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The Denizens of Genesis - the Fourth Partriarch


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The Fourth Patriarch?

By Howard J. Curzer

Everyone talks about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but you probably haven't heard much about me. Yet you don't call your religion Abraham-ism or Isaac-ism or Jacob-ism. No, your religion is Judah-ism because (except for the Cohens and Levis and maybe a few Benjaminites) you are all descended from me, Judah. Now I have a complaint. I'm just as good a patriarch as first three, but I'm typically ignored. It's not fair! Why am I slighted?

OK, I did urge my brothers to sell our little brother Joseph into slavery. But virtue isn't required for patriarchy. Didn't Great-Grandpa Abraham banish one innocent son and try to sacrafice another? I wouldn't blame Isaac and Ishmael for never speaking to their father again. Didn't Grandpa Isaac lie about being married to Grandma without even asking her permission? Didn't my own father, Jacob, cheat Uncle Esau out of his birthright and blessing? And then Laban fooled Dad, and pushed him around, and cheated him. He would never have left unless Mommy Leah and Mommy Rachel put some backbone into him. And then they all slink away like thieves in the middle of the night! If a sneaky bungler like Daddy can be a patriarch, why not me?

Anyway, I didn't want to enslave my brother, Joey. I was trying to save his life. My brothers hated him, but that wasn't their motive. Grown men don't do away with their little brother just because he is a tattletale with annoying dreams of grandeur, after all. No, they had put the fact that Joe was Daddy's favorite together with his boasts about becoming their ruler. They worried that Dad might make Joey his heir. They all wanted to kill him except for Reuben. Reuben tried to save little Joe. "Shed no blood! Cast him into the pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves," Reuben said (Gen. 37:22). Then he left, intending to come back later and rescue Joseph from the pit. Foolish! Hardly a permanent solution, either. Of course as soon as he left, out came the knives again. It looked like shiva-for-Joseph time. So I appealed to the self-interest of my unscrupulous brothers. I asked, "What do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our brother, our own flesh" (Gen. 37:26-27).

That worked. But do I get credit for saving Joseph? No. People think Reuben is the sweetheart with brotherly love in his heart while I'm the heavy. Reuben revealed himself to be a phony, though. When he returned to find Joseph gone he whined, "Now what am I to do?" Selfish bastard! Instead of worrying about the fate of poor Joey, Reuben was worried about being blamed by Dad. The fact is that Reuben and I both had the same goal: saving Joseph. And the same strategy: talk the angry guys into a lesser evil. One difference is that I was doing it for Joseph, and Reuben was doing it for Reuben. The other difference is that Reuben blew it and I succeeded.

The same thing happened again, you know. There was this famine. We older brothers went down to Egypt to buy food; Dad and Benji stayed in Canaan. Then Simon was framed and jailed for stealing. "Bring your youngest brother back and I'll release Simon," said The Man. So when we got back, Reuben ran to Dad and insisted on taking Benji back to Egypt to spring Simon. "You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you," offered Reuben (Gen. 42:37). Typical Reuben theater! Reuben was just pretending to care for Simon; he wasn't really risking anything. Was Dad likely to kill his own grandchildren? Anyway, it was foolish to try to persuade Dad to let his darling Benji go right away. Anyone could see Dad was distraught. He cried, "Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin" (Gen. 42:36). So I waited until the food was running out and Dad sent us back to Egypt to get more food. If I hadn't cared so much about Simon, I would have just said, "Yes sir," to Dad, and skedaddled back to Egypt without Benji. Instead I told Dad, "Send the boy in my care…You may hold me responsible; if I do not bring him back to you I shall stand guilty before you forever" (Gen. 43:9). And I meant it, too. When we returned to Egypt with Benji, the Man released Simon. Then he accused Benji of theft and threatened to enslave him. I gave a tearjerker speech and offered, "Let me remain as a slave to you instead of the boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers" (Gen. 44:33). It worked. The Man revealed himself to be little Joey, all grown up and assimilated beyond recognition. He cried and forgave us and we all lived happily ever after in Egypt. Sort of (Gen. 50:15).

So I saved Joseph, and then Simon, and then Benjamin with clever talking at considerable risk. Dad appreciated me. In a deathbed blessing Daddy even appointed me to succeed him as the leader of the clan, just like Grandpa appointed Daddy. "You, O Judah, your brothers shall praise…Your father's sons shall bow low to you," Daddy said (Gen. 49:8). So what do you people want? Why don't you consider me to be a patriarch? Why don't you pray to, "the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah"? It's discrimination! Prejudice against Judah-ians (i.e. Jews) goes all the way back to me.

OK, God never talked to me like He did to old Abe, Zack, and Jake. But God certainly intervened in my life. Remember Tamar? She married my firstborn son, Er, and he died. Then she married my second son, Onan, and he died. Then she wanted a shot at my third son, Shelah. Legally, I couldn't refuse. Naturally, I kept putting off the wedding. I was running out of sons. Meanwhile, Tamar was just hanging around, waiting for a shot at Shelah. Then my wife died. One thing led to another and Tamar became pregnant. I thought, "Gotcha! I can get her executed for adultery and save Shelah." But then she proved that her kid was mine. It must have been an act of God! After all, it was through that kid that King David turned out to be my descendent! Doesn't that qualify me to be a patriarch?

Look, I saved people. I was clever. I was the clan leader. God arranged for me to be David's ancestor. The commentaries all notice that my speech to Joseph is the longest speech in Genesis. You want more evidence? My great-great-great-grandson, Caleb, was the only one willing to back Joshua's first invasion plan. Later, my tribe provided more troops for the conquest of the Promised Land than any other tribe. My tribe (with a little help from Benji's) held out for a century against the Assyrians or Babylonians or Cardassians or whoever they were after the other ten tribes wimped out and got "lost". Why don't you draw the appropriate conclusion from all this? Why doesn't anyone realize how important I am?

by Judah ben Israel (with editorial assistance from Howard J. Curzer)


from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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