#75. Who vouches for Benjamin’s security: Reuben OR Judah? (Gen 42:37 vs Gen 43:8-9)


Reuben and Judah each make one last appearance in the Joseph story, err… stories.

As in the previous case (#71), where Reuben denounces his brothers’ plan to kill Joseph in the Elohist version, so too Reuben acts as surety for Benjamin’s safe return. “And Reuben said to his father: ‘Kill my two sons if I don’t bring him [Benjamin] back to you’” (42:37).

The Yahwist version of the story, however, keeping with its exaltation of the southern kingdom of Judah, has its eponymous ancestor, Judah, play the role of surety, as it was also Judah who denounced the brother’s plans to kill Joseph (#71). Here Judah exclaims: “I’ll be security for him [Benjamin]. You’ll seek him from my hand. If I don’t bring him back to you and set him before you then I’ll have sinned against you for all time’” (43:9).

If the brothers are representative of their respected tribes, then both versions of the story seem to explain the safeguarding of the tribe of Benjamin. For it was known that after the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BC, tradition had it that only two tribes remained: Judah and Benjamin. Could the Yahwist’s choice for Judah as Benjamin’s surety reflect this late 8th century BC reality—namely that the southern kingdom of Judah saved the tribe of Benjamin, which lied on the border between Judah and Israel, from annihilation?

One thought on “#75. Who vouches for Benjamin’s security: Reuben OR Judah? (Gen 42:37 vs Gen 43:8-9)

  1. Rueben, having lost his birthrights for defiling his father’s bed, had little negotiating power. Jacob considered Benjamin the only son he had left (Gen 42:38). Rueben tried to show Jacob how seriously he took the protection of Benjamin by offering the lives of two of his sons. “See dad, I have twice as much at risk as you!” But, this wasn’t quite the same thing considering Rueben had four sons (Gen 46:9). Plus, what consolation would it be for Jacob to lose his only son along with two grandsons? Triple the grief? Clearly, Jacob did not see this as much of an offer.
    The wickedness of the brothers led Jacob to pass the firstborn birthrights to Joseph (1 Chr 5:1). When Joseph was believed to be dead, these rights transferred to Benjamin. Now, if Benjamin died the birthrights would pass to Judah (since Rueben, Simeon, and Levi’s actions had disqualified them from any claim).
    When Judah made his offer of protection for Benjamin, he told Jacob, “If I don’t bring him back to you… I will bear the blame before you all my life.” (Gen 43:9) He was saying that he would give up his claim to his birthright; he was placing his own symbolic life on the line. But there is more to it than that: Jewish tradition holds that Jacob had always considered Judah as the guiltiest of the brothers in Joseph’s “death” because Judah was the one that ran away. Jacob had no proof; he only had his suspicions. When Judah said he would take the blame, he wasn’t just referring to Benjamin; he was also talking about taking the blame for Joseph’s death.
    With Judah’s change of heart, he was first but he made himself last (in his birthright) so that he might serve his family. The completeness of his change is made apparent later in the story when he offers himself as a substitutionary atonement for his brother Benjamin. Witnessing this change is what causes Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers.

    Rueben’s story speaks to the “atheists wager” – the belief that doing some good is good enough. He did have a change of heart and he was remorseful, but ultimately this change was half-hearted. He attempted to do what he thought was the right thing without being too personally invested. He still had an “escape route” if something went wrong. In contrast, Judah put his life on the line – literally going all in.

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