Q. In Genesis 44:5, it appears that Joseph practiced divination. I can’t imagine Joseph, the godly man he was, being involved with such. Also, I am puzzled by Genesis 6:3, which seems to say that God put a cap on mankind’s longevity following the Flood, yet people lived longer than that. Please explain.
A. You first mention Joseph’s brothers going to Egypt twice to seek food during a severe famine in their homeland. God worked in a marvelous way to provide for them. Joseph, whom they had mistreated and sold as a slave, became, after many trials and imprisonment, a ruler in Egypt and thus was able to help his family. The account of the brothers, and later the father, reuniting with Joseph is one of the most touching events recorded in Scripture.
The events in the verse you cite took place during their second trip to Egypt. When Joseph saw to it that the sacks of his brothers were filled with grain to take home, he had a servant put his personal divining cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain. Benjamin was the youngest brother, and Father Jacob had not allowed Benjamin to go down to Egypt the first time for fear he would lose him as he thought he had lost Joseph. But Joseph wanted to see Benjamin, hence the requirement if the brothers were to obtain more food. By having a cup placed in Benjamin’s sack, Joseph was doing a trick of sorts on the brothers to see if they were the same cruel ones who had sold him as a slave. What would they do to Benjamin, whom Jacob, their father, had only after much reluctance allowed the other brothers to take with them?
After the brothers had departed, Joseph had soldiers pursue the brothers and look for the cup, which they found in Benjamin’s sack. All the brothers then had to return to Joseph to give an account. Joseph “challenged” his brothers’ motives and said the cup wasn’t an ordinary cup but a divining cup. Hydromancy, divination by the appearance or motion of liquids, may have been practiced in Egypt, especially among nobility. But Joseph in his charade was giving his brothers the idea that he had a way of finding out things, communicating with deity, though he, of course, didn’t need something like the cup; he knew how to communicate with God. In essence he was asking, tongue-in-cheek, “Don’t you know that I can find out things by divination?” This surely convinced the brothers that Joseph knew all about them and could see through them. Also, it perhaps temporarily kept the brothers from learning Joseph’s identity before Joseph wanted.
Deuteronomy 18:9-12 prohibits divination. It was on the list of nine detestable practices of the heathen Canaanites. Therefore, we can conclude that Joseph wasn’t practicing it. It was, rather, part of a ruse.
Concerning Genesis 6:3, which reads, “And the Lord said, My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh; yet his days shall be one hundred and twenty years,” there are two views regarding this passage. You mentioned one: the idea that no one would live beyond the age of 120. The other view is that the Lord’s statement had to do with the number of years mankind would have between God’s warning about an upcoming universal flood and the actual event. This view has more credibility since, as you pointed out, various individuals did live longer than 120 years. Noah lived to 950, Isaac to 180, Jacob to 147, and Abraham to 125, for example. Also, the second view is more in keeping with such New Testament passages as 1 Peter 3:20 and 2 Peter 2:5. These passages indicate that God was indeed “striving with man” in His long-suffering toward them during the years Noah was building an ark, but when God shut the door on the ark, the time for those people on the earth to repent was over. Noah is said to have been a preacher of righteousness during that time span before the Flood.
This article appeared in the “Q & A” column of the Baptist Bulletin by Norman A. Olson.