Yosef's Behavior in the Encounter with his Brothers - Part II

  • Dr. Brachi Elitzur

In our shiur on Parashat Miketz, we proposed three factors that explain Yosef's behavior towards his brothers throughout the two encounters between them following the long years of separation. On one hand, Yosef had a sense of mission; on the other hand, he felt mixed feelings of anger and a desire for revenge, along with deep longing. In this shiur, we will examine the verses describing the encounters themselves and try to define the role of each of these elements in what Yosef says to his brothers, his accusations, his weeping, and the point at which his faחade breaks and he reveals his identity.


The first question we must address is whether Yosef anticipates the arrival of his brothers in Egypt and prepares for the confrontation with them.


Most of the commentators who regard Yosef's words and actions as being guided by a pre-determined aim appear to maintain that Yosef prepares himself for the meeting and also takes care to ensure that it happens. Support for this view lies in the fact that the brothers do, in fact, appear before him, despite the low probability of such a scenario in view of the masses of visitors from other lands coming to Egypt with the aim of buying food. Indeed, the translation of Targum Yonatan (Bereishit 42:6) offers the following interpretation:


"And Yosef was the governor of the land” – and he knew that his brothers would be coming to buy [food]. He appointed guards at the gates of the city to inscribe the names of everyone arriving on a given day, his name and the name of his father, and he sold produce to all the people of the land. And Yosef's brothers arrived, and they sought [him] in the marketplaces and the open places and the lodges, but they did not find him. And they came to his house and prostrated themselves before him, their faces to the ground.


This would seem to suggest that Yosef not only knew that his brothers would be coming, but actually initiated the encounter in his home.


Radak describes a complicated mechanism for selling food created on the basis of Yosef's expectation that this would eventually bring him face to face with his brothers:


And his brothers were forced to come before him, for he was the distributor of the food… At first, the buyers would come to him, for he himself had commanded that [food] should not be sold until [the buyers] came to him to request that he command that [the food] be sold to them. And he commanded this because he knew that his brothers would come to buy produce, for the famine extended to the land of Cana'an. Thus, when they came, it was unavoidable that they would meet with him – and so it was. (Radak, Bereishit 42:6)[1]


In our view, the text hints to a low probability of the encounter taking place through its emphasis of the tremendous volume of immigrants, the description of Yosef's brothers melting into the crowd, and the repeated noting of Yosef's very high position in relation to his brothers:


And the entire land (ve-khol ha-aretz) came to Egypt to buy corn from Yosef, for the famine was severe throughout the world. (41:57)


And Yosef's ten brothers went down to buy corn in Egypt… And the children of Israel came to buy corn among those that came, for there was famine in the land of Cana'an. (42:3, 5)


And Yosef was the governor of the land, and it was he who sold corn to all the people of the land, and Yosef's brothers came and they prostrated themselves before him to the ground. (42:6)


The words "the entire land" refers here to the entire Middle East, and not just the land of Egypt, which is mentioned already in a previous verse: "And the famine grew severe in the land of Egypt" (41:56). The appellation "Bnei Yisrael" (“children of Israel”) as used by the text, in contrast to their previous appellation and to the later reference to them as "Yosef's brothers," as well as the repeated description of the aim of their arrival, strengthen the idea that Yosef's brothers mingled among the other people who came to Egypt so that they were indistinguishable from them.


How, then, did Yosef find himself face to face with his brothers?


Contrary to the commentaries that credit Yosef with planning the reunion with his brothers, I would like to propose that the first encounter takes place by coincidence. The textual emphasis on the improbability of the event points to the Divine hand guiding the process, much like the case of the "man" who "happens" to come upon Yosef wandering in the field and "happens" to know that the brothers he mentions are the men whom he "happened" to overhear when they spoke of going to Dotan (37:17).


There are three different reasons for rejecting the idea of the meeting with the brothers having been planned in advance:


a.    Literary reason: There is no evidence in the text of such planning. This is in contrast to the continuation of the story, in which the text documents with great precision what Yosef does, including both the way in which he commands his servants and the discovery on the part of the brothers. Why, then, would the text skip specifically the instruction concerning the ten brothers that Yosef gives to his servants?

b.    Pragmatic reason: Does it make sense that Yosef, a man entrusted with the heavy responsibility of legislating and implementing emergency measures for a country in crisis, would deliberately burden the mechanism for selling food so heavily, for a period of more than a year,[2] while thousands of hungry citizens of Egypt and the surrounding countries line up at Egypt's food stores – all this without the Egyptian officials expressing any protest or objection to the mixing of personal interests in the emergency measures? Furthermore, even if we were to accept the idea that the encounter is planned in advance, would it not seem that after an entire year during which there is no sign of a single brother of Yosef in Egypt, the vision of a reunion and the faith in its realization would start to fade?

c.    Psychological reason: Yosef testifies to a period of weaning from the suffering of his family ("For God has caused me to forget all my toil and all of my father's house" [41:51]) with the birth of his first son, 11 years after being sold and 11 years before the eventual meeting with his brothers. It is possible that despite this expression of reconcilement, various experiences in the present bring him back to his past, but right now, with such heavy responsibility, does he really have time for thoughts about his family and dreams of a reunion with them, which he had suppressed even during more peaceful times? Are his moments of leisure not occupied with present worries requiring the sort of creative solutions that only he is capable of thinking up? It would seem that the public concerns which he is supposed to handle gradually blur his memory of his brothers, such that the sudden and coincidental encounter with them during one of his visits to the food storehouses strikes him like bolt from the blue.


Armed with this assumption, let us proceed to analyze the elements of the encounter and Yosef's rather strange behavior:


1.            Alienation

The confusion that seizes Yosef is expressed eloquently in the verses by means of repetition and internal contradiction in the description of his words:


Yosef saw his brothers and he recognized them, and he alienated himself from them and spoke harshly to them, and he said to them, “From where have you come?” And they said, “From the land of Cana'an, to buy food.” And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. (42:7-8)


The text notes twice that Yosef identifies his brothers. By means of this repetition, the text seems to be dramatizing for the reader the inner conflict that Yosef is experiencing as to whether to reveal his identity or to behave as a stranger. His first instinct, aroused by the memory of being thrown into the pit, is to remain aloof and to speak harshly to his brothers, so as to reinforce the distance between them. But what emerges is a restrained, conversational question, demonstrating that despite Yosef's intuitive inclination, the family bond overpowers him and will not allow him to address his brothers with a cold, hard foreignness. It is only when Yosef realizes that his brothers do not recognize him that he manages to follow his original plan and speak harshly to them.


It would seem that at this initial stage, there is no room to interpret Yosef's conduct as arising from a sense of mission. It is the startled emotional response of a brother overcome with feelings of anger – but the stern manner that he wants to adopt is shaken at the sight of his family. It is only when he is certain that they have no idea who he is that he is able to express his anger in the tone of his voice.


2.            Accusation of spying


The mention of Yosef's youthful dreams as an introduction to his words is a central support for the commentators who explain his behavior as being guided by the desire to realize those visions:


Yosef remembered the dreams which he had dreamed of them, and he said to them, “You are spies; it is to see the nakedness of the land that you have come.” (9)


This verse might indeed indicate a sense of mission on Yosef's part. It is not the humiliation of being stripped of his coat that he is remembering, nor the pit, the pleas that went unheard, nor even being handed over to the Yishme'elim. Rather, he recalls the long-ago dream that is now coming to life before his eyes, with his brothers bowing before him to the ground.


Why does the memory of the dreams lead Yosef to accuse his brothers of spying?


When the youthful Yosef had told his family of his early dreams, he was not yet aware of his special ability to interpret them. Right now, he is in the midst of the realization of a dream (Pharaoh's) that he alone, endowed with his special God-given gift, was able to foresee. The encounter with his brothers recalls to his mind the old dream which he had long since lost hope of realizing. Now that his proficiency in interpreting dreams has been demonstrated, Yosef is trying to make sense of those almost-forgotten images and the significance of what is going on in the present for decoding their messages. Trying out the accusation of spying gives Yosef the opportunity to gain an initial idea of the purpose of their visit. The accusation will cause the brothers to disprove the suspicion of espionage by revealing their true aims. The information that they provide will determine what Yosef does next.


3.            The reason for the imprisonment


At first, Yosef receives no new information, and Binyamin's absence from the company remains a mystery:


They said to him, “No, my lord, for your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of the same man, we are honest men; your servants are not spies.” And he said to them, “No, but you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” (10-12)


The accusation of spying is voiced once again, with the hope that the growing pressure will undermine the confidence of the accused and cause them to disclose further details. This stubbornness on Yosef's part bears fruit, and the brothers indeed provide new information about their family:


They said, “Your servants are twelve, we are brothers, sons of the same man in the land of Cana'an. And behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more." (13)


Could anyone expect that Yosef might remain indifferent to these words? "And one is no more" – the brothers have come to terms with Yosef's absence. No one is searching for him, even though their words suggest that they are aware that their brothers is still alive, somewhere; otherwise, they would have said, "and one is dead." "And behold, the youngest is this day with our father" – Yosef's anger over their apathy towards the "one who is no more" is balanced by a sigh of relief at the news of "the youngest." Yosef's fear that Binyamin's absence amongst the delegation that comes to Egypt indicates that his younger brother has met a fate similar to his own is laid to rest. In its wake, there comes a powerful longing to see Binyamin, who has replaced him in the role of taking care of his father's needs in Chevron.


What Yosef does next is influenced by the mixture of anger towards his brothers, a desire for revenge over their indifference to his suffering, and the overpowering longing to see his brother:


Yosef said to them, “It is this of which I spoke to you, saying, ‘You are spies.’ By this shall you be tested: as Pharaoh lives, you shall not leave here unless your younger brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and you shall be kept in prison, that your words may be tested – whether the truth is with you. If not, as Pharaoh lives, you are spies.” And he put them all together into custody (el mishmar) for three days. (14-17)


The reference to custody with the word "mishmar" hints to the element of revenge in Yosef's actions, for he too had been placed in "mishmar" following the debacle created by Potifar's wife (40:3-4, 7).


The three days of custody bring about a change in the way that Yosef speaks to his brothers and his instructions in their regard. This foreign ruler also reveals to them the reason for the change:


Yosef said to them on the third day, “This do, and live; I fear God. If you are honest men, let one of your brothers be imprisoned in your house of custody, and you – go, carry corn for the hunger of your houses. But bring your youngest brother to me, that your words may be verified, so you shall not die.” And they did so. (18-20)


The three days have the effect of neutralizing the element of revenge. In its stead, Yosef experiences a sense of mission whose essence remains unclear for the meantime, but which he hopes will be clarified later on. His longing for Binyamin is no less strong, but in the absence of any desire for revenge there is no reason to keep all the brothers in custody. One single hostage will suffice to ensure that Binyamin will be brought to Egypt.


4.            The choice of Shimon and the returning of the money to the sacks


The text amplifies Yosef's "play on identity" in the transition from the description of a ruler concerned for the security of his country to a description of the emotions that wash over him when he overhears his brothers talking and their effect on his next moves:


They said to one another, “But we are guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this trouble has befallen us.” (21)


The information arising from this conversation among the brothers is new not only to Yosef. The reader, too, becomes suddenly aware of the pangs of conscience that the brothers suffer over the matter of selling Yosef. Their apparent apathy, as reflected in the phrase, "and the one is no more," is now illuminated as a sharp pain which stabs their hearts and which they understand as the reason for all their difficulties.


The returning of the brothers' money to their sacks is explained by various commentators in accordance with the process by which they respectively explain Yosef's behavior.[3] Those who propose a quest for revenge explain that the returning of the money serves as the pretext to present the brothers as thieves, thereby avenging the act of kidnapping ("stealing a life") which they perpetrated against Yosef (who says of himself, "I was stolen away [ganov gunavti] from the land of the Hebrews"). Commentators who explain that Yosef is trying to cause his brothers to engage in a process of repentance explain that the returning of the money serves as a yardstick for measuring the degree of repentance that they have achieved. According to this view, they are submitted here to a sort of test to see whether they will they abandon Shimon in the Egyptian jail for the sake of monetary gain, as they once were willing to give up Yosef's life by selling him to the Yishme'elim, or whether they will fight to restore him to his father.[4]


In our view, it appears that the revelation to the reader at this specific point in time of the brothers' feelings and the burst of emotion experienced by Yosef when he hears this serves to explain what follows – Yosef's desire to express the renewed sense of closeness that he feels towards his brothers, but without risking the revelation of his identity:


Yosef gave orders that their sacks be filled with corn, and that each man's money be returned to his sack, and that they be given provisions for the way. And so it was done for them. (25)


It would seem that even the commentators of the "revenge" or "repentance" persuasion would regard the provisions for the way as a gesture expressing Yosef's feelings of warmth and closeness towards his brothers.


The choice of Shimon as hostage is likewise influenced by the new information that has just been revealed. Yosef is now convinced of Reuven's innocence, but he also understands that Reuven was opposed by others who had no compassion towards him and had sought to kill him. Shimon's place in the family structure and Yosef's disappointment in his failure to support Reuven's efforts cause him to be chosen as the hostage who will remain.


Thus, what influences Yosef's last actions prior to the temporary separation from his brothers (until their next descent to Egypt) is the momentary emotion that he experiences when he overhears them (stirrings of renewed fraternal love and pangs of jealousy), rather than a long-term plan, as proposed by other commentators.


5.            Yosef's manner in hosting his brothers


Yosef's brothers return to Egypt and once again present themselves before him. Yosef leaves his servants to host them, appearing only at noon. During the meal, Yosef seems to be playing a game, oscillating between hiding his identity and sending out hints to reveal it. What causes the delay in this encounter, and what is the meaning of Yosef's behavior during the meal?


We have explained Yosef's hiding of his identity during the first encounter as the result of confusion and the fear that premature revelation might shatter his hopes of drawing further details about his family's welfare and of reuniting with them. This strategy is proved to have achieved its aim. During the interim in between the two encounters, Yosef decides to continue with the same approach, but the sight of Binyamin, his beloved younger brother who had no part in his sale, makes it difficult for him to implement his decision:


Yosef saw Binyamin with them, and he said to the ruler of his house, “Bring these men home, and slaughter a beast, and prepare it, for these men shall eat with me at noon.” (16)


The postponement of the encounter with the brothers until noon is meant to give Yosef time to calm himself and to give him the strength to act in a thought-out way, rather than being driven by the burst of emotion aroused at the sight of Binyamin. Yosef instructs his servants as to how to treat his guests, and advises them regarding how to respond if any mention is made of the money in their sacks. Meanwhile, he gathers his wits outside of his house until the time comes for the meal.


The postponement of the encounter does not calm Yosef's longing for his younger brother, who is now sitting in his house. The sight of Binyamin at his table brings him again to tears, and he is forced to leave the dining area and seclude himself in his room:


He lifted his eyes and saw Binyamin, his brother, son of his mother, and he said, “Is this your younger brother, of whom you spoke to me?” And he said, “May God be gracious to you, my son.” And Yosef made haste, for his affection was kindled towards his brother, and he sought where to weep, and he entered his chamber and wept there. (29-30)


The inner struggle that is being waged in Yosef's heart is expressed in the parallel description of Yosef's effort to recover his composure and return to his brothers in the presence of their Egyptian hosts –


He washed his face and he emerged, and he restrained himself, and said, “Serve bread.” (31)


-  alongside the seemingly unrestrained actions that are bound to arouse the brothers' suspicions and to reveal his identity:


They sat before him, the firstborn according to his birthright and the youngest according to his youth, and the men marveled at each other. And he took and sent portions to them from before him, but Binyamin's portion was five times as much as any of theirs. (33-34)


It is difficult to accept the position of those commentators who argue that by means of this prominent show of preferential treatment, Yosef is testing the brothers to see whether the sort of jealousy that led to his sale still lurks within them. This idea is not convincing for two reasons. First, the favoritism of a father towards a son cannot be compared to a one-time phenomenon of a portion five times the size of the others offered by a foreign host. Hence, the fact that the brothers remain silent at the sight of Binyamin's heaped plate does not necessarily indicate that they have corrected the attribute of jealousy that had motivated their behavior in the past. Second, the text makes quite clear how Yosef's heart goes out to Binyamin. Is this not sufficient to explain his special treatment of him, as a token of his innermost feelings?


Yosef's restraint is stretched to its limits. The patience required for the pieces of the picture to fall into place so that the question of his future relations with his brothers can be decided is nearing its end. Yosef's next move is driven by his desire to move the process forward and reach the moment of decision.


6.            Hiding the goblet in Binyamin's sack


Yosef wants Binyamin with him. At this stage, this is the only thing he knows with certainty with regard to his family. His position with regard to his father and his brothers is still in question; perhaps an intimate discussion with Binyamin will help him to decide. What Yosef hopes to achieve through his plot is not to test the brothers' devotion to him and the degree to which they are ready to commit themselves on his behalf – indeed, this is proven the moment that Yehuda offers himself and his brothers as servants in Binyamin's stead. Rather, Yosef's insistence on the individual whose sack contained the goblet arises from his profound desire to renew the family connection with the younger son of his beloved mother, which might serve as a bridge to complete family unification:


He said, “Heaven forefend that I should do such a thing; the man in whose hand the goblet was found shall be my slave, but you – go up in peace to your father." (44:17)


7.            Yosef finally reveals his identity


Details of the current reality are slowly being revealed, but the picture is not yet complete. Listening to the brothers' conversations has yielded some important information, but one great riddle remains unsolved. The placing of the goblet in Binyamin's sack is a final attempt to put the puzzle together. Binyamin is the only one before whom Yosef can reveal his identity without fear of consequences and find out what has happened since that bitter day when his father was informed that he had been sold to the Yishme'elim.


A private conversation with Binyamin does not materialize, but a certain picture arises from the speech delivered by Yehuda. It is not, however, a solution to the 22-year old mystery, nor the meaning of the long-ago dream. What Yehuda reveals in his speech is a picture of a pained and grieving father whose unbearable anguish finds no relief. Yehuda's speech puts Yosef in the position of threatening his father's last source of joy and hastening his death, instead of redeeming him from his mourning and agony.


Yosef, the beloved son of Yaakov who remained in Chevron while the other brothers were shepherding in Shekhem because it was so difficult for his father to part from him, has been the source of his father's sorrow for 22 years. Now that he has the opportunity of easing his father's pain, his actions are exacerbating it instead. Yosef's role in caring for his father has been ably and faithfully carried out by Yehuda.


It is Yehuda's offer that he himself be sold into permanent slavery in order to prevent suffering for his father that breaks Yosef's front and causes him to reveal his identity.


Up until Yehuda's speech, Yosef's behavior towards his brothers had been motivated by three factors. The picture of Yaakov's mourning that is evoked by Yehuda's words and his readiness to remain for the long term in Egypt in order to ensure the welfare of his elderly father, despite his own innocence, re-ignites within Yosef the since of mission which had slipped somewhat into the background in the heat of the emotions aroused by recent events. Yehuda's speech has the effect of bringing all Yosef's feelings of anger, revenge, longing, and compassion into immediate focus. The aim of his mission is suddenly clear: "Is my father still alive?" "It was to keep [you] alive that God sent me before you". The father's 22 years of mourning over the thought that his son was dead were unavoidable, and the lonely suffering of the abandoned son was necessary. A reunion that took place too early would have obstructed the process leading to Yosef's appointment as lord over the land of Egypt, with the power to sustain a great number of people during the famine. However, now that everything is ready and all the preparations for his mission are complete, "Make haste and go up to my father… and say to him… Come down to me; do not delay." (45:9)



The eclectic explanation that we have proposed over the course of these two shiurim, proposing three factors that mold Yosef's behavior towards his brothers, raises a question as to the need for such detailed biblical documentation of emotions and of actions arising from confusion and uncertainty. This question is not encountered by the exegetical approaches that describe a process of realization of a certain vision, since these messages sit well with the biblical concept of repentance and the sense of Divine mission that should guide a person's actions.


We might propose an answer to this question by means of comparing our narrative to the double message that arises from an analysis of Avraham's journey on the way to sacrifice his son. Of course, the verses describing Avraham can be understood as expressing his calm determination, suppressing all feeling in his absolute devotion to God's command. However, one might also detect expressions of feeling, delay, and deliberation arising from the detailed description of his preparation for the journey, the number of escorts, and the phrasing of Avraham's answer to the question, "Where is the sheep for the burnt offering?"[5] The dual understanding arising from the verses serves to magnify Avraham, allowing greater identification with the human element of a father agonizing over the prospect of sacrificing his son, but managing to overcome his natural human feeling so as to obey the Divine command. Yosef, like Avraham, experiences understandable human emotion and even expresses it at different points during the encounter. Yosef's greatness lies in his ability to transcend his anger and his desire for revenge and to commit himself to the Divine mission, regarding this as the decisive guide to his behavior. Were it not for the documentation of his powerful feelings, it is questionable whether we could understand the full significance of the appellation that Yosef alone merits – Yosef Ha-Tzaddik, Yosef the righteous one.



Translated by Kaeren Fish



[1] Many other commentators suggest a similar idea.       

[2]From Bereishit 45:6, it seems that the second descent of Yosef's brothers to Egypt took place during the second year of the famine. It would seem that the period between their two journeys was not very long, since Shimon had remained in Egypt and the money which the brothers had paid for the food they bought and which they subsequently discovered inexplicably back in their own bags represented a threat to his welfare.

[3] See our shiur on Parashat Miketz, in which we presented four approaches to understanding Yosef's behavior.

[4] G. Wenham, "Genesis 16-50," WBC (Mexico, 2000), p. 409, cites the various opinions.

[5] See Yehonatan Yaakobs, "'Va-Yomer Hineni' – Demuto shel Avraham Be-Parshat Ha-Akeda," in Be-Rosh Ha-Shana Yikatevun (Alon Shevut, 5763), pp. 119-132.