Benjamin in the Presence of his Brother Joseph
The brothers’ second trip to Egypt occupies Genesis 43:15-45:28, a very large portion of the text. This time, they have brought their youngest brother Benjamin, as Joseph has demanded. In this section, Joseph puts his brothers through an even more severe test than in their first trip. He sells them the grain they need but plants his personal cup in Benjamin’s sack. None of the brothers is aware that Benjamin carries evidence that has the potential to crush Jacob and his family. As soon as the brothers leave, Joseph calls them back in mock fury. Someone has his cup, and he is determined to discover who carries it. The brothers, confident that they are innocent, tell him, “Whichever of your servants is found with it shall die, and we also shall be my lord’s servants” (Genesis 44:9). Joseph eases the gravity of what they have said. “Let it be as you say: he who is found with it shall be my servant, and the rest of you shall be innocent” (Genesis 44:10). Joseph’s change of their self-imposed sentence carries both positive and negative consequences. Positively, the change removes the death sentence that they unwittingly have placed on Benjamin. Negatively, the inevitable outcome of the search that is about to occur will place them in a moral quandary. The test, to which both sides have agreed, will require them to leave their brother in Egypt as the vice-pharaoh’s personal slave. The brothers are doomed to fail. Obviously, Joseph wants to see solidarity among his brothers. But realistically, they have demonstrated good faith in bringing Benjamin with them. What greater level of solidarity can he expect than what they have shown already?
In many ways, this is the riskiest part of Joseph’s testing of his brothers. It eliminates rather than creates options. The rules guarantee that they fail. Humanly speaking, Joseph set up a situation that is impossible to pass. Still, he carries on with his test. He searches each man sack and “finds” his cup with Benjamin. Now what?
Probably, Joseph is looking for some kind of plea deal. If the brothers beg for leniency, at least Joseph will know that they care for Benjamin. What he cannot anticipate is Judah’s defense. When the brothers return to face Joseph, Judah stands alone as Benjamin’s advocate. His defense runs through three stages, and it is brilliant. The opening statement (Genesis 44:16) acknowledges the facts.
“What shall we say to my lord? And what shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup is found."
From the beginning, Judah consents to the truth of the evidence. He neither ignores nor minimizes the facts. This is a lesson he learned from Tamar in Genesis 38:24-26, when she showed him the items from pledge. Joseph remains undeterred. He reminds Judah of the agreement, that the one who had the cup would remain as his personal slave (Genesis 44:17). In answer to this, Judah presents the second section of his defense (Genesis 44:18-29). Here he reminds Joseph of his demand that they bring the youngest brother with them. “Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, why shall not see my face again’” (Genesis 44:23). This is a small advantage, but if Joseph is to be a fair judge, he must acknowledge this point just as Judah has acknowledged the evidence against them. Judah then leverages it on what he hopes will be Joseph’s sense of empathy. Justice costs Joseph nothing, but it costs Judah’s father—an innocent party—everything.
“When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord…. Then your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons. One left me, and I said, Surely he has been torn to pieces, and I have never seen him since. If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’”
--Genesis 44:25, 27-29
The conclusion presents the appeal—not for grace or lenience, but for an alternative suitable to both.
“Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”
Judah’s appeal is masterful. He stands with his brothers throughout his presentation of his case. His appeal draws Joseph into the drama and calls him to compassion. The call is not manipulative, however. It never directs Joseph’s attention away from their guilt. Rather, it calls Joseph to stand with the brothers and grant an alternative as one who understands family dynamics. Judah’s offer to take Benjamin’s place shows that he has become a man of heroic compassion. Although he appeals on behalf of his brothers, Judah stands alone in this scene.
Judah’s defense is a tsunami. Joseph the ruler is swept away by the appeal. He has nothing left to say. And Joseph the brother now sees the full glory of his older brother’s kindness toward Benjamin. The change that God has wrought in Judah transforms Joseph’s relationship to his family. Once he expected to go to the grave with bitter memories from his family. We see this pain reflected years before, just after his elevation, in the names that he gave his two sons by his Egyptian wife Asenath. His firstborn was named Manasseh, a name derived from the Hebrew word for forget. Joseph proclaimed, “God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father’s house” (Genesis 41:51) His second son was Ephraim, a name derived from the word fruitful, because “God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction” (Genesis 41:52). Now, thanks to Judah, Joseph experiences healing, and the healing allows him to shed his defenses. “And he wept aloud, so that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. And Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?’” (Genesis 45:2-3a).The words, “my father,” rather than “our father,” are more than a slip. They reveal Joseph’s feeling in the moment. Years of checked emotions now open to hope. For the first time in three generations, God’s covenant clan can work toward becoming a genuine family.