Rabbis customarily created Midrashim to explain gaps or incongruities in biblical narratives. Since they mostly date from after the Jewish-Christian separation, Christians tend to be unaware of them, or even shocked that we could tamper with the holy text, but Muslims often know these stories, too. You will notice that the English below is not King James English; the narratives in the Hebrew Bible are usually far more “folksy” and I wanted to keep that flavor.
The problem in the Sodom narrative is, what was so terrible about Sodom that it had to be completely wiped out? The rabbis were convinced it was lack of charity for the poor and lack of hospitality for the stranger. One comment says about private property that the one who say, “What’s mine is mine, what’s yours is yours,” is of the mindset of Sodom (middat sedóm), while another says that whoever refuses to give someone something when it would cost the giver nothing is likewise as guilty as those who were destroyed. I think of the harassment of gay people in this light; what would it cost people to just let us live?
In the Joseph novella in Genesis (chapters 37, 39-40), there’s a gap in the narrative: When the brothers come down to Egypt the first time, not knowing that the grand viceroy they face is the brother they sold into slavery twenty years before, Joseph keeps one of them, Simeon (Shim’ón) as a hostage. The brothers go back home, then come back for my food some time later. When they come back down to Egypt, Joseph brings Simeon out to them. What happens to Simeon in the meantime? One of the literary aspects of the novella is that we almost never know what Joseph is thinking, or when he comes to the conclusion that he will forgive his brothers. If the Simeon gap were filled, it would remove the tension of the story, which is why I believe the gap exists. In any case, here is one possible midrash. It seems tame, but it presents Simeon as a sympathetic figure who contributes to the preservation of the Israelites, and that is (in my opinion) revolutionary. There is also a reference to Ps. 118:22.
It’s easy to see trouble coming a long way off. This valley is flat; anyone coming down the hill from Hebron is visible long before they get to the city gates, which is where we were sitting. And these two guys were trouble. Not only were they wearing slinky white robes that no man ought to be seen dead in – but they weren’t even walking like men. Instead they were sort of gliding along. You can get away with that sort of stuff in Babylon or Damascus, or maybe even Jericho up the valley, but Sodom is a well-run place, and we don’t allow deviance around here.
Some of the local men had already figured on beating the crap out of these fairies, but I convince them that we should keep our mouths shut when they get here, so they’ll take the hint and move on. But my father-in-law comes out right after I’d finish making peace. Keeping his mouth shut is something he doesn’t know how to do. Lot’s an okay guy, mind you, and I get along with his daughter fine, but he’s not from around here, and he’s never gotten rid of his foreign ways. Including inviting “guests” for dinner. We’re not much for guests here.
Okay, so they flounce into town about sundown, we’re polite and quiet, but Lot goes and invites them to his house. Everyone stares at them on the way to the house, and afterwards the men can’t help talking about how disgusting it is. Bringing in foreigners is bad enough, but these darlings were too much.
After an hour of yammering about it, we decide we’ve got to do something, we can’t allow this kind of behavior to go on. So we march up to his door and knock real hard, and then start to yell at him to come out and bring the two “guests” with him.
“All the years you’ve lived here,” says one, “you never treated us to any parties. What’s so good about them?”
“Yeah!” says another. “Maybe you like their pretty dresses, Lot, or what they have underneath them.”
Finally, Lot does come out, alone. “Gentlemen, please! If you want a party, I’d be happy to set up tables and food and wine out here for everyone.”
“Right,” someone says, “but you‘ll be in there. You’re too good for simple folks like us.”
“Gentlemen! If you want, my daughters will come out as well.”
“Hell no, Lot! We know what your daughters have under their skirts; it’s what your guests have that we want to know.” Lots of laughter, and I have to admit it is pretty funny.
“Please, gentlemen! I’m only doing what I must do. This is the code I’ve always followed.”
“Your code, Lot. You’ve been here twenty years, and it’s time you started living by the same rules as everyone else!” This time there’s a shout instead of laughter, and everyone starts pushing towards Lot.
One of the two visitors comes out just then and grabs Lot by the shoulder and drags him back towards the house – I wouldn’t have marked him for that kind of strength – and then lights some kind of fireworks so bright we’re all blinded by it, and I guess he and Lot go back inside then.
And it isn’t but an hour or so later that Lot himself comes knocking at my door, getting me out of bed, to tell me that the two visitors intend to destroy the whole town, and – get this – instead of us fighting them, Lot wants me and my wife to sneak out to some safe place while all the destruction is going on!
“I’m no yellow-bellied coward!” I tell Lot. But he still wants me to let my wife go with him, and I remind him that she’s my charge now, that he has no say about her anymore. He asks me at least to talk to her about it, and I’m about to tell him I’ll do no such thing, when she herself comes out from the bedroom and tells him, “Daddy, I live here now. Sodom is my home.” So Lot goes away. And that’s the last I hear up until that rumble that just started a minute ago.
I am still astonished at the level of my anger, in fact at the level of all my emotions. If there is anything that has pulled me through the trials of the past twenty years, it is my ability to focus on the task at hand and not be driven by emotions. But when Reuben, Simeon, and the others showed up in my court, I felt as if I were caught in some rushing tide of memories. Suddenly I was angry all over again at how inhumanly they had acted towards me.
And I felt the smugness, too: In my heart I said, ‘You thought I was as good as dead when you threw me into that pit, when the traders hauled me away like refuse. But here I am, not dead, not a slave; in fact, now you are the ones whose lives are in danger. You are the ones facing starvation during this famine. Now it is I who have all the control.’
And then I felt the sadness, when poor old Reuben—he looks so gray now—whined about how they were getting their just deserts for having destroyed my life. That sadness almost pushed me to reveal myself to these brothers of mine.
Almost. But have they really changed? Are they sorry for the horrors they’ve perpetrated upon me, or are they simply sorry that God has decided to punish them?
So I had Simeon arrested. I’m sure he’s the one who egged the others on to throw me into that pit. He’s always been a man of action, especially if there was some violent trouble that he could get into. He and Levi were the ones who killed everyone in Shechem in revenge for Dinah.
I thought I could just salt him away in jail, till my brothers come back again. Which they certainly will, when they’ve run out of the drought rations I gave them. Better off out of my sight, I thought, better where I won’t be overrun by those emotions all over again.
But it isn’t working. Sometimes at night I think of how he was when I was young. He was the one who showed me how to shoot arrows, the only one who was patient with my youthful ineptitude. Who is he today? For the first time in years, I find myself pulled to follow my curiosity.
I also find myself, after so many years of forgetting, recalling Canaan, and I’m surprised at how fondly I remember that place. It was where I was mistreated, spat at, cursed, and ultimately driven into slavery. But I do remember; it was so green—maybe it’s not so green today, with this drought—and it was so easy to walk for days, to be alone. Now, of course, I get far more respect than I ever did back home but I am never alone, and it is utterly impossible to travel anywhere without this enormous escort.
Who the hell is that guy? And why is he so interested in me? He comes to my cell today with his translator. I think he knows more than he’s saying. For one thing, I think he actually knows Hebrew; he hardly waits for the translator to finish before he fires back another question at me.
For instance, he must have picked up on Reuben dressing us down —yet again—in the big hall for having gotten rid of Joseph years ago. He asks me directly: “Are you the one who wanted to kill your brother?” When I say no, that I thought my brother was a pompous ass, but I sure didn’t want him dead, well Mister Bigshot there, his head snaps back like I had slapped him and then his fingers go to his chin, as if he’s planning to say something.
So what’s the big deal? Why is he even interested? I talk to the other prisoners about it. They think a lot of this guy. Maybe he does know Hebrew, they say; he knows everything else. They think he’s almost some kind of god, like he knows what I’m thinking without my even saying it.
Well, if that’s true, then he knows we didn’t come down to Egypt to spy. But that’s what he accused us of when we were all in that big hall with him. All we wanted was food.
The prisoners also say that I’m getting special treatment. It doesn’t seem like special treatment to me, but they say I’m getting more food, and better food, than they are. And I don’t have to work all day, but they do. Although that’s not such a blessing. I think my body’s missing doing something. If the guy comes again, I’m going to ask him to let me go work with the others. He won’t be able to figure out why, of course, so I’ll say it’s to make things easier for me with the others. I’m getting antsy about their jealousy, anyway, but the main thing is I’ll feel a whole lot better doing something other than just sitting around.
I’m not surprised. Simeon doesn’t like idleness. He never did.
But I am surprised that he denied being the ringleader in having me thrown into the pit. At first I thought he was lying, but on further consideration, I have to give him the benefit. He has done some horrible things, some a lot worse than just making fun of me when I was young, but he always owned up to anything he did. He never lied.
He, too, is a bit grayer, a bit thicker around the belly. Of course; it’s been twenty years now. I’m surprised too at how much I like him. It makes me uncomfortable to feel that. He isn’t any more civilized than he was back then, but no worse either. I wish I could simply tell him who I am, but I need to be sure. It may be, in fact, that he was not the ringleader in my abduction, but even if he didn’t instigate it, he did participate in it. After all, no one ever made Simeon do anything he didn’t want to do. Maybe, now, I have.
In any case, I am a bit worried. I was hoping to be able to maintain my exalted status with him till our brothers come back, but I think he already suspects something. And he knew me for seventeen years; how many of my little quirks and idiosyncrasies must he see in the Vizier of Egypt?
He comes back. He wants something. Why doesn’t he just spit it out? I don’t know what it is, but I know this much: I’ve seen this guy before, and I think he didn’t have that fancy headdress on. He asks again about my brothers, and he seems to know too much. He says he got it from the conversation the translator overheard at the hearing in the big hall, but I don’t think so. What is it that I recognize in him?
Well, at least I get something to do now. He’s got me being his gardener. At his own home. At night, I come back here to the cell, but they take me to his place in the daytime. At least I don’t have to talk to him, because he’s away at the big hall while I’m at his place. He must know I’m not a gardener. I know I wrinkled up my nose when he suggested it. He almost giggled back at me; it tickled him. But it’s a lot better than sitting here doing nothing, even if I can’t see the reason to keep those little flowers. I’m not allowed into the house; one of his servants brings me food and water whenever I ask for it. It still seems like useless work, but I’m not going to complain any more. Even so, a sheep can at least feed someone. What can a flower do?
But my fellow prisoners are awed by it all. They’re amazed that a garden still exists anywhere in Egypt in this famine. Then one man said that if anyone could grow a garden it was the Grand Whatever—I’m learning this language, but I still can’t get the names.
So, what is this all about?
And in the meantime, I haven’t any idea what’s happened to my brothers. Are they, too, in prison somewhere? Is anyone getting food back to our families?
Simeon did something remarkable today. He came up to me while I was on my way to the house for lunch. The guards tried to stop him, but he shouted to me, “What about my brothers? Please, Sir, what about my family?” I had to stop the guards from beating him. In the confusion, I forgot to wait for the translator to tell me what was happening in Egyptian. At least I didn’t speak directly to Simeon. If he hears me speak in Hebrew, he will certainly recognize the voice. Who else but our family has this accent? In any case, I had the translator tell him that the rest of the family is just fine, that they went off to Canaan with food. I didn’t tell him they kept their money too.
I’m glad. He’s thinking of someone other than himself. Maybe it isn’t only Reuben; maybe Simeon, too, has changed. What a miracle! But I don’t see how it can be.
After lunch, I went out to see him in the garden. I made sure to bring the translator along. I kept the talk short. I wanted to hear about the family, how they are doing. But I’ll do that next time. I could see from his handiwork that he had still a lot to learn about gardening. But he was not surly. Not servile like the Egyptian prisoners, but not rebellious either. I can’t tell what he’s thinking. Then again, I never could.
He is still asking questions. So I turn to the translator and say, “Is he still carping on that ‘spying’ bullshit?” Again, it’s clear as day that the translator is just there for show, because the man reacts immediately, grabbing his chin. That’s exactly what Joseph used to do, whenever he was surprised. We used to make fun of him for it. I realize that I really do know this guy. It’s Joseph. Himself! He is still alive!
I want to shout at him. But I keep my cool, almost. I’m so overjoyed that I burst out laughing, which is just about the worst thing to do when you’re in front of the Grand Whatever. But I’m so darned happy to know he is alive, that we aren’t murderers after all. I beg the translator, “Please tell His Excellency that I am laughing at my brothers, at all the stupid things they did, and how little they know about the world.” I think it works. At least I’m not beaten up.
Why is he still pretending? If he wanted to kill me, I’d be dead by now. And why did he choose me to keep here? He still thinks that I’m the one who pushed the bunch of us to throw him into the pit.
What is Simeon up to? That day when he laughed out loud: it’s so uncharacteristic of him. I don’t have much time left; I have to find out soon whether he has truly changed.
Today he came up to me directly, boldly—he amazed the guards, and they almost killed him right then. But all he wanted to do was to tell me, “I know you understand me.”
I wish I did. But I shrugged and turned away. I explained to the guards that his behavior was not menacing, but just typical of the barbarian Hebrews. They, of course, will believe anything I say, but Simeon is certainly not typical of our family, let alone all my father’s relatives back in Aram.
I have to know. I can’t let this go any longer. This time, when he comes out, I’ll say it to him face to face, and see what he does. My heart is just bursting out. That little boy we tossed away has become so great. Why doesn’t he want us all to know? How he succeeded in spite of us. How his dreams really did come true. He dreamed that we would all bow down to him, but in fact all of Egypt–no, the whole world—bows down to him now.
And even if he is the most powerful man in Egypt, I want to hold him in my arms again. Of all the punishments he could set me, this is the worst, this separation from him even while I can see him and hear him.
I was coming out from lunch. As I got to the end of the path and began to turn back to the hall for the afternoon rations, Simeon came up to me again.
“Joseph!” he shouted. “Joseph, you are alive! Will you ever let me hold you again? Am I never going to have you as my brother again? It’s too much; why not just kill me?”
My guards knew by this point that I did not want him harmed, so they withdrew, but not very far. They were afraid that Simeon was violent. They’re right in that, of course, at least, concerning his past life. I don’t know about what he is like now.
I had to respond.
“Simeon,” I told him, “how can I know the truth? You say you didn’t lead our brothers to throw me away like trash. But you didn’t stop them, did you?”
That got his attention. He broke down and cried.
“No, I didn’t try to stop them. I just went along with it. I wanted to teach you a lesson. I didn’t think they would take it so far.”
“Well, you certainly did teach me a lesson!” I shouted. “I learned a few things that day. And I’ve learned a lot more in the twenty years since then!” And I was so angry that I turned away, so I wouldn’t do something violent myself.
He called after me. “Will you ever speak to me again?”
I came so close to breaking down myself. The mix of anger and love was more than I could cope with. I had to resort to telling the translator to tell him not to approach me again. I said I would call for him when, and if, I could.
Here is the worst thing about it all: He’s right. He’s learned a lot of lessons since we did that horrible thing to him. We were so horrible to him back then, and he was just a kid.
I have promised myself that I will wait for him to turn back. I want much more than just to have my brother again. Somehow I have to tell him that we’re not the same thugs we were all those years ago. He has no idea how much we’ve hated ourselves for that act, how often Reuben or one of the others has brought it up. Every time, the conversation ends in cold silence.
It was about a week after Simeon’s outburst that I realized that I would have to talk with him sooner or later. This famine will be with us for years. The rations I gave the other brothers will be running out quite soon and, like it or not, they will have to come down here for more. By that point I must have some kind of plan to find out where I am in this family now or, more clearly, who my family is.
I invited Simeon into my study one day after lunch. I had to ask him some questions first before letting him know anything about what I might do.
“Remember what you told me in the Grand Hall? Is it true? Is my father still alive?” I asked him.
“Yes. He’s getting frail, but he still walks.”
“And what was that about Benjamin not coming down with you?”
Simeon answered, “After you died…”
“After I died?” I asked, almost shouting.
He cringed. “That’s the story we told Father.”
He shrank into himself even more. “Yes,” he said, quietly.
I continued. “So, I died. So what then?”
“Father grabbed onto Benjamin. He was your mother’s only other son.”
I sat quiet for awhile. All right, so Father thought I was dead, and he won’t let Benjamin out of his sight. But he will have to, or else they’ll starve. They’ll have to come back down here, and they’ll have to bring Benjamin with them, because that’s the rule I set: Don’t come again unless you bring your little brother.
While I was thinking, Simeon began to ask questions of me.
“Joseph, how did you get here? What happened to you after we …?”
“After you ‘killed’ me? Well, it seems I had a new life, doesn’t it? It wasn’t like this for quite a few years, though. Those Midianites who got me aren’t the nicest of fellows. And it wasn’t so nice getting sold as a slave. And I ended up in jail for no reason at all, except I wouldn’t have sex with my master’s wife.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” he said.
“She was very insistent, but I wouldn’t do that. So she grabbed my tunic, and showed it to her husband. She claimed I had left it in my rush to escape after she refused me!”
“So you ended up in jail.”
“Yes. The jailor liked me, fortunately. And then I interpreted some dreams for some of the other prisoners. The interpretations were right.”
“I’m not surprised,” Simeon replied. “You still are the dream guy, it looks like.”
“Yes. Eventually, Pharaoh himself had a dream and no one could figure its meaning. One of his servants suggested me, and I interpreted the dream. The dream meant that there was a long famine coming, so I suggested laying in food before it came. And he put me in charge of doing it. Now you see the result.”
Simeon was quiet for awhile. Then he spoke very seriously.
“Joseph, this is important. We tried to do you in, but instead you have risen to power. Do you think this is all your own doing?”
“What do you mean?” I asked him. No Egyptian would have dared ask such a question, but Simeon dares everything.
“The dreams are from God, aren’t they? And the interpretations? That’s what Father said about your dreams as a kid.”
“Yes, all right, so maybe they are. What are you driving at?”
He went on. “This is part of some plan. I don’t understand what the plan is, but you are here for a reason. It’s not just about the glory of being the Grand, the Grand… whatever the word is.”
I didn’t answer. But he was right. There did seem to be something bigger, some story I didn’t quite yet have my hands on.
“Let me think,” I told him. “I need to study this again.”
“Okay,” he said. “But listen, you already had some kind of plan before I came in here. Why don’t you tell me what’s going on?”
“I still don’t know how much to trust you—or the others—but I have to try now, because they’ll be back soon.”
“Who will be back?”
“Reuben, Levi, ….. and Benjamin.”
Simeon made as if to say something, but I cut him off.
“No, they will be back. There are still almost six years of famine to come—that’s what the dream said—and there is no other source of food in the region except these storehouses. They will be back. And I’ll want to know then if they are any wiser than when they ‘killed’ me.”
“You’d better believe it, Joseph. No matter how they felt about you, they were overcome with guilt when they saw Father’s grief.”
“Perhaps,” I answered. “But I have to know for myself.”
“Look, Joseph,” he said, “You have to figure it out, to do something. You aren’t going to get your answer by just thinking about it. And meanwhile, there is that other thing.”
“What other thing?” I asked.
“The reason why you are here.”
“Yes. I will think about that.”
For a week or two, we didn’t see each other; then Simeon sent word that he wanted to see me.
“I had a dream!” he almost shouted.
“And you want me to interpret it?”
“No! I know the interpretation. So will you.”
“All right; what was your dream?”
“Father was having a house built for him. There were many large stones lying around to build it with. There was also a smaller stone, and the workmen pushed it aside. The little stone rolled down the hill out of sight. They started trying to build the house with the rest of the stones, but the stones wouldn’t fit together. Finally, they approached Father, and he asked where the smaller stone was. They didn’t know.
“‘Find it,’ he told them. ‘That is the cornerstone for my house.'”
I laughed. “Very clever, Simeon. I am the cornerstone for the House of Israel. You made up a very convincing dream.”
Simeon said nothing, and looked down. I was right; he had in fact made up the dream. So I reassured him:
“Don’t worry. You may have made the dream up, but you’re right. I still belong to our family, don’t I? But there is more to do before we can reconcile, I’m afraid. Even if you’re right and they’re sorry for having hurt me, I want to know that they will resist doing the same thing if they get the chance again.”
“How will you know that?” Simeon asked me.
I shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t know.”
Simeon shot back, “Not good enough. You owe it us – you owe it to yourself – to come up with a test. At least give us the chance to either show you we’ve changed or not.
Again, Simeon was the only person on earth who could talk to me like that. And again he was right. “Yes,” I told him, “I will come up with a test. But I will not tell you anything about it. You must go along with everything that happens when your brothers come back, and not tell them anything about who I am or what we’ve talked about. Can I trust you to do that?”
“Yes! I know that you can trust me. Do you?”
“I will trust you at least to be honest.”
Joseph is always right. It isn’t very long before our brothers come back. And Benjamin is with them. He has me brought out to them and we greet each other. Then he has us all over to the house for dinner, and it is a great dinner, too. Joseph has us seated in order of our ages. That might be just a bit too clever, I think, but my brothers react just the way he wants: They’re amazed, and even more frightened of this man, who knows too much and seems to act without any reason. Joseph, of course, is up on a platform away from us.
“Did you tell him our ages?” they ask me. I say I didn’t, which is true.
The dinner is full of the cucumbers and leeks and onions that I have grown accustomed to over the past months. We are all scarfing it up. We could all get as addicted to this stuff as I am.
Afterwards, he gives us food rations to take back to Canaan, and sends us off to sleep in some very fine quarters. The brothers want to know all about my time in “jail.” I tell them I was the His Excellency’s gardener, and that I was fed and housed well, but I don’t tell them anything else.
In the morning, I expect to see Joseph again, to find out what the test is going to be. But he doesn’t show. Instead, one of his chief servants comes by with our animals and our saddlebags full of food, and just sends us off. I’m totally surprised, of course. Has Joseph changed his mind? But later in the morning, we’re ambushed by some of his guards, and searched for a silver cup, and, sure enough, they find it in Benjamin’s sack.
Actually, while all the other brothers are shaking in their boots, I’m pleased. This must be the test, somehow. I know I can’t tell them anything, so I have to just listen in on their conversation all the way back to town. When they ask me for advice, I tell them I don’t know any more than they do, and I don’t have any advice.
“He’s going to kill Benjamin!” Reuben cries. “We can’t let that happen.”
“You’re right,” I say, “but what do you think you can do about it?”
Levi says, “We have to stand up for him. We’ll say we won’t go back without him.”
“So then our families will all starve!” says Reuben. “Some of us have to make it back home.”
Judah speaks up. “I don’t care whatever else happens, but Benjamin has got to make it back home. I promised Father that, and I’m not going to break that promise. It was my promise, so I’ll put myself on the line.”
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happens. Joseph, as His Excellency, says he’s going to make Benjamin his slave forever, but that the rest of us are free to go. This is the test: We can accept this judgment, go back to Canaan without Benjamin, probably killing our father—and proving we haven’t learned anything in twenty years—or else someone comes to Benjamin’s rescue.
So Judah goes up and talks to him very close. I can’t hear much of what he’s saying, but for a while it’s a lot of “we” and “you,” like he’s telling the whole story of how we got here. Then I hear a lot of “I” so I can tell that he is really putting himself on the line in Benjamin’s place.
I can tell, too, that this starts affecting Joseph. He pulls at his chin and even starts to wince. I know it’s over; it’s all I can do not to burst out laughing again.. Sure enough, Joseph suddenly shouts out something in Egyptian, something like “Everybody out !” And all the Egyptians run out of the big hall. My brothers are really scared now, because they can’t tell what the guy is up to, only that he is very excited.
They don’t have long to be scared, though, because Joseph tells us who he is. He has to repeat himself, because everyone is so stunned to hear it from his mouth. “I am Joseph, your brother.” But eventually the brothers get the message, and it is one good time to get to say his name again openly. And yes, I do hold him in my arms, and we are both crying our eyes out.
Now, a few days later, we have left for home again, to get Father and bring him down to Egypt. My brothers ask me again and again what I know. I may be still under oath to Joseph, so I’m not telling them. When I look back at my life, there is not much I am happy about, but this is something that I’m proud of, and I’m not going to mess it up. So my family will never know about the one good thing I’ve done in my life. So be it.