The Inner Room

His Heart Yearned For His Brother

Last time, we saw that together with Benjamin the brothers had returned to Egypt. They were apprehensive of being accused of stealing the silver they had found in their sacks; they didn’t know whether they would find Simeon alive and whether he would be returned to them; and most of all they were afraid that Benjamin, upon whose coming the Egyptian magistrate had insisted, would for some reason be taken from them. In short, they were filled with expectations of gloom and doom. When upon Joseph’s order they were  brought to his house, they said, ‘It is because of the money, which was returned in our sacks the first time, that we are brought in, so that he may make a case against us and seize us, to take us as slaves with our donkeys.’[1] But the steward of Joseph’s house to whom they tried to return the silver answered them, ‘Peace be with you, do not be afraid. Your God and the God of your father has given you treasure in your sacks…’ Then he brought Simeon out to them.[2] So, contrary to their expectations, everything began to turn out not so badly after all, and once again they, now with Benjamin, came and stood before Joseph…

Take a look at this remarkable scene. The ten had already been here before and this whole scene would have been like an unpleasant déjà vu for them. Only Benjamin, laying eyes for the first time on the one about whom he had heard so much, with open curiosity examines this strange man. Who is he? Why has he been so insistent on his, Benjamin’s, coming? And what is even more peculiar, now that Benjamin has finally come, why does he not even bother to look at him?

Have you also noticed it? From the moment the brothers come before Joseph and he begins to speak with them, until the moment when he lifted his eyes and saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son,[3] an entire eternity passes. Four verses of Scripture can make up several very long moments in real life. Could it possibly be that Joseph really did not notice Benjamin until now?

I believe this single dramatic detail is enough to show how infinite is the love Joseph has for his brother. Joseph, who doubtless had noticed Benjamin from the second he entered, continues to converse with the others as if unaware of the newcomer. With all his might, he refrains from looking over at Benjamin, knowing that when he does he will no longer be able to speak, be unable to resist being swept away on the wave of emotions that will overpower him. Only after all the obligatory and polite words of welcome are pronounced does he permit himself for the first time to look fully upon his mother’s son. He allows himself to lift his eyes and see his brother Benjamin36 and to look, forgetting everything and everyone, absorbing these infinitely dear features… Now his heart yearned for his brother; so Joseph… sought somewhere to weep.[4]

The description of Joseph’s feelings is acutely intense in the Hebrew:

Now his heart yearned for his brother (כי-נכמרו רחמיו אל-אחיו)

This is one of the strongest, if not the strongest, expressions in the Tenach to describe the feelings which permeate a loving person. When King Solomon, for example, was determining the mother of the infant and made as if to have the child divided in two with the sword, it is said of the real mother:

She yearned with compassion for her son [5] (נכמרו רחמיה אל-בניה)

This same phrase is used several times in the Bible to describe God’s love for Israel: ‘Therefore My heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him,’ says the LORD.[6] It is intriguing that the word רחמיה/רחמיו can be translated as womb (in this sense we get the term heart, as that innermost part of us), but also as compassion, mercy, or lovingkindness. The combination of these two definitions makes that deep-down love that besieges the soul even more prominent and intense. It describes the emotion with which Joseph is overcome, like a wave swallowing him from head to foot. Now his heart yearned for his brother; so Joseph made haste and sought somewhere to weep.33


The inner room

Now, try to see this entire scene through the eyes of the brothers. So Joseph made haste.33 Try to imagine for yourself their puzzlement when this arrogant Egyptian governor (this is probably how they would have perceived him), unexpectedly right in the middle of their conversation, without any explanation and for no apparent reason, turns and strides quickly toward the exit. Not one of the brothers, including Benjamin, has the slightest idea of what is really going on in the heart of this “aloof” lord, or how his heart yearned for his brother.[7] Faith is the evidence of things not seen – and it is difficult to imagine a more graphic or expressive illustration of the difference between the seen and unseen. The brothers do not see the heart-breaking scene that you and I do: and he went into his chamber and wept there.33 They do not know what is happening with Joseph in this inner room, and for this reason, the gap is truly great between how they perceive the circumstances and what is really going on in the invisible reality of that chamber. However, we the readers easily understand that it is in his chamber that we see the true Joseph!

For a brief moment, it might seem to us that the game is over. Now, we think hopefully, wiping his tears, Joseph will emerge from his room and rush over to Benjamin, give him a bear hug and reveal himself. I am convinced that this was exactly what Joseph wanted to do more than anything else in the world. It is perfectly natural to expect this from a person who finally sees a beloved brother from whom he has been separated for many years. Instead, we see something completely different: Joseph (revealing the character of God’s supernatural love in this more than in anything else!) cannot reveal himself to the brothers until his plan is complete until God’s work in their hearts is finished. For this reason, what does he do upon leaving his chamber? Completely opposite of what we might expect and what he might personally want to do, he washed his face so that his tears would not be seen, so that there would be no trace of that love, and came out; and he restrained himself… (ויתאפק).[8]

Remember this word restrained; remember these tears of love that Joseph had to hold back. Remember, because at the end of this story we will see that Joseph could not restrain himself anymore. However, right from the beginning of the next chapter, we are puzzled again – and next time, we will discuss the new layer of this amazing story.

[1] Gen. 43:18

[2] Gen. 43:23

[3] Gen. 43:29

[4] Gen. 43:30

[5] 1 Kings 3:26; the NASB translates this phrase as ‘She was deeply stirred over her son.’

[6] Jer. 31:20

[7] Gen. 43:30

[8] Gen. 43:31

he insights you read on these pages are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in-depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.comAlso, excerpts from my books are included in this article  (and many other posts here), so if you like the articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you can get them here.

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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