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B'resheet/Genesis 42:36 You have bereaved me! Yosef is no more, Shimon is no more; and Benjamin you would take? Everything has happened to me!
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You can hear Ya'akov's words being repeated every day in our modern world as people encounter disappointment and feel let down: Why does this always happen to me? The 'phone rings or an e-mail arrives just as you are about to walk out of the office; "It's just a little job really, if you could help ...", but by the time it's done you've missed the bus, you're late home for supper, the children are already in bed and there's only ten minutes of the ball game left on the TV, not to mention what your spouse has to say on the matter! People assume that they are blighted, or that 'luck' or 'fate' are against them. But why did Ya'akov say it in the first place? Is it right for us, as followers of Messiah Yeshua and believers in the G-d of Avraham, Yitz'khak and Ya'akov, the One True G-d, to feel this way or use these words?
Ya'akov starts with the pronoun 'me', reversing the usual word order for emphasis: it is I you have bereaved. The verb - Pi'el affix 2mp from the root , to make childless, bereave, to cause abortion, miscarry (Davidson) - is strong; Ya'akov is seriously upset. The ancient rabbis suggest that Ya'akov suspected the brothers both of having killed or sold Yosef, and now of having either killed or sold Shimon, with designs on Benjamin. Don't you realise, he rants, that "the task of raising up the twelve tribes rests on me" (B'resheet Rabbah 91:9). I'm already two sons down and you want to take a third!Rashi confirms that, "whoever's sons are missing, is called bereaved." Based on the JPS translation: "It is always me that you bereave", Nahum Sarna explains, "The translation is determined by the emphatic position of the accusative particle ahead of the verb. The sense is: 'It is I who suffer; it is my sons who disappear!'" The Sforno adds, "Such things have happened to my children, but to none of yours. The reason must undoubtedly be on account of your quarrels. So you are the cause of my bereavement."
The Sages are concerned that Ya'akov's words might be taken as a form of idolatry - ascribing divine power to a force other thanHaShem - or divination, telling the future. Working from the prohibition in the Torah - "You shall not ... practice divination or soothsaying" (Vayikra 19:26, NASB), the Talmud uses our text to clarify: "It was taught: Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar says: Although a house or a child or a marriage must not be used for divination, they may be taken as a sign. Rabbi Eleazar added: Provided it was established so on three occasions, for it is written: Yosef is not, and Simeon is not, and you will take Benjamin away; upon me all these things come" (b. Chulin 95b). So repeated incidents may not be taken to predict the future as such, but may be taken as a sign. The Baal HaTurim, using the masoretic note in the margin of this verse, points out that the word , 'everything', only occurs twice in the Tanakh: here and the phrase , but you surpass them all (Proverbs 31:29). The Tur explains that this indicates that what the brothers asked their father about allowing Benjamin to go with them on the next provisioning trip to Egypt overshadowed all the pain he had suffered regarding Shimon and Yosef. He says, "This would make three times [that a son was taken from him], thus establishing a set pattern. With regard to a child, even though it is forbidden to divine, it is permitted to rely on it as a sign of a set pattern." Ya'akov certainly didn't want to establish the taking of his sons as a set pattern!
RabbiHirsch rationalises this idea in less 'supernatural' language: "If things repeatedly happen to somebody in a similar way, and he cannot see clearly why they should occur, he should not place himself in a position for it to happen again until he gets some insight as to the cause." He paraphrases Ya'akov's words to say very definitely, "Joseph became lost when away from me amongst you, Simeon also and now I am to risk it with Benjamin - I may not." Who would blame him!
Picking up on the question from the beginning, we need to ask whether we curse ourselves by careless use of exclamations such as, "This always happens to me." What happens when we - even accidentally - say things like that? Some, particularly on the more Pentecostal or charismatic wings of the church, would be quick to say that this is a self-pronounced curse. Even if spoken in jest or sub-consciously, they would argue, this is a reflection of the inner state of our hearts - "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness" (Mark 7:21-22, NASB) - betraying that we still harbour some credence for or are inclined to allow the authority of the "the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12, NASB). This would be spiritual bifurcation: "Christian speak with forked tongue!" James writes about the mouth, saying, "With it we bless our L-rd and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of G-d. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so" (James 3:9-10, ESV). The gospels give an example of how easily this can happen, during the night when Yeshua was arrested; Peter and John follow Him to the house of the High Priest, where Peter is challenged about being a follower. In his confusion, "he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, 'I do not know the man.' And immediately the rooster crowed" (Matthew 26:74, ESV), or "he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, "I do not know this man of whom you speak." And immediately the rooster crowed a second time" (Mark 14:71-72, ESV.
Taking a different tack, looking at the contradiction use of such words implies for ourselves, we find Yeshua telling the disciples, "I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28, ESV). If we are cursing ourselves, how can that be consistent with blessing those - us - who curse us? Rav Sha'ul takes this a little further, adding, "Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them" (Romans 12:14, ESV). Cursing someone is a form of persecution; we are to bless and not curse. Finally, Peter - using 'reviling' rather than 'cursing' although it often amounts to the same thing - says, "Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9, ESV). It is when we bless that we receive a blessing, so if we want to be blessed, we must bless and not curse. We are responsible for what we say - even in moments of distress or abstraction - so are able to ensure that we don't curse ourselves or others.
What can we say, particularly on hearing bad news or taking some kind of accidental or unwanted hit? Rav Sha'ul has an answer: "out of place are obscenity and stupid talk or coarse language; instead, you should be giving thanks" (Ephesians 5:4, CJB). That can be really tough. Somehow it was alright for Job - who when he was brought news of the loss of all his flocks, herds and children, "arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped" (Job 1:20, ESV) - but that just isn't our natural reaction. Ten to one, when you are reluctantly dealing with some overdue repair work in the garden and hit the end of your thumb with the lump hammer for the third time in as many minutes, some cheery little soul will helpfully pipe up, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds" (James 1:2, ESV), and it will be as much as you can do not to brain him with the lump hammer. The sore and throbbing thumb fills your entire horizon; that and the goading words combine to snap your patience and you'd have to be fairly superhuman to avoid letting your neighbour have it!
But in Messiah, we are superhuman. "When the Messiah was executed on the stake as a criminal, I was too; so that my proud ego no longer lives. But the Messiah lives in me, and the life I now live in my body I live by the same trusting faithfulness that the Son of G-d had, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Galatians 2:20, CJB). We are bigger than banged thumbs, swear words, curses and persecution: "No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us" (Romans 8:37, ESV). Peter's injunction to "Rejoice in this, even though for a little while you may have to experience grief in various trials" (1 Peter 1:6, CJB) can be done, indeed, must be done. Yeshua proved it by His death on the cross - "Like a ewe, dumb before those who shear her, He did not open His mouth" (Isaiah 53:7) - and triumphed over the enemy who had tried to kill Him (Colossians 2:15). Now, in Him, so can we!
Further Study: Colossians 2:13-15; 1 John 1:5-9; 2 Corinthians 2:14
Application: Have you exploded recently and allowed a stream of invective or rash words to come streaming out of your mouth, so cursing yourself and casting a bad light on G-d's name? Repentance and confession are all that is needed; tell the L-rd what you did, that you are sorry you lost it, and ask Him to forgive you. Job done; stop looking sheepish and praise G-d instead! Hallelujah!
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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