The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder. Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?
Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child. You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.
The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph. In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?” Joseph says a great deal more.
Joseph: Complicated Simple Son
In fact, he talks too much. By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1 The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite. Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2
Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3
Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him. Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel? Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?
Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks. As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4 He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.
The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6 It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.
One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others. He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.
Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God? Please tell me.” (Genesis 40:8)
Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information? Probably both. Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.
This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8 The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication. He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food. Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph. From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9
When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him. Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10 Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.
Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary. For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order. They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11
The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave. Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him. Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12 Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin. Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13
But there is one more complication. Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:
“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me. Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life. For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping … So now, you did not send me here! Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)
By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position. As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17. But he is still as full of himself as a simple child. He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.
Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence. Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon. They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.
Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid! Am I instead of God? And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive. And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.” And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:19-21)
Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart. But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”
Benjamin: Speechless Son
Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah. He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14 I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15
But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.
Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds. He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem. He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave. The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go. The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!
He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it. Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery. Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.
After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.
And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them. And after that his brothers spoke to him. (Genesis 45:14-15)
Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back. He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing. He can react freely, and non-verbally.
Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family. It does not even occur to him to question what is going on. We do not learn whether he ever grows up.
- Genesis 37:2.
- Genesis 37:3-4.
- Genesis 37:5-9.
- Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration. Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22). Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
- Genesis 42:21.
- Genesis 39:8-9.
- Genesis 40:7.
- Genesis 41:25.
- Genesis 41:39-44.
- Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
- Genesis 43:33.
- Genesis 44:16-17.
- Genesis 44:18-45:3.
- Genesis 34:1-31.
- Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).