Keyword:

Light from the Sidra

Miketz ('At the end...')

Torah: Genesis 41:1-44:17.Haftarah:Zechariah 2:14(10)-4:7

Déjà vu

One of the curious and least attractive practises of American election campaigns is the dredging up of unsavoury and embarrassing facts by presidential candidates about their political opponents. Bill Clinton, for example, was found to have used marijuana when he was a student and even though he protested that he didn’t inhale, that was a point against him. I’ve often reflected that I wouldn’t want to be judged on what I did or said last week, let alone when I was a callow youth. People change.

At the beginning of the story of Joseph, Judah comes over as a pretty unpleasant character, possibly the worst of the family. He is prepared to kill his little brother, he refuses to allow his youngest son to fulfil his levirate duty, and he consorts with his daughter-in-law, believing her to be a prostitute. But by the end of this week’s Parasha, Judah seems to be a changed character. At the very least, he appears to be changing.

The story begins with the Pharaoh of Egypt experiencing two troubling dreams. His court magicians can’t interpret the dreams but his butler remembers that a young Hebrew had correctly interpreted his dream and that of Pharaoh’s baker. Pharaoh calls Joseph, who explains that the dreams of seven fat cows and seven thin cows, seven stalks of grain and seven thin stalks are a message from God that Egypt is about to experience seven-years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph advises Pharaoh about how to make the most of the seven years of abundance in order to prepare for the famine that will follow. As a result, Joseph is appointed to the post of vizier and becomes in effect the prime minister of Egypt.

The famine extends beyond the borders of Egypt. When Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt to buy grain they don’t recognise their grown up little brother with his shaved face and head, and eye make-up. But he knows them. Thus, his long-ago dream of his brothers bowing down to him becomes a reality. However, Benjamin is missing and so are his father and mother.

Joseph begins to help the dream become a reality by accusing his brothers of being spies. The only way they will be able to see him again and purchase food will be to return with their youngest brother. Meanwhile, Joseph will keep Simeon as hostage until his brothers return.

Some question the morality of Joseph’s actions. His plot could have backfired and caused the death of his aged father. But Joseph’s second dream revealed that his father would bow to him and he begins to recreate something of the situation that put him in Egypt. He sets up a test to see if his brothers have changed. He makes them responsible, as it were, for the life and death of another son of Rachel: Benjamin.

Back in the land of Canaan, when the food begins to run out and Jacob wants to send his sons back to Egypt, the old man refuses to send Benjamin. They remind him that ‘the man’ told them they would never see him again unless Benjamin was with them. The patriarch has lost two sons already – Joseph and Simeon – and he has no intention of losing a third. Even though Reuben volunteers to accept personal responsibility for Benjamin, so that if he doesn’t return him safe and sound Jacob can kill Reuben’s two sons, Jacob says the loss of Benjamin would kill him. The brothers remain at home and the famine gets worse.

As conditions deteriorate, Jacob again tells his sons to bring grain from Egypt. They try to explain why they can’t go unless Benjamin goes too but Jacob refuses to yield. Finally, Judah, whose idea it was to sell Joseph, offers to be security for Benjamin: ‘Send the lad with me, and we will arise and go, that we may live and not die, so we, so you, so our little-ones! I will act as his pledge, at my hand you may seek him! If I do not bring him back to you and set him in your presence, I will be culpable-for-sin against you all the days (to come)’ (Gen. 43:8,9). The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes. Everett Fox).

Judah is saying, in effect, that if he does not return safely with Benjamin his father can cut him off from his inheritance and any property Judah possesses will become the property of his father.

When the brothers appear before Joseph and he at last meets Benjamin, he invites them to eat with him. At the meal Joseph piles up Benjamin’s plate with five times more food than those of his brothers. He is showing favouritism to the youngest brother in front of his brothers just as his father had showed special favour to him. Would the brothers be envious? Would they murmur against Benjamin as they had murmured against Joseph? No. ‘They drank and became drunk with him’ (Gen. 43:34b. The Five Books of Moses. Everett Fox).

The brothers – Judah in particular – have passed the second test. Joseph sets up one final test. He arranges for the brothers’ payment to be put in their bags and for his silver cup to be placed in Benjamin’s sack. Joseph’s brothers are apprehended and brought back to Joseph, who declares that as a punishment their youngest brother will remain in Egypt as his slave.

History is repeating itself. But this time Judah pleads for the youngest brother to be spared. As his conscience smites him he confesses to Joseph the crime (albeit without specifying the nature of that crime) he and his brothers had committed. Thus the scene is set for the rehabilitation of Judah and for God’s plan for Israel and the nations to be set back on track.

As the Parasha reveals Judah beginning to play a major role in the Joseph story, the Haftarah also focuses on the tribe of Judah: ‘The LORD will take Judah to Himself as His portion’ (Zech. 2:16, TanakhThe Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text).

A day will come when ‘many nations will attach themselves to the LORD and become his people’ (Zech. 2:15, TanakhThe Holy Scriptures.). God’s promise to bless the nations through Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) will be fulfilled in a way Abraham could not possibly have foreseen. Gentiles will become the people of God, and Judah will be central to the blessing of the nations because, as we shall see from chapter 49, the Messiah will come from Judah. For 2,000 years, Gentiles have been finding their place among the people of God through faith in the Jewish Messiah who comes from the tribe of Judah. And I should know; I’m one of them!


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