Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1

Rorschach test, card 3

Evaluating the people we meet is a human reflex. But sometimes we go farther, and arrange tests in order to judge people by their responses. When is it fair to test someone?

Honesty requires advance notice when one person is testing another. We expect to be tested in certain situations, such as a job interviews or class assignments. But otherwise we assume that others are not testing us—unless they warn us ahead of time.

Some situations, however, involve a higher moral value than honesty. For example, you might ethically deceive someone in order to save another person’s life.

What about Joseph’s secret testing of his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz? Is Joseph behaving ethically?

The following essay is from the first draft of the book I am now rewriting on moral psychology in Genesis.

The Test Begins

Joseph ruling in Egypt, by James J. Tissot

Joseph faces his ten older brothers again 21 years after they threw him into a pit and then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 During those years, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy. He has spent seven years stockpiling grain in Egypt to prepare for the long famine he has prophesied. Now he is in charge of selling that grain.

And the sons of Israel came to buy grain among [others who were] coming, because the famine was [also] in the land of Canaan. And the ruler of the land was Joseph; he was the grain seller for all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and prostrated themselves to him, noses to the ground. (Genesis 42:5-6)

This fulfills Joseph’s adolescent dream in which his brothers were sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf.2

And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he kept his identity from them and he spoke to them harshly. And he said to them: “From where do you come?” And they said: “From the land of Canaan, to buy grain.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. (Genesis 42:7-8)

When the brothers last saw Joseph he was 17. Now he is 38. 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 he speaks to them through an interpreter.

And Joseph remembered the dreams that he dreamed about them, and he said to them: “You are spies! You have come to see the naked places of the land.” (Genesis 42:9-11)

Joseph wants to accuse his brothers of something so he will have an excuse to detain them. Spying may occur to him first because when he was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob (a.k.a. Israel).3

And they said to him: “Never, my lord! Your servants have come to buy food. We are, all of us, sons of one man. We are keinim. Never have your servants been spies!” (Genesis 42:10-11)

keinim (כֵּנִים) = upright, honest, virtuous. (Plural of kein, כֵּן.)

Joseph knows that they were certainly not keinim when they sold him into slavery. But have they changed over the last 21 years?

He repeats that they are spies. Presumably it would be strange, in the Ancient Near East, for a ruler to send ten spies from the same family; in the book of Numbers, Moses sends one scout from each of the ten tribes to investigate Canaan.4

And they said: “Your servants were twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And hey! The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one— einenu. (Genesis 42:13)

einenu (אֵינֶנּוּ) = he is not, he is nothing, he is absent.

What else can they say about Joseph? They probably wish they had not brought up their two missing brothers. Joseph accuses them a third time of being spies, and declares:

“By this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh! If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here. Send one of yourselves, and he will take your brother; and [the rest of] 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 does say he is testing the ten men. But he claims he is testing them to see if they are really spies, when in fact he knows that are not. His actual reason turns out to be a test of how they will treat their youngest brother, Benjamin.

Jacob Caressing Benjamin, by Rembrandt, 1637

Benjamin is Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel. Since Jacob kept Benjamin home, Joseph knows that Benjamin has replaced him as the favorite son, the one his father dotes on. This raises the question of whether his half-brothers would ever treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him. What if they became more jealous of their father’s new favorite? Twenty-one years before they were willing to kill or sell Joseph.  Would they do the same to Benjamin?

Joseph throws all ten of his older brothers in prison for three days. When he releases them, he makes a better offer: nine of the men can return to Canaan with grain, and he will keep only one of them under detention in Egypt until they return with their youngest brother.

This modification of the test means that their families back in Canaan will not starve. Joseph realizes that one man could not handle all the donkeys they brought to carry grain.5 He is deceiving his brothers, but he is also feeding his whole extended family.

Then Joseph 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 to 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, they were only concerned about getting rid of him for good without being held responsible. Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty. Throwing him in the pit and then selling him is the worst thing they have ever done, so they conclude it must be why God is punishing them now.

Joseph Weeps, by Owen Jones, 1865

Joseph turns away from them and weeps, but he still does not trust his brothers. He is determined to continue his test. He keeps Simeon as the hostage, and sells grain to the other nine. Then he has their silver returned to 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 again unless they do.

At this point we might wonder about the purpose of Joseph’s test. Jacob would be reluctant to let Benjamin go to Egypt, but his brothers would gladly bring him whether they are keinim or not.

Probably Joseph is already planning the second part of his test. He knows that the famine will last seven years, so his brothers will have to return to Egypt the following year for more grain. If his ten half-brothers fail the second part of test, Joseph will be able to protect Benjamin by keeping him in Egypt.


Is Joseph’s deception ethical so far? Unlike his brothers 21 years before, he does no physical harm, and he enslaves no one. He takes a hostage, but gives clear conditions for Simeon’s release.

Nevertheless, restricting Simeon’s freedom is unethical. Simeon has committed no crime in Egypt. Furthermore, Simeon’s imprisonment does not actually achieve anything. Joseph should know that Jacob would rather let Simeon spend the rest of his life in prison than let Benjamin go to Egypt. And his brothers will have to return to Egypt for more grain anyway. It would have been equally effective, and more ethical, for Joseph to let all ten men go, with a warning that if they came to Egypt again without Benjamin he would turn them away.

What if he took his brothers aside, revealed his identity, and demanded an apology for selling him into slavery? Then he would not even be guilty of dishonesty. But his brothers might apologize out of fear, not remorse, and he still would not be sure that Benjamin was safe with them.

Perhaps Joseph’s devious route to reconciliation through a complicated test is actually the most ethical option at this point (though the test would be more ethical if he let Simeon go with his brothers). But will the test remain ethical when the brothers return? See my next post, Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 2.

  1. Joseph is 17 when his brothers sell him (Genesis 37:2, 37:12-27) and 30 when Pharaoh makes him the viceroy of Egypt (Genesis 41:44-46). He is 37 at the end of the seven years of plenty, and 38 when his brothers have endured a year of famine and come to Egypt to buy grain.
  2. Genesis 37:5-7.
  3. Genesis 37:2, 37:14.
  4. Numbers 13:1-20.
  5. Genesis 42:26.

2 thoughts on “Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1

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