Now the famine was severe in the land. And when they had eaten up the grain that they had brought from Egypt, their father said to them, “Go again, buy us a little more food.” But Judah said to him, “The man solemnly warned us, saying, ‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you.’ If you will send our brother with us, we will go down and buy you food; but if you will not send him, we will not go down, for the man said to us, ‘You shall not see my face, unless your brother is with you.’” Israel said, “Why did you treat me so badly as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “The man questioned us carefully about ourselves and our kindred, saying, ‘Is your father still alive? Have you another brother?’ What we told him was in answer to these questions. Could we in any way know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother down’?” Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy with me, and let us be on our way, so that we may live and not die—you and we and also our little ones. I myself will be surety for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. If we had not delayed, we would now have returned twice.”
Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry them down as a present to the man—a little balm and a little honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the top of your sacks; perhaps it was an oversight. Take your brother also, and be on your way again to the man; may God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, so that he may send back your other brother and Benjamin. As for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.” So the men took the present, and they took double the money with them, as well as Benjamin. Then they went on their way down to Egypt, and stood before Joseph.
My guess is that most readers of these Daily Devotions lead relatively comfortable lives. I certainly lead a very comfortable and contented life. But many people in today’s world live lives where there is a daily choice between feeding themselves and feeding their children; feeding anyone in the family and keeping their children safe.
We may find it difficult to understand how child refugees have been sent alone to ‘safety’ by their parents, or how children may be sold for exploitation by their own parents, who are glad that at least their new masters will feed them. This is not just a phenomenon of distant countries; the children exploited on the ‘county lines’ trafficking drugs to and from our cities in the UK are in some cases the victims of such terrible situations. If you volunteer in your local Food bank or debt counselling network you will have heard similar stories many times.
This ancient story is therefore frighteningly contemporary. The famine is so severe that Judah has no choice but to risk Benjamin’s life by sending him along with his older brothers to beg for more food from the capricious satrap who now rules Egypt. Judah’s words “As for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” is one of the most heart-rending in scripture. It is even more heart-rending to realise that it is spoken every day around the world in 2018.
Loving God, as I read this familiar story from scripture, help me not to sentimentalise it or turn it into a soap opera. Rather, may my reading of it be earthed in the experiences of parents around the world and parents in the next street who do not know where the next meal will come from and have no choice but to risk their children now in the hope of food later. And if this story still disturbs me, send me to the food bank with some tins and some time and gear me up for Christian Aid Week 2018. Amen.
The Rev’d Gethin Rhys is National Assembly Policy Officer for Cytun (Churches Together in Wales) and a member of Parkminster URC, Cardiff.