Questions From Readers
Did Joseph, a faithful servant of Jehovah, use a special silver cup to read omens, as seems to be indicated at Genesis 44:5?
There is no reason to believe that Joseph actually employed any form of divination.
The Bible reveals Joseph’s real understanding on the use of magical arts to learn the future. Earlier, when he was asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, Joseph repeatedly insisted that only God can “announce” upcoming events. As a result, Pharaoh himself came to believe that the God whom Joseph worshipped—the true God, not occult powers—caused Joseph to know details about the future. (Genesis 41:16, 25, 28, 32, 39) In the Law given to Moses later on, Jehovah prohibited the use of magic or divination, thus confirming that He alone foretells the future.—Deuteronomy 18:10-12.
Because of a very severe famine, Joseph’s brothers had traveled to Egypt to obtain food. Years earlier, these same brothers had sold Joseph into slavery. Now, unbeknownst to them, they requested assistance from their own brother, who had become Egypt’s food administrator. Joseph did not reveal himself to them. Instead, he decided to test them. Fittingly, Joseph wanted to determine the genuineness of their repentance. He also wanted to find out whether—and to what degree—they loved their brother Benjamin and their father, Jacob, who was especially fond of Benjamin. Thus, Joseph resorted to a ruse.—Genesis 41:55–44:3.
Joseph commanded one of his servants to fill his brothers’ bags with food supplies, return each one’s money in the mouth of his bag, and put Joseph’s silver cup in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. In all of this, Joseph was representing himself as an administrator of a pagan land. He adapted himself, his actions, and his language to the character of such an administrator, as it would appear in the eyes of his unsuspecting brothers.
When Joseph confronted his brothers, he continued with his subterfuge, asking them: “Did you not know that such a man as I am can expertly read omens?” (Genesis 44:15) Thus, the cup was evidently all part of the stratagem. Joseph’s use of the cup to read omens was no more real than Benjamin’s theft of it.
Describing this ancient practice, The Holy Bible, With an Explanatory and Critical Commentary, edited by F. C. Cook, explains: “It was practised either by dropping gold, silver, or jewels, into the water, and then examining their appearance; or simply by looking into the water as into a mirror.” Bible commentator Christopher Wordsworth says: “Sometimes the cup was filled with water, and the answer was given by means of imagery, produced by the sun on the water in the cup.”