By Claudia Setzer
Commentators note the precision of Joseph’s second test of his brothers in Gen. 44:1–17. In his commentary on Genesis, the scholar Robert Alter calls this secreting of the silver cup in Benjamin’s sack and ensuing interrogation “the last turn of the screw” (New York: Norton, 1996, p. 263). Benjamin was a second Joseph, the only other son of Rachel, the youngest and the favoured son of his father. By giving the brothers a chance to abandon Benjamin in order to save their own skins, Joseph recapitulates the earlier conditions where they sold him into slavery to avoid competing for Jacob’s love. If the brothers have not changed inside, then they will sacrifice Benjamin, leave him in Egypt, and go on their way.
Have the brothers changed? When Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s stead, Joseph has his answer. Judah explains it in language only a parent can understand: “as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, when he sees the boy is not with us, he will die…” (44:31).
Venafsho keshura l’nafsho – “His soul is bound up with his [Benjamin’s] soul” (44:30). I first read this in Hebrew as a new mother of a baby girl, and it went straight to my heart. Remarkably, it is Judah, another brother, who sees this truth. Judah relates the story as if Jacob had only one wife and two sons (v. 27). Yet what about Judah himself, his own mother Leah, and all the other brothers? Judah has accepted the primary place of Rachel and her two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, in their father’s heart. He knows Jacob can bear the loss of him, Judah, but not the loss of Benjamin. Murderous jealousy has given way to acceptance of their father’s flaws.
Has Joseph grown and changed? Joseph matures from a naïve young teenager, bragging about his dreams and telling tales on his brothers, to a forgiving and generous soul, who tells his brothers twice to stop torturing themselves – you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good (45:7; 50:19).
Has Jacob changed? He wins no prizes as a father. His favouritism of Joseph ignited the brothers’ jealousy that led to Joseph’s exile. When he thinks Joseph is dead, he refuses the comfort of his other children and speaks as if he really had only one son: “I will go down to Sheol mourning my son” (37:35). When the brothers first propose taking Benjamin with them to Egypt he says “his brother is dead, and he alone is left” (42:38), as if there are no other children.
Perhaps it is the twin traumas of his beloved Rachel’s death and the loss of Joseph that leave him unable to see his own culpability, living stuck in mourning and reliving his loss. The theologian Serene Jones says in Trauma and Grace that to be human is to balance mourning and wonder: “There at the edge of every eyeblink, every muscle bend and every lip-formed moment of speech – there is a space that carries both traumatic loss, and yet remains open and new” (Louisville: WJK, 2009 p. 165). Jacob never forgot – never stopped mourning Joseph until he discovers he still lives, when he is moved to wonder: “I did not expect to see your face, and here God has let me see your children also” (48:11).
Mourning and wonder, jealousy and love. May we grow and change, moving in haMakom, the great space that is God.
Claudia Setzer is Professor of Religious Studies at Manhattan College in New York City. She is a former member of NNLS.