After having maneuvered his brothers into bringing Binyamin to Egypt, Yosef devises one more contrived scenario to determine their exact relationship with Binyamin, the remaining son of Rachel, the favored wife. Yosef sends all of them back to Canaan, laden with provisions. Unknown to them, he has their money returned to them in their sacks and has his silver divining cup placed in Binyamin’s sack. He sends his messenger to overtake them, discover the cup and accuse them of stealing it. Abarbanel analyzes the nuances, purposes and wisdom of both Yosef and his brothers as they deal with this difficult situation.
Yosef had two reasons for putting his brothers, and especially Binyamin, through such tribulation. First of all he wanted to complete the punishment of his other brothers ‘measure for measure’ for what they had done to him. They had spied on him and brought evil reports to Yaakov; so he had accused them of being spies. They threw him into a pit; so he had Shimon thrown into jail. They sold him into slavery; so he decided to make Binyamin his slave for having stolen the cup. Similarly, Yaakov had sent Yosef on a benign mission to Dotan to check on the welfare of his brothers and flocks. They reacted by selling him into slavery. Here, Yaakov sent Binyamin to Egypt for the benefit of his brothers, and Yosef intends that he end up a slave.
Secondly, he wanted to see if the brothers harbored any resentment toward Binyamin, as they had toward Yosef. If Yosef had not returned their money, they might have reasoned, ‘like mother, like son’. Rachel had stolen her father’s idols. Maybe Binyamin acted similarly. His guilt would be unassailable. They would have to turn him over; doing so would not have anything to do with resentment or jealousy. However, once they all discover the money in their own sacks, there is a distinct possibility that they are being framed. This is the real test. Even though the whole scenario could be a set-up, here is their chance to get rid of Binyamin as well.
In any case, Yosef still wanted to keep the whole matter private. He sent the brothers away early in the morning and immediately sent his messenger to overtake them. Normally when there is a theft, the pursuer calls out loudly to everyone that a theft has occurred as he tries to overtake the thieves. Here, however, he instructed the messenger to say nothing until he actually confronted them.
There were three dimensions to their alleged guilt. First of all, they repaid goodness and kindness with evil. Yosef took care of them and honored them with meals at his table. Even a professional thief doesn’t steal from those who honor him. Secondly, they stole a constantly-used object which would be missed immediately. This is a brazen act. Thirdly, the cup had enormous value to its owner, as it added significantly to his prestige since he claimed it was used for divination. (Even if the brothers were skeptical that he actually divined with it, it still could be viewed as a cherished symbol of his power and status. Stealing it could be viewed as an attempt to usurp that power).
In regard to the money, the brothers protest their innocence. As far as they are concerned, the money is like a found object. It is not the subject of theft at all. The messenger, however, notes that the missing cup is altogether different. The one individual in whose sack it will be found is clearly guilty, while the rest of you, he says, are completely innocent. The brothers realize that there is some kind of trick involved and they all go back with the messenger. In his mind, Yehuda, speaking for all of them, realizes that there is absolutely nothing he can say. As far as they are concerned, Yosef is actually the guilty one for having framed them! They are forced to conclude that their whole predicament was orchestrated from Above. It must be another punishment for what they did to Yosef. Yet they didn’t believe for a moment that Binyamin had stolen the cup. When they offer themselves, all of them, as slaves to Yosef, they say, “Here we are. We are ready to be slaves to my lord — both we and the one in whose hand the cup was found” (Ber. 44:16). They should have said, “We, with the one in whose hand the cup was found.” They are saying that they (minus Binyamin) are offering themselves as slaves for what they had done to Yosef, and, separately, Binyamin for the theft that, even though they know it is a lie, they are powerless to refute.
Abarbanel concludes by saying that Yosef realizes that they think they were framed. As a result he tells them that in essence he is not sure of Binyamin’s guilt. Consequently, he will enslave him rather than putting him to death. The rest of them, however, may go free.