An interesting thing happens in the Bible right in the middle of the Joseph story. Suddenly the story stops. We leave off Joseph and return to the land of Canaan to pick up the story of Judah, the fourth oldest of the 12 brothers and a natural leader in the family. And it is not immediately clear why we need to be informed of this slice out of Judah's life at this point in the narrative. (See Book of Genesis, Chapter 38.)
We learn that Judah takes a wife who bears three sons and the oldest married a woman named Tamar. He died. In Jewish Law there is concept called yibum. If a man dies childless, it is a commandment that his brother should marry the widow so that she can have children and perpetuate his name. 1 Accordingly, the second son married Tamar. He also died. Tamar is in line to marry the third son, but Judah stalls fearing the same fate for his youngest son. Realizing Judah will not honor the law, and seeing herself growing older and childless, Tamar decides to take the matters into her own hands.
As the Bible tells it, she disguises herself as a prostitute and waits for Judah to pass by. He promises her a goat in payment for her services. She holds onto his staff and seal as collateral, but when he arrives with the goat, the "prostitute" is nowhere to be found.
Shortly thereafter, it is discovered that Tamar is pregnant and she is sentenced to death for her promiscuity. Despite her situation, she does not embarrass Judah by revealing that he is the father of her unborn child. Instead, she sends the staff and seal with the request, "Please, recognize to whom this belongs."
These are the very words that Judah had spoken to his father Jacob, when -- after having sold Joseph into slavery -- he and his brothers took Joseph's coat and smeared it with the blood of a goat. They had claimed at the time that Joseph must have been devoured by wild animals. Through this parallel language Judah is given a hint from above that his leading role in the sale of his brother was a terrible mistake.
Judah confesses, "She is more righteous than I."
Through his admission of guilt, Judah becomes the first person in the Bible to accept responsibility willingly, thereby becoming the archetypal example of sincere and wholehearted repentance. In this he is the model Jewish leader, and the mantle of kingship will forever after belong to the tribe of Judah. His descendants (who come from his relationship with Tamar) will be King David and King Solomon, as well as the prophesied Messiah at the end of days.2
As unusual as the Judah and Tamar story is, the fact that it is even mentioned illustrates another unique aspect of the Bible. In general there is very little history recorded from this period of time and what little we have found is very far from what we today would call objective history. A good example would the record of the Kings of Mesopotamia. According to these records the genealogy of these kings goes back to the gods, and the kings themselves are usually portrayed as flawless ideal rulers. The Bible, on the other hand is unique for its objective and even hypercritical treatment of both the Jewish people and their leaders. Since the purpose of the Bible to educate, nothing is overlooked or whitewashed. There are no skeletons in the closet. They are all dragged out into the open for everyone to see. The Anglo-Jewish writer Israel Zangwill said it best: "The Bible is an anti-Semitic book. ‘Israel is the villain not the hero, of his own story.' Alone among epics, it is out for truth, not high heroics." 3
The stage is now set for the repentance of the brothers and their reunion with Joseph.
Meanwhile, the famine hits. And it doesn't just affect Egypt but the entire ancient Middle East, and Egypt -- thanks to Joseph's foresight -- is the only place that has storehouses of grain.
Jacob sends the brothers in search of provisions. He keeps just one of his sons with him. Unaware that Joseph is still alive, Jacob fears for the safety of Benjamin, Joseph's full brother and the only surviving child of his favorite wife Rachel.
The brothers arrive to Egypt. They bow before the Viceroy, not realizing that this is their long-lost brother whom they had sold into slavery. After all, when they sold him into slavery he was a boy of 17 and now he is almost 40 and dressed as the viceroy of Egypt.
At this point in the narrative Joseph could easily have revealed himself but he doesn't. Instead he keeps his identity a secret and runs his brothers through one of the most interesting and emotional dramas in the entire Bible.
Joseph recognized that his brothers' hatred had posed a mortal danger to him in the past and if left untreated an eternal danger to the Jewish people in the future. Unless they recognized their mistake, felt true remorse and changed, this hatred would resurface throughout history. He knew that he must force his brother s to do tshuva -- repentance.
The great Medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides tells us that the Jewish way of repentance is that first you recognize that you've done wrong. Next you commit never to repeat the same mistake and finally, if you find yourself in the same situation, but you don't repeat that mistake. You show that you've really changed.
This is exactly what his brothers must do and Joseph realizes that he now has a great chance to put his brothers back in the same situation in order to get them to both take responsibility for their past mistakes and root out the damage caused by their fraternal jealousy.
So first, he accuses them of being spies. They insist they are not spies, they are just brothers of a family, that they have a father and a brother back home.
If that is true, says Joseph, go back and bring the other brother.
They are now starting to figure out that this is all happening to them because of what they did to Joseph. And now they have to bring Benjamin -- they know that if something happens to him, it's going to kill their father.
But Joseph insists and makes them go back and bring back Benjamin. Then he plants a silver cup in Benjamin's bag, and accuses them all of stealing. However, he offers to let the brothers go free and only punish Benjamin by taking him into slavery.
This is the test -- will they turn their backs on their brother to save themselves?
But they have become different people and they will not make the same mistake again. Judah argues passionately and offers himself into slavery in place of Benjamin.4
With that Joseph starts to cry and reveals his true identity at last: "I am Joseph, is my father still alive?"
This is one of the great moments in the Bible as the brothers stare in shock at their long-lost brother, now an Egyptian Viceroy.
As the shock wears off, the first thought that Joseph's brothers probably have is "we're dead!" But Joseph has no thoughts of revenge and he makes what is clearly one of the most significant statements in terms of understanding Jewish history:
"Now do not worry, and do not be angry with yourselves that you sold me here, for it was to preserve life that God sent me before you. For it is two years that there has been famine in the land; and for another five years there will be no plowing or harvest. God sent me here before you to insure your survival in the land to keep you alive for a great deliverance. It was not you that sent me here, but God and he made me as a father to Pharaoh and master of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt."(Genesis 45:5-8)
One of the greatest sayings of the rabbis which explains Jewish history is the idea of "God puts the cure before the disease."5
At the beginning of these series, we discussed the idea of history as a controlled process leading to a destination. Our decisions make a difference but we're promised that we'll get our destined end. Therefore, regardless of what path we take, God will always make sure that His goals are met. He will put the pieces into place. Now as events are unfolding, we don't see where and how the pieces fit but when it's all over we can see everything had a reason.
Joseph, who was a very intelligent person with a tremendous faith in God, realized that everything he went through in the past twenty two years, his enslavement, his rise to viceroy, was part of a Divine plan. He had to go to Egypt, because this was all part of this huge cosmic historical process that only became clear at the end of the story.
Jewish history (and all human history) is like a giant jigsaw puzzle with six thousand pieces. When the pieces are first poured out on the table they make no sense. In the end we see that they all fit together perfectly. Nothing is missing and nothing is extra. Every piece has a purpose and a place.
This is the Jewish take on history. Everything fits. There are no accidents. It all comes together. Every event has a purpose in God's infinite plan and when it's done we look back and see that it all makes sense, it all fits.
Joseph sees that. He sends word back to his father, and Jacob is overjoyed. He thought his son has been dead for all these years. And they have a dramatic reunion. All of Egypt comes out to see the Viceroy's family. And they are all bowing to Joseph in fulfillment of the prophecy.
Then the Pharaoh invites the whole family to come live in Egypt. And they do. The Bible says that 70 individuals entered Egypt consisting of Jacob, his 12 sons, their wives and children. The proto-Jewish nation arrived in Egypt.
They're welcomed in. They're given the best real estate in the land of Goshen. They settle there happily and prosper. Everything seems to be going great until the Egyptians see they are doing a little too well for comfort.
But when the Book of Genesis ends -- with the deaths of Jacob and Joseph -- everything is still okay. The problems are waiting to come in the Book of Exodus.
1. This law has many details that we won’t go into. The custom of Yibum is not practiced in the modern Jewish world.
2. See: Breishit Rabbah 85:5.
3. Gabriel Sivan, The Bible and Civilization (Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1973), p.10.
4. It’s interesting to note that the Midrashim (Biblical exegesis) indicate that although the brothers were willing to fight for Benjamin, they also suspected that on some level he was a thief. It seems that by the time we reach the climax of the story the brothers had not totally worked out their hatred and mistrust, but Joseph could not hold himself back any longer. Maybe if Joseph had pushed them just a little harder, this hatred would have been purged forever and Jewish history could have taken a very different, and less painful, path. See: Midrash Rabbah, M’keitz 92:8
5. Talmud-Megillah 13:b.