Judah and Reuben stepped forward and laid down the money. The governor looked at the gold coins and then said something to the attendant in Egyptian. The attendant turned to the brothers.
“The governor says that we are rationing the grain, that only half this much can be bought at a time.”
“Yes, Sir,” Judah answered. “This is to return the gold which was accidently left in our sacks the last time we were here.”
The attendant said something to the governor who looked confused. The attendant then asked them, “When was the last time you were here?”
“Our brother Simeon was thrown into prison the last time we were here, a year ago.”
The attendant said something to the governor, who said, “Ah,” as if he realized something. Then he started into some kind of speech with which the attendant was obviously having difficulty keeping up.
“The governor says that you… this won’t buy your brother… only the payment of the youngest brother will purchase the elder… this money is no good.”
Judah and Ruben divided apart and Benjamin stepped forward between them. The young boy looked bewildered. He hadn’t ever seen anything like the governor before, wearing gold on his head and sandals and all over his linen clothes.
The governor pushed back the gold and spoke. The attendant translated. “You’ve held up your end of the bargain. You don’t need to buy your brother out of prison.”
“Yes, Sir, but you misunderstand. When we left a year ago, this gold was in our sacks. We think there was some kind of mistake and we are returning it,” Ruben clarified.
The attendant translated. The governor said something, and the attendant repeated himself. The governor looked suspiciously at the brothers and said something under his breath.
The attendant cleared his throat and adjusted his tunic. “The governor asks if you are admitting to theft.”
“No no no no no,” Ruben and Judah said I’m unison. “We think it was a mistake,” Ruben said, trying to talk over Judah.
Then Judah spoke louder, “Your attendants must have put the gold in the wrong sack by accident.”
The attendant did his best to convey the thought to the governor, but the look on the governor’s face grew more and more confused. Finally, he clapped his hands and said something. Moments later, large books were brought out to him.
Several attendants looked over the books with the governor. Periodically the governor would point to something and grunt a syllable, and one attendant or another would pound his chest and speak defiantly to the others. Soon, everyone was taking over the governor, who looked more and more confused. Finally he shouted something and the din of the attendants subsided. The governor spoke to the brothers again, and the interpreter just smiled. “There has been no mistake. Our records are clear. There was no lost gold that day. You did not steal this from Egypt.”
“Sir, we did not steal it at all!” Ruben objected. “It was in our sacks when we left!”
The attendant translated, but the governor waved and said something in a smug tone. The attendant looked agitated and replied to the governor who just laughed. The attendant looked back at the brothers and said in Hebrew, “You had best leave off on… whatever this is. The governor has accused me of making things up because I can’t understand you. I’m not losing my head over your practical joke or whatever this is.”
Ruben reached out and grabbed the gold slowly, then counted out the price for eleven sacks of grain.
The governor counted out the money and called for eleven sacks to be delivered. Then he stood up and made an announcement. The jaws of all the attendants present dropped. The translator just stared at the governor and the ten brothers just stood, waiting. Finally Judah spoke up. “What did he say?”
The translator turned back to the brothers. “You must have impressed the governor. You have been invited to be reunited with your brother at the governor’s house this evening, at dinner, at the governor’s expense.”
The brothers exchanged glances. Judah spoke to the attendant again. “Sir, if it is all the same, we would like to get moving towards home. If our brother could be returned to us now…”
The attendant interrupted. “You seriously want me to tell the governor that you’re turning down his offer after you played that joke on me and made the governor think I don’t understand you? What do you think he’ll think of that?”
Judah nodded. “I’m sorry. Tell the governor that we will be happy to join him this evening.”
The brothers weren’t sure what to expect when they came into the governor’s house. They greeted Simeon with a hug and then asked him how he had been. He laughed. “If I had known how comfortable Egyptian prisons were, I would have run away from home years ago!” he joked.
They might have guessed that the governor would have his own seat, but seeing two tables set up apart from him was a little strange. Benjamin was the one to notice the little clay slabs on the table. “Look, it’s my name!”
It was at the foot of the table. That made sense. Benjamin was clearly the youngest. They looked to the next seat to see whose name was there. Naphtali. Alright, that kind of makes sense. Next was Asher, then Zebulon, then Judah, and at the head of the table was Ruben.
Ruben stopped. “How could they tell I’m the oldest? You’ve got more grey in your beard than me, Judah.”
Judah gave a huff. “I just don’t see why I’m at your left. You and I have been the spokesmen this whole trip. I think I should be at your right hand.”
Simeon looked at the next slate. “Judah, I’m at his right hand.”
Judah stood up to look at Simeon’s name plate, and Levi next to it. “Is Issachar next?” he asked.
Issachar nodded. “I am. What’s going on here?”
Judah went back to his seat. “That means that the last two are Gad and Dan. Someone knew how to put us in order. Who told these Egyptians what the order of our birth was?”
The brothers each took their seats, looking at each other. When no one fessed up, Ruben got impatient. “Oh come on! It’s not that big of a deal! One of us said something, I just want to know who.”
Dan shook his head. Then Benjamin. Then one by one each of the brothers chimed in saying, “It wasn’t me.”
Judah slumped in his seat. “Something strange is happening on this visit. We’re being tested. God must be at work here.”
The eleven each said a quick prayer.
A trumpet sounded and food was brought into the house. Course after course of the best bread and honey and fruit that the brothers had ever tasted. It was clear that the attendants had a special place for Benjamin. They always served him first, and a couple times there wasn’t anything left by the time they got to Ruben.
And the wine! It followed like water. None of the brothers ever learned what the bottom of their cups looked like. A sip or two and an attendant would refill the cup. It made it hard to keep track of how much they were drinking. In the end, it was no surprise that the next thing that any of them remembered was waking up the next morning in their rooms.
They packed their bags and loaded up their donkeys, each one nursing their hangover. They left the city, headed for home at a leisurely pace.
The sun was setting when the Egyptian horsemen caught up to them. The governor jumped off his horse. He started yelling and screaming at them in Egyptian.
Judah approached the governor. “Can we help you, Sir?”
The governor kept yelling in Egyptian. He pointed back at the city and waved his hands in the air. Judah just shook his head. “I can’t understand you!” He repeated louder and louder, hoping that eventually the governor would get it.
Finally another horse came up. The translator yelled, “I’m here! I’m here! Just a moment!” as he jumped off the horse.
The attendant ran up to the pair, listening to the governor spew hateful word after hateful word.
“The governor would like to know why you have stolen from him,” the attendant said calmly.
The governor kept repeating a couple of syllables over and over that the attendant ignored.
Judah put his face in his palm. “Not again,” he said. “I meant to check our bags before we left. I swear that we didn’t steal anything.” Judah opened his bag and, sure enough, there was the gold that they used to buy the grain. Judah grabbed the coins and took them back to the governor and knelt down. “Tell the governor that his servant made a mistake. We will return all the gold that he finds missing.”
The attendant translated, and the governor’s nostrils flared as he knocked the coins to the ground. He started screaming again.
The attendant cleared his throat. “The governor is well aware that you brought extra gold. He wants what was stolen.”
Judah started picking up the coins. “We haven’t stolen anything. It was a misunderstanding. And this is more gold than I brought.”
The attendant translated it to Egyptian, and then the governor kicked the coins out of Judah’s hand as he was picking up the last coin. The governor yelled again. The attendant bit his lip, then said, “The governor thinks that you know which item he is referring to.”
Judah shook his head as he stood up. “Item? What item? I don’t understand.”
The attendant translated as the governor stepped into Judah’s face. Venom dripped from the governor’s lips as he closed the distance. The attendant tried to keep calm as he translated. “The governor says there was a cup.”
Judah shook his head. “I’m sorry, Sir, but…”
The governor yelled inches from Judah’s face. The attendant, struggling to keep up with the conversation, said, “It was gold with a mother-of-pearl design…”
Judah interrupted right back. “I don’t even know what mother-of-pearl is! I didn’t steal any…”
The governor interrupted again, screaming. The attendant was really struggling now. “No more words, Hebrew! Get the cup!”
“We don’t have a cup! Search our stuff!” Judah yelled back.
The translator stuttered as he tried to keep up with the two interoculators. “We will search everything until we find it, you thieves.”
“We aren’t thieves!” Judah yelled back. “So help me, if you find it, then whomever’s donkey you find it on, they’ll be your slave!”
The governor said something that the translator didn’t repeat. They cut open Judah’s sack of grain. Ruben stepped forward to object, but Judah put out his arm. “Let them. They’ll refill our sacks when they don’t find his ugly cup.”
Ruben’s sack was emptied next. Then Levi’s. And down the list until only Benjamin’s donkey remained.
Two guards pulled the sack off the donkey and Judah turned to face the governor as they started dumping out the grain. “I think an apology is in order,” he said as the Egyptians chattered behind him.
The translator didn’t say anything. So Judah said a little louder and in the direction of the attendant, “I said I think an apology is in order.”
The translator just tilted his head towards Benjamin’s supplies. For Judah, the whole world stopped. He spun on his heels to see one attendant holding up what had to be the world’s ugliest cup. It was glowing gold from top to bottom, with a disgusting swirling white pattern that was the brightest white Judah had ever seen. Ugly, disgusting red and clear stones studded up and down the body of the cup. Worst of all, there were images of gods and men carved into the white on the sides, giving the people who appeared there a glow that only served to turn Judah’s stomach even more sour. Two Egyptians grabbed Benjamin and started to bind his hands behind his back.
Judah threw himself on the governor’s feet. “My Lord! Please, no! Don’t take the boy!”
The translator translated. The governor didn’t move. Judah’s tears flowed freely from his face. “Not the boy! Take me! This boy is the youngest son of our father, and I swore to our father on my own life that this boy would return safely. I have done evil! I sold his brother into slavery, and now God is punishing me! Leave the boy, and I will serve you as your slave happily for the rest of your life! I’ll eat crumbs and drink rainwater for my master’s entertainment! Just let the boy go free!”
The governor barked something at the Egyptians, and they released Benjamin. Then the Egyptians all rode or walked back a few hundred yards. Once they were out of earshot, the governor started crying, leaning down and embracing Judah. The whole company of brothers looked from one to another trying to make sense of this development. Then, in perfect Hebrew, the governor started to speak between sobs. “It’s me! It’s Joseph! My brothers! Is our father well?”