Judah vs. Joseph: Something Has to Give

“Then Judah approached him and said, ‘Please, my lord, let now your servant speak something into my lord’s ears, and let not your wrath be kindled against your servant, for you are like Pharaoh.'”

This was the moment on which Jewish history hinged: Not that of the Jews versus the gentiles, rather, the confrontation between two kings — Judah and Joseph. Each held a burning passion that could break apart the nascent tribes of Jacob. Joseph was the viceroy of Egypt and demanded custody of his full brother Binyamin. Judah, their half-brother, said, “No way, he stays with his father Jacob.” Both Judah and Joseph were prepared to fight.

Each brother had right on his side: Joseph spent 13 years in exile, and saw that his brothers would never return him to the fold. Now, Joseph was the second most powerful man in Egypt, perhaps the world. With Binyamin at his side, Joseph could do anything, including start his own nation, one much more pious than that of Jacob’s other sons.

Judah had no love for Joseph. But Judah had made a commitment to his father that Binyamin would be brought home safely. Unlike the eldest brother Reuven, Judah was determined to keep his word, even if had to become a slave in Egypt instead of Binyamin. But Judah was also ready to eliminate Joseph before Pharaoh. Like his father, Judah came ready to fight, reconcile or pray.

Both men were powerful and endowed with royalty. Judah could put a ball of iron in his mouth and spit out out nails. Joseph could kick a stone column and watch it crumble into pebbles.


Joseph: I see you are willing to fight for Binyamin. Why didn’t you fight when your brothers sold me to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver and hurt our father by saying that Joseph was torn apart?

Judah began to wail. But he also took charge: He called Naftali and told him to reconnoiter the markets of Egypt. Naftali, blessed with superhuman speed, returned and reported 12 markets. Judah threatened to destroy all of them.

Now, Joseph understood that internecine war would not help anybody. Destroying Egypt, the only country with a massive food supply would lead to global starvation. He then shouted, “Didn’t you say that the brother of Binyamin is dead? I will call him and he will come to you.”

And Joseph called, “Joseph the son of Jacob, come to me.”

Judah and the brothers looked around the royal palace.

“What are you looking for?” Joseph asked. “I am Joseph your brother.”

And the brothers didn’t believe him until Joseph showed them his circumcision.

Why would revealing a circumcision break the ice? Joseph could have been a member of the Ishmaelites, all of whom were circumcised. He might have been a child of Malki Tzedek, the high priest who kept all of G-d’s commandments.

What the brothers saw was not a circumcised member. They saw the second most powerful man in the world willing to humiliate himself to return to his family. They might never have seen such behavior in the teenage Joseph they had sold 13 years earlier. But they felt certain that the man in front of them was their brother.

Joseph’s progeny would include Joshua, the leader of Israel who performed miracles far greater than those of Moses. Eventually, Joseph would cede royalty to Judah, who would spawn the legitimate kings of Israel. Joseph’s two sons, Menashe and Ephraim, would be decimated by the exile of the 10 tribes in the invasion of the Assyrians more than 2,600 years ago.

But somehow Joseph, as in the story of his brothers, will return. His progeny will become the first messiah of Israel, who will fight its enemies until his death. His death would push the Jewish people to repent, an act that will lead to the second messiah, the son of David, who stems from Judah.

This was Joseph’s message to his brothers. “Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Please come closer,’ and they drew closer. And he said, ‘I am your brother Joseph whom you sold into Egypt. But do not be sad and be troubled that you sold me, for it was to preserve life that G-d sent me before you. For already two years of famine [have passed] in the land, and for another five years, there will be neither plowing nor harvest. And G-d sent me before you to make for you a remnant in the land and to preserve it for you for a great deliverance.”

Joseph and Judah — regardless of their past — cannot forsake their future. Both will usher the redemption, which, according to the sages, has long been due. Why the delay? Because although the Jews have paid two-fold for their sins they still do not pine for the messiah. And what’s the point of the messiah when nobody will follow him?

The Midrash tells of the frustration of King David with G-d. G-d had returned the Jewish people, provided them with a home but did not return David as king. David asked why he was left out.

Today, G-d has returned a majority of the Jewish people and provided them with a home. But He has not given us the messiah. Instead, He watches as we fight over the false gods of power and money; how we have divided ourselves into factions that play a zero sum game; how we become obsequious to those ready to throw a few dollars our way.

Shouldn’t we be asking David’s question as well?

About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.