Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Miketz 5770/ December 19, 2009

Shabbat Hanukkah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar- Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar- Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,


Judah and Reuben, Life and Death

Dr. Tzvi Shimon

Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center


            In the extensive Joseph narrative Reuben and Judah play the roles of older brothers who take responsibility for their younger sibling.   Reuben and Judah were the ones who saved Joseph from the other brothers, who wished to kill him (Gen. 37:21-22, 26-27), and they were the ones who volunteered to safeguard Benjamin when going down to Egypt.   Reuben and Judah, however, are not doubles but rather contrasting figures, and their apposition is important to understand the message of the story of Joseph and his brothers.

The contrast between the brothers becomes all the more evident when comparing Reuben’s statements to those of Judah regarding their offers to take personal responsibility for Benjamin’s welfare.   After the brothers return to their father Jacob with tidings that their brother Simeon has been imprisoned and that the precondition for their returning to Egypt is that Benjamin be sent with them, they face the challenge of convincing Jacob to send Benjamin with them to Egypt.   Reuben fails in his attempt, while Judah in the end obtains his father’s consent.  There is no dialogue recorded between Reuben and Judah, but the text does bring out a contrast between the words of each brother.  Only by comparing what each one said and revealing the contrast between them can we obtain a full understanding of the significance of their words:


Reuben’s words

Judah’s words

You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.  Put him in my care, and I will return him to you” (Gen. 42:37).

Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die – you and we and our children.   I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible:  if I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, I shall stand guilty before you forever” (Gen. 43:8-9).


Comparison or Contrast

The parallels in content – both statements have as their objective convincing Jacob to send Benjamin – and in linguistic style make it clear that these statements should be compared.  Both brothers’ statements include a request that Benjamin be entrusted to them and stipulate conditions in the event that Benjamin not be returned; both statements use similar language to express what will be in the eventuality that they not live up to their responsibility – “if I do not bring him back to you.”   At first glance it appears that Reuben’s initiative shows more devotion than Judah’s.   But Jacob rejects Reuben’s petition and later on accepts Judah’s entreaties.  The reason for Judah succeeding in convincing Jacob and Reuben failing becomes clear when we compare what was said by all three figures:  Jacob, Reuben, and Judah.

Reuben displays a lack of understanding in his words to Jacob.  His preparedness to sacrifice his sons runs absolutely contrary to Jacob’s concern for the life of his son, which is the reason for his refusal to let Benjamin go. [1]   Jacob’s negative response to Reuben’s offer makes this explicit:  “My son must not go down with you, 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 in grief” (Gen. 42:38).

In contrast, Judah’s words attest to his understanding and they succeed in convincing Jacob. [2]   His words contrast with Reuben’s, on the one hand, and echo Jacob’s, on the other.  The emphasis Judah puts on life – “that we may live and not die – you and we and our children,” is diametrically opposed to Reuben’s stress on death – “you may kill my two sons.”  The image of life is set against the image of death in Reuben’s words, and Judah even takes the trouble to be more specific – “that we may live… and our children.”   Moreover, in content and language Judah’s words parallel what Jacob said the first time he sent off his sons to procure food in Egypt:


Jacob’s words

Judah’s words

“Why do you keep looking at one another? Now I hear that there are rations to be had in Egypt.   Go down and procure rations for us there, that we may live and not die” (Gen. 42:1-2).

Then Judah said to his father Israel, “Send the boy in my care, and let us be on our way, that we may live and not die – you and we and our children… For we could have been there and back twice if we had not dawdled” (Gen. 43:8-10).


Judah succeeds in convincing Jacob because his words, paralleling what Jacob himself had said, strike a chord in Jacob’s heart.  Judah stresses that it is vital Benjamin be sent in order to save their lives, exactly according to the same logic that Jacob used in his request to his sons to go to Egypt to procure food.   Moreover, Judah bemoans the delay in taking action to save lives – “for … if we had not dawdled” – exactly as Jacob had criticized his sons for doing nothing to save them, when he said, “why do you keep looking at one another?”


Jacob Between Life and Death

At the root of the contrast between Reuben’s words and Judah’s are two opposite concepts – life and death.  This pair of opposites is also the key to understanding the drift of the contrast drawn between the siblings; it also has importance in the story of Joseph and his brothers and in the broader context of the entire Jacob narrative.   The story of Jacob’s life is one of continuous struggle for survival in the face of life-threatening situations.  Jacob faces a threat of death in his encounters with Esau, with Laban, with the local Canaanites after the rape of Dinah and Simeon and Levi’s reaction, in his mourning over the imagined death of Joseph, and in the danger of famine and fears of a tragedy happening on the way to Egypt. In my opinion, not enough attention has been paid to the motif of life and death in the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Continuing the trend in the Jacob narrative, the motif of a struggle for survival in the face of life-threatening situations continues and is even strongly emphasized in the story of Joseph and his brothers.

The pair of concepts "life/death" functions on two levels in the story of Joseph and his brothers.   On the family level, it includes sibling rivalry, the sale of Joseph and his staged death by a wild beast, Jacob’s reaction and the depression into which he sank, the danger of Benjamin facing the death sentence, and Jacob’s concern that he be buried in the land of Canaan.  The life/death of Jacob, Joseph, Benjamin and the brothers in general is stressed time and again throughout the narrative. [3]   Occasionally the two motifs even appear together in a single verse, as in Jacob’s response to discovering that Joseph is still alive:  “Enough!   My son Joseph is still alive!   I must go and see him before I die” (Gen. 45:28); “Now I can die, having seen for myself that you are still alive” (Gen 46:30).  The other level in the Joseph narrative where the motif of life/death appears is that of coping with famine.  This includes the endeavors of Jacob and his sons to escape the famine by going down to Egypt to procure food, and the attempts of the Egyptians themselves not to succumb to the famine. [4]   On this level, too, both motifs appear together in the expression, “that we may live and not die” (Gen. 42:2; 43:8; 47:19), which recurs in the words of Jacob and Judah and in the words of the Egyptians who sold themselves and their land for food.

The contrast between Reuben and Judah is part of the prominent motif of life and death in the Joseph narrative.  The object of this contrast is to stress the choice of Judah as leader over Reuben, the first-born.  The contrast drawn between the brothers emphasizes the reason Reuben failed in his attempt to persuade Jacob to send Benjamin, while Judah succeeds and takes over leadership of the brothers.  One might say that Reuben’s behavior evinces greater devotion than that of Judah, yet nevertheless Judah turns out to be more deserving of the role of leader due to his ability to combine moral perceptiveness with preserving life and overcoming the threat of death.   On one hand Judah is sensitive to the moral responsibility placed on his shoulders and proclaims to his father that the result of failure to return Benjamin will be that he “shall stand guilty before you forever” (Gen. 43:9).  On the other hand, his words stress the will to live and to overcome the dangers threatening the family.  An important challenge in the stories of Jacob and of Joseph and his brothers is that of survival and overcoming the threats to the life of the house of Jacob in its nascent period.  Like Joseph, Judah too succeeds in charting his course in a way that saves life and assures continued existence.  The similarity between his words, “that we may live and not die,” and the words of his father Jacob prove that he is the one worthy of leading the family.   This role requires practical wisdom and ability to cope with a complex and dangerous reality, alongside devotion and fear of G-d.  Judah, on one hand, and Joseph, on the other, are the ones who carry on Jacob’s path and lead the way to fulfillment of the divine plan, “the survival of many people” (Gen. 50:20).

[1] Cf. Sternberg’s approach (The Poetics of Biblical Narrative, pp. 298, 299), which explains Reuben’s stipulations, “you may kill my two sons,” as a response to Jacob’s hint that the brothers were to blame for the disappearance of Joseph and of Simeon.

[2] It should be noted that some time had elapsed between Reuben’s proposal and Judah’s, during which the family “had eaten up the rations which they had brought from Egypt” (Gen. 43:2).

[3] See Genesis 37:18-23, 26, 33, 35; 42:4, 18, 20-22, 37-38; 43:27-28; 44:9, 20, 22, 28-29, 31; 45:3, 26, 27-28; 46:31; 478-9, 29-30; 48:7, 21; 49:29-33; 50:5, 16, 24, 26.  Also the story of Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38), which is sandwiched into the story of Joseph and his brothers, revolves around the themes of life and death; see Gen. 38:7, 10-11, 24.

[4] See Gen. 42:2; 43:8; 45:5,7; 47:19, 25; 50:20.