Hashavua Study Center
Miketz 5770/ December 19, 2009
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-
in Ramat Gan,
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-
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,
and Reuben, Life and Death
Paul and Helene
Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center
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
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:
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).
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
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.
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:
“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).
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).
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
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.
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
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).