The words that open this week’s reading— “He came close” (describing Yehuda), mark the beginning of his plea to Yosef to allow his brother Binyamin to return home to his father. But they also invite us, as an attentive audience, to participate in the dramatic encounter that is about to unfold. It is dramatic for us because we know the story from all sides. We are taken by this seventeen-verse speech (Gen. 44:18-34) in large part because of the persuasive rhetoric it uses. We watch as the floodgates of Yosef’s emotions open, forcing him to reveal his identity to his brothers at last. Surprisingly, it is not seeing his brothers after a decade of separation (42:7) or even the sight of Binyamin (43:16,29) that accomplishes this, but rather the words spoken by his brother Yehuda.
Why does the rhetoric and use of language matter here? For one thing, Yehuda is pleading with the man in front of him who he believes to be a high Egyptian official. He proceeds to recount the whole course of their dealings with him, including the parts of their story that involve their father back home. Yehuda makes his storytelling come alive by using direct quotations, which also makes it compelling: “My lord asked his servants…And we said to my lord…And you said to your servants…But we said to my lord…But you said to your servants…and our father said…But we said…your servant, my father, said to us…”
The specific vocabulary the Torah uses here leads me to another observation as well. In reading biblical narrative texts, I always make it a practice to look for meaningful repetition and the clues it can provide. It is an interpreter’s prerogative to decide whether such literary devices are helpful or simply coincidence, but common sense and cultural context usually provide some guidance. In the case of Yehuda’s speech, two everyday words immediately stand out: “servant” and “father.” Each occurs thirteen times in this text. Let’s consider them separately to better understand why they are repeated so often.
The repetition of “servant” (Hebrew ‘eved) is not surprising in a court-like context. When one addresses a superior in the ancient world, especially a king or some other exalted person, this is the correct language to employ. For example, Hanna, in the opening chapter of the book of Samuel, repeatedly uses a parallel expression (“your maidservant”) when requesting a child from God. In the context of the Yosef story, however, this kind of groveling language has additional resonance. The Hebrew term carries a whole host of graded meanings, not the least of which is “slave.” When Yosef ‘s steward frames Binyamin by secretly placing his master’s goblet in his pack, the brothers defend Binyamin and offer to become “my lord’s servants [or slaves]” (44:9, 16) in place of Binyamin. For his part, Yosef pretends he is limiting the punishment to the one who stole the goblet, He also uses ‘eved–“he/the man with whom it (the goblet) is found–he shall be my servant/slave!” (vv. 10 and 17). So ‘eved has moved from being simply court protocol to a word that threatens the brothers’ ability to keep their promise to their father. How can they return to the old Yaakov without their youngest brother?
Turning now to the word “father,” we touch the heart of the matter. One imagines Yosef feeling psychological pain at every mention of his doting parent; furthermore, Yosef has to deal with the resonance of the way the word is used. Yehuda’s speech refers repeatedly to “my father” and “his [Binyamin’s] father,” but in two instances there is an ironic slip. In v. 25, where he mentions that “our father said…”, and the poignant v. 31: if Binyamin does not return with the brothers, “your servant will have brought the down the gray hair of your servant, our father, in grief to Sheol [the underworld]!” It is the constant hammering in of the term “father,” plus a few uses of “our,” through which Yehuda unknowingly includes Yosef, that provides the final emotional blow. And note, the very last word of the whole speech is “father”–“Then I would see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father” (v. 34). Note, too, that Hebrew avi, “my father,” can be both a simple descriptor and the Bible’s normal way of saying “Father” in a conversation–thus, Yosef is unwittingly included as a son here. Once again, by agreeing to let the brothers come close and share their story, Yosef has become part of the family, even before revealing himself to them.
Yehuda’s speech and the subsequent reunion with his brothers has paved the way for the complicated family issues that lie ahead, such as the decision to migrate to Egypt and dealing with the brothers’ fear that Yosef will take revenge on them after their father dies. In taking his father’s feelings into account and standing up for Binyamin, Yehuda caps the brothers’ sincere regret for selling Yosef into slavery. Despite the emotions tied to the deeds of the past, the family does become united, going down to Egypt together, and they will stay connected through the saga of oppression and liberation in Exodus—ultimately remembering their tribal ancestors (the brothers of our story) and the God of their fathers and mothers.