Did Joseph practice divination?


The question relates to two passages in the book of Genesis. When Joseph met his brothers in Egypt who had sold him into slavery, he did not make himself known and tried them instead to see whether they were willing to leave one of their brothers, Benjamin, behind in jail, while enjoying their own freedom and escape from the Egyptian court. Joseph ordered that money and his special cup be placed in the sacks of his brothers upon their departure, but then to pursue them.

In this very context, we read in Genesis 44:4-6: “When they had gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, Joseph said to his servant, ‘Get up, follow the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is not this the one from which my lord drinks, and with which he indeed practices divination? You have done evil in so doing.’ So he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words.” The Authorized Version (AV) reads: “Is not this it in which my lord drinketh, and whereby indeed he divineth?”

Also, in Genesis 44:15, we read that Joseph told his brothers, after the cup was “discovered” in Benjamin’s sack: “Did you not know that such a man as I can certainly practice divination?”

In Genesis 44:6 and 15, the Hebrew word for the English expression “practice divination” or “divine” is nachash. Young’s defines it as, “use enchantment.”

It is clear that the word can describe demonic divination or enchantment.

We read in Deuteronomy 18:10: “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft [AV: that useth divination], or a soothsayer [AV: observer of times], or one who interprets omens [AV: enchanter, Hebr. nachash], or a sorcerer [witch], or one who conjures spells [charmer], or a medium [consulter with familiar spirits], or a spiritist [wizard], or one who calls up the dead [necromancer].”

Also, note the following passages in the Authorized Version:

Numbers 23:23: “… [There is] no enchantment [nachash] against Jacob, no divination [Hebrew: qesem] against Israel.”

Numbers 24:1: “… to seek for enchantment [nachash; New KJB: sorcery].”

2 Kings 17:17: “[The evil Israelites] used divination [qesem] and enchantments [nachash].”

2 Kings 21:6: “[The evil king Manasseh] used enchantments [nachash].”

2 Chronicles 33:6: “[Manasseh] used enchantments [nachash].”

Leviticus 19:26: “… neither shall ye use enchantment [nachash] nor observe times.”

From this, some commentaries conclude that Joseph used demonic enchantment or divination.

For instance, the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges states:

“The word shews that the silver cup was a sacred one, by means of which Joseph sought and obtained oracles. Some have inferred that he must have been admitted into the priests’ guild, in order to be able to practise divination. It appears that water having been poured into a vessel or cup, gold or silver or precious stones were thrown into it, and the oracle or divination was derived from the rings, ripples, or sparkles, which appeared. The name given to this class of magic was ‘hydromancy.’”

Similarly the Broadman Bible Commentary, which expresses the hope, however, that Joseph did not do so:

“The silver cup was used for divining. Small objects were placed in the cup so that veiled references could be seen in their configurations. Von Rad cites a custom in Germany of pouring lead into water on New Year’s Eve as ‘a final vestige of the custom.’ Did Joseph really divine in this manner? Or was he just playing a game with the brothers? The cup was certainly a part of the paraphernalia of his office, and he was probably expected to use it. One could hope that he had not substituted this method of determining the future for the spiritual insight he had formerly known…”

Other commentaries leave the question unanswered as well:

Barnes’ Notes on the Bible writes:

“Divining by cups… was a common custom in Egypt (Herodotus ii. 83). It is here mentioned to enhance the value of the cup. Whether Joseph really practised any sort of divination cannot be determined from this passage.”

The concept that Joseph practiced demonic divination is difficult to accept. Joseph is mentioned as one of the faithful patriarchs who will receive the promise of eternal life (Hebrews 11:21-22, 39-40).

Therefore, many commentaries conclude that in order to test his brothers, Joseph did not practice divination, but that he pretended to do so, or that he did not dispute the superstition attached to his cup.

The idea seems to be that “Joseph may have allowed them to think he practiced divination with this cup to instill more fear in them—as it would look to them like they would be charged with the theft of something of great importance in Egypt.” In other words, as some put it, “Joseph may have claimed he used it to divine matters in order to raise the stakes and incite more fear in his brothers’ hearts.” Some say that “Joseph was representing himself as an administrator of a pagan land. He adapted himself, his actions, and his language to the character of such an administrator, as it would appear in the eyes of his unsuspecting brothers.” It is alleged that he acted in this way, including the possession of a valuable cup from which he could divine, to “keep up the appearance of being thoroughly Egyptian” and a great and powerful Egyptian, as such.

For instance, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary writes:

“Divination by cups, to ascertain the course of futurity, was one of the prevalent superstitions of ancient Egypt, as it is of Eastern countries still. It is not likely that Joseph, a pious believer in the true God, would have addicted himself to this superstitious practice. But he might have availed himself of that popular notion to carry out the successful execution of his stratagem for the last decisive trial of his brethren.”

The Geneva Study Bible states:

“Because the people thought he could divine, he attributes to himself that knowledge: or else he pretends that he consults with soothsayers: which deceit is worthy to be reproved.”

The Ryrie Study Bible states:

“It is unlikely that Joseph used divination; rather, this statement (made in order to attach specific significance to the cup) was part of the situation Joseph contrived in order to test his brothers.

The German Schlachter Bibel comments:

“The cup was a holy vessel, which symbolized the authority of his office as the Egyptian vice-king. The reference to superstition does not have to mean that Joseph engaged in such pagan-religious rites. He later allowed his brothers to assume such.”

Torahclass.com states:

“Actually, it was a bowl… a silver bowl. The master of the house in Egypt in those days, if judged a sage, a seer, had a special bowl from which he and he alone drank. But, it was also used for the purpose of divining messages from the gods. One can only imagine how Joseph came by this ‘diviner’s bowl’… likely it was a gift from the Pharaoh, because Joseph was undoubtedly, after accurately interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, determined the highest and best sage, diviner, in all the land. Typically, the bowl was filled with water, and then gold or silver objects, amulets, sometimes with magic inscriptions written on them, were put into the water, and from the reflections the seer would attempt to see the future.  It is unimaginable that Joseph actually used the bowl for anything except to drink from… but to keep up the appearance of being thoroughly Egyptian, he used the common knowledge of the bowl as an implement of divination to continue to test his brothers.”

However, even the concept that Joseph wrongfully pretended to practice divination to “test” his brothers is difficult to believe. Some argued that “Joseph did not order his steward to tell a direct lie—rather, he simply told him to ask a question. The real answer would have been no. But the brothers didn’t know this.” But this conclusion is not convincing and does not agree with the plain context of the passage.

Another interpretation has been proposed, that “this is one of the few cases in which God permitted the use of objects to discern His will. Other examples include the casting of lots (Leviticus 16:7-10), the priest’s use of the Urim and Thummim (Numbers 27:21), and Gideon’s use of the fleece (Judges 6:36-40). If Joseph did practice divination with the silver cup, it was not divination in the pagan sense but seeking God’s will through a particular method.”

However, the examples, cited above, never use the Hebrew word nachash to describe these godly practices. Even though some, such as the Eastons’s Bible Dictionary, speak of these godly activities as “divination by lot”, “divination by dreams” and “divination by Urim and Thummim,” these are just human descriptions, since the Bible nowhere refers to these acceptable methods as “divination” or “enchantment.”

However, a much more acceptable and compelling understanding evolves when we consider that the Hebrew word nachash can also have a different meaning than “divination” or “enchantment.”

Strong’s defines it as: “to hiss, i.e. whisper a (magic) spell; gen. to prognosticate, certainly, divine, enchanter, (use) enchantment, learn by experience, indeed, diligently observe.”

And so, the Benson Commentary explains:

“Genesis 44:5. Whereby indeed he divineth — The original word may be rendered, For which he would search thoroughly…”

The Commentary on the Bible by Adam Clarke agrees, stating:

“I take the word… nachash here in its general acceptation of to view attentively, to inquire…”

Based on this evaluation, the following commentary in Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible makes interesting reading:

“Joseph never practised any thing of this kind, so neither would he… make as if he did… but the words… may signify to tempt, to try, to make an experiment, and by experience to know a thing… and so the Arabic version, ‘and indeed he hath tried you by it’: so Aben Ezra interprets it of his trying of them by it, whether they were thieves or not… it seems best of all to understand this not of the cup as the instrument by which he tried, searched, and inquired into things, but as the object searched after and inquired of; for the word signifies to inquire, and make a strict observation of things, and thereby make shrewd guesses and conjectures… diligent inquiry would be made after it, and it would be at once conjectured that it was taken away, not by any of the household, but by those strangers that had dined with Joseph…”

We find the use of the Hebrew word nachash in the following two passages which do not refer to divination at all. Genesis 30:27 is translated as: “I have learned by experience that the LORD has blessed me”; and 1 Kings 20:33 states that “the men were watching closely to see whether any sign of mercy would come from him.”

Also, Joseph’s statement in Genesis 44:15 is rendered in the Living Bible as: “Didn’t you know such a man as I would know who stole it?”

Some German translations render Genesis 44:15 in the way that Joseph would be able to “discern” (“durchschauen”; Hoffnung fuer Alle); “certainly find out” (“gewiss erkunden”; Zuercher); or “figure it out” (“erraten koennte”; Luther 1891).

An additional interesting parallel has been proposed regarding Joseph’s cup of great financial value and the partaking of the cup of wine at the time of Passover. A write-up by Aletheia Bible College points out:

“The Hebrew for ‘divineth’ means literally ‘to make trial’; their taking of the cup was their trial / judgment. Thus we drink either blessing or condemnation to ourselves by taking the cup. The word used by the LXX for ‘divineth’ in Gen. 44:5 occurs in the NT account of the breaking of the bread [and drinking of the wine] service: ‘everyone should examine himself, and then eat the bread and drink from the cup’ (1 Cor. 11:28)…”

In conclusion, it does not appear that Joseph practiced demonic divination or that he lied to his brothers by pretending that he was engaged in divination or enchantment; nor, that that type of divination by using his cup would have been acceptable in God’s eyes. Rather, Joseph had his valuable cup of prestige placed in Benjamin’s sack to test the bothers thereby whether they would forsake Benjamin (as they had forsaken and even sold Joseph into slavery) or whether they would stand by him. The cup was not a cup through or by which Joseph “divined” or “searched” the future–but it was the object which was “lost” and for which Joseph was searching, and it was the object by which the brothers were being tested or examined as to whether they would be loyal to Benjamin and their father Jacob.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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