Genesis (Part 202)

Welcome back to my study/review of Genesis. If you missed the previous parts of this study, you can find them HERE.

Genesis 44:14-34

14 When Judah and his brothers came to Joseph’s house, he was still there. They fell before him to the ground. 15 Joseph said to them, “What deed is this that you have done? Do you not know that a man like me can indeed practice divination?” 16 And Judah said, “What shall we say to my lord? What shall we speak? Or how can we clear ourselves? God has found out the guilt of your servants; behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we and he also in whose hand the cup has been found.” 17 But he said, “Far be it from me that I should do so! Only the man in whose hand the cup was found shall be my servant. But as for you, go up in peace to your father.”

18 Then Judah went up to him and said, “Oh, my lord, please let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ears, and let not your anger burn against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh himself. 19 My lord asked his servants, saying, ‘Have you a father, or a brother?’ 20 And we said to my lord, ‘We have a father, an old man, and a young brother, the child of his old age. His brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother’s children, and his father loves him.’ 21 Then you said to your servants, ‘Bring him down to me, that I may set my eyes on him.’ 22 We said to my lord, ‘The boy cannot leave his father, for if he should leave his father, his father would die.’ 23 Then you said to your servants, ‘Unless your youngest brother comes down with you, you shall not see my face again.’

24 “When we went back to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 And when our father said, ‘Go again, buy us a little food,’ 26 we said, ‘We cannot go down. If our youngest brother goes with us, then we will 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 left me, and I said, “Surely he has been torn to pieces,” and I have never seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm happens to him, you will bring down my gray hairs in evil to Sheol.’

30 “Now therefore, as soon as I come to your servant my father, and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, 31 as soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the gray hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol. 32 For your servant became a pledge of safety for the boy to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then I shall bear the blame before my father all my life.’ 33 Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. 34 For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.”


This is a long section, bringing us all the way to the end of the chapter, but I could not really find a good way to break up Judah’s reply to Joseph. The verses here thus represent Joseph’s decree that Benjamin should become his servant and Judah’s reply begging Joseph that he not do this. From The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 44:14-17

And Judah—who is recognized as the leader in this second embassy to Egypt (Genesis 43:8)—and his brethren came to Joseph’s house; for he was yet there:—”awaiting, no doubt, the result which he anticipated” (Murphy)—and they fell before him on the ground. The expression indicates a complete prostration of the body. It was a token of their penitence, and a sign that they craved his forgiveness. And Joseph said unto them,—in a speech not of “cruel and haughty irony” (Kalisch), but simply of assumed resentment—What deed is this that we have done! were ye not (or, did you not know?) that such a man as I can certainly divine?—literally, divining can divine (vide on Genesis 44:5). Though Joseph uses this language, and is represented by his steward as possessing a divining cup, there is no reason to suppose that he was in the habit of practicing this heathen superstition. And Judah said (acting throughout this scene as the spokesman of his brethren), What shall we say unto my lord? What shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? (i.e. justify ourselves, or purge ourselves from suspicion). God (literally, the Elohim) hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants (literally, servants to my lord), both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. And he (i.e. Joseph) said, God forbid that I should do so (vide Genesis 44:9): but the man in whose hand the cup is found, he shall be my servant; and as for you, get you up in peace unto your father. Thus they were once more tested as to whether they could, as before, callously deliver up their father’s favorite, and so bring down the gray hairs of their father to the grave, or would heroically and self-sacrificingly offer their own lives and liberties for his protection (Rosenmüller, Keil, Lange, Murphy, and others). How nobly they stood the test Judah’s pathetic supplication reveals.

Why is Judah the leader? Setting aside perhaps natural abilities for this, Judah is the brother who made the promise to Jacob before leaving:

Gen 43: And Judah said to Israel his father, “Send the boy with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones. I will be a pledge of his safety. From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever. 

The note argues against Joseph ever practicing divination, though I think the reasoning is shaky. Would Joseph really proclaim that he does divination falsely? Why would he do that? He could just as easily have picked something else, true, to perpetuate the ruse he is perpetuating against his brothers.

Ellicott’s Bible Commentary includes the following note on verse 17:

(17) God forbid.—Heb., far be it from me to do so. Joseph passes over the money found in their sacks, and which he had intended as a gift to help them in the remaining years of famine, but expresses his determination to keep Benjamin as a slave. Had they been as hardhearted as when they sold him into slavery, they would readily have gone away, leaving their brother to his fate. But they had changed, and therefore they earnestly exert themselves for his deliverance, though they must have felt it to be an almost hopeless task. They would feel sure of Benjamin’s innocence, but they would also remember that the previous day Joseph had shown him the utmost honour; and this would be a proof to them that for some reason or other the Egyptian governor had taken a fancy to him, and determined to have him in his service; and that therefore he had contrived this wicked.

The note here is interesting, inasmuch as the brothers likely believe now that Joseph has contrived both the initial journey’s money being returned to them AND the second incident with the theft of the cup. There is some rabbinical speculation that Judah may by now recognize Joseph – more on that below. First, we’ll examine Judah’s plea via The Pulpit Commentaries:

Genesis 44:18-34

Then Judah came near to him, and said,—the speech of Judah in behalf of his young brother Benjamin has been fittingly characterized as “one of the master. pieces of Hebrew composition” (Kalisch), “one of the grandest and fairest to be found in the Old Testament” (Lange), “a more moving oration than ever orator pronounced” (Lawson), “one of the finest specimens of natural eloquence in the world” (Inglis). Without being distinguished by either brilliant imagination or highly poetic diction, “its inimitable charm and excellence consist in the power of psychological truth, easy simplicity, and affecting pathos” (Kalisch)—Oh my lord (the interjection Oh is the same as that used by Judah in Genesis 43:20; q.v.), let thy servant, I pray thee, speak a word in my lord’s ears (probably pressing towards him in his eagerness), and let not thine anger burn against thy servant: for thou art even as Pharaoh (i.e. one invested with the authority of Pharaoh, and therefore able, like Pharaoh, either to pardon or condemn). My lord asked his servants, saying, Have yea father, or a brother! And we said unto my lord, We have a father, an old man, and a child of his old age (vide Genesis 37:3), a little one; and his brother is dead, and he alone is left of his mother, and his father loveth him. Substantially this is the account which the brethren gave of themselves from the first (Genesis 42:13); only Judah now with exquisite tact as well as resistless pathos dwells on the threefold circumstance that the little one whose life was at stake was inexpressibly dear to his father for his dead brother’s sake as well as for his departed mother’s and his own. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Bring him down unto me, that I may set mine eyes upon him. This last clause is also a rhetorical enlargement of Joseph’s words, ἐπιμελοῦμαι αὐτοῦ (LXX.); the phrase, to set one’s eyes on any one, being commonly used in a good sense, signifying to regard any one with kindness, to look to his good (cf. Ezra 5:5Job 24:23; Jeremiah 39:12; Jeremiah 40:4). And we said unto my lord, The lad cannot leave his father: for if he should leave his father, his father would die. Judah in this no doubt correctly reports the original conversation, although the remark is not recorded in the first account. And thou saidst unto thy servants, Except your youngest brother come down with you, ye shall see my face no more (cf. Genesis 43:3-5). And it came to pass (literally, it was) when we came up unto thy servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. The effect upon Jacob of their sad communication Judah does not recite (Genesis 42:36), but passes on to the period of the commencement of the second journey. And our father laid (i.e. after the consumption of the corn supply), Go again, and buy us a little food (vide Genesis 43:2). And we laid, We cannot go down: if our youngest brother be with us, then will we go down: for we may not see the man’s face, except our youngest brother be with us. And thy servant my father said unto us (at this point Judah with increased tenderness alludes to the touching lamentation of the stricken patriarch as he first listens to the unwelcome proposition to take Benjamin from his side), Ye know that my wife—Rachel was all through her life the wife of his affections (cf. Genesis 46:19)—bare me two sons:—Joseph and Benjamin (Genesis 30:22Genesis 30:24Genesis 35:18)—and the one (Joseph) went out from me (and returned not, thus indirectly alluding to his death), and I said, Surely he is torn in pieces; and I saw him not since. Jacob means that had Joseph been alive, he would certainly have returned; but that as since that fatal day of his departure from Hebron he had never beheld him, he could only conclude that his inference was correct, and that Joseph was devoured by some beast of prey. And if ye take this also from me (in the sense which the next clause explains), and mischief befall him, ye shall bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave—Sheol (vide Genesis 37:35). Now therefore (literally, and now) when I come (or go) to thy servant my father, and the lad be not with us; seeing that his life (or soul) is bound up in the lad’s life (or soul); it shall come to pass, when he sooth that the lad is not with us, that he will die: and thy servants shall bring down the grey hairs of thy servant our father with sorrow to the grave. For thy servant became surety for the lad unto my father, saying, If I bring him not unto thee, then I shall bear the blame to my father for ever (vide Genesis 43:9). Now therefore (literally, and now), I pray thee, let thy servant abide instead of the lad a bondman (or servant) to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren. “There was no duty that imperiously prohibited Judah from taking the place of his unfortunate brother. His children, and even his wife, if he had been in the married state, might have been sent to Egypt. He was so far master of his own liberty that he could warrantably put himself in Benjamin’s room, if the governor gave his consent” (Lawson). For how shall I go up to my father, and the lad be not with me? lest peradventure I see the evil that shall come on (literally, shall find) my father. The sublime heroism of this noble act of self-sacrifice on the part of Judah it is impossible to over-estimate. In behalf of one whom he knew was preferred to a higher place in his father’s affection than himself, he was willing to renounce his liberty rather than see his aged parent die of a broken heart. The self-forgetful magnanimity of such an action has never been eclipsed, and seldom rivaled. After words so exquisitely beautiful and profoundly pathetic it was impossible for Joseph to doubt that a complete change had passed upon his brethren, and in particular upon Judah, since the day when he had eloquently urged, and they had wickedly consented, to sell their brother Joseph into Egypt. Everything was now ready for the denouement in this domestic drama. The story of Joseph’s discovery of himself to his astonished brethren is related in the ensuing chapter.

Judah, who had been part of the group which sold Joseph into slavery, now offers himself up to be a slave if doing so can rescue Benjamin. Joseph knows now that his brothers – one of them at the very least – are changed.

The comment above has a lot of positive things to say regarding this section. Judah’s plea really is regarded as one of the greatest pieces of Hebrew composition. As I mentioned above, though, there is some thought that perhaps Judah has by now recognized that he is speaking with Joseph. If so, that paints the plea in a slightly different light.

Prof. B. Barry Levy writes, at, an article on this topic titled Judah Recognizes Joseph: The Hidden Factor Behind his Speech, with an excerpt below.


Judah Recognizes Joseph: The Hidden Factor Behind his Speech

A highlight in Parashat Vayigash (Gen. 44:18-47:27) is Judah’s speech to Joseph, with which the passage opens. These words are so engaging that I often wonder why the rabbis chose to break the text precisely here, allowing the crisis of Joseph and his brothers to unfold at the end of Parashat Miketz, but leaving its resolution until the following Shabbat.[1] Indeed, annually I continue the reading myself at the end of Parashat Miketz, because I cannot bear to wait another week for the story’s conclusion.

It seems self-evident that the tradition of dividing the text at this point was an intentional interruption designed to increase and sustain the tension in the story. But were there other considerations, and were other weekly divisions motivated by similar concerns?

Most of the dividing lines between weekly readings fall on significant pauses in the text, even if not the primary ones, but the division between Parashat Noach and Parashat Lech Lechafor example, seems to have been motivated, in part, by the desire to separate possibly inconsistent passages about Abraham’s migration into different contexts. Others may have been divided to avoid passages of unwieldy size, to link specific readings with timely calendrical occurrences, or to ensure the appropriate number of weekly portions in a repeating annual system whose numbers of readings fluctuated quite regularly. What else can be said about this particular interruption?

The Targumim on Judah’s Speech

When we examine the Aramaic translations of Judah’s speech, we find that some are quite literal, while others are paraphrastic or even highly expansive. But the Palestinian targum tradition – as preserved in Targum Neofiti, Targum Yerushalmi, and some targum fragments discovered in the Cairo Geniza (but not Onkelos or Pseudo-Jonathan)[2] – adds one or two extra narrative elements. According to them, Judah’s speech to Joseph was preceded by a serious bit of muscle flexing. He threatened Joseph by referring to some of his brothers’ exploits (in Shechem, for example); Joseph responded by having his son Manasseh stomp his foot and shake the palace in which the conversation was taking place.

Other exploits are discussed in some of the texts, but believing such a feat was capable by only by a member of Jacob’s family, we are told that Judah altered his demeanor and spoke to Joseph more calmly and deferentially.

The midrashic additions found in these targumim require extensive unraveling, if for no other reason than some of them contain multiple versions of what is essentially the same story. But did the targumim suggest that Judah actually recognized Joseph before he began to address him? I think this is what the targumim are claiming. Furthermore, I believe that this possibility is suggested already by the biblical text, and that this recognition may have contributed to separating the two weekly readings here.

Judah Recognizes Joseph

According to Gen. 44:18, Judah walked over to Joseph and began to speak. It is reasonable to assume that the series of apparent coincidences in the previous chapters made him suspicious of his perception of the events. In particular, he could not believe Benjamin had stolen Joseph’s silver cup, and he ruminated on the situation throughout his trip back to Joseph.

By the time of their return, Judah had assumed leadership of the group, but the circumstances of their being taken into custody and returned to Joseph did not permit him to caucus with the brothers about his suspicions. And so, having made up his mind that only one fact would explain all his doubts, he approached Joseph, took a good look at him once again, (perhaps muttered something like “Oh my God” under his breath), and began to speak.

Judah had decided the only possibility was that the man standing before him was Joseph. The dreams that so annoyed the brothers years before had come true (note the number of times Judah used the word eved, so key to those original dreams, in his speech). But what could he do? Obviously, Joseph did not wish to reveal his identity, but something had to be done, and Judah was still uncertain if Joseph was friend or foe. So Judah retold the story of how they arrived there together, but he did so in a remarkable way.

In reviewing the events described earlier in chapters 42-44, he often referred to details of what occurred both in Canaan with Jacob and in Egypt with Joseph. Most of the former repeat what was reported earlier, but the rest of his presentation about their conversation with Joseph – which Joseph could have criticized or rejected at every turn – recolored the entire story.

Unless readers wish to see the correlation between Joseph and the figure in Judah’s narrative as another of the coincidences in this lengthy saga, they must conclude that Judah aimed his story directly at Joseph’s greatest interests and for this purpose his greatest weaknesses: his father and his full brother, the latter’s potentially lethal trip to Egypt, the risk to Jacob, etc. References to “my wife,” “two sons,” and continued mention of Jacob and Judah as Joseph’s slaves drove this message home.

Because Judah had realized with whom he was talking, he understood how to craft his speech so it would have the greatest impact. No other ruler could have been so moved by his words; they were meant specifically for Joseph. In fact, they destroyed Joseph’s emotional resistance. Joseph stood there and listened without challenging this new version of events. He was probably fascinated by it and completely unable to react; the speech worked perfectly.

I recommend reading the entire article as it has much more to say. I am not *entirely* sold on the notion that Judah recognizes his brother, but the article makes a compelling text-based argument for that recognition. Does believing that Judah recognized Joseph change how you view his speech? For me, it does not. Whether he was being clever or not, he turns himself upon the mercy of an Egyptian ruler who has the power to enslave him. He does this with a ruler, his own brother, who might have a particular interest in giving him a taste of enslavement.

And now at least, we have almost reached the denouement of the story of Joseph’s enslavement in Egypt.