Judah Recognizes Joseph: The Hidden Factor Behind his Speech
A highlight in Parashat VaYigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27) is Judah’s speech to Joseph, with which the passage opens. These words are so engaging that I often wonder why the rabbis chose to break the text precisely here, allowing the crisis of Joseph and his brothers to unfold at the end of Parashat Mikketz, but leaving its resolution until the following Shabbat. Indeed, annually I continue the reading myself at the end of Parashat Mikketz, because I cannot bear to wait another week for the story’s conclusion.
It seems self-evident that the tradition of dividing the text at this point was an intentional interruption designed to increase and sustain the tension in the story. But were there other considerations, and were other weekly divisions motivated by similar concerns?
Most of the dividing lines between weekly readings fall on significant pauses in the text, even if not the primary ones, but the division between Parashat Noah and Parashat Lekh Lekha, for example, seems to have been motivated, in part, by the desire to separate possibly inconsistent passages about Abraham’s migration into different contexts. Others may have been divided to avoid passages of unwieldy size, to link specific readings with timely calendrical occurrences, or to ensure the appropriate number of weekly portions in a repeating annual system whose numbers of readings fluctuated quite regularly. What else can be said about this particular interruption?
The Targumim on Judah’s Speech
When we examine the Aramaic translations of Judah’s speech, we find that some are quite literal, while others are paraphrastic or even highly expansive. But the Palestinian targum tradition – as preserved in Targum Neofiti, Targum Yerushalmi, and some targum fragments discovered in the Cairo Geniza (but not Onkelos or Pseudo-Jonathan) – adds one or two extra narrative elements. According to them, Judah’s speech to Joseph was preceded by a serious bit of muscle flexing. He threatened Joseph by referring to some of his brothers’ exploits (in Shechem, for example); Joseph responded by having his son Manasseh stomp his foot and shake the palace in which the conversation was taking place.
Other exploits are discussed in some of the texts, but believing such a feat was capable by only by a member of Jacob’s family, we are told that Judah altered his demeanour and spoke to Joseph more calmly and deferentially.
The midrashic additions found in these targumim require extensive unraveling, if for no other reason than some of them contain multiple versions of what is essentially the same story. But did the targumim suggest that Judah actually recognized Joseph before he began to address him? I think this is what the targumim are claiming. Furthermore, I believe that this possibility is suggested already by the biblical text, and that this recognition may have contributed to separating the two weekly readings here.
Judah Recognizes Joseph
According to Gen. 44:18, Judah walked over to Joseph and began to speak. It is reasonable to assume that the series of apparent coincidences in the previous chapters made him suspicious of his perception of the events. In particular, he could not believe Benjamin had stolen Joseph’s silver cup, and he ruminated on the situation throughout his trip back to Joseph.
By the time of their return, Judah had assumed leadership of the group, but the circumstances of their being taken into custody and returned to Joseph did not permit him to caucus with the brothers about his suspicions. And so, having made up his mind that only one fact would explain all his doubts, he approached Joseph, took a good look at him once again, (perhaps muttered something like “Oh my God” under his breath), and began to speak.
Judah had decided the only possibility was that the man standing before him was Joseph. The dreams that so annoyed the brothers years before had come true (note the number of times Judah used the word eved, so key to those original dreams, in his speech). But what could he do? Obviously, Joseph did not wish to reveal his identity, but something had to be done, and Judah was still uncertain if Joseph was friend or foe. So Judah retold the story of how they arrived there together, but he did so in a remarkable way.
In reviewing the events described earlier in chapters 42-44, he often referred to details of what occurred both in Canaan with Jacob and in Egypt with Joseph. Most of the former repeat what was reported earlier, but the rest of his presentation about their conversation with Joseph – which Joseph could have criticized or rejected at every turn – recolored the entire story.
Unless readers wish to see the correlation between Joseph and the figure in Judah’s narrative as another of the coincidences in this lengthy saga, they must conclude that Judah aimed his story directly at Joseph’s greatest interests and for this purpose his greatest weaknesses: his father and his full brother, the latter’s potentially lethal trip to Egypt, the risk to Jacob, etc. References to “my wife,” “two sons,” and continued mention of Jacob and Judah as Joseph’s slaves drove this message home.
Because Judah had realized with whom he was talking, he understood how to craft his speech so it would have the greatest impact. No other ruler could have been so moved by his words; they were meant specifically for Joseph. In fact, they destroyed Joseph’s emotional resistance. Joseph stood there and listened without challenging this new version of events. He was probably fascinated by it and completely unable to react; the speech worked perfectly.
Judah and Joseph – Judah and Tamar
Where did Judah get the idea to approach Joseph in this way? Back in chapter 38, in a narrative that often has been treated as misplaced and largely unconnected to the others nearby, Tamar had a secret she was not ready to reveal to Judah, her father-in-law. He had failed to live up to his responsibilities to provide her with a surrogate husband (a levir). Rather than expose him, she manipulated the circumstances so that Judah was forced to confess. Copying Tamar’s modus operandi, Judah didn’t out Joseph but forced his hand. Without ever revealing his identity, Judah compelled Joseph to identify himself to the other brothers, who watched in amazement as this unfolded.
An Alternative Approach
In contrast to the approach of Targum Neofiti and Yerushalmi, perhaps the decision to keep Judah’s speech in a separate weekly portion represents an alternative rabbinic attempt to deal with the inconsistencies between Judah’s retelling and the original narrative. Keeping the different accounts of Joseph’s earlier interactions with his brothers separate from the retelling helps readers overlook these inconsistencies.
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December 5, 2013
July 11, 2021
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Prof. B. Barry Levy is Emeritus Professor of Jewish and Biblical Studies at McGill University in Montreal. He regularly teaches Bible, the History of Jewish Interpretation of the Bible, and a course on Jewish, Christian and Muslim scriptures and their interpretations.
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