When Yosef sees his brothers for the first time since they mercilessly sold him to passing traders, he is unsure whether he can trust them. Have the passing years dampened their jealousy over their father’s love toward him? Given his now high status and appearance as the Vizier of Egypt, he is not recognized by them, and so decides to test them to see if they have repented of their earlier mistreatment of him. Amid a serious famine, which reaches all the way to Canaan, the aging Yaakov has sent Yosef’s brothers down to Egypt to purchase food. As part of Yosef’s test, he treats them roughly, accusing them of being spies, and demands that they bring their youngest brother Binyamin back with them to prove their honesty. Once back in Canaan, the brothers must endure the sight of the aged Yaakov, who at first begs them not to separate him from his remaining son by his beloved wife Rahel. Yaakov is still mourning the loss of his beloved son Yosef.
It is at this crucial point that Yehuda, son number four, takes the role of leadership on his shoulders and acts as guarantor, telling his father:
Send the lad [Binyamin] with me…
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. 43:9]
A key question that arises from this text is why it is Yehuda who steps forward here. After all, the eldest son, Re’uven, had offered to be responsible for the lad earlier in the story:
My two sons you may put to death
if I do not bring him [Binyamin] back to you!
Place him in my hands, and I myself will return him to you. [42:37]
This is sheer foolishness. Who would suggest the murder of his own children as compensation to a grieving father and grandfather? Out of this moral morass steps Yehuda. But why should Yaakov trust him any more than his hapless older brother?
The primacy of Yehuda here has often been explained by scholars as stemming from political motives. It is said to reflect a later time, when Yehuda had become the tribe of the royal family, the name-holder of the Southern Kingdom in the era of the Davidic dynasty. In other words, our tale may be an etiology, explaining how things and names came to their present situation.
This is not the only way to look at this story. From the point of view of literary art, there is another answer to the question we have posed about Yehuda, impelled by the wording in his speech above. The phrase “at my hand you may seek him” (underlined above) which Yehuda uses to reassure his father, echoes Yaakov’s own words back in chapter 31, where he had angrily replied to his uncle Lavan’s accusation of theft:
It is twenty years now that I have been under you:
…the rams from your flock I never have eaten,
none torn by beasts have I ever brought you–
I would make good the loss,
at my hand you would seek it,
stolen by day or stolen by night. (31:38-39)
In other words, using the precise wording of his father’s pledge to Lavan, Yehuda is able to suggest to Yaakov that he will meet his responsibility to keep Binyamin safe.
How does Yaakov know that Yehuda is a trustworthy guarantor? How do we know? Let’s look at an earlier tale about him, the Tamar story of chapter 38, to learn how he grows into his crucial role in the Yosef story. In this narrative, Yehuda refuses to give his surviving son in marriage, as the law requires, to his daughter-in-law Tamar, who was widowed by his two older sons. Widowed himself, he unknowingly hires her as a prostitute, while for her part, she disguises herself with a veil, hoping that he will impregnate her and so keep the family name alive through the resulting child. Here is their negotiation:
What will you give me for coming in to me?
I myself will send out a goats’ kid from the flock.
Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.
What is the pledge that I am to give you?
Your seal, your cord, and your staff that is in your hand. (38:16-18)
The last-mentioned objects are proof of identity, rather like a driver’s license or Social Security card. When the pregnant Tamar begins to show, the townspeople accuse her of promiscuity. She counters by proving Yehuda’s paternity, producing the objects of his pledge. Yehuda takes responsibility by acknowledging that he had not given her any other way to continue his family line through her.
Now we can see why the word “pledge” in Yehuda’s promise to his father carries weight. Yehuda’s admission of guilt in the Tamar story is a sign of his growth. He matures morally in time to step up to the plate regarding Binyamin, as his brothers are about to return to Egypt and plead for their youngest brother with the Vizier, who, of course, is actually the long-lost Yosef. The Tamar story is thus not an irrelevant aside, but rather a major key to what happens in the Yosef narrative. Yehuda puts his honor on the line to his father, and when he “comes close” (44:18) to plead with Yosef in the reading which follows next week, we know that not only will he be eloquent, but will also act as an ersatz responsible oldest son, ready to stand up for the family and navigate a difficult situation. His expression of responsibility and fraternal protection will be the final straw in convincing Yosef to reveal himself to his brothers and forgive them at last.