What Really Happened? - A Few Insights
The Bible has been called the "Greatest Story Ever Told."
When one learns how to read the Bible and puts together Rabbinical Commentaries guided by hints and nuances of the Hebrew Text it becomes even greater. This is consistent with the literal text. It also helps us understand something about the interrelationships between the Tribes. It is significant for us today. This account as given in the Bible has Prophetic Significance.
The story begins with the Patriarchs.
Abraham begat Isaac who begat Jacob who was later renamed "Israel" (Genesis 32:28, 35:10). Jacob had 12 sons. These were to become ancestors of the 12 Tribes of Israel. He had four wives. His two main wives were Rachel and Leah who were sisters. His two other wives were Bilhah and Zilhah. Bilhah was a handmaiden of Rachel, Zilhah of Leah. Jacob loved Rachel more than all of the others. From Rachel he begat 2 sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Rachel had died giving birth to Benjamin the youngest son.
Joseph was his favorite son. He gave Joseph a striped colored garment. [In Hebrew "Cotnet Pasim" i.e. garment of stripes]. This was considered a symbol of royalty [Gersonides, 1288-1344, France].
(Later, Tamar, the daughter of David king of Israel and Judah, is recalled as wearing such a garment, 2-Samuel 13:19 [In Hebrew "Cotnet Pasim" sometimes mistakenly translated as "long-sleeved garment.")
Joseph also dreamt dreams in which the brothers of Joseph and all his family bowed down to him. In addition to this, Joseph told tales about his brothers:
Genesis [NASB] 37:
2 These are the records of the generations of Jacob.
Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.
Joseph brought back a "bad report" about his brothers to their father.
The words for "bad report" in Hebrew are "Dibatam Raah." This connotes a false mistaken account of evil doings. Joseph mistakenly thought the brothers were offending those Laws that had already been adopted by the family of Israel. Two of these laws involved the proper slaughter of animals and avoiding illicit intercourse. We will return to this matter below.
The brothers suspected Joseph of scheming against them, of wishing to dispossess them and their families, of trying to cause their father to curse them and perhaps even threatening their lives. His dreams of grandeur exacerbated this impression.
For their own preservation they convened a kind of council, held a trial, judged Joseph guilty, and decided to put him to death. Indications are that the brothers Simeon and Levi initiated this action (cf. Genersis 49:6).
They seized Joseph when he came to join them minding the flocks near Schechem in Samaria.
Reuben the firstborn asked them not to shed the blood of Joseph but rather to place him in a pit and leave him to die. They did so. Reuben then went away intending to return and rescue Joseph and return him to his father.
Meanwhile the brothers sat down to eat. A caravan of Ishmaelites bearing spices from Gilead came past on the way to Egypt. Judah suggested they pull Joseph up and sell him as a slave which they did.
They then ritually slaughtered [Hebrew: "va-yishchatu"] a goat, dipped the coat of Joseph in its blood, and took it to their father. Jacob deduced that a wild beast had devoured Joseph and mourned over him (37:33).
The fact that they had bothered to ritually slaughter the goat even though they did not intend to eat it but rather use its blood nullified the false allegation of Joseph that they were eating forbidden flesh. In Egypt Joseph would be falsely accused of assaulting the wife of his master. The Sages said that this was "measure for measure." In the same way that Joseph had falsely accused the brothers to be eating forbidden flesh but it was demonstrated that they obviously were not; he had also said they were engaging in illicit relations and so too was a similar false allegation to be made against him.
Joseph was sold in Egypt to Potiphar captain of the guard of Pharoah. Joseph was successful in his duties so Potiphar put him in charge of his whole estate.
Genesis [NASB] 39:
4 So Joseph found favor in his sight and became his personal servant; and he made him overseer over his house, and all that he owned he put in his charge.
Joseph was falsely accused trying to rape the wife of Potiphar. He was placed in prision.
In jail Joseph was again succesful.
Genesis [NASB] 39:
21 But the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer. 22 The chief jailer committed to Joseph's charge all the prisoners who were in the jail; so that whatever was done there, he was responsible for it. 23 The chief jailer did not supervise anything under Joseph's charge because the LORD was with him; and whatever he did, the LORD made to prosper.
While incarcerated Joseph successfully interpreted the dreams of two officials of the court who had also been imprisoned. As a result Joseph was recommended to Pharaoh as someone who could explain the meaning of dreams. Pharaoh had need for someone like that.
Joseph explained the dreams of Pharaoh as predicting a coming 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of disastrous famine. He advised Pharaoh how to protect his land from future calamity. Pharaoh then appointed Joseph second in command over all the land (Genesis 41:39-43).
Genesis [NASB] 41:
45 Then Pharaoh named Joseph Zaphenath-paneah [i.e. "Interpreter of Hidden Matters"]; and he gave him Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, as his wife. And Joseph went forth over the land of Egypt....
50 Now before the year of famine came, two sons were born to Joseph, whom Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera priest of On, bore to him. 51 Joseph named the firstborn Manasseh, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household.' 52 He named the second Ephraim, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.'
The Great Famine came to Egypt and also to surrounding areas. The brothers of Joseph were sent by Jacob to buy grain for their households. Ten brothers went to Egypt but Jacob kept Benjamin the youngest son with him.
Joseph arranged to meet the brothers. They did not recognize him but he recognized them. Joseph accused the brothers of being spies. He interrogated them concerning their family and was told abolut Benjamin remaining with their father. After imprisoning the brothers for 3 days he told them that they should take grain back to their families but one of them would remain as hostage. After that they should not return to buy more grain unless they brought Benjamin with them.
Genesis [NASB] 42:
21 Then they said to one another, 'Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us.' 22 Reuben answered them, saying, 'Did I not tell you, "Do not sin against the boy"; and you would not listen? Now comes the reckoning for his blood.'
From this mutual recrimination between the brothers the following points may be made:
1. The Commentary of Soforno (Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, 1475-1550, Italy) points out that the brothers condemned each other for not hearkening to the pleas of Joseph. They found nothing wrong however in principle with the decision to kill him.
2. Reuben had not been present when Joseph was sold. Evidently he had not been told about it and assumed like Jacob their father that Joseph had been killed. He thought the other brothers had done it.
Joseph kept Simeon with him and sent the rest of the brothers back to Canaan.
Reuben asked their father to let Benjamin return with him to Egypt. He offered to give his two sons (he was destined to have additional sons later) as surety. Jacob refused.
Genesis [NASB] 42:
37 Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, 'You may put my two sons to death if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my care, and I will return him to you.' 38 But Jacob said, 'My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left. If harm should befall him on the journey you are taking, then you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol [i.e. the place of souls after death] in sorrow.'
Joseph and Benjamin were the two brothers born to Jacob from Rachel his favorite wife. Joseph was assumed dead and only Benjamin was left and Jacob did not wish to risk losing him.
Eventually Jacob and his family had consumed all the food they had brought with them. They needed to go back.
Benjamin would have to go with them.
Judah offered himself as a guarantee.
Genesis [NASB] 43:
8 Judah said to his father Israel, 'Send the lad with me and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, we as well as you and our little ones. 9 I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you forever. 10 For if we had not delayed, surely by now we could have returned twice.'
They came to Joseph. The personal chalice, a ceremonial cup, was planted on Benjamin. Joseph then falsely accused Benjamin and said he would have to remain with him as slave.
Judah protested and offered himself to serve as a slave in place of Benjamin.
Genesis [NASB] 45:
24 Thus it came about when we went up to your servant my father, we told him the words of my lord. 25 Our father said, 'Go back, buy us a little food.' 26 But we said, 'We cannot go down. If our youngest brother is with us, then we will go down; for we cannot see the man's face unless our youngest brother is with us.' 27 Your servant my father said to us, 'You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28 and the one went out from me, and I said, 'Surely he is torn in pieces,' and I have not seen him since. 29 If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol [i.e. the place of the soul after death] in sorrow.' 30 Now, therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad's life, 31 when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die. Thus your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow. 32 For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, 'If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.' 33 Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. 34 For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?'
Rabbi Moshe David Valli (1697-1777, Padua, Italy) opines:
# The intention of Joseph was to receive the punishment he had become liable for, measure for measure. Judah had first suggested selling Joseph as a slave. Now he could atone for it by accepting the penalty and becoming a slave himself. #
Joseph then revealed himself to his brothers.
Genesis [NASB] 45:
3 Then Joseph said to his brothers, 'I am Joseph! Is my father still alive?' But his brothers could not answer him, for they were dismayed at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, 'Please come closer to me.' And they came closer. And he said, 'I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are still five years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance. 8 Now, therefore, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his household and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father, and say to him, 'Thus says your son Joseph, "God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall live in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children's children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have. 11 There I will also provide for you, for there are still five years of famine to come, and you and your household and all that you have would be impoverished." 12 Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth which is speaking to you. 13 Now you must tell my father of all my splendor in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.' 14 Then he fell on his brother Benjamin's neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck. 15 He kissed all his brothers and wept on them, and afterward his brothers talked with him.
Joseph was reconciled with his brothers. They were given grain. Jacob was informed as to what had happened Genesis [NASB] 45:25-28). Jacob with all members of his extended family, headed by 70 sons and grandsons, and all their families went down to Egypt and dwelt there (Genesis 45:8-27).
They were given the Land of Goshen east of the Nile to dwell in (Genesis 47:4-6). Jacob blessed Joseph and his two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis chapter 48). Before his died Israel (i.e. Jacob) blessed all the Tribes (Genesis chapter 49).
After Jacob's death the brothers were afraid that Joseph would take revenge on them for what they had done to them.
This is similar to the intentions of Esau, their uncle, who had intended to kill Jacob after Isaac their father would die, cf.
Genesis [NASB] 27:
41 So Esau bore a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing with which his father had blessed him; and Esau said to himself, The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.
The brothers sent a message to Joseph asking him to have mercy on them. Joseph relied and placated them.
Genesis [NASB] 50:
19 But Joseph said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for am I in God's place? 20 As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive. 21 So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.' So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
Note the expression,
"you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good."
In the Hebrew original it could be interpreted as intending,
"You thought wrongly, God took it for good."
The brothers had held a trial of Joseph and found him guilty. From their point of view what they had done had been correct. As far as they knew Joseph really was plotting against them. They were pre-empting the danger.
The fact that a good result had come from this shows that their intention had been an honest one. There is a principle that when a correctly appointed Religious Court makes a judgement the reult will always be postivie even if they make a mistake.
Deuteronomy [NASB] 17:
8 If any case is too difficult for you to decide, between one kind of homicide or another, between one kind of lawsuit or another, and between one kind of assault or another, being cases of dispute in your courts, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the LORD your God chooses. 9 So you shall come to the Levitical priest or the judge who is in office in those days, and you shall inquire of them and they will declare to you the verdict in the case. 10 You shall do according to the terms of the verdict which they declare to you from that place which the LORD chooses; and you shall be careful to observe according to all that they teach you. 11 According to the terms of the law which they teach you, and according to the verdict which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside from the word which they declare to you, to the right or the left. 12 The man who acts presumptuously by not listening to the priest who stands there to serve the LORD your God, nor to the judge, that man shall die; thus you shall purge the evil from Israel. 13 Then all the people will hear and be afraid, and will not act presumptuously again.
The brothers from their point of view had acted correctly (See the Commentaries "Soforno," "Or Ha-Chaim," "Malbim," "Ketav Softer," etc. See also a discussion on this matter in "Otsar Mefarshei Ha-Torah").
The Commentary of "Ketav Sofer" (Avraham Shmuel Binyamin Sofer, aka Samuel Wolf Schreiber, 1815-1871, Hungary) discussed this matter and analyses the text showing that it exonerates both Joseph and his brothers.
The Ketav Sofer shows that these words of placation from Joseph are an amplification of what he previously said when he first revealed himself to them.
Joseph had said,
Genesis 45: 12 Behold, your eyes see, and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see, that it is my mouth which is speaking to you. 13 Now you must tell my father of all my splendor in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 1040-1105, Troyes, France) points out that in the same way that Joseph could not have resentment against Benjamin since he had not been present when Joseph was sold, so too, he did not bear a grudge against the other brothers. Joseph when he brought a bad report to his father about his brothers had been genuinely mistaken and had intended to cause them to repent of the peccadilloes he wrongly imagined they had committed. The brothers for their part thought Joseph was seeking to destroy them. They had grounds for such a notion. Joseph had dreams of grandeur that they attributed to a scheming heart of nefarious intention. When Joseph first revealed himself to the brothers he stressed that he was "ruler over all the land of Egypt" (Genesis 45:7). He was also ruler over them. This was for the good. By virtue of this he was able to do good and save many people including his father, and his brothers and all their families. The dreams were therefore of a Prophetic Nature and not emanation of evil intention. As for their thought that he had been plotting against them and showing a lack of fraternity, there was another point.
Ketav Softer explains Joseph to be saying:
# "... it is my mouth which is speaking to you (Genesis 45:12). It was within my ability to make everything that had happened known... From out of a feeling of fraternity I did not do so. .. in truth I am Joseph your brother whom you sold down to Egypt... thaty is I am acting towards you like a brother should. You sold me.. I went down to Egypt. You did wrong unto me. nevertheless, I have the feelings of a brother for you. "Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life" (Genesis 45:5)... If you had not done righteously [as far as you understood] a good result would not have come from this. It has all turned out for the better for you. God sent me here to sustain you in life. You acted correctly, according to the Law. No evil may be imputed to you. In the eyes of Heaven you are clean. #
Joseph had been the principal manager of the Estate of Potiphar and after that the virtual commander of the Prison, and then second-in-command over all Egypt. In the same way as he had been brought to Egypt by a caravan from Canaan so too were there caravans returning there from Egypt. Jacob was an important man in Canaan. It would not be difficult to locate him. Joseph could have sent him a message. He did not do so. The Ketav Sofer explains that if Joseph had have informed Jacob as to what the brother had done then Jacob may have cursed them and dispossessed them. Now it is possible to reveal the matter. Now it is evident that a good result came from it therefore their intentions must have been good ones, even if mistaken. Even the mistake was from the Almighty in order to bring about the present situation. Our father will have no reason to be angry with you. it is now possible to reveal the matter. I did not do so until now out of my feeling of fraternity with you.