Joseph practicing divination in Genesis 44

  • Question 184, by Michael C

    This originally came through a comment on another question: Divination in the Old Testament

    I am curious about the cup of Joseph that he had placed in Benjamin’s bag when he was returning home with his brothers (Genesis chapter 44). In the text it says that this cup was used by Joseph for divination. Now we know from the story of Joseph that he was skilled in understanding messages from God through the translation of dreams, however there is no statements about other uses of determining the will of God. This of course was many years before the Levitical ban on divination, so my question is, since divination is declared as sinful in Leviticus, is there a translation error in the text with regard to Joseph’s cup, or is there some other message here?

    The word translated as ‘divination’ is the Hebrew word na-khash, which specifically means “to practice divination, divine, observe signs, learn by experience, diligently observe, practice fortune-telling, take as an omen”[1]. It is an onomatopoeic word, with a root meaning of ‘to whisper’ because soothsayers and fortune tellers often whispered their predictions of the future, for dramatic effect if nothing else.

    The ‘cup’ was a popular method of divination in ancient Egypt. The fortune teller added a small amount of oil or dropped a small object into a cup and interpreted the resulting patterns or ripples in the surface. The passage in question does not say that Joseph actually used the cup to practice divination, although he instructs his steward to tell his brothers that is what he uses the cup for (verse 5).

    The accounts of the Egyptian court found in Exodus include references to ‘magicians’ who evidently held some power (see Exodus chapters 7 and 8). Certainly it seems possible that working in Pharoah’s court and with a reputation as an interpreter of dreams, Joseph may have used Egyptian techniques as well. It may also be that he pretended to use these divination techniques to fit in with convention.

    Certainly, the later ban on divination (Leviticus chapter 19, verse 26) could well have been a response to the Hebrews leaving Egypt, The people are told not to practice it or to seek omens, presumably because now they are to focus on following and trusting in Yahweh. There are also several other practices banned in this section of Leviticus that seem to relate to other religious customs, which the Hebrews are told not to practice.

    However, as he lived before the Levitical ban, Joseph would not be subject to that prescription. This gradual revelation of God’s will is seen in other places in the Bible, most notable in the remaining apostles’ method of choosing a replacement for Judas Iscariot (Acts chapter 1, verses 12-26). The apostles ‘cast lots’ in the traditional way to choose the right person. This is the last time casting lots is used to find out God’s will in the New Testament, as after this the Christians relied on the guidance of the Holy Spirit in such matters.



    [1] Strong’s Lexicon, word 5172

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    1. Caroline Arnott Jan 12

      Hi there, I just can’t quite be convinced that as upright as a person like Joseph, who would follow pagan tradition to practice divination. If we look at Gen44 verse 2, Joseph only refered the cup to his steward as “my silver cup”, but then in verse 5, the steward added the word divination as the use of the cup. Would it be possible that it was the steward who as an an Egyptian assumed that’s what Joseph might have used it for? Because it was a common fortune-telling method in Egypt at the time?

      Just a little thought. May God bless His own words. Thank you.

      Servant Caroline

    2. Caroline Arnott Jan 12

      I am sorry. Joseph mentioned about divination himself. And I also did more study. Very interesting topic. Caroline

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