Commentary Magazine


Joseph and His Brothers

Although we are accustomed to think of the narrative sections of the Bible as sacred history, I would like to propose that it is at least as useful and as accurate to view them as prose fiction. Such a conception, of course, entails an emphasis on deliberate artistry and even playfulness that may seem a little odd according to common notions, both popular and scholarly, of what the Bible is. The ancient Hebrew writers, or at least those whose work has been preserved because it was eventually canonized in the biblical corpus, were obviously motivated by a sense of high theological purpose. Habitants of a tiny and often imperfectly monotheistic island in a vast and alluring sea of paganism, they wrote with an intent, frequently urgent awareness of fulfilling or perpetuating through the act of writing a momentous revolution in consciousness.

It is clear enough why the Prophets should have used poetry, with its resonances, emphases, significant symmetries, and forceful imageries, to convey their vision, for prophetic poetry is a form of direct address, heightened and made memorable through the rhetorical resources of formal verse. But biblical narrative, by contrast, if it is also to be construed as a kind of discourse on God’s purposes in history and His requirements of humanity, is indirect discourse on those subjects (the one great exception being the Book of Deuteronomy, which is cast in direct discourse as Moses’ valedictory address to the people of Israel). The degree of mediation involved in talking about what the Lord requires by making characters speak and by reporting their actions and entanglements opens up what may seem to the moralistic theist a Pandora’s box. For would it not be frivolous on the part of an anonymous Hebrew writer, charged with the task of formulating sacred traditions for posterity, to indulge in the writerly pleasures of sound-play and word-play, of inventing vivid characters with their own quirks and speech habits, of limning with all the resources of stylistic ingenuity the comic frustration of a failed seduction, the slow diplomatic progress of bargaining over a burial site, the wrangling of brothers, the foolishness of kings?

If it nevertheless seems to me perfectly plausible to assume that the makers of biblical narrative gave themselves to these various pleasures of invention and expression, that is because, whatever their sense of divinely warranted mission, they were, after all, writers, moved to work out their vision of human nature and history in a particular medium, prose fiction, over which they had technical mastery and in the manipulation of which they found continual delight. I think such an inference is amply confirmed by the actual texts that the biblical writers produced, though for some readers it may require an act of mental reorientation to see a closer generic link between Genesis and Tom Jones than between Genesis and the Summa Theologiae or the kabbalistic Book of Creation.

This notion, however—of the biblical writers’ vocation for fiction—needs to be amplified. If fiction is a form of play, it is also, even in ultimate instances of flaunted playfulness, like Gargantua and Pantagruel, Tristram Shandy, and Ulysses, a form of play that involves a particular mode of knowledge.

We know through fiction because we encounter in it the images the writer has projected out of an intuitively grasped fund of experience not dissimilar to our own, only shaped, defined, ordered, probed in ways we never manage in the muddled and diffuse transactions of our own lives. The figures of fiction need not be verisimilar in an obvious way to embody such truths, for exaggeration or stylization may be a means of exposing what is ordinarily hidden, and fantasy may faithfully represent an inner or suppressed reality: Uncle Toby and Mr. Micawber, Panurge and Gregor Samsa, are vehicles of fictional knowledge as much as Anna Karenina and Dorothea Brooke. What I should like to stress is that fiction is a mode of knowledge not only because it is a certain way of imagining characters and events in their shifting, elusive, revelatory connections but also because it possesses a certain repertoire of techniques for telling a story.

The writer of fiction has the technical flexibility, for example, to invent for each character in dialogue a language that reflects, as ordinary discourse would not necessarily reflect, the absolute individuality of the character, his precise location at a given intersection with other characters in a particular chain of events. The writer of fiction exercises an even greater freedom in his ability to shuttle rapidly between laconic summary and leisurely scenic representation, between panoramic overview and visual close-up, in his capacity to penetrate the emotions of his characters, imitate or summarize their inner speech, analyze their motives, move from the narrative present to the near or distant past and back again, and by all these means to control what we learn and what we are left to ponder about the characters and the meaning of the story. (In nearly all these regards, a more formulaic mode of storytelling like the folk tale or even some kinds of epic has a more limited range of possibilities.)

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The biblical authors, I would contend, were among the pioneers of prose fiction in the Western tradition, and it seems to me that they were impelled to the creation of this new supple narrative medium at least in part because of the kind of knowledge it could make possible. The narrators of the biblical stories are of course “omniscient,” and that theological term transferred to narrative technique has special justification in their case, for the biblical narrator is presumed to know, quite literally, what God knows, as on occasion he may remind us by reporting God’s assessments and intentions, or even what He says to Himself. The biblical Prophet speaks in God’s name—“thus saith the Lord”—as a highly visible human instrument of God’s message, which often seems to seize him against his will. The biblical narrator, quite unlike the Prophet, divests himself of a personal history and the marks of individual identity in order to assume for the scope of his narrative a godlike comprehensiveness of knowledge that can encompass even God Himself. It is a trick done with narrative mirrors: despite anthropomorphism, the whole spectrum of biblical thought presupposes an absolute cleavage between man and God; man cannot become God and God (in contrast to later Christian developments) does not become man. And yet the self-effacing figures who narrate the biblical tales, by a tacit convention in which no attention is paid to their limited human status, can adopt the all-knowing, unfailing perspective of God.

The biblical tale might usefully be regarded as a narrative experiment in the possibilities of moral, spiritual, and historical knowledge, undertaken through a process of studied contrasts between the variously limited knowledge of the human characters and the divine omniscience quietly but firmly represented by the narrator. From time to time, a human figure is granted special knowledge or foreknowledge, but only through God’s discretionary help: Joseph can interpret dreams truly, as he repeatedly affirms, only because the interpretation of dreams is the Lord’s. Various of the biblical protagonists are vouchsafed promises, enigmatic predictions, but the future, like the moral reality of their contemporaries, remains for the most part veiled from them, even from an Abraham or a Moses who has been privileged with the most direct personal revelation of God’s presence and will. Dedication to a divinely certified career of visionary leadership is itself no escape from the limitations of human knowledge: Samuel the seer mistakes physical for regal stature in the case of both Saul and Eliab, and has to undergo an object lesson in the way God sees, which is not with the eyes but with the heart—the heart in biblical physiology being the seat of understanding rather than of feeling. Human reality, perhaps most memorably illustrated in the cycle of stories from Jacob’s birth to his death in Egypt with Joseph at his bedside, is a labyrinth of antagonisms, reversals, deceptions, shady deals, outright lies, disguises, misleading appearances, and ambiguous portents. While the narrator sees the labyrinth deployed before him in its exact intricate design, the characters generally have only broken threads to grasp as they seek their way.

We are never in serious doubt that the biblical narrator knows all there is to know about the motives and feelings, the moral nature and spiritual condition of his characters, but he is highly selective about sharing this omniscience with his readers. Were he to invite our full participation in his comprehensive knowledge, in the manner of a discursive Victorian novelist, the effect would be to open our eyes and make us “become like God, knowing good and evil.” His decision is to lead us to know as flesh-and-blood knows: character is revealed primarily through speech, action, gesture, with all the ambiguities that entails; motive is frequently though not invariably left in a penumbra of doubt; often we are able to draw plausible inferences about the personages and their destinies, but much remains a matter of conjecture or even of teasing multiple possibilities.

All this, however, is not to suggest that the Hebrew Bible is informed by the epistemological skepticism of fiction like James’s The Turn of the Screw, Kafka’s The Castle, or Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy. There is a horizon of perfect knowledge in biblical narrative, but it is a horizon we are permitted to glimpse only in the most momentary and fragmentary ways. The narrator intimates a meaningful pattern in the events through a variety of technical procedures, most of them modes of indirection. In the purposeful reticence of this kind of narration, the characters retain their aura of enigma, their ultimate impenetrability at least to the human eyes with which perforce we view them. At the same time, however, the omniscient narrator conveys a sense that personages and events produce a certain stable significance, one which in part can be measured by the varying distances of the characters from divine knowledge, by the course through which some of them are made to pass from dangerous ignorance to necessary knowledge of self and other, and of God’s ways.

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The preeminent instance of biblical narrative as a fictional experiment in knowledge is the story of Joseph and his brothers, for in it the central actions turn on the axis of true knowledge versus false, from the seventeen-year-old Joseph’s dreams of grandeur to his climactic confrontation with his brothers in Egypt twenty-two years later. This theme of knowledge is formally enunciated through the paired key words, haker, “recognize,” and yado’a, “know,” that run through the story (the French connaître and savoir may indicate the distinction between the terms better than these English equivalents).

Joseph is, of course, the magisterial knower in this story, but at the outset even he has a lot to learn—painfully, as moral learning often occurs. In his early dreams, he as yet knows not what he knows about his own destiny, and those dreams which will prove prophetic might well seem at first the reflex of a spoiled adolescent’s grandiosity, quite of a piece with his nasty habit of tale-bearing against his brothers and with his insensitivity to their feelings, obviously encouraged by his father’s flagrant indulgence. The heretofore shrewd Jacob on his part is just as blind—and will remain so two decades later—as his old father Isaac was before him. He witlessly provokes the jealousy of the ten sons by his unloved wife Leah and by the concubines; then he allows himself to be duped about the actual fate of Joseph, at least in part because of his excessive love for the boy and because of his rather melodramatic propensity to play the role of sufferer. Finally, the ten brothers are ignorant of Joseph’s real nature and destiny, of the consequences of their own behavior, of the ineluctable feelings of guilt they will suffer because of their crime, and, climactically, of Joseph’s identity when he stands before them as viceroy of Egypt. Events, or rather events aided by Joseph’s manipulation, force them to knowledge and self-knowledge, this arduous transition providing the final resolution of the whole story.

It may be instructive to look closely at this grand climax of the Joseph story, not only because it illustrates so vividly the connections between fiction and knowledge but also because, with the author’s extraordinary technical virtuosity, these episodes provide a splendid synthesis of the various artful procedures of biblical narrative. The entire conclusion, from Jacob’s dispatch of the ten brothers to Egypt in order to buy food to their second return to Canaan when they inform their father that the long-mourned Joseph is alive and ruler of Egypt, is one tightly interwoven whole, but it is unfortunately too long to examine here verse by verse. A close reading, however, of Chapter 42, which reports the brothers’ first encounter with Joseph in Egypt together with their return to Jacob in Canaan, should give an adequate idea of the complex interplay of narrative means through which the writer renders theme, motive, and character. Since this chapter is not a relatively self-contained unit, but rather the first movement in the climax of the story, I shall then proceed to comment briefly on how what is artfully articulated here is continued, developed, brought to a resolution in the next three chapters.

Jacob, we should recall, has been out of the picture entirely since the end of Chapter 37, when his sons brought him Joseph’s blood-soaked tunic and he drew the expected catastrophic conclusions from it. At that juncture, the sons merely asked him to recognize the garment, while, in a paroxysm of grief, he did most of the talking. Now, twenty-two years later and after two consecutive years of severe famine, Jacob does all the talking:

1. Jacob saw that there were emergency provisions in Egypt, and Jacob said to his sons, “Why are you staring at each other?” 2. And he said, “Look, I have heard that there are emergency provisions in Egypt. Go down there and get us provisions from there so that we may live and not die.” 3. Then Joseph’s brothers ten went down to get provisions of grain from Egypt. 4. But Benjamin, Joseph’s brother, Jacob did not send with his brothers, for he thought he might meet disaster. 5. Thus the sons of Israel came to get provisions among the others who had come, for the famine had reached the land of Canaan.

Jacob sees that there is grain to be bought in Egypt, while his sons for the moment seem to be looking only at each other, an apt introduction to the series of events in which they will be forced to confront one another over their past actions. What is even more prominent as an introductory note is the fact that this segment of the story starts with the brothers inactive, made the object of a rebuke. There is a hiatus of silence between verse 1 and verse 2, between “Jacob said” and his saying again, a silence that tends to confirm Jacob’s charge that his sons are simply standing there staring at one another when urgent action has to be taken.

The brothers then follow their father’s command, in virtual or actual silence, and the narrator is careful to inform us that they are ten when they go down to Egypt, for the exact number of the brothers, indicating who is present and who is absent, will be important in what ensues. Though the ten are quite naturally identified as “the sons of Israel” when they arrive in Egypt, emissaries of their patriarchal father, as they set out they are called “Joseph’s brothers.” They are headed, of course, for an ultimate test of the nature of their brotherhood with Joseph, a bond which they have denied by selling him into slavery and which they will now be forced to recognize in a new way. When Benjamin is designated “Joseph’s brother,” the phrase means something different genealogically and emotionally, for he is Joseph’s full brother, the only other son of Rachel. There is, then, a delicate play of implication in verses 3 and 4 as we move from “Joseph’s brothers” to “Joseph’s brother” and “his [Benjamin's] brothers,” and this interplay brings into the foreground the whole vexed question of fraternity soon to be dramatically resolved. We are told nothing of the ten brothers’ response to their father’s withholding of Benjamin, a repetition of the privileged treatment he once gave Joseph. The denouement will in fact hinge on their ability to accept with full filial empathy this special concern of their father’s for his remaining son by Rachel.

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At this point, the narrator, in the characteristic rush of biblical narrative to the essential moment, catapults the brothers from Canaan to Egypt and into the presence of Joseph. The central narrative event will now be rendered, as the Hebrew writers typically do, through dialogue, though each of the succinct interventions of the narrator is tactically effective and thematically revealing, beginning with the ostensibly superfluous observation about Joseph’s status that opens this section. Here is the entire account of the brothers’ first visit to Egypt, up to the point where Joseph will give the command for their money to be slipped back into their packs.

6. And Joseph was the vizier of the land, it was he who dispensed provisions to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him, their faces to the ground. 7. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, and he played the stranger to them and spoke harshly to them, saying to them, “Where have you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.” 8. Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. 9. And Joseph remembered the dreams he had dreamt about them, and he said to them, “You are spies! To see the land in its nakedness you have come.” 10. And they said to him, “No, my lord, for your servants have come to procure food. 11. We are all the sons of one man. We are honest. Your servants would never be spies.” 12. He said to them, “No! For the land in its nakedness you have come to see.” 13. And they said, “We your servants were twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and, look, the youngest is now with our father, and one is no more.” 14. Joseph said to them, “That’s just what I told you: you are spies. 15. Let this be your test—I swear by Pharaoh that you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here! 16. Send one of you to bring your brother, and as for the rest of you, you will remain under arrest, and your words will be tested as to whether there is truth in you, and if not, by Pharaoh, you must be spies!” 17. And he confined them in the guardhouse for three days. 18. On the third day Joseph said to them, “Do this and you shall live, for I am a God-fearing man. 19. If you are honest, let one of you brothers be detained in your place of arrest, and the rest of you go forth and bring back provisions to your starving households. 20. And your youngest brother you shall bring to me, so that your words may be confirmed and you need not die.” And they did accordingly. 21. And they said to one another, “Why, we are guilty for our brother, whose sore distress we saw when he pleaded with us and we did not listen. That is why this distress has overtaken us.” 22. Then Reuben answered them in these words: “Didn’t I say to you, ‘Do not sin against the boy,’ and you would not listen? And now comes the reckoning for his blood.” 23. And they did not know that Joseph understood [literally, “was listening”], for there was an interpreter between them. 24. He turned away from them and wept and returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and placed him in fetters before their eyes.

We hardly needed to be told that Joseph was viceroy of Egypt and chief provisioner (verse 6) because both his investment in high office and his economic policy were related in detail in the last part of the preceding chapter. The thematic utility, however, of repeating this information in summary form just as the brothers arrive is evident. Joseph’s two dreams are here literally fulfilled, the dream of the sun and moon and stars bowing down to him linked more directly to his role as vizier, the dream of sheaves of grain bowing down to him pointing more particularly to his role as provisioner. The brothers then enact that long ago dreamt-of prostration, a gesture of absolute obeisance concretized by the addition of the emphatic phrase, “their faces to the ground.” They are unaware of what the narrator reminds us of, flaunting his omniscience in order to underline their ignorance, that their essential identity is as “Joseph’s brothers” (verse 6), and that it is Joseph who is vizier and dispenser of provisions. Their ignorance here of Joseph’s actual identity is an ironic complement to their earlier failure to recognize his true destiny. The opposition between Joseph’s knowledge (which is also the narrator’s) and the brothers’ ignorance is focused through the insistence of a key word that figured earlier in the story: he recognizes them, they recognize him not; and in a pun characteristic of the bibical use of thematic key words, he makes himself a stranger or seems a stranger to them, vayitnaker, a verb with the same root, nkr, as “recognize,” haker. .

Verse 9, in which Joseph remembers his early dreams, is one of those rare moments in the Bible when a narrator chooses not only to give us temporary access to the inward experience of a character but also to report the character’s consciousness of his past. That unusual note is entirely apt here, both because Joseph himself is struck by the way past dreams have turned into present fact and because he will force his brothers into a confrontation with their own past. The two previous episodes of the Joseph story (Genesis 40 and 41) had been devoted to knowledge of the future, Joseph’s interpretations of the dreams of his two fellow prisoners, then of Pharaoh’s two dreams. Chapter 42, by contrast, is devoted to knowledge of the past, which, unlike knowledge of the future, is not a guide to policy but a way of coming to terms with one’s moral history, a way of working toward psychological integration. No causal connection is specified between the fact of Joseph’s remembering his dreams and the accusation of espionage he immediately levels against his brothers, a characteristic biblical reticence that allows for overlapping possibilities of motive. The narrator presumably knows the connection or connections but prefers to leave us guessing. Does the recollection of the dreams, coupled with the sight of the prostrate brothers, trigger a whole train of memories in Joseph, from the brothers’ scornful anger after his report of the dreams to his terror in the pit, not knowing whether the brothers had left him there to die? Does Joseph now feel anger and an impulse to punish his brothers, or is he chiefly triumphant, moved to play the inquisitor in order to act out still further the terms of his dreams, in which the brothers must repeatedly address him self-effacingly as “my lord” and identify themselves as “your servants”? Is he moved chiefly by mistrust, considering his brothers’ past behavior?

Is the accusation of espionage merely the most convenient way he as viceroy can threaten these foreigners, or does he sense some underlying affinity between the deceptiveness of spying and the deceptiveness of fraternal treachery? One is even led to wonder whether the reiterated phrase, “the land in its nakedness” (literally, “the nakedness of the land”) might not have a special psychological resonance for Joseph in regard to what he perceives to be his brothers’ relation to him and his father. All the other biblical occurrences of the common idiom “to see the nakedness of” or “to uncover the nakedness of” are explicitly sexual, usually referring to incest—it is precisely the phrase used for the act Ham perpetrates on his father Noah—and perhaps Joseph feels a kind of incestuous violence in what the brothers have done to him and through him to his father. Reuben, it may be relevant to recall, the first-born of the ten, actually lay with Bilhah, Jacob’s concubine and Rachel’s maid and conjugal surrogate, not long after Rachel’s death, when Joseph was still a boy.

Perhaps none of these inferences is absolutely inevitable, but all are distinctly possible, and the narrator’s refusal to supply specific connections between Joseph’s remembering and his speaking conveys a sense of how the present is overdetermined by the past; for in this characteristic biblical perspective no simple linear statement of causation can adequately represent the density and the multiplicity of any person’s motives and emotions. Joseph is not unknowable either to God or to the narrator but he must remain in certain respects opaque because he is a human being and we, the readers of the story, see him with human eyes.

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The entire dialogue between Joseph and his brothers is remarkable for the way that words, creating the fragile surface of speech, repeatedly plumb depths of which the brothers are almost totally unaware and which even Joseph grasps only in part. Ostensibly a political interrogation, it is really the first of three climactic dialogues between Joseph and his brothers about their shared past and the nature of their fraternal bond. The ten brothers are throughout the object of dramatic irony, not knowing what both Joseph and we know—for example, when they announce, “We are all the sons of one man” (verse 11). (The double edge of this statement was not lost on earlier commentators. Thus Rashi, the great medieval French Hebrew exegete, observes: “They had a sudden flash of divine inspiration and included him with themselves.”) But this is dramatic irony which outdoes itself through a series of psychologically fraught double meanings that trace the chief convolutions of their troubled fraternity. We are twelve, the brothers tell Joseph (for despite the more logical translation, “we were,” the Hebrew of verse 13 invites construal as a present-tense statement). Only the two sons of Rachel are distinguished from the twelve: the youngest one is with his father and another, also unnamed, is no more. The ambiguity of this euphemism for death—it might also mean simply “is not” or “is absent”—aptly reflects the ambiguity of the brothers’ intentions toward Joseph and the uncertainty of their knowledge about what has become of him. First they had thought of actually killing him, and Reuben, who tried to save him and found the pit empty, apparently still imagines (verse 22) that Joseph was killed. In any case, having sent Joseph southward to a distant slave market, the brothers might properly think him gone forever, as good as dead, or perhaps after all these years of grinding servitude, dead in fact.

Joseph’s sharp response (verses 14-16) to this report of the brothers is an apparent non sequitur but faithfully follows the logic of the sub-surface exchange on the nature of their fraternal connection. Why, after all, should the admission of the ten that they have two more brothers, one at home and one gone, be seized as proof—“That’s just what I told you!”—that they are spies? One may guess that the brothers’ veiled statement about Joseph’s fate trips a trigger of anger in him, reminding him of their treachery and thus driving him to repeat the accusation of espionage. He then demands that Benjamin be brought to him, not only because he may be eager to see his full brother but also because, with the memory of the ten brothers’ act of betrayal uppermost in his mind, he can hardly trust these sons of Leah and the concubines; he may well wonder what they might have done to the other of Rachel’s two sons. The “test” Joseph proposes has only a specious logic in the interrogation of spies: he implies that if one part of their statement about their family condition can be shown to be false, then there is no truth in them and they must be spies. (This obviously could not work as a test of spies because the converse would not hold: they might be telling the truth about their brother at home and yet be in Egypt to gather intelligence for unspecified Canaanite powers.) But the test has a profound logical function in the oblique interrogation of the brothers: if in fact they have left Benjamin unharmed all these years, the truth of their words will be confirmed, that, despite past divisiveness, “we are twelve . . . brothers, the sons of one man.”

The narrator, as we have noted, began the episode by emphatically and symmetrically stating Joseph’s knowledge and the brothers ignorance. Now, through all this dialogue, he studiously refrains from comment, allowing the dynamics of the relationship between Joseph and his brothers to be revealed solely through their words, and leaving us to wonder in particular about Joseph’s precise motives. Whatever those may be, the alertness to analogy to which biblical narrative should have accustomed us ought to make us see that Joseph perpetrates on the brothers first a reversal, then a repetition, of what they did to him. They once cast him into a pit where he lay uncertain of his fate; now he throws all ten of them into the guardhouse where he lets them stew for three days, then, as they did before, he isolates one brother—“one” of you brothers like the “one” who is said to be no more—and deprives him of his freedom for a period that might prove indefinite. (When Jacob eventually learns of Simeon’s absence, he is quick to make this equation: “Me have you bereaved./Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more.”)

We as readers knowingly perceive this analogy between Joseph’s past plight and the present one of the brothers. The brothers on their part express at least an intuitive understanding of that connection, for they see the workings of a principle of retaliation in which “distress” is inflicted for “distress.” What this means is that in their dialogue with each other (verses 21-22), the submerged interrogation on brotherhood of their interview with Joseph breaks through to the surface: arrested as spies, they are impelled to confess to each other their guilt in having done away with their brother. It is a fine stroke of delayed exposition that only now are we informed that when Joseph was seized by his brothers, he pleaded with them and they turned a deaf ear. Genesis 37, which reports the actual event of the kidnapping, is entirely silent on Joseph’s words and feelings at that terrible moment; now the brothers’ guilt is compounded by this new revelation of an imploring Joseph surrounded by impassive brothers.

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But do the brothers imagine they are guilty of murder or kidnapping? Conventional biblical scholarship misses the point by supposing that the entire narrative is a somewhat confused splicing of two disparate versions of the Joseph story: in one, Reuben is Joseph’s advocate and concludes he is dead after the Midianites (having found the boy in the pit quite by chance) take him away; in the other, Judah saves Joseph’s life by proposing to sell him into slavery, the slave traders here being identified as Ishmaelites. Though not all the details of the two versions have been harmonized as modern conventions of consistency would require, it seems to me clear that the writer needs both for a variety of reasons, the most urgent one at the present juncture being a desire to intimate some moral equivalence between kidnapping and murder. In both versions, the brothers as a group first intended to kill Joseph. When Reuben discovers the boy has vanished from the pit from which he planned secretly to rescue him, the well-meaning first-born is persuaded that Joseph is dead. This overlap of the supposedly fatal disappearance of Joseph with the deliberate selling of Joseph suggests that selling him into slavery is a virtual murder and thus undermines Judah’s claim that by selling the boy the brothers will avoid the horror of blood-guilt. Now, as the brothers finally face their culpability two decades after the criminal fact, it is the voice of Reuben that is heard, accusing them of fratricide, and no one tries to deny the accusation because, for all they know, that may be, at least in effect, the crime they have committed by selling him as a slave.

At precisely this point (verses 23-24), the narrator, who has absented himself ever since the first half of verse 9, except to convey tersely the information that Joseph placed his brothers under arrest (verse 17), steps forward to report something about Joseph which changes the whole emotional configuration we have been observing. First, there is another piece of delayed exposition which was cunningly withheld for the perfect moment. Up till now, we have not been encouraged to puzzle about the language in which Joseph and his brothers communicated. Perhaps we might even have supposed that this Egyptian political wizard would naturally exhibit a fluency in Canaanite dialects, only taking care regularly to swear by Pharaoh as a token of his thoroughly Egyptian identity. In any case, the mention of an interpreter at the beginning of his first dialogue with the brothers would have blunted the sense of immediate confrontation which, as we have seen, is so essential psychologically and thematically to the progress of that scene. Now, when we are told that all along they have been speaking with a translator as intermediary, we are brought up short. Suddenly we realize that there is an added, technical dimension to the opposition between Joseph’s knowledge and the brothers’ ignorance: throughout this meeting, unknown to them, he has “understood” them or “listened to” them, and at this point he has just heard them twice confess their own past failure to listen to or understand him. “He turned away from them and wept and returned to them and spoke to them. And he took Simeon from them and placed him in fetters before their eyes.” Until this moment, we might have assumed a perfect continuity between Joseph’s harsh speech and his feelings. As he hears his brothers’ expression of remorse, the first strong impulse of reconciliation takes place in his own feelings, though he cannot yet trust them and so must go on with the test. Through the knowing eyes of the omniscient narrator, we see him weeping in private, then resuming his stern Egyptian mask as he returns to address the brothers and to take his hostage from them.

Joseph’s weeping, moreover, at the end of this first encounter between the brothers, initiates a beautifully regulated crescendo pattern in the story. Twice more he will weep. The second time (43:30-31), when he first sets eyes on his brother Benjamin, is in its stylistic formulation an elaborate expansion of the first report of weeping: “Joseph hurried off, for he was overcome with feeling for his brother and wanted to weep, and he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face and came out and got control of himself.” Unlike the account in Chapter 42, the motive for the weeping here is clearly stated, and the specification of minute actions—wanting to weep, going into another room, weeping, washing his face, composing himself—is far beyond the Bible’s laconic norm, thus focusing the event and producing an effect of dramatic retardation in the narrative tempo.

Manifestly, we are now moving toward a climax, and it occurs in the third act of Joseph’s weeping (45:1-2), as at last he makes himself known to his brothers. Here, we are told that “he could no longer control himself,” and the previously hidden weeping is now done in the presence of his brothers, turning into a tremendous sobbing that even the Egyptians standing outside can hear. The rising pattern, then, of three repetitions, begun with the eavesdropping Joseph of 42:23, is not only a formal symmetry through which the writer gives shape and order to his tale, but also the tracing of an emotional process in the hero, from the moment when twenty-two years of anger begin to dissolve to the one when he can bring himself to say, “I am Joseph your brother.”

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After Joseph’s weeping and the imprisonment of Simeon in Genesis 42, the story moves on to the restoration of the brothers’ money and then their first discovery of it (verses 25-28), which stresses a sense of strange destiny—“what is this God has done to us?” the brothers wonder—and once more opposes the ignorance of the brothers to Joseph’s knowledge. Immediately after this opening of the bags at the encampment, the brothers are placed back in Canaan in the presence of their father, and just as we would expect of the Bible’s convention of verbatim repetition, they report what has befallen them in Egypt by an almost exact restatement of extensive elements from their earlier dialogue with Joseph.

Understandably, this recapitulation (verses 29-34) of the previous scene in Egypt abbreviates it, but apart from the deletions, which speed up the narrative tempo in a way appropriate to the report of what has already been told, small, subtle changes in the phrasing and word order of the original dialogue nicely reflect the fact that the brothers are now addressing their father. Joseph here is twice referred to as “the man who is lord of the land,” in still another unwitting confirmation, this time shared by father and sons, of the dream that the sun and moon and eleven stars would bow down to him. In the brothers’ version for Jacob’s benefit, first they affirm to Joseph the fact of their honesty and that they would never be spies, then that they are the twelve sons of one man, whereas in actually speaking to Joseph, they first announced that they were all the sons of one man, as though somehow that were a necessary preamble to their declaration of honesty. “We were twelve brothers,” they restate for Jacob their earlier speech to Joseph, “the sons of our father. One is no more and the youngest now is with our father in the land of Canaan” (verse 32). Naturally enough, in speaking to Jacob they refer to him as “our father” and not as “one man in the land of Canaan.” They also reverse the order of the information they gave to Joseph, placing first the brother who is no more and second the brother who is at home.

Perhaps they mean to suggest to their father that they divulged this precious fact of Benjamin’s existence only grudgingly, at the end of their speech to the Egyptian overlord. In any case, “one is no more” is the climactic statement for Joseph, while “the youngest is now with our father” is the crucial revelation for Jacob, and so in each case what touches most deeply the person addressed is reserved for the last. When Joseph told the brothers of his intention to take a hostage, he said that one of them would be “detained” (the Hebrew word could also mean, quite plainly, “be fettered”) in prison; in repeating Joseph’s words to Jacob, the brothers diplomatically soften this to “Leave one of your brothers with me.” Finally, where Joseph had concluded the terms of the test by saying that Benjamin would have to be brought to him if the brothers were to escape death, the brothers in their report to Jacob are careful to edit out this threatening talk of death and to make the vizier’s speech end on a positive note present only by implication in the actual words he used to them: “Then I shall know that you are not spies but that you are honest. Your brother I shall give back to you, and you will be free to move about in the land” (verse 34).

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This attempt to give a faithful but also tactful account of what happened in Egypt is immediately followed by the second discovery of the money in the saddle packs, the one that emphasizes the brothers’ fear and, by implication, their sense of guilt. Jacob responds to this moment and to the entire report that has preceded it by accusing his sons of having bereaved him and by exhibiting his own suffering in formal rhetorical emphasis. At this point, his first-born steps forth:

37. Reuben said to his father, “My two sons you may put to death if I do not bring him back to you. Place him in my trust and I will return him to you.” 38. And he said, “My son shall not go down with you. For his brother is dead and he alone remains, and should disaster befall him on the way, you would bring down my white head in grief to the underworld.”

This dialogue—the narrator once more effaces himself and refrains from all “editorial” comment—provides a wonderful definition of the clash of different obtusities that so often constitutes family life and that has already had catastrophic consequences in this founding family of Israel. Reuben, the man of impulse who once violated his father’s concubine and who also made a blundering attempt to save Joseph from the other brothers, offers to kill his own two sons if anything should happen to Benjamin. His father has just bemoaned being twice bereaved, and now Reuben compounds matters by volunteering to do away with two of Jacob’s grandsons if Benjamin should be lost. (There seems to be a deliberate matching of two lives for two here, for in Genesis 46:9 we learn that Reuben actually had four sons.) Again one understands why Reuben the first-born will be passed over, and why the line of kings will spring from Judah, Joseph’s second advocate, who in the next chapter will make a more reasonable statement of readiness to stand bond for Benjamin.

Jacob does not even honor Reuben’s rash if well-meaning offer with a reply, but instead pronounces his determination not to allow Benjamin to go to Egypt. Before, he had said euphemistically and a little ambiguously that Joseph was no more; now he flatly states that Joseph is dead. Astonishingly, he remains as oblivious to the feelings of his ten sons as he was during Joseph’s childhood. “He alone remains,” he tells them to their faces, omitting the necessary phrase “from his mother,” as though only the sons of Rachel, and not they, were his sons. Twenty-two years before, he had announced that he would go down to the underworld mourning his son. Now he concludes this episode by once more envisaging the descent of his white head to the underworld in inconsolable sorrow. Jacob is ever the rhetorician of grief, fond of verbal symmetries in his plaints, and so his speech begins with the words lo yered, “he shall not go down,” and concludes with the “bringing down” (vehoradtem) of his old man’s head to the underworld, thus forming a neat envelope structure. There may be an ironic play between Sheol, the underworld, and Egypt, that alien land to the south famous for its monumental cult of the dead. Benjamin, of course, will duly go down to Egypt, and as things turn out, Jacob will be brought down by his sons not to the underworld but to Egypt, where Joseph is alive and resplendent in his viceregal power.

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Having closely followed through Genesis 42 the minute development of this thematic opposition between knowledge and ignorance—an ignorance on the part of Jacob and his sons not only of Joseph’s actual fate but also of the underlying moral configuration of their family—we may now hurry on to the denouement, with just a few brief comments on the passages that lead up to it (43:1-44:17). Before long Jacob is forced to abandon his resolution about Benjamin by the brute force of circumstances: the persistence and worsening of the famine. At first he asks his sons in a rather gingerly phrase to “go back and get us a bit of food” (43:2), as though it were a matter of a trip to a nearby market. Judah, now emphatically assuming the role of spokesman, makes it inexorably clear that the provisions can be obtained only if Benjamin comes along. “For the man said to us,” he quotes Joseph, “‘You shall not see my face unless your brother is with you’” (43:5). In point of fact, these words do not appear in the dialogue between Joseph and his brothers, but Judah is trying to drive home the idea to his reluctant father that the man who holds the keys to the life-sustaining grain will remain totally inaccessible without Benjamin.

Judah attributes one other utterance to Joseph that did not figure in the actual dialogue in Egypt: the question, “Is your father still alive?” The way the Bible uses verbatim repetition with additions makes it at least possible to imagine that Joseph really asked such a question but that it simply was not included in the reported dialogue, so it is not absolutely necessary to construe it as an invention of Judah’s. In any case, the main reason for introducing the question here is proleptic, pointing forward to Joseph’s anxious inquiry (43:27) of the brothers as to whether their father is still alive, and to his more urgent question, “Is my father still alive?” once he reveals himself—that is, now that you know I am Joseph, you can tell me the real truth about our father. Jacob bemoans his sons’ imprudence in having even mentioned Benjamin’s existence to the Egyptian, but Judah, with perfect thematic appropriateness, points out that they were caught in a web of consequences of which before the fact they were quite ignorant: “Know? How could we know that he would say, ‘Bring down your brother’?” (43:7). And so Jacob agrees, grimly, reluctantly, to let Benjamin go, his last words to his sons striking a note of paternal grievance in perfect keeping with his previous speeches: “And as for me, if I am to be bereaved, then let me be bereaved” (43:14).

Before this, however, he has instructed the brothers to take with them to Egypt double the money that was placed in their bags as well as balm, honey, gum, ladanum, pistachio nuts, and almonds. By giving these orders, he unwittingly carries forward the pattern of restitution that marks the entire conclusion of the story. Money—specifically, pieces of silver—passed from the hands of the Ishmaelite traders to the brothers in exchange for Joseph, who was carried down to Egypt. Then Joseph sent money hidden in the bags back northward to Canaan. Now Jacob orders double the money to be sent back to Egypt. (The money/silver motif, as we shall soon see, will be given one more climactic twist.) The ironic connection with the Ishmaelite traders is ingeniously reinforced by the other half of Jacob’s instructions: that caravan long ago was seen (37:25) “carrying gum, balm, and ladanum to be taken to Egypt,” and now the brothers constitute another such caravan, bearing exactly the same goods, together with a few extra items, not bringing Joseph as a slave but headed, unawares, to the discovery of his identity as master.

With the rapidity with which biblical narrative elides unessential transitions, the brothers are then immediately placed in Joseph’s presence (“They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph” [42:15]). As soon as they arrive, they are brought in haste by Joseph’s officials to the viceregal palace, which makes them fear they are to be accused of having stolen the money they found in their bags. On the threshold of the palace, they proclaim their innocence in this regard to Joseph’s majordomo. He assures them that nothing is amiss and that their God and the God of their father must have restored the money to them. (In this way an association is once more confirmed between Joseph’s machinations and the workings of Providence.) Joseph at last sees Benjamin, “his brother, his mother’s son” (43:29), and, as we have already observed, he is overwhelmed with emotion, going out to another room to weep. At the feast to which he invites the brothers, he seats them in the exact order of their birth, from eldest to youngest, which dumbfounds the brothers: the contrast between his knowledge and their ignorance is thus acted out in a kind of ritual.

The brothers then are sent off on the road to Canaan, Joseph once again instructing his major-domo to hide the money they have paid in their bags, but this time adding that his silver divining goblet is to be slipped into Benjamin’s bag. The majordomo, in accordance with Joseph’s orders, chases after the brothers and, quickly overtaking them, angrily accuses them of having stolen the precious goblet. They, of course, are aghast at this new charge, and feel sure enough of their innocence to tell him that if any one of them is found with the goblet, that person should be put to death. This grim detail invokes a parallel to a much earlier moment in their father’s story, when, pursued by a wrathful Laban in part because someone had stolen Laban’s household gods, Jacob confidently invited his father-in-law to search his tent and pronounced that if anyone were found to have taken the household gods, that person should not live (31:32). On that occasion, the stolen cult objects were not discovered, but the thief, Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel, seems to have suffered the consequence of his sentence when she died giving birth to Benjamin. Now, the shadow of a similar doom is made to pass over that very son before the comic resolution of the plot. (The majordomo, it should be observed, immediately softens these fatal terms: “Only the one with whom it is found will be my slave, and the rest of you will go free” [44:10].)

The choice of a silver divining goblet for this false accusation of Benjamin is an ingenious fusion of the motif of silver—illicitly received, surreptitiously restored, and ultimately linked with the brothers’ guilt toward Joseph—with the central theme of knowledge, for it is an instrument supposedly used by Joseph to foretell the future, as he has done more prominently with dreams. “What is this deed you have done?” he asks the brothers when they are brought back under arrest to the palace (44:15), and the general terms in which he couches his accusation touch all the way back to their criminal act against him two decades past. “Didn’t you know”—and there was all too much they did not know—“that a man like me would certainly practice divination [or, would certainly manage to divine it]?”

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We are now at the final climactic turning of this extraordinary story. Judah comes forward to speak for all the brothers (44:16): “What can we say to my lord, what can we speak, by what can we prove our innocence? God has found out the crime of your servants. Here we are, then, slaves to my lord, the rest of us no less than the one with whom the goblet was found.” This is the final confirmation by the brothers themselves of Joseph’s dreamt-of supremacy, their necessary subservience. It is also an open admission of guilt which at least psychologically must refer to the real crime, the selling of Joseph for silver, and not to the imputed crime of stealing the silver goblet. Judah may understandably feel that he and his brothers cannot prove their innocence in regard to the stolen goblet, but he could not seriously believe it is an act they have knowingly committed, and the crime that God Himself has at last found out is certainly the making away with Joseph. Judah’s proposal that all eleven brothers become slaves is rejected by Joseph as unjust: the thief alone should be detained. Judah, confronted with the prospect of inadvertently losing Benjamin after they have caused Joseph to be lost, steps closer to Joseph and pronounces his great impassioned plea:

18. I beg of you, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and be not angry with your servant, for you are Pharaoh’s equal. 19. My lord asked his servants, “Do you have a father or brother?” 20. And we said to my lord, “We have an old father with a child of his old age, the youngest. His brother is dead and he alone remains from his mother, and his father loves him.” 21. And you said to your servants, “Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.” 22. And we said to my lord, “The lad cannot leave his father. If he were to leave him, his father would die.” 23. And you said to your servants, “If your youngest brother does not come down with you, you shall not see my face again.” 24. And so when we returned to your servant my father, we told him my lord’s words, 25. and my father said, “Go back and get us a bit of food.” 26. Then we said, “We cannot go down. Only if our youngest brother is with us can we go down, for we cannot see the man’s face unless our youngest brother is with us.” 27. Then your servant my father said to us, “You know that my wife bore me two sons. 28. One is gone from me, and I said, ‘surely he has been devoured,’ nor have I seen him since. 29. If you take this one, too, from me and disaster befalls him, you will bring my white head down to the underworld in evil.” 30. Now, if I come to your servant my father and the lad is not with us, for his very life is bound up with the lad’s, 31. and when he sees that the lad is not, he will die, and your servants will bring down the white head of your servant our father in evil to the underworld. 32. For your servant has pledged himself for the boy to my father, saying, “If I do not bring him back, I shall stand guilty to my father forever.” 33. And so, let your servant stay here instead of the lad as a slave to my lord, and let the lad return with his brothers. 34. For how could I return to my father if the lad is not with me? Let me not witness the evil fate that would overtake my father.

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In the light of all that we have seen about this story, it should be clear that Judah’s remarkable speech is a point-for-point undoing, morally and psychologically, of the brothers’ earlier violations of fraternal and filial bonds. A basic biblical perception about both human relations and relations between God and man is that love is unpredictable, arbitrary, at times perhaps seemingly unjust, and Judah now comes to an acceptance of that fact with all its consequences. His father, he states clearly to Joseph, has singled out Benjamin for a special love, as he singled out Rachel’s other son before. It is a painful reality of favoritism with which Judah, in contrast to the earlier jealousy over Joseph, is here reconciled, out of filial duty and, more, out of filial love. His entire speech is motivated by the deepest empathy for his father, by a real understanding of what it means for the old man’s very life to be bound up with that of the lad. He can even bring himself to quote sympathetically (verse 27) Jacob’s typically extravagant statement that his wife bore him two somas though Leah were not also his wife and the other ten were not also his sons. Twenty-two years earlier, Judah engineered the selling of Joseph into slavery; now he is prepared to offer himself as a slave so that the other son of Rachel can be set free. Twenty-two years earlier, he stood with his brothers and silently watched when the bloodied tunic they had brought to Jacob sent their father into a fit of anguish; now he is willing to do anything in order not to have to see his father suffer that way again.

Judah, then, as spokesman for the brothers, has admirably completed the painful process of learning to which circumstances and Joseph have made him submit; the only essential thing he still does not know is Joseph’s identity. These revelations of a profound change in feeling shake Joseph. He can no longer go on with the cruel masquerade through which he has been testing his brothers, and so at last he bursts into tears openly in their presence, then says to them, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” (45:3). Understandably, they are struck dumb with fear and astonishment, and so he has to ask them to step closer to him (45:4) as he repeats his revelation. “I am Joseph your brother,” he announces, now adding the relational term, “whom you sold into Egypt.” It is the last hovering moment, perhaps unintended by Joseph, of ominous ambiguity in his address to them, for those words about their having sold him, coming from the all-powerful ruler of Egypt, might well strike terror in the hearts of the brothers. Joseph seems to perceive this, for he continues (verse 5): “Now, be not distressed or angry with yourselves for having sold me down here. For it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.”

He then reveals to his brothers the full extent of his knowledge, telling them of the five years of famine still to come, and repeatedly stressing that it is God who has singled him out for greatness as the instrument of His providential design to preserve the seed of Israel. Joseph sends his brothers back to Canaan laden with the bounty of Egypt, instructing them to return with Jacob and all their households; and finally, after Jacob is vouchsafed a night vision from God that he should not fear the descent into Egypt, father and son are at last reunited.

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All this, of course, makes a very compelling story, one of the best stories, as many readers have attested, that have ever been told. But it also unforgettably illustrates how the pleasurable play of fiction in the Bible brings us into an inner zone of complex knowledge about human nature, divine intentions, and the strong but sometimes confusing’ threads that bind the two. The consummate artistry of the story involves an elaborate and inventive use of most of the major techniques of biblical narrative: the deployment of thematic key words; the reiteration of motifs; the subtle definition of character, relations, and motives mainly through dialogue; the exploitation, especially in dialogue, of verbatim repetition with minute but significant changes introduced; the narrator’s discriminating shifts from strategic and suggestive withholding of comment to the occasional flaunting of an omniscient overview; the use of a montage of sources to catch the multifaceted nature of the fictional subject.

All these formal means have an ultimately representational purpose. What is it like, the biblical writers seek to know through their art, to be a human being with a divided consciousness, intermittently loving your brother but hating him even more, resentful or perhaps contemptuous of your father but also capable of the deepest filial regard, stumbling between disastrous ignorance and imperfect knowledge, fiercely asserting your own independence but caught in a tissue of events divinely contrived, outwardly a definite character and inwardly an unstable vortex of greed, ambition, jealousy, lust, piety, courage, compassion, and much more?

Fiction fundamentally serves the biblical writers as an instrument of fine insight into these abiding perplexities of man’s condition. That may help explain why these ancient Hebrew stories still seem so intensely alive today, and why it is worth the trouble to learn to read them attentively. It was no easy thing to make sense of human reality in the radically new light of the monotheistic revelation. The fictional imagination, marshaling a broad array of complicating and integrating narrative means, provided a precious medium for making this sort of difficult sense. By using fiction in this fashion, the biblical writers bequeathed to our cultural tradition an enduring resource, and we shall be able to possess their vision more fully by better understanding the distinctive conditions of art through which it works.

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