The “Conclusion” of Parashat Mikketz: Jacob’s Suspicion and the Brothers’ Choice
The Surprising Choice of Where to End the Parasha
Parashat Mikketz ends with the most classic of all cliffhangers in the cycle of Bible readings: Joseph (still unrecognized by his brothers) insists that he will take Benjamin as a slave (Gen. 44:17), an outcome that is precisely what Jacob’s sons must avoid to keep their promise to Jacob. Both the Babylonian cycle of biblical readings common in most synagogues today and the Eretz-Yisraeli triennial cycle that was customary in Byzantine Palestine stop the reading at this point.
The choice in both of these traditional reading cycles to end the weekly reading at this point, thereby accentuating the tension in the story, illustrates the importance of understanding the Torah-reading cycle as a type of early interpretation of the text. In order to understand this choice, we must first look closely at what occurs in our parasha, specifically, from the perspective of Jacob.
From the first, Jacob does not allow Benjamin to go to Egypt “lest ‘disaster’ befall him.” This statement is found more than once in Mikketz; first in Gen. 42:4 (“for Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, ‘lest he meet with disaster’”) and then with more poignancy in 42:36-38, where Jacob reacts to his sons’ report that Shimon is in Egyptian captivity and will remain there until they return with Benjamin:
Their father Jacob said to them “You have bereaved me! Joseph is no more and Shimon is no more, and you will take Benjamin (too)! All of them are on me!”….And he said, “My son will not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the road you are taking you will send my grey head down to Sheol in grief.” (42:36, 38)
The blame in Jacob’s anguish-filled speech is clear. The sons have caused Joseph’s disappearance, Shimon’s imprisonment, and will be behind any “disaster” that may befall Benjamin. The words do not seem to be those of a father who has accepted that his son was torn apart by a wild animal, as seems to be the case in Gen. 37:32-35:
The brothers had the decorated tunic taken to their father and said, “We found this. Acknowledge it (haker na)! Is it your son’s tunic or not?” He acknowledged it (vayakira), and said, “It is my son’s tunic. A savage beast has eaten him! Joseph has surely been devoured.” Jacob tore his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted, saying, “For I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol,” and his father wept for him.
Indeed, the account of Jacob’s “acceptance” of Joseph’s death is ambiguous. On one hand, he reaches the conclusion that Joseph has been devoured. On the other, he refuses to be comforted. Rashi’s well-known explanation there that one cannot be comforted for the “death” of someone who is actually alive reflects the plain sense of this passage: a refusal on Jacob’s part to actually accept the death of his son, or at least its cause.
The Ancient Near Eastern Evidence Law: The Brothers and Jacob’s “Testimony”
Considering the ancient Near Eastern context of this week’s parasha, sheds even further light on the tension in the biblical narrative. As explored by David Daube, a late scholar of ancient law, and put into the context of ancient Akkadian law by Meir Mallul, a scholar of comparative ancient Near Eastern law, Jacob’s acknowledgement (hakara) of Joseph’s coat is actually legal in nature. In the ancient Near East, concrete evidence had to be legally recognized despite the remaining suspicions of those involved.
Like the shepherd who, according to Exod. 22:12, must bring the remains of the animal that has been savaged as proof that he cannot be responsible for its destruction by a wild beast, the brothers sent Jacob proof that they cannot be held responsible for their brother’s death: a bloody coat that was clearly Joseph’s own.
This explains the surprisingly cold language the brothers use when they ask their father whether this tunic is “his son’s.” They know it is Joseph’s clothing, but because it is their father to whom they are responsible for their brother’s life, it is he who must legally recognize his son’s coat and thereby free them from this responsibility. Jacob has no choice but to recognize the evidence and therefore to observe the standard rites of mourning for Joseph, but his subsequent words, found in this week’s parasha (42:36, 38, quoted above), are evidence that he never truly accepted the brothers’ version of events.
The Implied Meaning of the Word ’ason
Further evidence of Jacob’s uncertainty is found in the repeated use of the term ’ason for what may befall Benjamin. This term, which in its essence is simply “disaster,” hints at Jacob’s suspicion that a similar “accident” for which the brothers cannot be held responsible may occur to Benjamin as well. The parallel between Joseph’s fate and that which Jacob expects for Benjamin is particularly clear when Judah repeats his father’s objection in next week’s parasha:
“Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One has gone from me, and I said: He was surely devoured! And I have not seen him since. If you take this one from me, too, and he meets with disaster, you will send my grey head down to Sheol in unhappiness.” (44:27-29)
In Judah’s report, Jacob’s uncertainty regarding Joseph’s ultimate fate is clear, as well as the parallel with the danger to Benjamin.
The Crossroads at the End of the Parasha
That Judah acknowledges this state of affairs is central to the drama of the Joseph story, and in fact explains the division of parshiyot in both the Babylonian and Eretz-Yisraeli traditions. In fact, according to the Eretz-Yisraeli tradition of sedarim, which are considerably shorter than parshiyot, the end of this week’s parasha is its own seder, which focuses entirely on Benjamin’s fate (43:14-44:17). It begins with Jacob’s anguished resignation to Benjamin’s possible doom, when he asks that God “may release to you your other brother, as well as Benjamin. As for me, if I am to be bereaved, I shall be bereaved” (Gen. 43:14). It ends, like the Babylonian parasha, with Joseph’s insistence that Benjamin will remain a slave to him while the other brothers return to their father.
Essentially, the parasha and seder end at a crossroads. The brothers are placed in a position of allowing a “disaster” to befall their brother Benjamin. They have already offered themselves as slaves in his stead – can they be expected to do more? Certainly Jacob’s language in 43:14 indicates a different expectation, as Jacob comes close to mourning Benjamin before he is even gone.
Thus, the parasha ends with the question: will the brothers abandon Benjamin as (Jacob believes) they once did to Joseph and Shimon, or have they learned? Will they act differently concerning the favored son Benjamin than they did concerning the favored son Joseph?
While those familiar with the story know the answer, the point of the narrative is that the brothers do, in fact, have a choice. Just as their father was forced to accept the reality of Joseph’s torn coat and of Shimon’s being jailed by “the man” in Egypt, he will have to accept the reality about Benjamin as well. They can once again “get away” with abandoning a favored brother, claiming that they had no choice and that they are, therefore, not responsible. That they do not is the beginning of the opportunity of reconciliation with Joseph.
The ending of Mikketz thus highlights the importance of personal development and choice in the Joseph story and in biblical narrative as a whole. Previous choices do not determine later ones. People can learn from their mistakes, regretting previous actions and working to prevent their recurrence. Mikketz leaves us on the cusp of this personal choice, reminding us that the biblical imperative is not to resign ourselves to the inevitable but to act correctly and to avoid “disaster” in any way possible.
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December 15, 2014
August 17, 2020
Dr. Miryam Brand is an Associate Fellow at the W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. She is the author of Evil Within and Without: The Source of Sin and Its Nature as Portrayed in Second Temple Judaism and a commentary on 1 Enoch. She holds a Ph.D. in Bible and Second Temple Literature from New York University.
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