Genesis 45

Reconciliation. After all the drama, intrigue, and trials both hidden and exposed Joseph at last reveals himself to his brothers and they — astonished — recognize him for who he really is, although aside from one poignant moment we are not given details of the brothers’ reactions. That glimpse comes first through the full-brother figure of Benjamin, the only one of the brothers to share both mother and father with Joseph, and as we have seen this alone wins him much favoritism (e.g. the extra portions he received at their joint dinner in 43.34). How these two greet one another after Joseph’s announcement of his true identity is described thusly:

45.14: “With that he [Joseph] embraced [a footnote reads: Lit. “fell on.”] his brother Benjamin around the neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.”

The wronged brother here forgives, he is the one to initiate the affectionate enclasping, and in the symbolism of that act the entirety of the relational restoration is communicated. Were the other to refuse, to push away or reject, the damage would seemingly be irreversible. That does not happen here, and it did not happen in the mirror situation with their father, when Jacob was the Benjamin and his own brother Esau was the Joseph, the damaged and victimized party who relents and releases any ill will that may potentially have been harbored (this was certainly so for Esau as the narrative tells us in 27.42 that he was planning to kill Jacob; as for Benjamin we are not given a reason to think he may have wished Joseph harm, but as the below will explore the overall context is not entirely transparent). That scene is given in Chapter 33:

33.4: “Esau ran to greet him [Jacob]. He embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him; and they wept.”

Jacob had used much cunning and deception to obtain both Esau’s birthright and final blessing from their father Isaac, and while we can fault Esau for trading away his birthright so lightly (told in 25.29-34), he bears no blame for the complicated ruse that was played on the elderly and infirm Isaac (on that see 27.15-30). That Esau should forgive is remarkable, and that Joseph should is as well; yet does this parallel hold for Benjamin too? Here we are simply not sure.

As the only two sons of Rachel we assume that these brothers shared a different bond from what they had with their other half-brothers, and the text reinforces this image in numerous places (no less in how Jacob describes his own feelings for Benjamin by reference to Joseph; e.g. 42.38: “But he [Jacob] said, ‘My son {Benjamin] must not go down with you [the other brothers regarding their trip to Egypt], for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with disaster on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol [the underworld, or land of the dead] in grief.’”). What I am curious about, though, is Benjamin’s place vis-à-vis Joseph’s being first thrown into a pit and then sold into slavery by the brothers. We know from 35.16-20 that Benjamin had been born (with Rachel tragically dying in the process) some time earlier, yet as is often the case with the Genesis tales we do not know how much time had passed between then and when Joseph was assaulted in Chapter 37. Numerically Benjamin would have had to be included in the dreams Joseph has in that chapter of his brothers and parents bowing down to him (37.5-10, with “brothers” specified twice (verses five and nine) and their number at eleven once (verse nine)). If these are “brothers” and not “siblings” then their sister Dinah cannot be included, and so in order to reach the total of eleven Benjamin must be there as well. (This despite Jacob referring to “I and your mother” in verse ten (as the sun and moon symbols of the dream); we must therefore think the “mother” is not Rachel, because the only other option is to claim that Chapter 35 is a section out of place and Rachel is still living: since she passed away giving birth to Benjamin that would not solve the number of brothers problem because there would then only be ten.) We are told further that at the time Joseph was seventeen and he used to help tend the flocks (37.2), and moreover that once — the fateful time as it would prove — Joseph was sent alone to check up on his brothers who were in pasture at Shechem (37.12-14). Thereafter the account of the attack and sale of Joseph follows (37.18-28), and the only named brothers are Reuben and Judah. With Joseph still in his teens presumably Benjamin would have been too young to leave the family home and therefore was not present for what occurred, but this is not made explicit. What are we being told in all this?

Benjamin was the favored one, both by Jacob (thinking his previous favorite Joseph (37.3a: “Now Israel [/Jacob] loved Joseph best of all his sons”; but again Benjamin had been born by this point...) had passed) and by Joseph, and so in this scene of reunion and redemption it perhaps makes sense that he should be welcomed first by Joseph despite Benjamin’s (most probably) not having been party to the wrong done him. Note, however, that if Benjamin had simply been absent for the crimes committed against Joseph then we are not yet at forgiveness, but for that we do not have to wait long. Although Benjamin is once more the beneficiary of an abundance not given the others, in the very next verse in our chapter Joseph extends grace to each of them and the scene is complete:

45.15: “He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; only then were his brothers able to talk to him.”

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