What Is This That God Has Done To Us?

They “trembled to one another

Last time, we were watching the brothers during their first meeting with Joseph. We saw that right away they felt the connection between this meeting and the crime that they had been hiding all these years. Somehow, they knew it was all about their long-ago sold brother, however, they still credited what was happening to the whims of this Egyptian Viceroy, and consequently to just an unlucky turn of events. Therefore, during this meeting we still hear impersonal and passive verb forms: “this distress has come upon usor, like Reuven said, “his blood is now required of us”. It is interesting that God is not mentioned here yet – they have yet to understand that none other than the Almighty Himself has made them participants in this game. But they will come to understand, because another invisible logic begins to make its way to the surface through the apparently irrational and inconsistent visible circumstances: the logic of the movement of God’s Spirit in the heart of the person He is pursuing.

The brothers set out on their way back and one of them notices the silver he used to pay for the grain was returned in his sack. “Then their hearts failed them and they were afraid, saying to one another, ‘What is this that God has done to us?’”  I want you to see this profound transition: from the impersonal “his blood is required” to “What is this that God has done to us?” It is not so evident in most translations, but in Hebrew, this transition is very clear: from impersonal and passive verb forms describing just unlucky circumstances, to understanding that it is God who is doing this to them.

The Hebrew here literally says that they “trembled to one another”. After all, they had simply gone down to Egypt to buy grain (just as many centuries later the Samaritan woman simply went to the well for water) and they certainly didn’t expect, much less want, something unusual to happen on this trip. What now were these uncanny things happening to them? Like a doubly exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, we can see God’s, yet invisible, reality placed over their routine lives and beginning to show through. And if we recall ‘the unexpected interruption’ of Genesis 38, we might suggest that it was Judah— the one who had experienced the terrible tragedy of losing two sons, who had repented, who had a broken and humble heart—who said these words: “What is this that God has done to us?” The Torah does not disclose it, and at this point, it does not separate Judah from his brothers—and yet we do know that it did separate Judah before and will separate him after. We saw him repenting and confessing in his story with Tamar, and later we will see Judah’s speech and confession that will deeply touch Joseph’s heart and cause him to reveal himself to his brothers. So, I think we can safely conclude that Judah is the one who is the most sensitive to the move of God’s spirit in this story – and he is the one who began to understand that everything happening to them was not simply a twist of fate, but God had done it to them.


The Second Journey

When the brothers arrived back at Canaan, they were frightened and confused. Yes, they brought the grain home, and even the silver they paid for it was somehow returned along with it, but somehow this Egyptian story kept troubling them (besides, Simeon was left there, and they had to rescue him somehow).  Although at first Jacob emphatically refuses to permit Benjamin to go back with them, as if closing the issue altogether, I think they all knew in their hearts that this story was destined to continue.

The parallels between Joseph’s sale and this second part of the story are remarkable. Exactly as in Chapter 37, apart from the anonymous voice of all the brothers (They said to one another… – Gen. 37:19, Gen. 42:21), we hear two distinct voices here. The first belongs to Reuven: Then Reuben spoke to his father, saying, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.” These words sound so strange—after all, Reuven’s sons are Jacob’s grandsons. Why would Jacob kill his own grandsons? We already discussed them, however, as a clear echo of Judah’s tragedy.  If, in the eyes of the brothers, the death of Judah’s two sons was God’s judgment and punishment for not bringing Joseph back, then we can understand that Reuven is in effect saying: I will bring Benjamin back, and if not, I am prepared to pay the same price.

However, nothing happens after this emotional pledge of Reuven—just as nothing happens after his emotional words in Chapter 37. As in the story of Joseph’s sale, it is the voice of Judah that becomes decisive here. Reuven seems to have good intentions, but he doesn’t have the character to follow up—he doesn’t have the authority to make it happen. In Chapter 37 he wanted to save Joseph, but in the end, he did not—it was Judah’s voice that sealed Joseph’s fate. In Chapter 42, he wants Jacob to let Benjamin go with them to Egypt, but once again, nothing happens until Judah intervenes.

It’s interesting that, unlike Reuven, Judah doesn’t make any solemn pledges – doesn’t swear – he just says: “Send the lad with me… I myself will be surety for him; from my hand you shall require him,” but once again, it is only after his intervention that everything changes. Judah has been given this authority from the very beginning, and therefore here again it is his voice that becomes decisive and makes a difference. Moreover, in Hebrew we can see how this amazing authority affects his father. After Judah’s words, Israel (Jacob) says: אִם־כֵּן אֵפֹוא – If …so. The word אֵפֹוא is a redundant word in Hebrew, used only for stylistic purposes; it definitely reflects here some inner process in Jacob’s heart: even though he had not received any additional rational argument, after Judah’s words. he was compelled to let Benjamin go.

Thus, together with Benjamin the brothers return to Egypt. I suppose they were filled with expectations of gloom and doom. 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. When, upon Joseph’s order, they are brought to his house, the men were afraid … and 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] However, 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] Therefore, contrary to their expectations, everything began to turn out not so bad after all, and it got even better after, once again – now with Benjamin – they came and stood before Joseph…


[1] Gen. 43:18

[2] Gen. 43:23


The 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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    I am from Singapore and I sit in class from my online iPad

  2. Nick

    Thanks Julia, you have put me at the scene of this story-I so enjoy and benefit “learning Torah” with you, or more accurately, from you.