What Did Joseph Want From His Brothers?
The climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers is the confrontation over the stolen cup: The brothers hate Joseph because he is the favored child. They conspire to kill him but, at Judah’s suggestion, they sell him into slavery. Joseph rises to greatness in Egypt, becoming the person responsible for distributing food during the famine. Eventually Joseph’s brothers, representing their father, come to Egypt to seek food. The first time, Joseph gives them food and secretly returns their money. The second time, Joseph gives them food and has his cup secretly put into Benjamin’s sack. Joseph’s men pursue the brothers and find the cup.
The brothers are returned to Joseph’s palace. Joseph slowly reveals that it is Benjamin who is the thief. Then, Joseph threatens to enslave Benjamin. At this point, Judah steps forward to speak. What does Judah say that reverses Joseph’s unrelenting pursuit of his brothers?
An indulgence, my lord. Please allow your servant to speak a word in my lord’s ear, and let not my lord be angry with his servant because you are, indeed, as Pharaoh. Your lord asked his servants, “Do you have a father or a brother?” and we replied to my lord, “We do have an old father and a younger brother, a child of his old age. His brother, whom his father loved, died and he alone remains from his mother.”
Then, you said to your servants, “Bring him down to me and I will watch over him” and we responded to my lord, “The young man can not leave his father for, if he deserts his father, he will die.” Then, you said to your servants, “If your younger brother does not come down with you, you will never see me again.”
So, when we went back to your servant, my father, we told him the words of my lord. And when our father said, “Return and obtain some food for us,” we said, “We cannot go down. If our younger brother is with us, we will go down, for we cannot ever see the man again if our younger brother is not with us.” Your servant, my father, then said to us, “You all know that my wife bore me two sons. One left me and I said, ‘He has surely been torn apart by a wild beast’ and I have not seen him since then. If you now take this one from me and some accident befalls him, you will bring your old father to his grave in inconsolable grief.” Now, when I come to your servant, my father, and the child is not there — His soul being bound up in his soul, when he sees that the young man is not there, he will die and we will have brought our old father to his grave in inconsolable grief.
Indeed, your servant guaranteed the safety of the young man for my father saying, “If I do not bring him to you, then I will have sinned against my father all the days of my life.” Therefore, I pray you, let your servant stay here as a slave to my lord in place of the young man, and let the young man go back with his brothers — For how can I appear before my father without the child, lest I see the pain that my father will feel?!
What was there about this speech that provokes Joseph in the next sentence to break down crying and to reveal himself to his brothers? There are three things to note about this speech:
(1) It is NOT a confession: The brothers do not confess that they hated Joseph, nor that they committed violence against him, although the thought has already occurred to them; Gen. 42:21-22.
(2) The speech is given by Judah, the person who saved Joseph in the first place and the one who negotiated Benjamin’s departure with Jacob. The most responsible one has finally come forward.
(3) The whole speech revolves around Jacob, and not Joseph and not the brothers. It is Jacob’s love for Joseph, Jacob’s attachment to Benjamin, and Jacob’s inconsolable grief if something happens to Benjamin that is the center, indeed the only motif, of Judah’s speech. If Benjamin is not with them, Jacob will die of a broken heart, and they will have brought their old father to his grave steeped in unending grief.
Contrary to the late Rabbi Hertz who says, “Judah wishes to divert the sympathy of Joseph towards the unhappy position of his old father bereft of his youngest son,” the late Thomas Mann, in his great novel, points out that the whole story of Joseph and his brothers was always only about Jacob’s love. Jacob did love Joseph more. The brothers could not deal with it, so they conspired to kill him and, through a last minute appeal, sold him away to Egypt. And then they lie: They construct the story of the wild beast. And, they live in the conspiracy of silence of family violence, for a long time. They never do admit what they did, or felt.
Joseph, for his part, is not much better. Joseph never sends back a message to his father who surely must be grieving for him, even after he has the power to easily do so. Joseph accepts what has happened to him and waits; but for what? For the opportunity to avenge himself for the emotional and violent affront to himself? No; he could have done that easily enough. He could have sent troops to Canaan. He could have imprisoned the whole lot of them the first time they came down. He could still imprison them, even as Judah steps forward. No; Joseph, in the course of time, comes to realize that the real violence here is the pain that his brothers caused their father.
The real grief in sibling violence is the grief that children cause to their parents, even if it is for the unreasonable act of favoring of one child over another. Recognizing that grief, owning up to it, is the key step in healing the bonds that link generation to generation and, hence, keep human society within the bounds of moral, civil interpersonal relations.
When Judah steps up and refers only to “my” father, thus assuming his responsible leadership role and, when he says that he simply cannot go back and cause his father such inconsolable grief yet again, Joseph realizes that the moment of truth has come — he cries, he identifies himself, and he insists that Jacob be brought to Egypt where he protect him.
Interestingly, Jacob and Joseph understand that the sin of the brothers was in the pain that they caused their father even though his favoring of Joseph was unfair. But the brothers do not get it, not even after Jacob has died. Thus, according to Gen. 50:15-21, when begging Joseph for their lives in the name of their now-deceased father, they still imagine that the greatest wrong they did was to Joseph himself; they still fear that he has been waiting for the proper time to avenge himself.
TheTorah.com is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
We rely on the support of readers like you. Please support us.
December 3, 2013
November 15, 2019
Professor Rabbi David R. Blumenthal is the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University and his ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Professor Blumenthal is most well known for his books, Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest and The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition.
Essays on Related Topics:
Previous in the Series
Next in the Series