I’m going to sort of narrate this one, trying to give Joseph’s POV. Indulge my fiction writer for a moment.
Joseph was at first clearly planning on some kind of revenge back in chapter 42,only to have Reuben’s comments force him to reevaluate his brothers. He’s not ready to forgive them, though, and he’s definitely not ready to claim them as his brothers, not when he’s come so far as an Egyptian. Aligning himself with Hebrews, practically barbarians in the eyes of his countrymen, would cast a pall on his stature.
But as thoughts of revenge fade, Joseph wants to be reunited with his younger brother Benjamin again. It’s not clear how old Benjamin was when Joseph was sold into slavery. Assuming only a few years passed from Rachel’s death to Joseph’s sale, then Benjamin may only have been about 2 or 3. According to the ages given in the text, Joseph was 30 when he entered the Pharoah’s service, 7 years before this chapter. So he’d be 37, meaning he’d been in Egypt for twenty years. That would make Benjamin 22 or 23, and yet he’s consistently referred to as a boy in this entire passage, younger than Joseph when he was enslaved. So let’s ignore labeling Joseph as 30 and just assume something more like 10 or 15 years, which would put Benjamin still in his teens.
So Joseph comes up with a plot to have Benjamin brought to Egypt, and then decides to force Benjamin to stay without revealing his relation to him. He frames Benjamin for theft, and says he’ll keep him a slave as punishment. Presumably Joseph was planning to free Benjamin right away and bring him into his household.
And it would all have gone according to plan, too, if Judah hadn’t spoken up. See, in all his thoughts of revenge and wanting to be reunited with his kid brother, Joseph seems to have completely forgotten about his father. Judah reminds him of how much Isaac dotes on the children born to Rachel – who he seriously treats as though they’re his only legitimate children, I swear; is Leah still alive to be witnessing all this?
What’s more, Judah offers to take Benjamin’s place, in what is, I swear, one of the first acts in Genesis that I can’t help but consider 100% morally commendable. He’s an adult, after all, with grown children and “grandchildren,” while Benjamin is still a child. Judah has no idea whatsoever that Joseph is intending to free Benjamin, and assumes he’s protecting his little brother.
A final thing to remember in all of this – Judah is the one who proposed selling Joseph into slavery in the first place. And now he’s offering to become a slave himself to save his other brother.
It’s this final act by Judah that causes Joseph to break in the next chapter, in another of the cinematic scenes in Genesis that’s really emotionally powerful. I’ll try to blog on it tomorrow if I can, but I’m heading off on a vacation to Korea tomorrow, so whether I can blog will depend on whether I have time to go on the wireless network at Chitose Airport. The hostel where I’m staying has wireless, and I’ll try to continue this as much as I can during my vacation, though my posts may be much shorter. I’m sure that last bit might actually be a relief to my handful of readers.
The Japanese: ikkou “the company,” miokuri “send-off” (v 3), aku o motte zen ni mukuiru “return evil for good” (v 4, as it turns out, an actual Japanese saying), nen’iri “painstaking” (v 12), abaku “to disclose, expose, uncover” (v 16), mimi o katamukeru “to bend one’s ear,” i.e. to listen (v 18), kamisakareta “torn to shreds” (v 28), hitan “grief” (v 31), osoikakaru “to pounce, descend on,” kumon “anguish” (v 34).