Friday, April 08, 2011

Order and Decorum, Yet Favoritism - Genesis 43:33-34

Now they were seated before him, the first-born according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, and the men looked at one another in astonishment.  And he took portions to them from his own table; but Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as any of theirs.  So they feasted and drank freely with him.

The text tells us that all of Joseph’s brothers were seated before him, but at a separate table.  They were seated in the order of their age and their birthright – from Reuben (born to Leah) down to Benjamin (born to Rachel and Joseph’s only full-brother).  It is not clear whether the servants asked them to sit that way or not.  Maybe even Joseph did.  We do not know.  It is more likely given the reference to their “birthrights” that they normally used this pecking order every time they ate or met together as a group.  Perhaps that was the way things were done in those days.  Even today, although with a lot more flexibility, we sometimes try to do the same thing, but it is not the end of the world if it does not work out.  (Believe me I know.  Just be at our house when five grandchildren jostle for their desired seating location when guests are with us or on a special occasion.) And as they sat there, they continued to look at each other in bewilderment, not knowing what happened, was happening, or what was going to happen.  And when you come to think of it, you and I sitting there under those circumstances would likely be feeling the same way and wondering all the same things.

The last verse of this chapter (verse 34) is one where Joseph’s hand starts to show.  Now there is no doubt that the brothers had ample food at their table brought to them by the servants.  It is, however, possible that they did not have all the things on it that Joseph’s table had; after all he was the second most important ruler in Egypt, next to the Pharaoh.  So what did Joseph do?  He took either from his table’s abundance and refilled his brothers’ table or he took from his table’s wider variety of foods and shared them with his brothers.  There is no doubt he was trying to be both a gracious Egyptian host as well as bridge the “decorum or societal” gap that was expected between his position and these mere Hebrew guests.  His own native Hebrew instinct of being one with his brothers and family exhibited itself in his actions.

In taking these steps, however, he commenced showing his favoritism for his own ‘full-brother’ Benjamin.  The Bible says as he took portions to them, he managed to give Benjamin what appeared to be five times more than each of the others.  The Bible’s authenticity does not stand or fall on whether or not it was exactly “five times as much” for the phrase here is strictly used with ‘literary license’ to get across the idea that regardless, it was much more than the others got.  We can also assume that he likely did it himself as the gracious host rather than have his servants do it for how else would they know to favor Benjamin as he did.

Interestingly, Scripture makes no mention of how the brothers reacted to what they obviously would notice.  So we have no indication if they were bothered by it or not.  Perhaps they just thought it normal that their youngest brother was growing and needed lots of food to help him with that.  Some Bible scholars believe that Benjamin was at least seven years younger than Joseph and he was at least seventeen years younger than the next youngest brother (Zebulun).  So, for the brothers that thought Joseph was dead, that seventeen-year spread and up, between Benjamin and his brothers was enough to let him get away with the favoritism that Joseph was bestowing on him.

Perhaps another reason for this was, as the last sentence of this chapter indicates, they were too busy having a great feast themselves and probably getting to the point where they were well influenced by the wine that they were “drinking freely” with Joseph. 
And after all, who would want to challenge the host and a top leader of Egypt with respect to his preferences?

As I consider these verses today, I am reminded to be aware of how I apply and adhere to various customs and expectations, and at the same time how I may favor some in so doing.  If you have more than one child or several grandchildren of various ages, you can easily identify with how easy it is fall into this kind of practice.  Many of us probably do it subconsciously at church events too.  Let us pray that we will be conscious of our traditions while being careful to apply them fairly to the best of our abilities and to the glory of God.

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