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B'resheet/Genesis 44:20 ... and his brother is dead; and he alone remains to his mother; and his father loves him.
Is this statement true? Judah - the fourth of Jacob's twelve sons - is speaking to the Egyptian Grand Vizier who has just had the brothers arrested on their way back to Canaan because his silver cup has been stolen and found in one of their food sacks. Judah does not know that the words he is speaking are untrue, because he does not know that he is speaking to Yosef, the very one he is saying is dead. But does Judah have reasonable grounds for thinking that they are true? A long time has passed since he last saw Yosef - tied behind a Midianite camel on the way to a life of slavery - and no word has been heard of him since. Has not the natural course of events taken place? Is it not more than likely that the brothers' desired outcome - Yosef's death at someone else's hands or through "natural" causes - has happened in that time?
While being interrogated by Yosef on their first visit to Egypt, the brothers had said, "We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more" (B'resheet 42:13, JPS), using carefully ambiguous words that were true in a sense - Yosef was no more among his family and had perhaps been given up as dead by his father. Certainly Jacob seems to think so when the second food-buying trip becomes necessary and the necessity of taking Benjamin is being discussed: "My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left" (42:38, JPS). But what about the brothers? They knew more than their father did about Yosef's story, since they had sold him - at Judah's suggestion - to the Midianite traders, ten or more years before. Their words all along had been carefully chosen to avoid revealing their part in the process.
When they brought Yosef's coat to Jacob, instead of saying outright as they had planned that a wild animal had devoured him, "they sent the varicoloured tunic and brought it to their father and said, 'We found this; please examine it to see whether it is your son's tunic or not'" (37:32, NASB). Jacob drew the conclusion they had intended - "he examined it and said, 'It is my son's tunic. A wild beast has devoured him; Yosef has surely been torn to pieces!' So Ya'akov tore his clothes, and put sackcloth on his loins, and mourned for his son many days" (37:33-34, NASB) - without them actually directly lying to him. Having knowingly and deliberately deceived their father and seen him go through years of mourning and distress over Yosef's disappearance, are they now going to confess their guilt at such a delicate moment to this Egyptian? Nahum Sarna comments, "Now Judah cites Ya'akov's words. He obviously cannot tell the truth."
Rashi suggests that Judah's words are driven by a different emotion: "Because of fear, he let something false out of his mouth. He said, 'If I say that Benjamin's brother is alive, then he will say, "Bring him to me"'". Rashi feels that Judah preferred to lie - make a definite statement that Yosef was dead, when he had no means for actually knowing that - rather than complicate the already tricky situation by setting up the scenario where the brothers would either have to produce Yosef or confess that they had sold him. Driven by fear, both of where they are now - under arrest and with the precious Benjamin about to be kept in Egypt permanently - and what might come, Judah opts for a simple, close to the truth, or at least assumed truth, response - and claims that Yosef is dead. As Moshe was to tell the brothers' descendants hundreds of years later, "Behold, you have sinned against the L-RD, and be sure your sin will find you out" (B'Midbar 32:23, NASB). Although Ya'akov's sons had succeeded in concealing the truth since they had committed the offence and - bar the daily suffering of their father - appeared to get away with it, they were finding out that one sin leads to another and that this one was just about to jump up and bite them.
To a careful listener, or to someone such as Yosef - his immediate audience - Judah's next words betray something of what might have been going on: "and his father loves him". Although strictly an affix form verb, normally translated in the past: "he loved", is almost universally translated in the present tense. Partly that is recognition that the verb , to love, is a stative verb and as such is frequently used to represent an on-going state, here of Benjamin; contextually, it explains that Ya'akov's love for his favourite son had not died and still continued, even though Yosef was thought to be dead, in the person of his younger brother who had taken over the favoured position. Judah's words reveal that the brothers' envy-driven fratricide to get Yosef out of the way had not made their father any more loving towards them and, as ObadiahSforno comments, "his father loves him more than the rest and that is why he did not accompany us at first."
In between, the phrase "and he alone remains to his mother" is a further sign of the disfunctional state of the family. It is a painful admittance that Rachel, whose death was recorded giving birth to Benjamin at least twenty years ago, was preferred over all their mothers in the affections of their father. TheBaal HaTurim points out the masoretic note that the verb only occurs twice in this exact form in the Hebrew Scriptures: here and in the story of Ya'akov's night alone before meeting Esav - "And Ya'akov was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day" (B'resheet 32:24, ESV). "Just as that incident involved a fight", the Tur comments, "so Judah prepared himself for a fight." Perhaps the Tur is thinking of the typical response of hurt people when they are cornered or pressed: to respond by fighting. Despite the pain the brothers still feel, they are yet prepared to put up a fight for Benjamin, to try to pull him out of this situation, no matter the cost.
We have an unwitting exposure here - for he would not have willingly or explicitly disclosed such feelings - in Judah's words, that the family have still not recovered from the hurt of their youth, their father's favouritism, Yosef's dreams and disposal, and the deception they have been living in ever since. Years later after Ya'akov has died, the hurt surfaces again when the brothers send messengers to Yosef, urging him to forgive them even now for their treatment of him: "They sent a message to Joseph, saying, 'Your father gave this command before he died, "Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you." And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the G-d of your father.'" (50:16-17, ESV). This pattern is absolutely typical of many families today who nurse and conceal these multi-generational hurts of abuse, divorce, abandonment and betrayal. Only G-d has the answer to these cycles of pain and hurt; only He can break through the repetitive behaviour patterns and set people free. It is Yeshua's death on the cross that destroyed the power of sin and death to contaminate and destroy lives in this way. He brought reconciliation with G-d so that we might know the Father and in relationship with Him find forgiveness and peace with each other, that we might not be the only one left, but instead be a part of His family.
Further Study: Luke 6:37-38; Colossians 3:12-14
Application: How good are you at telling the truth about your family situation and acknowledging past hurts? Why not try talking to Yeshua about it - in confidence, of course - today? He was there, is there and will be there for you and wants to see you set free in His love.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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