Monday, November 21, 2016

An unexpected indication of religious freedom and respect in Genesis

In the story of Joseph in Egypt, there’s a place where Joseph’s brothers return for food for the second time to Egypt, bringing Benjamin and double money because their money had been mysteriously returned to them before and they thought it was an oversight. They are invited to Joseph’s house, and they worry they are about to be taken advantage of and fear the returned money will be used as the pretext, so they explain their situation to Joseph’s steward before going into Joseph’s house.

The steward’s answer is curious:

And he said, Peace be to you, fear not: your God, and the God of your father, hath given you treasure in your sacks: I had your money. And he brought Simeon out unto them. (Genesis 43:23)

The steward’s answer is curious because by speaking of “your God” we see he speaks to Joseph’s brothers as one who does not share that belief.  It hints that Joseph did not require those who worked for him to share his beliefs and that he let them be free about it too.  It also hints that the steward has not only been told who Joseph’s brothers are, but he knows they believe in the same God Joseph does.

It is also interesting that the steward speaks to Joseph’s brothers in terms of their beliefs (instead of his own) in order to reassure them.  That shows a rather astonishing respect for them and their religion, even though he doesn’t share it.  All of these factors combined together paint a picture of a very sophisticated kind of freedom and respect. It may be that he learned this from Joseph’s example.

We get another hint that Joseph was sensitive to the particular sensibilities of the Egyptians when we are told about Joseph’s eating arrangements for himself, his brothers, and the Egyptians in his household:

And they set on for him by himself, and for them by themselves, and for the Egyptians, which did eat with him, by themselves: because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that is an abomination unto the Egyptians. (Genesis 43:32)

It seems peculiar that the Egyptians wouldn’t eat with Hebrews. Some commentaries think this was because the Hebrews ate and herded around animals the Egyptians worshiped, which is understandable, even if peculiar.  But Joseph didn’t force the Egyptians of his household to do what they considered abominable, even if they served him. 

Joseph seems to have been one who allowed freedom of conscience and religion among those around him. It is probable he learned to value it while he was a slave in Potiphar’s house.  It is also possible that his example of forbearance was a positive recommendation for his religion to the Egyptians.