Apparent inconsistencies are fertile ground for Biblical commentary. Consider, for example, the words of Joseph in Genesis 42:16. In order to test the truthfulness of his brothers’ story, Joseph decides that nine of the ten shall remain imprisoned and one will be allowed to return home to fetch the younger brother, return to Egypt with him, and thus confirm their story. Otherwise, they will be condemned as spies. Yet in verse 19 of the same chapter, Joseph allows nine of the ten to return to Canaan with only one to remain in custody. Unless there is some reasonable explanation for Joseph’s change of mind, the two texts are incompatible.
The solution may lie in the fact that Joseph allows the returning brothers to take food for their families. Food was transported, as the later text implies, in saddlebags (v. 25,43:24, and 44:3). Rations packed in the saddlebag of one brother would be insufficient to satisfy the needs of the entire clan. So, nine brothers are released in order to feed Jacob’s household with the sacks of food that each brother’s mule could carry.
Here, in a nutshell, the Torah presents a snapshot of the problem of global hunger. After declining for a decade, since 2019 world hunger is again on the rise. Over 800 million people go hungry each day, approximately 10% of the world population. According to Action Against World Hunger, 690 million people suffer from malnutrition. And yet, more food is produced than ever before; more than enough to feed the entire human population. The problem does not lie in production but in distribution. The challenge is getting food to those who need it. This is the problem that Joseph recognized and addressed.
Three times each day Jews recite Psalm 145 in which worshippers proclaim (v. 16) to God: “You open your hand and feed every living creature to its heart’s content” without doubting its veracity or ignoring reality. There are indeed starving people on earth. But it is not a failure of God’s beneficence. It is a failure of human wastefulness and misappropriation. When, like Joseph, humanity finds a better way to distribute food, humanity will have achieved a great good.