Jonathan Frankel

Why Hide the Cup in Binyamin’s Bag?

Joseph's cup found in Benjamin's sack, illustration by Philip De Vere

Why did Yosef go through this very specific dramatic plot of hiding the cup, emphasizing the framing of the youngest brother? Why must the reader be informed that Yosef claims to be a diviner? Wouldn’t it be just as reasonable he surmised they stole his expensive cup just from its absence?

At first glance the inclusion of Yosef’s divination skills seems relevant to the story (Breishit 44:5,15). The detail provides the context to appreciate the brothers’ gullibility. Emphasizing why they continued to believe the viceroy had a legitimate reason to be suspicious of them, rather than a personal vendetta. However, the details of the plot are superfluous to that end. Supplying the reader with conspicuous information that could have been far more succinctly written. Furthermore, towards what goal does Yosef persist in his charade? He already had Binyamin. What more was he aspiring to gain? 

Yosef’s suspicions of his brothers for his capture and sale are obvious. However, Yosef also harbored profound suspicions against his father for his role in the conspiracy. This is why Yosef never took his ascension to power as an opportunity to contact his father and reunite with him earlier. Although too large a discussion for this essay, in short, from Yosef’s perspective the last time he interacted with Yaacov he rebuked him (37:10) and subsequently sent him directly into the hands of his captors (37:13). Yosef knew his brothers despised him (37:4,8,11) but he was uncertain as to his father’s motives. 

From Yosef’s perspective Yaacov fatally cursed his mother (31:32) and then sent him into the hands of his captors (37:13-14). Was Yaacov’s contempt directed at Yosef or the whole of Rachel’s family? Yosef spent his years of captivity ruminating on these suspicions and must have concluded that his father was complicit in his brothers’ crimes. After all, once made viceroy and endowed with the premonition of impending famine, Yosef doesn’t seek to protect his family from harm by warning them as he had Pharaoh. 

Yosef’s first deception against his brothers was to ensure Benjamin’s safety (42:15). Upon their return to Egypt with Binyamin, Yosef’s first dream materialized with all eleven of his brothers bowing before him (43:26). Now complete, Yosef was tempted to reveal his identity and exact his revenge, however he refrained (43:31). Having witnessed his brothers’ remorse during their first trip to Egypt (42:21-22), he sought to answer the ultimate questions that plagued him all these years. Was the animosity he experienced simply an extreme manifestation of sibling jealousy, or symptomatic of a more sinister hatred for the family of Rachel; potentially even including his father.

The second ruse now began, recreating the circumstances for the brother’s jealousy of Yosef. Yosef demonstrated his awareness of their family hierarchy (43:33) yet specifically endowed substantially greater gifts upon Binyamin (43:34), recapitulating Yaacov’s explicit favoring of Yosef in his youth (37:3-4). Next Yosef wanted to repeat the original circumstances that began the downfall of the house of Rachel with impeccable fidelity. In this meticulous recreation, Yosef refers to himself as a diviner who divines through the very item he claims was stolen (44:5,15), just as Lavan used his terafim for divination (30:27, please refer to “Why did Rachel steal the terafim?”). To further revive their memory of the events, Yosef ensures the stolen divination tool is found in Binyamin’s saddle bag as the last place searched, just as Rachel his mother (31:34-35). 

The nuance of this final detail actually answers a curious mystery regarding Rachel and the terafim; what did Rachel do with the terafim after Lavan left? Did anyone know she had them in her possession? The fact that this detail is included in Yosef’s rehashing of the story implies that the family knew, which also means Yaacov likely knew he had fatally cursed her and Yosef may have held him to blame for her tragic death. 

As if complicit to their roles in the scheme, the brothers passionately denied committing the offense and cursed the guilty party with death (44:9), just like their father had done with Lavan (31:32). Yosef perfectly recreated the opportunity for the brothers to betray the final member of the house of Rachel in precisely the way its downfall began.

Returning to Yosef, the brothers could have abandoned Binyamin, allowing the final member of the house of Rachel to be lost into slavery in Egypt. Instead, Yehuda takes the opportunity to rectify his original zeal to punish Yosef (37:26), preferring to suffer in slavery along side Binyamin as recompense (44:16) and ultimately pleads to take Binyamin’s place in slavery (44:33-34). As if not enough simply to demonstrate the brothers’ repentance, Yehuda also  reveals that Yaacov in fact dearly loves Biyamin as the remnant of his wife. Demonstrating Yaacov’s sincere love for Rachel and her progeny. Most important of all, Yehuda reveals that Yaacov was under the impression that Yosef had been tragically killed (44:28) with Binyamin the only thing keeping Yaacov from utter devastation all these years (44:29). This was an extraneous detail in Yehuda’s plea but was the most important piece of information in Yosef’s whole life, confirming Yaacov’s innocence. 

Yosef had spent the majority of his adult life in contempt of his father and brothers, prevented from seeking retribution by his suspicion of his father. As soon as he learned that he was wrong Yosef could not hold back any longer (45:1-2) as the reason for the charade evaporated. Bursting into tears and immediately seeking confirmation that his beloved father was in fact still alive. Twenty two years of wasted time, fermenting in hatred and spite for nothing. Yosef would waste no more time, compelling his brothers to hastily bring Yaacov down to Egypt for their reunion (45:9) even before getting permission from Pharaoh. Although Yosef’s second dream of his father and mother bowing to him would never materialize (37:9), he would live to reunite with his loving father; something he never dreamed possible.

About the Author
Jonathan is a physician with interests in science, philosophy and religion, with special focus on skeptical thinking and critical analysis.
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