December 12, 2006

Genesis 43-45: A gift for every occasion

Today's reading is Genesis 43-45 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the brothers' second trip to Egypt, with Benjamin; the episode with the silver cup in Benjamin's sack; and Joseph's revelation of his identity to his brothers.

Gift-giving has such a prominent place in the book of Genesis, I'm surprised I haven't done an essay about it already. In today's readings, we encounter two instances of gift-giving, coming essentially from the two economic ends of the spectrum. It might behove us, then, to take a few minutes to examine what sort of gifts were considered hot items in an age before Playstation and Wii, and why people might give them.

The first set of gifts comes in Gen. 43:11-13. In this case, Jacob is sending gifts to the overseer of Egypt. Keep in mind that Jacob comes from a princely family: Abraham had hundreds of men at command, and Jacob himself was forced to separate from his brother Esau because the land couldn't support the wealth of both men together. Jacob is obviously a man used to being in a position of plenty.

On the other hand, Jacob has evidently fallen on somewhat hard times, given the long famine, and thus needs to rely on the storehouses of Egypt. Further, he may have already angered the particular official who oversees the storehouses. On their first visit, his sons were accused of spying on Egypt, and Jacob has no reason to believe they will be treated any better on the second visit. This time, he's sending his youngest son, his favourite son, and so wants to ensure that things go extra-smoothly. So, regardless of the famine, he tells his sons to bring some gifts to Egypt's second-in-command. In some places, this would be called "greasing the palms," or perhaps even bribery. In other places, especially the ancient middle east, it's merely a way to do business.

So what does Jacob send with his sons to attract the goodwill of one of the most important men in Egypt? Here's what the text tells us:
- his best fruits
- a little balm
- a little honey
- spices
- myrrh
- nuts (NIV: pistachio nuts)
- almonds

He also has the brothers bring twice the money required, because they had mysteriously found their original payment returned to them the first time, and didn't want the official to believe they were cheating him. Finally, and at great urging, he sends Benjamin.

We notice that all the gifts Jacob sends are produce, some of them exotic produce. Some of them, such as the spices, may even have been luxury trade items. He seems to be saying, "even though I don't have corn, I still have other things which might interest you; I am not poor." Also, other than the fruits, the rest of the gifts are longer-lasting goods: spices and nuts can last a long time without spoiling, even in an age before refrigeration.

To make a long story very short, the brothers go to Egypt, face certain difficulties, and are eventually reconciled with their brother, Joseph, the second-in-command of all Egypt. Joseph urges them to come live with him, along with Jacob and the rest of their families. Pharaoh hears about the offer and is delighted. In fact, he tells Joseph to have the brothers send gifts to their father. (Gen. 45:16-24)

What does the most powerful man of one of the most powerful countries in the ancient world gift to the family of his second-in-command?
- the best land in all Egypt
- wagons to carry their families
- the "best of all Egypt," so that they need not worry about bringing their belongings (NIV, Gen. 45:20)

No small gift! Pharaoh here seems to be saying, "nothing is too good for the family of my most valuable officer." It would hardly be fitting to give Joseph's family anything but the best: it would seem that the Pharaoh was being cheap.

But wait, there's more! Joseph decides that he, too, should send some gifts back to his father. Or, as the text tells us, "some provisions for their journey." (NIV, Gen. 45:21) What does he give his brothers and father?
- a new set of clothes
- for Benjamin: five new sets of clothes and three hundred shekels of silver (about 7.5 pounds)
- ten donkeys laden with the best things in Egypt
- ten female donkeys laden with grain, bread, and meat

Here we see the portable wealth, as compared to the land gifted by Pharaoh. Clothes, silver, donkeys, and other valuable goods are all within the scope of Joseph's gift. Though we are not told what "the best things in Egypt" are, we can make the fairly safe assumption that they were expensive.

Obviously, the gifts from Pharaoh and Joseph are more valuable, in absolute terms, than the ones send from Jacob. This is to be expected: Pharaoh and Joseph are the two most powerful men in Egypt, while Jacob is a local prince fallen upon hard times. Of course they are in a better position to be doling out valuable presents to their friends and family.

Oddly enough, however, Joseph's gift is not as grand as it could have been. Years earlier, Jacob had sent a gift to his brother Esau, just before they were reunited after a twenty-year separation. (Gen. 32:13-16) At that time, Jacob sent two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty female cattle, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys. By quick calculation, that's 550 animals! Joseph, here, is only sending twenty!

Of course, Jacob is getting more than just cattle. He's getting luxury goods and, more importantly, some of the best land in Egypt, which is theoretically far more valuable than even several hundred heads of cattle. Furthermore, the circumstances are different. Jacob wanted to ensure Esau wouldn't kill him. Joseph just wants to give a goodwill offering to his father, a way of saying, "look, dad, I've done well for myself."

So there you have it. What do you give to the ancient prince who has it all? Produce, cattle, silver, land, and luxuries. And, if you don't have that, get him a Playstation.

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