Bible Commentator


Rabbi Moshe Reiss



Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac, the younger was chosen. Isaac had two sons, Esau and Jacob, the younger was chosen. In the next generation the conflict was between Joseph and Judah. Judah was chosen. The term in Hebrew for Jews is ‘Yehudim’; Jews in English, a variant of ‘Yehuda’ - Judah. Joseph’s blessing as we will note latter is comparable to Ishmael and Esau.

As the story of the twelve brothers unfolds Joseph will become one of two brotherly protagonists, the other being Judah who was Leah’s fourth child and for many years her youngest until the arrival, later in her life of two more sons and a daughter. The older three children of Leah - Reuben, Simeon and Levi - play the role of aggressors. Their names suggest Jacob’s dislike of their mother Leah. Reuben – ‘my husband will love me’; Simeon – ‘God heard I was unloved’; Levi – ‘my husband will now be joined to me’ (Gen. 32-34). With the birth of Judah, Leah gives up and simply appeals to God, naming Judah ‘now I will praise the Lord’ (29:32-34). He is not named for the conflict between the parents, but can create his own identity and has his own relationship to God.

Joseph was the oldest child of Rachel, the only wife Jacob loved, after many years of infertility. From his very birth Joseph is set apart from his ten older half-brothers. It is likely that his mother lavished love and indulgences on him. Several years later Rachel gave birth to Benjamin, but she died in childbirth. In her death Jacob substitutes Joseph as an object of his special affection. ‘Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age’ (37:3).  It is likely that Jacob when seeing Benjamin (his youngest child) always remembered that his birth resulted in Rachel’s death.

Joseph being the son of the loved and now dead wife was set apart from his brothers. As we shall see he developed an exaggerated sense of grandeur and of entitlement, with an indifference to the feelings of others. Jacob’s partiality toward Joseph brought rift and discord into the family as his mother Rebekah helped create the conflict between Jacob and his brother Esau as well as with Isaac their father. 1

God never speaks to Joseph despite Joseph’s often referring to Him. In this he differs from his father Jacob, his grandfather Isaac, his grandmother Rebekah, and his great-grandfather Abraham. Joseph does  not pray to God despite being in dire need several times. (God also does not talk to Judah nor does Judah pray to God, but he does use God’s name as Joseph does.)  Once Joseph takes an oath `By the life of Pharaoh’ (Gen.: 42:16).  An oath using the name Pharaoh! He is the servant of Pharaoh and proud of it. Two verses later he says `Do this and you will live' (Gen. 42:18). Moses, the servant of God and the paradigm of the Man of Faith2  says in the name of God `choose life' (Deut. 30:19). A servant of God, one who is to inherit the spiritual promise, as Isaac and Jacob did, is inherently a servant of no man. Joseph appears to believe he can subdue and dominate others in his own name.3



The relationship of Joseph to his ten older half-brothers begins in Genesis 37:2, a verse that is ambiguous and confusing, with four clauses that can be read in different ways. The first of these is linguistically straightforward. `These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph was seventeen years old'. Jacob has thirteen children noted in the text, but only Joseph is named in `the generations of Jacob'. We are being told that Joseph is intended by Jacob to be his spiritual heir. The second clause is usually translated as 'he was shepherding the flock with his brothers'. But the word order in the Hebrew text is `he was shepherding his brothers with the flock'. The suggestion (given what we will learn about Joseph) could be made that he, a seventeen year old boy with ten older brothers is the leader supervising his older brothers as though they were sheep.

The third clause reads 'And he was young and the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah the wives of his father'. There are several problems with this clause. First a verb seems to be missing in this clause. Secondly Bilhah and Zilpah are not his father's wives, but his concubines; nowhere but here are they called Jacob's wives. Thirdly there is no mention of Leah’s children, his other half-brothers. The Hebrew word young `na'ar' is spelt `nun' `ayin' `resh'. Might it be that the original letter `nun' was a `gimel' and an error in transcription occurred?4  The letter `nun' and `gimel' are only slightly different in shape in the Hebrew alphabet (both current and ancient). If the letter was originally `ga'ar’ instead of `na'ar’ then the sentence would read; `And he rebuked the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah his father wives.'  If that reading is correct then the narrator is particularly critical by calling the brothers the sons of his father's wives. By leaving out the children of Leah the narrator allows us to speculate that Joseph felt superior to the concubines’ children but not necessarily to Leah’s children.

The last clause may confirm this reading of rebuking. `And Joseph brought their father their evil reports'.  `[T]heir evil reports' is unclear - is he, Joseph referring to Leah's children or the sons of the concubines? Since the previous clause was referring to the children of the concubines, it is more reasonable to assume Joseph said, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were saying evil things about their father. A tell tale brother was no more popular then than now. The next verse tells us Joseph is Israel's favorite child, something that the others might well resent.

The trouble within the family is made clear: ‘They hated him and could not speak with calmly with him’ (37:4). Immediately after this statement comes the narrative of Joseph's dreams as he relates them. In the first dream, the brothers are in the fields binding sheaves, and his brothers' sheaves bow down to Joseph's sheaf. The brothers did not have to be interpreters of dreams to understand the meaning: ‘Shall you rule over us’ (37:8)?

Give his brothers Joseph should have realized how offensive he had been, yet he repeated the offense by telling of a second dream: the sun, the moon, and 11 stars bow down to him. These dreams do not come from God but from the self-perception and hidden desires of the dreamer; first he will rule the earth and then the heavens. Even his doting father is appalled by such arrogance: `Shall I and your [dead] mother and your brothers indeed bow down to you (37:10)? This may have been the first time in his 17 years that his father had reprimanded him.

In the following verse, the brothers have gone to Shechem with their flocks and Jacob sends Joseph to see how they are doing there. This just after we are told that Jacob realized Joseph’s his brother’s envy of him (37:11). Were neither of them concerned about the brothers' hostility? This would have been a two day trip. Why was Joseph not accompanied by a servant? Did Jacob suppose this could be the occasion for reconciliation, when they were all together and away from the father? Perhaps he was remembering how he and Esau had been reconciled? But those two brothers were then mature adults with much accumulated experience of life. Joseph is an immature and self-centered boy. Did Jacob not realize the danger of sending him so far from home, to be alone with the hostile brothers? Was he testing Joseph as though attempting to recreate his grandfather’s willingness to sacrifice of his own father?

When Joseph reaches Shechem -- the town where Simeon and Levi wreaked their vengeance for their supposed ‘rape’ of their sister Dinah 5-- the brothers have moved on. An unnamed `man’ tells Joseph that they have gone still farther away from home, to Dothan. (Some commentaries suggest this `man’ was an angel, warning Joseph of what awaited him.) The name ‘Dothan’ has similarity to the word ‘dath’ [justice, law]. If there is an implied omen that Joseph will face his brothers' justice, he who later calls himself "a reader of omens" (44:15) does not read this one. Of course if this is his ‘brother’s justice’ is a distorted sense of justice; one does not murder or sell as a slave even an obnoxious brother!

Jacob had given Joseph a `tunic of many colors', a splendid garment that according to a Midrash was made from the fabric of Rachel's wedding dress. It was conspicuous evidence of Jacob's partiality, and a symbol that Joseph was to have the rank of heir. It would seem inappropriate garb for a two day journey, but Joseph wears it on the long trek to find his brothers. This lavish gift is turned against both the giver and the wearer, when the brothers tear it, dip it in the blood of a kid, and bring it to their father as evidence stating ‘the boy is not’, that ‘a savage beast devoured him’, and ‘Joseph was torn by a beast’ (37:30, 32).

Jacob’s action in sending Joseph away from home to his bothers is difficult to explain; perhaps he felt that since Joseph was – he believed - his heir apparent God would protect him. God had protected Jacob when he was the heir apparent from Laban. Joseph bred as his mother and father’s ‘prince’ did not understand his siblings’ reaction to his behavior. Judah’s action in saving Joseph’s life is his first act to our understanding why he will eventually become the heir apparent.


The seven years of abundance came and went, and the time of famine came, not only to Egypt but also in Canaan and all the nearby lands. More than 20 years had passed since Jacob had lost his son Joseph, but he had not ceased to think of him. When he sends his sons to Egypt to buy food, the narrator notes that Jacob kept back ‘Joseph’s brother Benjamin’ (42:4). He will not risk Rachel’s only remaining child. As the ten brothers go down into Egypt do they remember how they had sold Joseph into slavery there? Do they speak of it? In Egypt, they are brought into the presence of the Viceroy. Did Joseph the leader of Egypt commonly interview all foreign purchasers of grain, or did he expect his brothers might come and order the border guards to watch out for them?6  He recognizes them, but they do not know him -- as Isaac did not know Jacob pretending to be Esau, and Jacob did not know Leah pretending to be Rachel and Judah did not recognize Tamar in the guise of a harlot. Now his brothers bow to him as the young Joseph had once dreamt but in an ironic twist they do not know whom they are really bowing to. But ‘Joseph remembered the dreams’ (42:9).

The Viceroy questions them harshly, and through their answers learns things he had not actually asked: that their father is still alive, and that his youngest brother has been left at home with the father. Joseph has them detained on charges of espionage. The wording of the accusation is that they came to see the nakedness of the land (42:9). From the conversation among the brothers (that they did not know he could understand Hebrew) he learns two more things: that they attribute their misfortune to their hard-hearted treatment of Joseph, and that Reuben had tried to save him (42:22).

The Viceroy detains Simeon as hostage but sends the others home with a supply of grain. (Was Simeon the leader of the brothers after Rueben, the oldest had left?) He also tells them that there will be no more grain for them unless they prove they are not spies by bringing their youngest brother to Egypt. The brothers may well have wondered how the presence of Benjamin could prove their innocence to the charge of spying. Perhaps Joseph believes that the fulfillment of his dream is not complete until all eleven brothers bow to him. He has the silver they had paid for the grain returned to them, hidden in their sacks.

They tell their tale of woe to Jacob, but he rejects the idea of sending Benjamin to Egypt. He calls Benjamin ‘the only one left’ (42:38) -- his surrogate for Joseph and replacement for Rachel. He avers that if Benjamin should not return from Egypt, he himself would 'go down into Sheol [the place of the dead]' (Gen. 42:38), the same thing he said when his sons led to believe that Joseph was dead (Gen. 37:35). Reuben makes the bizarre suggestion that his own two sons would be hostages, whom Jacob might kill if Benjamin did not return to him (42:37). Does this suggest that Reuben felt guilty about allowing Joseph to be lost? Reuben was not present when Joseph was sold -- and furthermore he had intended to rescue Joseph from the pit and take him home to Jacob. He even tried to persuade the other brothers from the start to "do no harm to the boy". So he is not guilty, unless perhaps he felt that he should have taken stronger action at the beginning.

When the food brought from Egypt is used up, Jacob orders his sons to go back for more. Judah reminds him that they cannot do this without taking Benjamin with them, and offers to stand surety for the youngest brother (43:9). Judah has by this time lost two sons of his own and has perhaps a greater understanding of paternal grief. This time, Jacob agrees: 'Take your brother, and go back to the man' (43:13). Why did he reject Reuben's surety and accept Judah's? Reuben had offered death, the lives of his own two sons. Judah stressed life: 'Send the boy with me, and let us be off and go, if we are to survive and not die, we, you and our dependents' (43:8) The Patriarch recognizes the validity of this argument; that the family choose life.

The brothers arrive in Egypt and tell Joseph's steward that by some error their money was returned the last time they came. The stewards tell the brothers that the returned money was not Joseph's. `Your God and the God of your father’ returned it to you (Gen. 43:23).  That is clearly not true, Joseph told the steward to relate that to his brothers. Does Joseph tell his servants to use the name God? He could have told the steward to say he did not know anything about the money and it was not Joseph’s. The steward takes them to Joseph’s home not his official palace as before. The brothers meet Joseph again and they still do not recognize him. The Viceroy asks pleasantly is your father well and alive? I see your brother Benjamin is with you and he blesses him (Gen. 43:27-29).   

The Viceroy of Egypt after not seeing them for many months or years - they are presumably one of thousands of groups seeking food - remembers their father and recognizes the missing brother whom the brothers assume, he has never met. Joseph then rushed out to a private room to cry. Does Judah note the emotional impact on asking about their father and his seeing Benjamin.  

Joseph then invites his brothers to dine with him. To their amazement they are then seated for dinner in the exact order of their birth. How does the Viceroy know their birth order? Benjamin is fed with five times the amounts of his brothers; he is treated as the guest of honor. Just as he Joseph was treated with favoritism by being given the special coat, so he favors Benjamin by feeding him in a special way. Then they are given Simeon and told they may leave.

The eleven brothers, with fresh provisions, are sent off home. But again Joseph had their money secretly placed in their sacks, and has his own silver goblet placed in Benjamin’s sack.  He sends his steward to overtake them and, to accuse them of stealing the goblet, which they find in Benjamin's sack. The steward gives then Joseph’s cynical message, he will enslave the thief, Benjamin for stealing. The rest may go home in 'peace' (Gen. 44:17). How could they go home in peace without Benjamin? They refuse to leave Benjamin and return to the Viceroy.

When they are brought to the Viceroy, the role Judah role as leader is foreshadowed: 'Judah and his brothers arrived at Joseph's house' (44:14). Judah stands at the head of the brothers. The speech he addresses to the Viceroy is one of the most passionate and emotional in the Bible.  By this time Judah realized that the Viceroy is his half-brother Joseph.

Judah cannot tell Joseph the unvarnished truth; that he knows that the Viceroy has lied and arranged this conspiracy. Judah decides to tell his father's truth. Directly prior to his speech Judah reviews in his own mind the strange events that have occurred to him and his brothers. First they are arbitrarily accused of being spies, of uncovering the nakedness of the land (42:9,12). This odd term `nakedness’ is used twice. Joseph’s brothers took away his many colored tunic, made him naked and now he in his new royal garb he is hidden from them. Then Joseph says I will keep all of you until your youngest brother is brought to me. What does this have to do with their being accused of being spies? He then turns aside and wept and then said he would keep Simeon and await their return with Benjamin. What is the relationship between Benjamin and the accusation that they are spies? If they are thought to be spies why are they all but one released? Why does the Egyptian servant say the money is not Joseph’s and then state `I fear God’ (42:18) and then refer to `your God and the God of your father’ (43:23). The Viceroy of Egypt has them taken to his house and after not seeing them for many months remembers their father and recognizes the missing brother. Joseph then rushed out to a private room to cry. Judah, no doubt noted the emotional impact on asking about their father and his seeing full brother Benjamin.  Joseph then invites his brothers to dine with him. He seats them in the exact order of their birth. How does Joseph know their birth order? Benjamin is favored over his brothers. Judah perhaps understands as noted by Sternberg, that Joseph was testing whether the brothers had ‘come to terms with the father’s preference . . . rubbing it in through the contrast with the order of natural seniority in which he has taken care to seat them’. 7

Then they leave and are intercepted with the money and Joseph's cup in their Benjamin's possession. Judah knew that Benjamin could not have been guilty and thus Joseph set up the whole conflict. If Judah suspected that Benjamin had stolen the cup, he would simply have said that he, Judah, stole it and put in Benjamin's baggage. Then Benjamin would have been freed and Judah would have become a slave (as Joseph became), but he would have accomplished what he promised his father. Judah knew it was Joseph he was addressing, and this tactic would therefore fail.

Thus instead of addressing the issue of Benjamin, the alleged thief, he emphasized in his speech, his father’s love for Joseph above all his children and Joseph's mother Rachel as his only wife. Would Joseph take revenge against his brothers or feel compassion for their father? Instead of talking about the theft of the cup, Judah counters him with the agony of his father. He mentioned his father fourteen times in his extraordinary speech. That is the basis of Judah's speech. When Judah says (in the prologue to his speech) 'God himself, has uncovered your servant’s guilt' (Gen. 44:16), Judah is not responding to the cup he knows was never stolen, but apologizing to his brother Joseph for their selling him. Judah by telling Joseph God knows our guilt (Gen. 44:16), is also telling him he, Joseph and God know that Benjamin is not guilty.

In Judah's speech he reiterates the previous events of Joseph’s interrogation of the family (Gen. 44:19-24). Without explicitly asking Judah is questioning - ‘why this interrogation'? He understood that something was amiss.  He, Judah, sarcastically says to Joseph that Benjamin’s brother is dead (44:20). He had previously said his brother was missing (42:1). He then says to Joseph my father said `one of them left [Joseph], I supposed that he must have been torn to pieces' (Gen. 44:28).

Judah's long tale of his father ignited compassion in Joseph. Judah tells of the pain Jacob suffered in the 'death' of Joseph. He would surely die if Benjamin is not returned to him. Judah accepts the responsibility for his brother Benjamin, as he told his father he would do. By stating that He is willing to become a slave to Joseph as he and his brothers had enslaved Joseph, he is repenting for what they did to Joseph. Joseph then sends the Egyptians away and breaks down and tells his brothers that ‘I am Joseph your brother, is my father still alive’ (45:3)? He, of course then speaks their Hebraic language. He knows his father is alive, but Joseph’s immediate response is the emotional ‘is my father still alive’ is all that Judah had hoped.  

The speech shatters Joseph’s mask. His concealing of his emotions had fails. ‘His loud weeping was heard by the Egyptians and even in the house of Pharaoh’ (45:2). Judah understood that Joseph had fractured the family peace by demanding Benjamin's presence as the brothers had by selling him into Egypt. Judah redeemed the entire family and restored Joseph to it.

Joseph tells his brothers that God ordained their selling him so as to save their lives. 'It was not you who send me here, but God' (45:5-8).  Why then, did Joseph deceive his brothers by hiding his silver cup in Benjamin's sack? Why did he not tell them when they first brought Benjamin or even in the first meeting who he was? He has, in effect, tormented his brothers. 'He acted like a stranger towards them and spoke harshly to them' (42:7). And more importantly and with no justification he tormented his father. His father, an old man, might have died during the interim (perhaps two years) of the two visits. The brothers had told Joseph that bringing Benjamin to Egypt would endanger Jacob’s life. “And harm shall come to him, and you shall bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to sheol’ (44:29). Despite this clear warning, Joseph disregarding their statement, and insisted that they bring Benjamin. (44:22-23). He must have known ‘what his request will mean to his father; it will be a crushing blow, and yet he did it coolly with no apparent remorse’ 8 He clearly played with his father’s death. 9 When Joseph finally disclosed his identity and asks ‘is my father still alive?’ they, in fact cannot properly respond. They have left many weeks ago. The pain of Benjamin’s being gone may have killed him. Joseph’s response comes immediately after Judah talks of their father’s potential death. Did Joseph believe that demanding Benjamin would require his father to come down to Egypt and since he did not perhaps Jacob had died? 10 Can the brother’s silence after Joseph’s identifying himself be their recognition of what the favorite son may have done to their father?(45:3) 11

Joseph’s dreams of grandeur turn out to be true. But did Joseph need to tell his brothers of the dreams? Could he not have waiting for God to implement them? Do the brothers actions - selling him - if in fact God’s will justify his actions in taking vengeance on his brothers? If this was divinely inspired why did Joseph have the need for vengeance? And if his taking vengeance is only ‘normal’ why torment his father? Is this the only way his mission of saving the world could be implemented?  Could he not have told his father and brothers as soon as he became Viceroy about the years of plenty and the years of famine?

When Joseph hears Judah saying in the name of his father ‘And the one went out from me, and I said, surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since’. (44:28) He may not have realized that his father never told his sons that he send Joseph out and had felt guilt since them. And that the sons never told their father what had happened. And when Jacob said ‘I saw him not since’ not that he died - did Jacob ever expect to see Joseph again? Did Joseph ever expect to see his father again? All this is new information for Joseph to absorb. That Joseph was surprised we can take from his first response to his brothers. ‘Is my father still alive’?  (45:3) Judah has told him their father is still alive but mentioning his father’s name confirms Judah’s speech that Jacob is the key to this whole drama. Given the early death of his mother Joseph’s central identity is tied up with his father whose favorite he was. And his father’s life is tied up with him. Judah has told Joseph about their father’s life. ‘His life is tied into his life’ (44:30). The omission of proper names in this phrase suggests that their lives are inextricably tied together. Given that Benjamin is a surrogate for Joseph the relationship between Benjamin, Joseph and Jacob are inextricably bound. Joseph also learnt from this speech that Judah (if not the other brothers as well) had reconciled themselves to Jacob’s favoritism. Jacob’s life, despite being an old man, is worth more to Judah than his own. He has truly transformed himself from the man willing to sell his brother to being his father’s servant.  Will Joseph be reconciled to his father and his brothers?


We are told that Jacob lived under Joseph’s protection for seventeen years under his son Joseph’s protection was about to die. We are being reminded that Joseph was seventeen years old when his father sent him to his brothers and he was lost for over twenty years. Before his death he attempts to finalize his relationship with his children.

What does Jacob think of his favorite Joseph who hid his very existence from his father for two decades? The Joseph who needed his brothers to give their father ‘a full report of all my splendor in Egypt’ (45:13). We know how he reacted to Joseph’s being alive. ‘I must go see him before I die’ (45:28). He repeats this to Joseph: ‘Now I can die, now that I have seen you alive’ (46:30). When he realized that Joseph was not dead how did he act to his sons who had deceived him? And did he ever ask Joseph why he did not contact him during the many years he was Viceroy of Egypt?  When Jacob finally meets Joseph does he bow to his son, the Viceroy or does Joseph bow to his father? Before his death Jacob requested Joseph to take an oath to bury him in the family gravesite in Hebron. When Joseph swore as his father asked Jacob ‘bowed down to the head of the bed’ (47:31). Joseph’s dream of power, even over his father, has finally been fulfilled.

Before Jacob blesses his children, he adopts and blesses his grandchildren from Joseph; he enrolls them among the tribes of Israel. By making Joseph’s two children tribes of Israel he has given him double the portion of the inheritance – two tribes.  This is the entitlement of the oldest child (Deut. 21:17). Joseph becomes the eldest son as were Ishmael and Esau. (5) But of course neither Ishmael nor Esau got the spiritual blessing.

This adoption by Jacob of his grandchildren is the consolation prize given that Joseph cannot get the spiritual blessing. With this tactic Jacob hoped he would guarantee that Joseph would be reconciled to his brothers, a concern to the brothers after their father’s death.

Jacob's blessing of his children confirms our earlier impression that Judah, who remained with his father and unmasked Joseph, receives the true, the redemptive blessing. Jacob says "your father's sons will do you homage . . . The scepter shall not pass from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his feet, until (Shiloh) tribute be brought to him" (49:8,10).  Despite all the brother’s bowing to Joseph, all, including Joseph will bow to Judah. And from Judah through Tamar, the Canaanite and Ruth, the Moabite, will come King David, the Messianic model.  Thus Judah gets the blessing of faith, he is the son of the promise.

Joseph receives a different form of blessing.  "Archers in their hostility drew their bows and attacked him. But their bows were broken by a might One  . . .  El Shaddai who blesses you . . . may they descend on Joseph's head, on the crown of the one dedicated from among his brothers" (49:23-24,26). He will also be crowned, but his kingdom will be one of aggressiveness. Joseph, the Majestic Man, gets a worldly blessing, not the blessing of faith. Joseph’s blessing is like his granduncle Ishmael’s blessed to become an archer (21:21) and his uncle Esau’s to live by the sword ( 27:40).


As much as Joseph’s brothers had their difficulty with him he felt rightfully outraged by their actions toward him, (6) and consequently he never told his father that he was alive and where he was. Joseph could even have believed that his father was part of a conspiracy to eliminate him. Why did Jacob send Joseph alone to his brothers in Shechem? Perhaps not until Judah's speech does he realize his father's anguish at his apparent death (Gen. 44:27-29), and thus his father's innocence in the conspiracy.

Joseph’s behavior – his torturous trial of his brothers and his father - may be understandable but it is difficult to justify. He is boastful and insulting to his brothers and his father. After a separation of twenty two years he torments his brothers by accusing them of being spies. We know and he knows that his brothers regret what they did (42:20). He left them leave after imprisoning Simeon, but more importantly does not tell them or his father he, Joseph is still alive.  After he has revealed himself he says ‘Return quickly to your father and tell him, your son Joseph’ (45:9) is alive. Since he first met them two years have passed and his father could have died of old age if not of hunger, never knowing that Joseph was alive. How could he do that to his father? How could he torment his only full brother Benjamin by bringing him to Egypt and then stating he will be enslaved? Why does he not demand Jacob come with Benjamin? He talks of God, but in fact God never spoke to him. He does all for his own reasons. He is still the spoiled child he was twenty years earlier. He made himself the dictator of Egypt, his brothers and his father. Compare that to Esau’s filial behavior towards his father Isaac and his forgiveness of his brother Jacob. (7)

Ancient and Midrashic texts attempt to explain Joseph’s actions to his brothers and his father.  The Biblical text tells us that Joseph ‘was pretty person and pretty to look at’ (39:6). The exact words in Hebrew are only used one other time in the Bible regarding his mother Rachel. A Midrash says of Joseph that after he was promoted by Potiphar he said ‘Now I have to admit I’m doing fine’. (8) It continues that Joseph ‘became pretty [not was pretty] . . . was like a man sitting in the market place daubing his eyes and smoothing back his hair . . . and saying ‘I am quite the man’. The Testament of Joseph states ‘and He [God] gave me also beauty as a flower, beyond the beautiful ones of Israel’. (9) One Targum’s translation of Jacob’s deathbed blessing of Joseph (49:22), is ‘And when [the Egyptian sages] praised you [Joseph], the daughters of the rulers [of Egypt] would walk along the walls and cast down in front of you bracelets and golden ornaments so that you might look at them’. (10)  All these ancient texts suggest that Joseph was quite aware of his beauty and in some that he enhanced his looks. That is precisely the ancient meaning of narcissism. (11)

In the midst of the Joseph cycle and immediately after Joseph is sold (Gen. 37) the story of Judah and Tamar is inserted into the text (Gen. 38). It begins with the statement that ‘about that time, Judah went down from  his brothers’ (38:1). Only two verses before this, Judah and his brothers had falsely told Jacob that Joseph was dead, presumably killed by a wild beast, and the grief-stricken father had cried "I shall go down to Sheol [the underworld] mourning my son (37:35). Now Judah "goes down," not to Sheol but to dwell among strangers. Perhaps he was moved by feelings of guilt not shared by his brothers?

In this place Judah married and had three sons. His first son ‘Er’ married  a woman named ‘Tamar’ and died; his second son ‘Onan’ married her and also died. Both sons died because of an offense against God, but Judah not knowing that assumed that Tamar had some responsibility and thus withheld his third son Shelah from her. Tamar knowing she was not responsible for Er and Onan’s deaths and recognizing that Judah would not allow Shelah to be her husband seduced Judah and became pregnant with his child.

Not knowing who had impregnated Tamar Judah condemns her to death for harlotry. Tamar, being led forth to her execution, sent a message to her father-in-law: 'I am with child by the man to whom these belong. . . .  ‘Haker na ha’hotemet’ ‘Whose seal and cord and staff are these?' (38:25). Her words are intended for us to recall to Judah the words of the brothers to Jacob:  ‘Haker na ha’kutonet’ ‘is this your son's tunic or not?' (37:32).  By putting her challenge in the form a question, she refrains from publicly revealing that Judah himself is the father and so protects his honor.

Judah with great courage states: 'She has been more right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah’ (38:26).  In recognizing and admitting that he had been unjust, are we reminded of the injustice he and his brothers had done to Joseph and to Jacob? This time, he makes amends. He saves Tamar, marries her and takes responsibility for his actions.  

After these actions Judah returns with his wife Tamar and children back to his father’s family estate. By the time the story of Joseph, Judah, the  brothers and their father Jacob return to the text Judah has experienced the death of two children and reconciled as best as was possible his own  fractured family.  

When Jacob and his children are discussing returning to Egypt for more food Reuben makes the bizarre suggestion that his own two sons would be hostages, whom Jacob might kill if Benjamin did not return to him (42:37). Judah having lost two sons offers to stand surety for the youngest brother Benjamin (43:9) and perhaps because his father Jacob knows of his experience he accepts.

As a result of Judah’s experience with Tamar he was able to fracture Joseph’s mask as Viceroy through his impassioned speech about Jacob ‘their’ father.

We cannot know how much of the above analysis became clear to Jacob. We did choose Judah to receive the ‘Blessing’ of his fathers. Joseph never consciously recognized his part of the family conflict and consequently ; his brothers never were certain he actually forgave them. Judah accepted the responsibility of his actions regards Tamar ‘'She has been more right than I’ and then was willing to exchange his life for Benjamin as he promised his father. Joseph never humbled himself in this manner. Only Judah could unite the brothers and therefore received the Messianic blessing.

But Jacob did decide that despite his life long desire of giving Rachel’s eldest son – Joseph – the spiritual blessing at the end of his life he gave it to Judah the son of Leah.

1 See the author’s article in the Jewish Bible Quarterly, ‘The God of Abraham, Rebekah and Jacob’, April-June 2004; or in my website

2 See Rabbi Joseph B. Solovietchik, ‘The Man of Faith (Doubleday, N.Y., 1965) pgs. 9-27 and the article written by the author  in the Jewish Bible Quarterly entitled ‘Archetypes in the Patriarchal Family’, Jan. – March 2000; or my website – the section of the Theological Approach of Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik;

3 Aaron Wildavsky points out that Joseph who grows up as Hebrew chose to become an Egyptian, while Moses who grows up as an Egyptian chose to become a Hebrew. Joseph brought the Hebrews into the Egyptian exile while Moses brought them out of the Egyptian exile into the borders of the promised land. Wildavsky, Aaron, Assimilation versus Separation, (Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, U.S.A., 1993) Pg. 1.

dream interpreter (chapters 1-6 written in Aramaic) and grows into a dreamer or visionary (chapters 7-12, written in Hebrew). 4

4 I would like to thank Danielle Krause (who is a linguist and family therapist) for pointing out the similarity of `gimel' and `nun', and for psychological insights into the personality of Joseph.

5 By the author, Jewish Bible Quarterly; ‘The Family Relationship Between Simeon and Dinah’ April-June 2006 or my website

6 As suggested by Thomas Mann in ‘Joseph and his Brothers’ (London, Penguin Books, 1978).

7 Sternberg, Poetics, pg. 161, quoted in Fong, Yiu-Wing, Victim and Victimizer, (JSOT, 308, Sheffield, 2000) pg. 176-177.

8 Herbert, Joseph and the Surprising Choice of God, quoted in Fung, Y.W., Victim and Victimizer, JSOT, Sheffield, 2000, pg. 176.

9 Turner, L.A., Announcement of Plot in Genesis, (JSOT, 96, Sheffield, 1990) pg. 162.

10 Turner, Announcement, pg. 162.

11 O’Brien, The Contribution of Judah’s Speech to the Characterization of Joseph, CBQ, Vol. 59, #3, July 1997, pg. 445.