The Test

The cup in the sack

Last time, we watched as Joseph was overcome with tears of love for his brother Benjamin in the inner room. Of course, the brothers knew nothing about it. Next day,as soon as the morning dawned, the men were sent away, they and their donkeys“.[1] I guess their hearts were full of joy at that moment since everything had come to an end surprisingly without mishap: all the brothers, including Simeon and Benjamin, were returning home with their sacks full of grain; moreover, that stern Egyptian governor had suddenly befriended them and even invited them for a feast. We know that at dawn they were sent away and started back on the road, but we also know that not long before they left, Joseph had commanded his steward (to his great puzzlement, I imagine, as well as to the puzzlement of those reading these chapters for the first time) to put his – Joseph’s – silver cup into Benjamin’s sack. Next, we read: When they had gone out of the city, and were not yet far off, Joseph said to his steward, “Get up, follow the men; and when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is not this the one from which my lord drinks, and with which he indeed practices divination? You have done evil in so doing.’” So he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words.[2]

 

Stop here! Try to imagine what the eleven must have been experiencing, already anticipating the reunion with their father and their families, with stories told not without a little bragging about how they had unexpectedly become friends with the chief Egyptian governor. Already sure that everything had gone so smoothly and expediently that they were rejoicing in the uncommonly good nature of this capricious lord, when his hand, which had allowed them to get but a few steps away, once again overtook them. What would they have felt when, already imagining themselves to be free, in the end it turned out that this was only a continuation of that same on-going game of cat-and-mouse from their first meeting? So he searched. He began with the oldest and left off with the youngest.[3] I can almost see them before me in these moments during the search: panting and crimson, trying to come to terms with yet another unforeseen misadventure, indignant with the total injustice and groundlessness of this new accusation. ‘Look, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan the money which we found in the mouth of our sacks. How then could we steal silver or gold from your lord’s house?’[4] Despite all this, however, while being absolutely sure of themselves and each other, presenting their sacks to the servant of this Egyptian governor who won’t leave them alone, their utterly distraught hearts are filled to the brim with mixed feelings of puzzlement, fear, affront and triumph over each one’s innocence proven. Now everything is almost over, just one more moment and at last they will be released and can resume their journey home, far away from this strange place where evidently something mysterious is at work, far away from this sinister person who for some reason causes their hearts to shudder in remembrance of that long-ago perpetrated act. Just one more minute, only Benjamin’s sack is left to be checked, and he of course is the youngest, the purest among them, innocent of even what all of them are guilty of. How could he even be suspected of anything? Is there even any need to search his bag at all? Dancing around nervously with impatience, each brother has already loaded up his donkey. They are just about ready to get back on their way – hurry, come on, let’s get going… hey, what’s going on? What?!! I hear a moan of terror multiplied ten times over at the end of verse twelve: the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. Only Benjamin is left speechless and says not a word.

 

Laban’s Search Revisited

 

And so, all the brothers return to the city. Ashamed, crushed, and confused, not having the slightest idea of what great joy lay ahead at the end of this path, what was going through Benjamin’s thoughts? What memories were evoked, what did he feel during this cheerless return to the city? Did he remember what you and I will now recall, the chronicle of the idols stolen by his mother Rachel when Jacob fled Laban, with Laban’s search immediately following? Though we can’t be sure how closely the text of our chapter thirty-one of Bereshit approximates the story Benjamin would have heard as a child, told and retold by the lips of Jacob, let’s turn there now. After long years of serving Laban, Jacob decides to return to his land; or to be more accurate, God made the decision and Jacob was obedient to His will. I must qualify this statement, however. As often happens with believers, in carrying out the will of God and thus justifying his actions, Jacob did not fulfill God’s will in such a godly manner. He broke off his relationship with Laban and left in a rather ungodly fashion. His whole departure or flight, rather, was so unseemly that the Word of God accuses both Jacob and Rachel of the hideous sin of theft. Not only Rachel stole, or had stolen (ותגנב רחל) the household idols that were her father’s, as everybody remembers, but to our great surprise, we discover that Jacob stole away, or “stole the heart of Laban” (ויגנב יעקב את-לב לבן),[5] because he did not inform him that he was leaving and taking with him all his wives and children, i.e. Laban’s daughters and grandchildren. So Jacob leaves, but after some time Laban overtakes him and accuses him of both the fact that he had run away, as well as of stealing his idols. Jacob, indignant at the accusation and not knowing of his wife’s theft, offers Laban to search the whole camp. ‘With whomever you find your gods, do not let him live.’[6] And Laban commences his search.

 

If you have ever read children’s magazines to your young ones, you are sure to have seen exercises in comparison: either you must find the difference between two nearly identical pictures or vice versa, locate the common things hidden in two not-so-similar pictures, such as matching details virtually inconspicuous due to their more obvious differences. These two stories of searching can serve as a model for both cases. While generally similar, these two scenes have plenty of differing external details; despite all these surface differences, however, there is an inner unity not immediately observable that makes these stories spiritual twins. Remember that Jacob, overtaken and accused by Laban, is absolutely convinced that as a matter of principle there couldn’t be any stolen goods in his camp, and to the depths of his being he is insulted by such suspicion. With his reverence for God, Jacob knew well that stealing was a sin, and even the thought that he might somehow be mixed up in theft was unbearable to him. Despite all this, however, he was not aware that he had sinned against Laban. He did not sense that to “steal a heart”, or to deceive, was also theft, also a sin. For me this is a sure sign that he did not yet possess a vital relationship with the living God, without which it is impossible to grasp such a concept. In exactly the same way, the insulted brothers who have been accused of stealing by the steward of Joseph’s house swear to their innocence in literally these same words: ‘With whomever of your servants it is found, let him die.’[7] Just like Jacob, however, they do not realize they are guilty of sin before Benjamin. They do not consider their same invisible “stealing of a heart”, jealousy, extreme dislike and guile, to be sin. For me, this again points to one thing: the brothers do not yet have the type of living relationship with God where the religious heart, illuminated for the first time by the Spirit of God, starts to believe and to love. Only such a heart can understand that not only is outright visible theft a sin, but the “theft of a heart”, while invisible to the naked eye, is also sin. Jacob is caught by this search on the road to the Jabbock, on the way to the place he will call Peniel, where he sees God face to face,[8] on the road to the meeting that would forever change his name, character and his very life. In the same way, Joseph’s brothers are still on the road to this eternally life-changing meeting. The whole scheme with the cup, and therefore all the suffering of Benjamin, was created by Joseph for the sole purpose of leading them to this meeting – but not Benjamin nor they themselves can grasp this yet.

 

As the story goes, Laban searches all the tents but still doesn’t find his idols. Rachel had hidden and sat on them and to this day (thought Benjamin ruefully) no one had any doubts that this story had ended favorably. Certain laws exist in the spiritual world, however, that are unseen and therefore at times ignored even by believers, but nonetheless are laws just as inviolable as the law of gravity, for instance. This is why the search of Rachel, the mother who had actually stolen and yet on whom nothing was found, reverberates a generation later in as tense a drama through the search of her son, who though innocent, was accused of stealing, and on whom the stolen goods were found.

 

Surely Benjamin could not help but remember Laban’s search, as it reminded him all too well of what he himself had just experienced, and the peculiar spiritual symmetry of both stories could not go unnoticed by his heart. Throughout the duration of the joyless return to the city, I can see him completely immersed in his thoughts, his inner vision as if riveted to that long-ago scene, the details of which had so unexpectedly and tragically come alive for him today. Thus lost in thought, he of course does not notice (and to them, of course, it seems as if he is simply pretending not to notice) the meaningful, aggravated glares of his brothers. The tense and unusual family unity, which they had put on before their exit from Egypt as if donning clothing for travel, was now torn asunder together with the rending of their clothes. Instead of eleven before us, we once again have the ten and the one. This morning they had left the city together but paradoxically, as occurs only in God’s geometry, they were destined to travel the road back on very separate paths…

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Gen. 44:3

[2] Gen. 44:4-6

[3] Gen 44:12

[4] Gen. 44:8

[5] Gen. 31:19-20; in the Hebrew, the word “steal” is used twice in a row practically.

[6] Gen. 31:32

[7] Gen. 44:9

[8] Gen 32:30

 

 

 

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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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  1. Libby Lawson

    Hello Julia, I have been estranged from my family for many years. Sometimes caused by me and sometimes by them but most of all sin. This same scenario has played out in my family for at least 2 generations that I know of. I would like it to stop right here but the entanglement is so impossible. You say that God cares about what is going on here and we see this in hindsight. How can we know that God has my families situation in hand? And how can I see God moving as I wait in these circumstances? Thank you for a wonderful understanding of this story. I really have never thought of it like this.

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Libby, the key here is just to wait ( and to pray, of course). Undoubtedly, God cares about your family and your relations with them – but as I wrote, you will see it in hindsight. evidently, the time of hindsight has not come yet: Joseph had been estranged from his family for 20 years, and I suppose, at many points within these twenty years it might seem to him that God didn’t really care -and yet, God has been moving all this time in his circumstances. But it all became visible to him only in hindsight – and it will definitely become visible to you, too!

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia for these teachings on the Joseph saga! Truly the search for one’s true higher self is in evidence here.
    Sincerely,
    Nick