Reuben’s failure and Judah’s Rise; Resolve to Descend to Egypt

The old man didn’t take the news so well (Gen. 42:29-43:10). We feel the unease of the sons as they explained as best they could what had happened. Jacob didn’t say a word, even when they mentioned the terms of the deal which included his dear Benjamin. It was only when they all stood aghast at the silver discovered in their open bags that the bleakness of their situation hit them with full force. We hear Jacob’s bitter exclamation, “I am the one you have bereaved of children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin” (42:36). He had not missed that his sons were slowly disappearing because of their bungling.

Reuben would have felt the sting of this rebuke the most, being the first born and, therefore, the one most responsible. Back in Egypt when the brothers first discussed their guilt in the matter of Joseph, Reuben came off as a self righteous “I told you so” (42:22). Here he comes off as a melodramatic buffoon, blurting out to his father that he could kill his two sons if he didn’t bring Benjamin back to him, as if butchering his grandsons would soothe Jacob’s soul (42:37). Jacob doesn’t even honor him with an answer but makes it clear to all that he will never let Benjamin go down to Egypt. Jacob knew sorrow and feared its power; if he lost Benjamin he would descend bitterly into Sheol, losing all hope of a peaceful death.

This is the last we hear of Reuben until his father all but curses him at the end of his life. He is forever remembered for his crime of forcing himself on Bilhah, Rachel’s maid and father’s concubine (Gen. 35:22). Most likely this was not a crime of lust; he wished to humiliate his father for the way he treated his mother Leah by favoring Rachel and her maid. Perhaps he even desired to usurp himself over Jacob like Absolom did with his father David. Reuben is truly a tragic figure, a symbol of those who never are able to get out of themselves. No matter how hard he tried, and he tried very hard, he could never exert his role as firstborn. He was too full of himself to be respected. Because he wanted to be respected, he never was.

Judah, on the other hand, emerges as the undisputed leader among the brothers. When Reuben speaks, he is ignored. When Judah speaks, there is action. The family consumed all the grain that they had brought from Egypt, and now Jacob had to face the inevitable. Judah convinces his father that they must not go back without Benjamin and places himself as surety for his youngest brother lest harm befall him (43:3ff.). The old man is forced by his circumstances to detach himself from his son. We sense a certain resolve in him under the heavy hand of God; perhaps he remembered the grandeur of his grandfather in his willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac, Jacob’s own father. Unlike Abraham, we do not find a willing soul; yet we may take comfort from the fact that God works with the timid heart as well as the lion hearted. God eventually has His way with those He loves.

With a sort of irony we behold the caravan moving toward Egypt (43:11-15). Israel, for that was the name the God of his fathers gave Jacob when He wrestled with him at the river Jabbok, did not wish for them to go before this Egyptian without a gift. He loaded up his sons’ donkeys with the goods of Canaan: balm, honey, gum, resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. The reader will not miss that this was the same merchandise that the Ishmaelite caravan was carrying, bringing us all back to the original scene of the crime (37:25). Twenty years ago it was Joseph going down in such a caravan to Egypt to meet his fate; now the brothers are making their way down in the same manner. Perhaps way back in their subconscious they made the uncanny connection to their past.

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