zaphenath sat alone.

After everyone had their fill, the brothers were assigned seats before the great lord, in order by birthright. Reuben sat to Zaphenath’s left, and Benjamin took the position at his right hand. The brothers were astonished by this and looked at one another as if to ask, “How did he know?”

The servants brought in decadent cakes and set them before the guests, but Benjamin’s portion was five times larger than any of his brothers.

Wine flowed liberally into the afternoon.

Inspiration: Genesis 43

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

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

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

Cleaning house

Jacob shook off the disturbing images of his sons’ bloodlust and prayed for some clear direction. God told Jacob to go back to Bethel and settle there. “Make an altar to me,” God said, “at the place where I appeared when you fled from Esau.”

Jacob knew he needed to set his house right before proceeding further. He made a blanket announcement to all who lived in his camp. “Sons, daughters, wives, servants, gather up all your foreign gods, cleanse yourselves with water from the spring, and change into clean clothes. We’re going to Bethel to build an altar to the God who’s had my back since I fled from my brother so long ago.”

For the next few days, everyone brought Jacob their idols. They removed the earrings they wore as symbols of wealth and substance, and they washed in the brook. Jacob took all the objects of false worship, the gods and the jewelry, and he buried them underneath an oak tree near Shechem.

When they left for Bethel, God inflicted a collective paranoia on all the villages surrounding the people of Israel so that no one dared to venture out from their own house to attack Jacob’s caravan.

They arrived safely at Bethel, and Jacob built his altar. God came to him and said, “Your name is Jacob, but from this moment you’ll be called Israel. The land I gave to Abraham and Isaac will be yours, and it’ll belong to your children after you.”

Israel brushed off the old altar of stone he’d erected so many years before, and he named the place “El-Bethel,” The God of God’s House.

Soon afterward, Israel left Bethel and traveled toward Ephrath. Along the way, Rachel struggled through the birth of her son.

“Don’t be scared,” her midwife tried to soothe her. “You’re going to have a son.”

But Rachel’s dying words were, “He will be called ‘Benoni’ Son Of My Pain.

Israel buried his wife Rachel in a tomb and marked it with a boulder somewhere along the road. There, he renamed his newborn child Benjamin. Journeying on, he pitched his tent beyond the tower of Eder near Ephrath, also called Bethlehem.

While living there near Bethlehem, Reuben slept with Bilhah, his mother’s servant, and father’s concubine. Israel heard this troubling news, but he would need to think carefully about a suitable punishment for him.

Israel and Esau came to Mamre Oaks at Hebron to bury their father Isaac, who was a hundred and eighty years old when he died. From there, Israel and his family went and settled in Bethel. Altogether, Israel’s sons were Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph, and Benjamin.

Inspiration: Genesis 35