Genesis 44

In this chapter Joseph springs another trap on the brothers, this time by hiding his silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag, having it be found, and then accusing him of thievery (verses one through twelve). The narrator does not inform us directly, but in the mind of the Joseph character this may either have served as a means of having his younger brother Benjamin remain in Egypt, or as a test to see how the other brothers would react. The results, as presented in the tale, are the return of all the brothers to Joseph and an emphasizing of Judah’s leadership role through the relating of his redemption, demonstrated by his willingness for self-sacrifice. (It is probably important to keep in mind that the tribe of Judah was the dominant one amongst the group of tribes which made up the nation during the historical period that saw the fashioning of the final form of the Genesis text (and indeed this position was to last), and thus incidents such as this might have served explanatory roles, or even acted as a kind of just-so story.) This is particularly significant since it was Judah who had earlier been the one to suggest that Joseph be sold into slavery, in Chapter 37.26-27:

37.26-27: “Then Judah said to his brothers, ‘What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh.’ His brothers agreed.”

Yet I think we must pause and consider the wider context before judging this Judah figure; in going further back we note that the original plan – to which it seems the only objector was Reuben (37.21-22) – was to kill Joseph outright (37.18); if so, was not Judah’s intervention in arguing for Joseph’s sale into slavery rather than murder a form of mercy? His life would at least be spared. (Although again, 37.22 has it that Reuben would have restored Joseph to his father (and see also Reuben's reaction to finding Joseph no longer in the pit at 37.29-30 (had Reuben gone away? the flow is sketchy here); were it not for his inability to act more forcefully perhaps he is the real hero here.) This though is in fact cowardice, or worse. Reuben had already suggested putting Joseph into a pit instead of taking his life (37.22; the aside in the verse alludes to the idea that Reuben was thinking to later return and retrieve Joseph; see again 37.29), which they do in 37.24, and we are further informed that there was no water in the pit and hence Joseph would not drown. Rather than debating his brothers and supporting Reuben’s argument to leave him there, Judah hatches the plan to sell Joseph off at the happenstance occurrence of the approach of a caravan (37.25-28); it is entirely conceivable that in such conditions Joseph might have gotten himself out of the pit (we have no details on its depth), and so instead of an act of mercy by Judah we find that he was fully self-serving and, moreover, greedy. Back now to Chapter 44: How does Judah comport himself in light of Benjamin’s impending slavery and in the knowledge of how their father Jacob will take these developments?

Judah initially offers for all of the brothers to join Benjamin in the punishment Joseph (still known to him only as Pharaoh’s vizier) would mete out, but then – summoning up his courage and exhibiting a mettle that testifies to significant personal growth, as well as a deep concern for his aged father – shifts that to one wherein he alone will suffer. This now is surely an ethics worthy of respect, contemplation, and introspection: a profound challenge to the reader (/listener). This change is most noticeable between verses sixteen and thirty-two through thirty-three:

44.16, 32-33: “Judah replied [to Joseph, after the silver goblet was found in Benjamin’s bag], ‘What can we say to my lord? How can we plead, how can we prove our innocence? God has uncovered the crime of your servants. [Might the narrator have been intending this Judah personage to be remembering their earlier dealings with Joseph as he said this?] Here we are, then, slaves of my lord, the rest of us as much as he in whose possession the goblet was found.’ … ‘Now your servant [Judah is again speaking to Joseph in these verses] has pledged himself for the boy to my father [Jacob], saying, “If I do not bring him back to you, I shall stand guilty before my father forever.” Therefore, please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.’”

There, in the very last words of the statement, we discover both Judah’s transformation into someone with the bravery and humility to suffer on behalf of an innocent other(s), as well as his cleverness in re-framing the situation from one where the entire group of brothers takes the blame for Benjamin into one where he alone does. As we came to appreciate in our examination of Chapter 42, the Joseph saga is a relating of individual ethical development, a learning of how to place others before oneself, and how to accept that over which one simply has no control; here in this mise en abyme (which in a way almost replaces Judah for Joseph in the grand arc of character maturation) that process is described in miniature form, but for that it is no less impactful, and when considered from the wider lens of the whole of the latter half of Genesis (from 28.10 onwards the book is essentially only the story of Jacob and his immediate family) we find it is a repetition of the same strands of devotion and doing the good, of becoming the person one might be, however many (narrative) years such may require.

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