Yosef's Treatment of his Family


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One Guiding Plan?

Parashat Miketz focuses on Yosef's first interactions with his brothers after twenty-two years without any contact.  The text describes the brothers' first descent to buy food where they are accused of espionage and imprisoned, and then their second visit when Binyamin is framed.  At every step of the way, Yosef's behavior puzzles the reader. 

How are we to understand his lack of communication with his father for so many years?1  What motivates his harsh treatment of his siblings?  And, finally, of all the brothers, why does he frame his beloved Binyamin?  Is there one unifying factor that can explain all of Yosef's actions or an overarching plan that guides his hand throughout?  Or, does Yosef have multiple, and perhaps even conflicting, motivations?   Alternatively, does Yosef's character develop, or unforeseen events occur, that cause him to alter his plans and behavior?

Good Cop, Bad Cop?

Alongside Yosef's harsh treatment of his brothers, Yosef also shows them a measure of good will, secretly returning their monies, inviting them to dine with him, and showering gifts upon them and Binyamin.  How do these actions square with the trumped up charges, incarceration, and harsh interrogations?  What motivates this Janus-like behavior? Does Yosef seek revenge or forgiveness, to reunite or to forget?

Yosef in Egypt

Yosef's time in Egypt was a roller coaster of ups and downs. How did both the years of servitude and the subsequent rise to power affect his feelings towards his father and brothers?  Tanakh provides one clue in the naming of his sons:


וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱ-לֹהִים אֶת כׇּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כׇּל בֵּית אָבִי.

Joseph called the name of the firstborn Manasseh, “For,” he said, “God has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.”

Upon the birth of his firstborn, Yosef thanks Hashem for making him forget his past toil and his father's house.  Does this suggest that with Yosef's success, the pain caused by his brothers had dimmed, paving the way for reconciliation?  Or, do the words reveal a Yosef who has actively decided to turn his back on his father's house and heritage, preferring to assimilate into Egyptian society?

Any Dream Will Do?

As is often the case in Tanakh, the text does not share most of Yosef's inner thoughts and feelings.  Nonetheless, right before Yosef accuses the brothers of spying, the verse states: "וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם", suggesting that somehow memory of his dreams prompted Yosef's subsequent dealings.  What about this memory, though, triggered Yosef to act as he did?  Was he thinking of the dreams' content or the pain that was caused by them?  Did they instill in him renewed hope or spark old resentment?

The Reader's Assumptions

Knowing the end of the story sometimes blinds the reader to the fact that the characters in the narrative are not privy to the same information.  To properly understand Yosef, it is necessary to question some assumptions:

  • Twelve tribes?  Though the reader knows that ultimately all twelve sons were chosen to form the Nation of Israel, it is likely that the brothers were unaware of this at the time.  How might the suggestion of chosenness, or conversely, the fear of rejection, have motivated the brothers' actions?   
  • Happy ending?  The story ends on a happy note, with Yehuda's selfless plea for Binyamin and Yosef's revelation. Is this, though, what Yosef had initially planned and hoped would happen?2  What would Yosef have done had Yehuda not stood up for Binyamin?
  • Deserved punishment?  The brothers view Yosef's harsh treatment as deserved punishment for their earlier actions.3  Was this, though, Yosef's goal as well?