When something bad happens that is neither an accident nor an act of God, who gets the blame?
Blame a beast
Joseph’s ten older brothers cannot stand him anymore in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40-23). Their father, Jacob, dotes on him, and he lords it over his brothers. When they are out with the flocks Joseph spies on them, and brings back bad reports to Jacob.
Once the brothers say they are taking the flocks to Shekhem, but they make an additional day’s journey to Dotan. There they look back down the road, and see their seventeen-year-old brother. Is there no escape?
Several of the older brothers decide to kill him then and there, throw his body into a pit, and tell Jacob a wild beast ate him. But Reuben tells them to throw him in alive, so his blood will not be on their hands. When Joseph prances up tot them, they grab him, strip off his fancy clothing, and heave him into the nearest dry cistern. Then while they are eating lunch, they see a caravan heading for Egypt, and Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders as a slave. That way they get rid of him and make some money, too. Before they go home, the brothers dip Joseph’s fancy clothing in goat’s blood. The ploy works; when they show the bloody garment to Jacob, he believes Joseph was killed by a wild animal. So far, they have escaped the blame.
Blame the victim
Meanwhile a high-ranking Egyptian named Potifar buys Joseph. Potifar notices that everything his new slave undertakes succeeds, so he advances Joseph to the position of steward of his household. Then Potifar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young slave, but he refuses her on ethical grounds. When she grabs at his clothing he runs away, leaving his garment in her hand.1
When Potifar comes home, his wife shows him Joseph’s garment and says:
“He came to me, the Hebrew slave that you brought to us, to fool around with me! But it was like I cried out at the top of my voice, and he left his garment beside me and he fled outside.” (Genesis 39:17-18)
Blaming the victim works; Potifar sends Joseph to prison.
Blaming the guilty for a different crime
Joseph’s run of success continues in prison, and thanks to God he correctly interprets the dreams of two men in custody awaiting their sentences. One is executed and the other is exonerated, exactly as Joseph predicted. Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Pharaoh has two troubling dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. The exonerated man remembers Joseph, and he is brought up from prison.
Joseph tells Pharaoh that both of his dreams mean the same thing: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Then he gives Pharaoh some advice about stockpiling grain during the years of plenty. Pharaoh is so impressed with the young man that he elevates Joseph to his second-in-command. Joseph becomes a successful minister of agriculture.
After seven years, the famine comes not only to Egypt but to the whole known world. Jacob sends his ten older sons from Canaan down to Egypt to buy grain.
And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger to them and he spoke to them harshly … (Genesis 42:7)
They do not recognize Joseph, who was seventeen when they sold him. Now he is thirty-seven, he has an Egyptian name, he shaves and dresses like an Egyptian, and he speaks through an interpreter.2 Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. They blurt out the first reason that comes into their heads why they are innocent of this charge.
And they said: “Your servants are twelve brothers! We are sons of one man in the land of Canaan. But hey, the youngest is with his father now, and the one is not.” (Genesis 42:13)
Joseph uses this scant information as a means to get the youngest of the twelve brothers down to Egypt—Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother as well as the only innocent one. He puts his ten older brothers in the guardhouse for three days, then announces that one of them must stay behind under guard while the rest go home with the grain.
“But the youngest brother you must bring to me, so your words will be verified and you will not die.” … And they said, one to another: “Ah! We are asheimim on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he was pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come to us.” (Genesis 42:20-21)
asheimim (אֲשֵׁמִים) = bearing the consequences of guilt. (A form of the verb asham, אָשָׁם = became guilty.)
The brothers finally blame themselves for doing something wrong. And they consider their punishment under a false charge their just deserts—although Reuben then tries to exonerate himself by saying:
“Didn’t I say to you: Don’t techetu about the boy? But you did not pay attention. And now here is the reckoning for his blood!” (Genesis 42:22)
techetu (תֶּחֶטְאוּ) = you be blameworthy, be at fault. (A form of the verb chata, חָטַא = was blameworthy, was at fault, missed the mark.)
Blame others for your own misery
Joseph keeps Simeon under guard while the others take grain home to their extended family. When they tell their father what happened, he complains:
“I am the one you bereave of children! Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and [now] you would take Benjamin! Everything happens to me!” (Genesis 42:36)
Now that Joseph is gone, Benjamin is the only remaining child of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob flatly refuses to let Benjamin go.
The famine continues. When Jacob’s family in Canaan has eaten all the Egyptian grain, he tells his sons to go back to Egypt for more. Judah points out that the Egyptian minister said they could not see him again unless they brought their youngest brother with them.
And Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] said: “Why did you treat me badly, telling the man you had another brother?” (Genesis 43:6)
Again, Jacob thinks only about himself, and blames his ten older sons for his own misery. They are, in fact, guilty of taking Joseph away from him, but they sold Joseph to relieve their own misery, not to afflict their father. But a narcissist does not think other people have their own independent motives.
Take the blame in advance
Then Judah steps up and promises to take responsibility for Benjamin. First he points out that if Benjamin does not go down to Egypt, he will die of starvation, along with the rest of the family.
Then Judah said to Israel, his father: “Send the young man with me, and we will go, and we will live and not die: me, you, and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge; from my hand you can seek him. If I do not bring him back to you and place him before you, then chatati for all time.” (Genesis 43:8-9)
chatiti (חָטָאתִי) = I am blameworthy, I have missed the mark. (Another form of the verb chata.)
Judah makes no extravagant promises, but he does accept blame ahead of time if anything goes wrong. That is enough. Jacob lets Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt.
Accepting the blame when you are guilty is an ethical response. Yet humans instinctively shrink from being blamed. We do not want to look bad, and we do not want to be punished. On the other hand, humans find it all too easy to blame others without knowing the whole story.
Joseph’s ten older brothers are all responsible, in one way or another, for his disappearance from Canaan. But they deceive their father so that his blame will fall on a wild beast rather than on any of them. Jacob fails to investigate at the time, and years later he blames them for his misery over the loss of Joseph even though he has no evidence against them. He is not an ethical blamer.
Potifar’s wife takes pre-emptive action by delivering a false accusation before Joseph can tell Potifar what actually happened. Blaming the victim is still a common strategy of the guilty.
Joseph does not even try to defend himself against the woman’s accusation. But he makes a false accusation himself when his brothers come to him to buy grain. His accusation lets him manipulate circumstances so that his brothers finally blame themselves for their old crime, and so that in the long run he can transplant his whole family to Egypt, alive and well. The only punishment he afflicts on his guilty brothers is their anxiety about what he will do to them.
Judah turns out to be the best at handling blame. Although as a young man he is guilty of talking his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave, he changes over the years—most notably when he sentences his daughter-in-law to death for an illegal pregnancy, then learns the rest of the story. He publicly admits he was wrong and stops the execution.3
By the second year of famine, Judah is able to accept blame ahead of time for whatever happens to Benjamin, knowing that it is the only way he can get food for the whole family. And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Judah fulfills his pledge by volunteering to become a slave in order to save Benjamin from that fate.
Some of the characters in Genesis never change. But others learn how to accept blame when they deserve it. May more of us today learn how to overcome our natural tendencies to slap blame on others and dodge it ourselves. If Joseph and Judah can change, so can we.