Someone harms you or your loved one. There is no apology, no reconciliation. Years later you are thrown together again. What do you do?
Joseph faces his ten older brothers 20 years after they seized him, talked about killing him, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 During that time, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy. When Joseph sees his brothers again, they are bowing down to him and requesting permission to buy grain.
When the brothers last saw Joseph he was seventeen. Now he is in his late thirties. He has an Egyptian name, and wears Egyptian clothes. He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. So he pretends to be the stranger he appears, and speaks to them through an interpreter.
At first Joseph accuses them of being spies. (He wants to accuse them of something, and spying may occur to him because when he was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob. See last week’s post, Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.) The brothers protest:
“All of us are sons of one man. We are keinim! Your servants would never be spies.” (Genesis/Bereishit 42:11)
keinim (כֵּנִים) = (plural) upright, honest, virtuous.
Joseph knows that they were hardly keinim when they sold him into slavery. But have they changed over the last 20 years?
He repeats that they are spies, and as the ten men from Canaan explain who they are, they mention that their father had twelve sons.
And hey! The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one is absent. (Genesis 42:13)
Joseph uses this statement to test his brothers. He says:
“In this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh! If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here. Send off one from among yourselves, and he will take your brother; and you will be imprisoned. And your words, yibachanu, [to see if] the truth is with you. If not, by the life of Pharaoh, then you are spies.” (Genesis 42:15-16)
tibacheinu (תִּבָּחֵנוּ) = you will be tested. (A form of the verb bachan, בָּחַן = tested.)
yibachanu (יִבָּחַנוּ) = they will be tested. (Also a form of the verb bachan.)
Joseph throws all ten of them in prison for three days. When he releases them, he overhears them speaking in Hebrew.
And they said, each man to his brother: “Alas! We are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us for mercy, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress came upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)
This is the first evidence Joseph gets that his older brothers have changed. When he was seventeen, his brothers were only concerned about getting rid of Joseph for good without being technically responsible for shedding his blood. Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty.
The test continues. Joseph decides to keep only one brother, Simon, as a hostage. He sells grain to the other nine, and sneaks their silver back into their packs just before they leave for Canaan. Again he orders them to return with their youngest brother, threatening that they will not see his face unless they do.
The youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons is Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel. Their father, Jacob, always played favorites. He loved Rachel more than his other wife or his concubines, and after she died he loved her elder son Joseph more than his other sons. Joseph guesses that his father has become attached to Benjamin now, and he wants to find out if his half-brothers would treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him.
He may also remember his baby brother fondly; he was an innocent child of six when Joseph’s older brothers could not speak a peaceful word to him. Maybe Joseph wants to protect Benjamin in Egypt if their half-brothers turn out to be just as wicked as before.
Jacob, having already lost Rachel and Joseph, refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt. He would rather leave his unloved son Simon in an Egyptian prison for life. But the famine continues. Judah (Jacob’s fourth son) points out that the whole family will starve to death if they do not return to Egypt for grain, and he pledges to be responsible for Benjamin. Jacob finally lets him go.
When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simon and invites them all to dine at his palace. Nervously, the brothers tell Joseph’s steward that they found silver in their packs last time, and offer to return it along with more silver to buy more food. This might show only that the brothers are smart enough to avoid being accused of theft; or it might indicate that they have become more honest.
At the feast, Joseph gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others, putting his little brother in the same position Joseph was in when Jacob gave him, and none of his brothers, an expensive tunic. This time the ten older brothers do not react to the favoritism.
Then the final test begins. Once again, Joseph has the silver returned to the brothers’ packs.2 He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack. Then Joseph sends the man to overtake the brothers on the road, make a show of finding the “thief” of the cup, and declare that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as a slave.
Instead of letting Benjamin take the blame, the brothers all return to Joseph’s palace with him.
And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord? How can we speak, and how can we prove our innocence? God has found out the crime of your servants. Here we are, slaves to my lord, along with the one in whose hand the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:16)
The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin might be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs. But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.
Then, at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”), Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt and tells the story of Jacob’s love for Benjamin, predicting that if Benjamin does not return, their father will die. He concludes:
“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord. And let the boy go up with his brothers. For how can I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?—lest I see the evil that would find my father!” (Genesis 44:33-34)
At that point Joseph’s test ends. His older brothers have proven that they have changed for the better.
There is one piece of unfinished business. Joseph has not had the opportunity to test his father, who never overtly harmed him, but did smother him with a narcissistic love, and did send him off alone and unprotected to find his hostile older brothers far away to the north. (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father for two clues that Joseph blamed his father for some of his suffering.)
Joseph has not forgotten his father. Overcome with emotion, he sends all his attendants out of the room, bursts into tears, and says:
I am Joseph. Is my father really still alive? (Genesis 45:3)
Having tested his older brothers, Joseph will not punish them, will not take revenge. But will he forgive them?
Will Joseph be able to forgive his father without testing him? I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.
Testing people who once harmed you or your loved one is harder in real life than it is in the Torah. A few times in my life I have withheld my true feelings, looking for signs of change in people who once attacked me, but the evidence has always been ambiguous. If reconciliation is possible, it happens in a different way. And if reconciliation is not possible, the injured person can still find an inner healing.
May all of us who have been harmed without a reconciliation receive divine insight, so that like Joseph, we can reveal our feelings, let go of our disguises, and become whole.
- Genesis 37:12-27 (in the Torah portion Vayeishev).
- Robert Alter points out: “Meanwhile, as in dream logic—or perhaps one should say, guilt logic—the brothers, who once took silver when they sold Joseph down into Egypt, seem helpless to ‘return’ the silver to Egypt, as much as they try.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 253)
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