20. The End of An Era

Wrapping up Season 1 with the final chapters of the Book of Genesis! Joseph is currently sitting at the pinnacle of Egyptian power as the top lieutenant to Pharaoh. He is running the country, and in charge of grain — the food supplies for a region undergoing famine. But what he doesn’t know is that Jacob has dispatched ten of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to look for grain, and Joseph is about the face some choices about how to deal with them. So today’s story is about another core Jewish value: justice, as it intersects with forgiveness. 

THE PLOT

So here is Joseph, the top official of Pharaoh, ruling from a palace in Egypt, when, one day, in walks ten of his brothers (Benjamin, the youngest, has stayed home with Jacob). Despite the 13+ years that have passed, he instantly recognizes them. But they don’t recognize him. And he doesn’t give it away by speaking to them in Hebrew. Instead, he accuses them of being spies and throws them in prison.

Three days later Joseph releases his brothers, and instructs them to return to Canaan and bring back Benjamin. Talking amongst themselves in Hebrew, the brothers seem to acknowledge that their situation is connected with the wrong they had done to Joseph. Overcome with emotion, Joseph takes the brother Simeon as a hostage and sends the remaining nine back to Canaan. 

Reluctantly, and not knowing why this mysterious Egyptian official is so interested in his family, Jacob agrees to send Benjamin back to Egypt with the brothers. Appearing again before Joseph, he proceeds to test them in subtle ways. For instance, he shows favoritism towards Benjamin by serving him the largest portions at a feast. But the brothers don’t get upset or angry with Benjamin the way they had with Joseph. 

For the final test, Joseph again sends the brothers back to Canaan, but has his servant secrete a silver goblet in Benjamin’s things. The servant “catches” Benjamin as they leave town and demands that the brothers release Benjamin to serve his punishment as Joseph’s slave. But where they had happily sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, this time they refuse.

Standing before Joseph, the brother Judah argues that to leave Benjamin in Egypt would break their father’s heart, as Benjamin is all that remains of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. Judah offers himself as a slave instead. Overcome with emotion at Judah’s efforts so spare Benjamin from suffering, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. He forgives them, saying that it was God’s will that he be sold into slavery so that he would someday be in a position to save their lives during the famine.

The brothers race home to deliver the good news to Jacob that Joseph is actually alive. He gathers his entire household for the journey back to Egypt, stopping at Beersheva where God promises to accompany Jacob to Egypt, and to someday bring him back. The Israelites settle in the Egyptian region of Goshen, where Joseph comes out to greet Jacob.

Seventeen years pass and Jacob, at the age of 147, is preparing to die. He imparts to Joseph the covenant that was made with God — that Jacob will father a great nation, and a community of people, who will live in the land of Canaan forever. He calls Joseph’s sons Manasseh and Ephraim to his deathbed, where he bestows on them both a blessing, bringing them into the Israelite fold. Jacob then blesses each of his twelve sons who will together form the great nation that was promised. Per his instructions, his body is carried to Canaan to be laid to rest in the Cave of Machpelah.

The Book of Genesis ends with the death of Joseph at the age of 110, and his body is placed in a coffin in Egypt to await the day when his bones can be returned to the Promised Land.

MAIN CHARACTERS

Joseph: now a high-ranking Egyptian official, he recognizes his brothers and develops an elaborate plot to reconcile with them. He sees his father, Jacob, once again, and carries out Jacob’s last wishes to be buried in Canaan before he, himself, dies at the end of Genesis.

Benjamin: the youngest brother, and Joseph’s only full-brother by their mother, Rachel. 

Judah: offers to remand himself as a slave to Joseph in order to prevent the suffering of both Benjamin and Jacob.

Jacob: the last of the patriarchs, who dies not in the Promised Land but rather in Egypt, and whose body is carried back to the Cave of Machpelah.

KEY THEMES

  • Why Joseph released his brothers after only three days is a little unclear. The rabbis would interpret this action as coming from Joseph’s sense of justice. If he kept his brothers imprisoned, his father Jacob would suffer more emotional turmoil, and the people of Canaan wouldn’t get the grain they need to survive. 
  • Joseph’s forgiveness for his brothers’ actions against him is a very Jewish thing. Jewish tradition frowns on acts of revenge.  A Talmudic scholar of the 13th century, Rabbi Aharon HaLevi, said that a person should know in their heart that all that happens, whether good or bad, is because of God. The person who wronged you isn’t at fault — it was part of God’s plan. By refusing to take revenge Joseph reunites the Israelites, giving himself over to a much higher purpose.
  • The idea of fragility and fate, and worrying about the abandonment of God but also the hope and the promise of the covenant, are all intrinsic to the Jewish experience. From the perspective of the patriarchs and matriarchs whom we today revere, the covenant was a fragile one. One misstep, and it all could have fallen apart. Yet each of them — Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah — all did their part to shepherd the Hebrew nation forward.
  • The Book of Genesis covers the origin stories of the Jewish People, the men and women and God who set forth our narrative and from whom we still today derive many of our values. We have come to understand the covenant — this agreement between humanity and God that we will accept God and God, in turn, will ensure us a nation and a land in which to forever dwell. We’ve come to see how Abraham’s journey to Canaan landed us in the Promised Land in the first place, and how his desire for a burial place for his beloved wife Sarah gave us a permanent home. We know that many of our ideas about social justice come from these stories — of Noah saving humanity from the flood, of Abraham seeking out the good people in Sodom and Gomorrah, of Rebecca’s kindness towards strangers, of Joseph’s insistence on a just reconciliation rather than revenge. We got the name Israel, and know that it means to wrestle or struggle, often with a being or purpose we don’t fully understand. And we know how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, primed to spend the next four hundred years in slavery.

FUN FACTS

  • The Torah lists by name everyone who set out with Jacob from Canaan to Egypt — some 70 people in all.
  • No one really knows exactly where Goshen was, but it was probably located along the eastern bank of the Nile River — in between Cairo and the Sinai Peninsula today.
  • Jacob meets Pharaoh — two extraordinary historical figures who had an audience together! The Torah describes this iconic meet-and-greet in a total of one paragraph. Mostly they discuss Jacob’s age, which at this point is 130
  • The Book of Genesis starts with the word bereshit — in the beginning — creation, and ends with the word mitzrayim — Egypt, covering about 1,500 years (and twenty Jew Oughta Know podcast episodes!).

 

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© Jason Harris 2017