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What kind of divination did Joseph do in Genesis 44:5, 15?

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Question: "What kind of divination did Joseph do in Genesis 44:5, 15?"

In Genesis 44, Joseph tests his brothers (who have not recognized him) by returning their money in each sack of grain they had purchased. In Benjamin’s sack, he places his special silver cup. After the brothers leave for home, Joseph sends his steward after them to confront them over the “theft” of the cup. The steward was to say to them, “Why have you repaid evil for good? Is it not from this that my lord drinks, and by this that he practices divination? You have done evil in doing this” (verses 4-5). In verse 15, Joseph accuses his brothers in person, saying, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” Joseph’s claim to have knowledge by divination seems to conflict with the Bible’s condemnation of divination as evil (Deuteronomy 18:10; 1 Samuel 15:23). Here are some points to consider:

First, it is clear that Joseph’s use of the “divining cup” is part of his test for his brothers. He planted evidence that would link them to a serious crime. Since the cup was part of a setup, it may have not been used in divination at all. There is no indication in the passage that Joseph actually used the cup for divination. Instead, Joseph may have claimed he used it to divine matters in order to raise the stakes and incite more fear in his brothers’ hearts.

Second, divination was common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures, especially among its leaders. In fact, Laban once said to Jacob, “I have learned by divination that the LORD has blessed me because of you” (Genesis 30:27). Jacob’s sons would have at least been aware of the practice and known what divination was, whether or not Joseph actually used the cup for that purpose. Divination in the Egyptian court would have been common, and a reference to it would have seemed natural to Joseph’s brothers.

Third, it is possible, though unlikely, 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.

The most likely scenario is that Joseph owned a silver divination cup as did all Egyptian nobility at that time. The context is not clear that Joseph ever used this cup in divination. As part of his plan to test his brothers, he placed something small yet valuable in Benjamin’s grain sack. A silver cup was a perfect object in this case, as it held great financial and spiritual value in Egypt. The reaction of Joseph’s brothers reveals their concern: “They tore their clothes” (Genesis 44:13). Judah also said, “How can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants” (Genesis 44:16). Joseph’s test worked. His brothers were immediately convicted of their sin against Joseph and attributed their current misfortune to God’s hand of justice.

Another consideration is that Joseph had no need to use a cup for divination. God had enabled him to have prophetic dreams himself and to interpret the dreams of others. Joseph found his success in God without the use of props. After revealing his identity to his brothers and forgiving the wrong they had done him, Joseph sent them back to their father with this report: “God has made me lord of all Egypt” (Genesis 45:9).

Recommended Resource: Genesis - NIV Application Commentary by John Walton

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Related Topics:

Who was Joseph in the Old Testament?

Why did Jacob give Joseph a coat of many colors?

Who were the priests of On? Was Joseph wrong to marry the daughter of a pagan priest (Genesis 41)?

What is the story of Joseph and his brothers?

What is the meaning of Jacob wrestling with God?

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What kind of divination did Joseph do in Genesis 44:5, 15?

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