Mikeitz & Vayigash: A Fair Test, Part 2

Did Joseph behave ethically when he deceived his brothers and secretly tested them during their two visits to Egypt?

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1865

Last week I posted an essay on Joseph’s first round of testing, when his ten older brothers come to Egypt to buy grain in the first year of famine. When they meet the viceroy of Egypt, they do not recognize their brother Joseph, whom they had thrown into a pit and sold as a slave twenty-one years before.1 After they mention that their youngest brother is at home in Canaan, Joseph imprisons Simeon as a hostage, sells grain to the rest, and says they must return with their youngest brother. (See my post Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1.) This youngest brother is Benjamin, the only one of Jacob’s sons with the same mother as Joseph.

Joseph’s second round of testing begins in the Torah portion Mikeitz and concludes in this week’s portion, Vayigash. The following essay comes from an earlier draft of my book on moral mistakes in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.

Second Year of Testing

When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simeon, and invites them all to dine at his palace. He finally sees his baby brother Benjamin, who is now a young man.

Joseph Weeps, by Owen Jones, 1865

And Joseph hurried [out] because rachamav was stirred up toward his brother, and he needed to break into sobs. And he came into the inner room and he sobbed there. Then he washed his face and he left and controlled himself, and he said: “Serve bread!” (Genesis 43:30-31)

rachamav (רַחֲמָיו) = his compassion, his feeling of deep affection. (From the noun rechem, רֶחֶם = womb.)

Is Joseph moved to tears by a sudden feeling of love for his brother? Or is he feeling compassion over Benjamin’s situation? He would remember what it was like to live with a clinging father and ten jealous and dangerous older brothers.

Joseph keeps his brothers on edge by having them seated in order by age. Benjamin is obviously the youngest, but the ten older men, who were all born during a seven-year period that ended with Joseph’s own birth, are now middle-aged. No outsider could have guessed their birth order.

And he had portions passed to them from in front of himself, and Benjamin’s portion was five times bigger than anyone else’s. And they drank and they got drunk with him. (Genesis 43:34)

By giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others, Joseph displays unfair favoritism just as Jacob did when he gave Joseph 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 his brothers’ packs. He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack. The eleven brothers load their donkeys and set off early in the morning. Then Joseph orders his steward:

“Get up! Pursue the men, and when you catch up with them you shall say to them: Why did you pay back evil for good? Isn’t this what my lord drinks from and uses himself for divination? You did evil in what you did!” (Genesis 44:4-5)

The hint that the viceroy knows how to do divination, along with the previous day’s seating plan by birth order, might frighten the brothers into believing that the viceroy has magically divined their old crime. The steward overtakes the brothers as they leave the city, and repeats Joseph’s words.

And they said to him: “Why does my lord speak these things? Far be it from your servants to do [anything] like this! Hey, the silver that we found in the mouths of our packs, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. So how would we have stolen silver or gold from your master’s house? [If] it is found with any of your servants he will die, and also we ourselves will become slaves to my lord.” (Genesis 44:7-9)

Their righteous indignation indicates that the eleven brothers all trust one another to refrain from stealing.

The Cup Found, by James J.J. Tissot, circa 1900

They quickly put their packs on the ground and open them, and the steward conducts a search, dramatically saving Benjamin’s pack for last. When the steward pulls out the silver cup, the brothers tear their garments in mourning. They accompany him back to the viceroy’s house, where they throw themselves on the ground in yet another prostration to the man who controls their fate.

And Joseph said to them: “What is this deed that you have done? Didn’t you know that a man like me does divination?” (Genesis 44:15)

Joseph is still playing his role in the elaborate test he has arranged. Judah answers for all eleven brothers.

And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord? How can we speak, and how can we be vindicated? The God has discovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, slaves to my lord, including us as well as he in whose possession the cup was found.” (Genesis 44:16)

In other words, Judah says the brothers are collectively culpable. He may feel that they are so united that if one of them commits a crime they are all guilty; or he may remember that all of them except Benjamin (and Reuben, who was absent at the time) sold Joseph as a slave, and therefore are just as guilty as the presumed thief of the silver cup.2

The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin could be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs for them to pass his test. But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.

And [Joseph] said: “Far be it from me to do this! The man who is found with the cup in his possession, he will be my slave; and [the rest of] you, go up in peace to your father.” (Genesis 44:17)

*

Joseph acts ethically by fulfilling his promise to release Simeon when the brothers brought Benjamin to him.

But planting an item in Benjamin’s pack and pretending it was stolen is a more serious kind of deception than hiding his identity as their lost-lost brother. Now Joseph is framing an innocent man for a crime he did not commit.

He probably does not intend the accusation to go any farther. Joseph enjoys creating dramatic effects (the mysterious return of the silver to their sacks,3 the seating order at the feast, the talk of divination). When he ends the test, he is likely to reveal everything, and savor his brothers’ shock and amazement.

Joseph may not realize that framing his little brother for the theft might ruin Benjamin’s reputation with his older brothers. What if, after Joseph reveals his identity, his older brothers thought Benjamin did steal the cup, and Joseph was covering up for him? His desire to amaze his brothers prevents Joseph from  choosing the morally better action of protecting his little brother’s reputation.

Nevertheless, he does no long-term harm to any of his brothers. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Judah appeals to the viceroy’s feelings and offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin so that he can fulfill his promise to their father, Jacob, to bring him back. If Benjamin did not return, he says, it would kill his father.

“And now, please let your servant remain instead of the young man as my lord’s slave, and let the young man go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father [if] the young man were not with me? Then I would see the evil that would come upon my father!” (Genesis 44:33)

At this moral example of unselfish sacrifice, Joseph “could no longer restrain himself”.4 He dismisses all his Egyptian servants and reveals his identity to his brothers.  He invites his whole extended family to move to Egypt so that he can provide for them during the remaining five years of the famine.

*

What if Joseph’s older brothers had not passed the test? What if, despite their guilt over mistreating Joseph, they had not volunteered to become the viceroy’s slaves along with Benjamin? What if Judah had not proven that he met his promises, had compassion for his father, and sincerely wanted to sacrifice his own freedom to save his little brother?

Joseph’s plan in that case might have been to keep Benjamin safe in Egypt, and let his older brothers to back to Canaan with another year’s supply of grain, no matter how much their father grieved. He might even have planned to let them all starve after the grain was consumed. As long as he believed his older brothers were a threat to Benjamin, he could not just forgive them and let them live in Egypt, too. Alternatively, Joseph might have planned to imprison them for the rest of their lives, feeding them but denying them freedom of movement.

Whether he chose to lock up his older brothers or send them home, would it be ethical for Joseph to punish men who committed a crime 22 years ago and who, in his opinion, might do so again?

Since his brothers (especially Judah) do pass Joseph’s secret test, he avoids facing this moral question. But I suspect Joseph is so carried away by his own cleverness that he does not consider the long-term ethical consequences of his test.

  1. Genesis 37:18-28.
  2. It would be unethical of Judah to speak for his brothers without their prior approval, even by ancient Israelite standards, since he is not the oldest brother or otherwise the head of a household they belong to. However, the ten older brothers had agreed that God was punishing them for their long-ago cruelty to Joseph. They may have discussed it again later and agreed that they deserved to be punished further, perhaps by becoming slaves themselves.
  3. Genesis 42:35, 43:19-23.
  4. Genesis 45:1.

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