Saturday, March 10, 2012

I told you so! TTWB: Genesis 42

Crises come in the lives of all people. Even the cave-dwelling hermit has to deal with bats and the occasional spelunker! When we face those crises there are good things to hear, useless things to hear, and absolutely irritating things to hear. Genesis 42 (link) gives us examples of all three types of statements.

If you have read the chapter, you know what is going on here. Famine in both Egypt and Canaan, hungry people all around. Going back a chapter, you'll see that Joseph has prepared Egypt with food reserves for these seven years of tough times. There's grain and seed stored up from seven years of plenty in Egypt, brought in by taxing the Egyptian farmers one-fifth of their harvest for those seven years.

A few words here might be helpful in understanding the situation. One might wonder how taking one-fifth seven times would provide seven years of food. That only totals seven-fifths, and no matter where you learned math, you should recognize that you're short of seven years that way. You're about twenty-eight-fifths short, to be precise.

The most logical explanation is that the years of famine were not years of utter and complete crop loss. Just years of really, really bad crops. At the time, you're dealing with an agricultural economy that plants next year with the results of this year. A bad year leaves you tight on seed for the next year. The next bad year can be your death. Seven in a row is fatal for nearly everyone. So, what has Joseph accomplished? He was stockpiled the seed grain that will start the next year. That's a little more obvious in Genesis 43, where the farmers come and ask for grain to plant.

With that in mind, let's get back to Canaan. Typically, Canaan would not have a famine on par with Egypt, but this was not a typical situation. As such, Jacob's family is in peril. Terrible peril: there is just not enough food. Considering what tends to cause agricultural famine, crop failures are likely only a portion of the problem. Drought, pestilence, and other factors are making things bad around the old homestead for Israel.

This is a crisis. Let us consider how it gets handled. There is, as always, a lot of talking. As I mentioned above, there's useless, good, and irritating things being said. Here they are:

1. Useless: Jacob's statement about not sending Benjamin because "harm might befall him." Really? Just after saying "Go buy grain so that we live and don't die?" Jacob really did not need to tell ten of his sons that they were expendable in his sight.

2. Good: Practical guidance on what to do, as when Jacob points out that there's grain in Egypt, so go buy some! If someone is facing a crisis and you have practical, achievable guidance, then share it. Consider this, though: let it be both practical and achievable. Jacob does not say "Go buy food!" He shares where the food is to be bought. Shouting "Get a job" to the unemployed is not advice, it's an insult. Telling an unemployed person where there is a job available and how to apply for it is.

See the difference?

The other part of Jacob's good guidance is a little on the direct side, but it's still valuable. He opens with "Why are you staring at one another?" In other words: "Get off the couch and do something!" It is one thing to do nothing when there is nothing to be done, but when there are possible actions, take them. Jacob's advice is both blunt and sound—a valuable aspect to remember.

3. Irritating: Bordering on insulting and completely destructive to the situation. That's Reuben in Genesis 42:22 when he tells his brothers "I told you so!" regarding Joseph's fate and their fate. The brothers are attributing the threat of prison at the hands of Joseph to their mistreatment of Joseph.

They could even be right. At this point in the story, Joseph has no reason to think his brothers have changed and every reason to consider retribution. In the end, we see him take forgiveness, but perhaps a little reciprocity is in his mind here.

Reuben's contribution, though, is useless to the situation. There's a time and place for laying the blame. There's a time and a place for proclaiming your innocence. In the middle of the mess, though, is not that time. First deal with the problem. Once you're all safely on your way home to Canaan with food to survive the famine, then bicker about who messed up.

Whether it's in the family, the church, the nation, or on the bridge of the Titanic, the question is first "How do we fix the mess?" Not "Who didn't see that iceberg?" Deal with the problem, not the blame.

Because while "I told you so" may be true, it is almost never helpful.


  1. Doug, I found your blog whilst looking for some facts on if Egypt still give one fifth of their grain to 'Pharaoh' or what would be the government. I would imagine that is no longer the case.
    Your comments concerning Jacob and Reuben do not take on board their personalities or their past experiences. Both were very emotional, and I think like you I marvelled at the amount of times Jacob said he would go to his grave mourning the death of Joseph, but somehow managed to live through the grief and be reunited with his beloved favourite son. How about Reuben's reaction when he went back to get Joseph and rescue him from the pit, he tore his clothes and said what am I going to do now? He had a real conscience and a love for the boy, but was not brave enough to stand up to his brothers - I think fear possibly. If they were willing to kill Joseph then why not him as well? Both responded emotionally to the pressure in those situations - Jacob the pressure of the head of the family, being responsible for the sons, wives and his grandchildren and the sons although adult, did not have enough discernment to know they had to travel to get food.
    I think what was in Joseph's mind was wisdom, yes I would not deny he felt angry, resentful and wanted retribution but he definitely was a God fearing man and he would not have carried any revenge through.
    What I find most remarkable is the fact that although Joseph was used by God to spare the family of Jacob and Egypt [and other parts of the world], he was also used by God to bring the Israelites into slavery. Through the years of the famine, the people sold themselves to Pharaoh, that would have included Joseph's own family.
    To conclude, your advice is spot on - don't be emotional, solve the problem. I also think that once the problem is solved you do need to look at how you got there to ensure it doesn't happen again [in the same way and that you cover all bases] - [selected anon profile - but leaving my first name anyway - Loretta

  2. Loretta,

    Thanks for the comment--and I often leave blog comments the same way, sign my name but click "anonymous" either to avoid having to sign up for too much stuff :)

    It is interesting to try and figure out what everyone thought and felt through all of these events. I think the overall picture here is one of people who make statements that don't really reflect all of who they are, which is often true in a crisis. Jacob's personality does not really show through in what he says--but how often do we react to what someone says in one moment rather than their personality?

    Looking at people is often that complicated: if you take their statements at the simple, face value of their exact words you get a different picture than if you know them and the story behind the situation.

    And definitely, once you're out of a situation, figure out what happened and how to avoid it. That's prudence and wisdom.


To deal with SPAM comments, all comments are moderated. I'm typically willing to post contrary views...but I also only check the list once a day, so if you posted within the last 24 hours, I may not be to it yet.

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