Snakes and Sorcery: Joseph’s Cup and Character (Gen 44)

Snakes are frequently tied to knowledge, rebirth, sex, and magic in the ancient world. Asclepius—who was either the son of Apollo or a sort of adopted son—was raised by Chiron, but he gained true knowledge after rescuing some snakes who then cleaned out his ears, which gave him special knowledge of healing. His symbol was a staff flanked by a snake (not to be confused with the Caduceus). Apollo himself, one of the gods best known for granting special knowledge through prophecy, was connected with snakes. His chief shrine, where he would provide prophecies in order to speak with mortals, was at Delphi, where Apollo had killed the Python, whose spirit could still invest Apollo’s priestess, the Pythia.
Of course, it’s not just Greek myth that held a special place for snakes. The Mediterranean world was not so separate as we may have at times believed. Scholars like M. L. West in his monumental volume, East Face of Helicon, have shown that many of the early myths and stories from Greece actually find their origin (or at least influence) in the ancient Near East. For example, in Egypt, Atum was a Sun God and eldest of the Heliopolis Ennead, generated himself and regenerated himself every morning in the visage of a Snake and he later turned himself into the form of a snake, which was connected to eternity. Throughout the ancient Near East, serpents, snakes, and dragons are connected to primordial powers that only the gods can control or slay.
We even see this in the Bible! Moses’ staff (as well as Aaron’s and the Egyptian Magicians’, through their own magic) can turn a staff into a snake (Exd 4.1–5; 7.8–13). Moses of course makes a bronze serpent which functions as religious paraphernalia used to heal poison (Num 21.8–9), and later on is worshipped as the god Nehushtan (2 Kgs 18.4). We find smaller bronze serpents throughout the land, remnants of Canaanite culture, and the shape of serpents inscribed even on altars (likely to help gain information from God). Of course, how could we forget the nexus of all of the snake imagery in Genesis 3! (But we probably shouldn’t get into that, here…)
Original Horned altar from Beersheba in the Israel Museum, note the inscribed serpents on the right. Which are notably missing in the reconstruction on-site. Ferrell Jenkins has photos of both, here.

But there is a specific nexus of these issues I dowant to get into, here. The Hebrew word for serpent is nahash but the noun, nahash can also mean “divination” (e.g., Num 23.23; 24.1). The verb, nihesh (in the Piel for those who care), means \”to practice divination.\” This is because it’s the snake that is most often associated with deities and demons that provided knowledge or healing. Like many such rites, snake magic (often translated as “divination” but when I teach Hebrew I like to teach the word as “divinassssssion”) is expressly forbidden by the law collections of the Bible:
  • “You shall not eat any flesh with the blood in it. You shall not practice divination or tell fortunes” (Lev 19.26)
  • “There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer (Dtr 18.10, and the same connections between idolatry and divination also occur in the book of kings as well, cf. 1 Kgs 20.33; 2 Kgs 17.17).

But the Bible also specifically links snake magic to Egypt. Probably the most famous example of that is when Moses and Aaron’s face-off with the Egyptian magician-priests :

Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When Pharaoh says to you, ‘Prove yourselves by working a miracle,’ then you shall say to Aaron, ‘Take your staff and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it may become a serpent.’” So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the LORD commanded. Aaron cast down his staff before Pharaoh and his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh summoned the wise men and the sorcerers, and they, the magicians of Egypt, also did the same by their secret arts. For each man cast down his staff, and they became serpents. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Still Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not listen to them, as the LORD had said (Exd 7.8–13).

Pharaoh’s magician priests—a common sight in ancient courts, we see the same in Babylon (Dan 2.1–11; Ezk 21.21)—were able to do some of the things that Moses and Aaron could do (although not as well!). I’ve written before that Joseph himself is portrayed in Genesis as a similar sort of magician-priest. So, when we get to the climax of the action between Joseph and is his brothers, where Joseph told his chief servant to plant evidence in his brothers bags and then bring them back to him for justice, we shouldn’t be completely surprised to read:
Joseph said to his Major Domo, “Get up, go after the men. And when you reach them, you say to them, ‘Why do you repay evil for good? Is it not the case that my master drinks from it and he is surely able to perform divination with it? (Gen 44.3–5).
Reading this statement should open our eyes (you know, if all of the mental torture, manipulation, and self-aggrandizement he’s already shown!) to Joseph’s character. Because there are only two choices: either Joseph is lying about his prophetic insight (which, you know, is problematic since he’s also made claims about this in chapter 37), or he’s telling the truth and is performing forbidden, sorcerous practices and he thinks this is where his prophetic insight arises.
Of course, this is exactly the sort of thing the Egyptians would have expected their magician priests to practice. And there is every reason to believe that—whether Joseph actually did perform Egyptian magic rituals or not!—he acted like a priest: he married a priest’s daughter, he favors the priests with wealth and land, he interprets messages from the gods, and he dresses like one. What else would pharaoh and the people around him (including his brothers!) think?
The last Joseph post I made suggested this same possibility for how we read his first dreams (Gen 37) and asked, “What if he’s lying?” To say that there was some backlash is probably too strong, but not by far. By and large, folks who have grown up reading or being taught the Bible have been presented with a Joseph cleaned and purified from all of his (many!) character flaws. But here at the climax of the story, there is no way to “make this better.” 
Either Joseph is lying, or he’s telling the truth. And whichever way you go, you’ve got to wrestle with this decision.

Published by Jared Saltz

Biblical Studies Faculty (Florida College). PhD candidate at HUC-JIR. Husband, father, student.

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