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Benjamin ( ) in the Book of Genesis, is a son of Jacob, the second (and last) son of Rachel, and the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Benjamin; in the Biblical account, unlike Rachel's first son – Joseph, the father of Ephraim and Manasseh – Benjamin was born after Jacob and Rachel arrived in Canaan. He died in Egypt on the 11th of Cheshvan (which was also his birthday) 1443 BCE at the age of 111.

However, some view these details as postdiction, an eponymous metaphor providing an etiology of the connectedness of the tribe to others in the Israelite confederation.


Biblical scholars regard it as obvious, from their geographic overlap and their treatment in older passages, that originally Ephraim and Manasseh were considered one tribe, that of Joseph. According to several biblical scholars, Benjamin was also originally part of this single tribe, but the biblical account of Joseph as his father became lost. The description of Benjamin being born after the arrival in Canaan is thought by some scholars to refer to the tribe of Benjamin coming into existence by branching from the Joseph group after the tribe had settled in Canaan. A number of biblical scholars suspect that the distinction of the Joseph tribes (including Benjamin) is that they were the only Israelites which went to Egyptmarker and returned, while the main Israelite tribes simply emerged as a subculture from the Canaanites and had remained in Canaan throughout. According to this view, the story of Jacob's visit to Laban to obtain a wife originated as a metaphor for this migration, with the property and family which were gained from Laban representing the gains of the Joseph tribes by the time they returned from Egypt; according to textual scholars, the Jahwist version of the Laban narrative only mentions the Joseph tribes, and Rachel, and does not mention the other tribal matriarchs whatsoever.


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According to the Torah, Benjamin's name arose when Jacob deliberately corrupted the name Benoni, the original name of Benjamin, since Benoni was an allusion to Rachel dying just after she had given birth, as it means son of my pain. Textual scholars regard these two names as fragments of naming narratives coming from different sources - one being the Jahwist and the other being the Elohist. The true etymology of the name Benjamin is a matter of dispute, though most agree that it is composed of two parts - ben and jamin - the former meaning son of. The literal translation of Benjamin is son of right (as opposed to left), generally interpreted as meaning son of my right hand, though sometimes interpreted as son of the right [hand] side; being associated with the right hand side was traditionally a reference to strength and virtue (cf sinister, which derives from the Latin for left). This is, however, not the only literal translation, as the root for right is identical to that for south, hence Benjamin also literally translates as son of the south; this meaning is advocated by several classical rabbinical sources, which argue that it refers to the birth of Benjamin in Canaan, as compared with the birth of all the other sons of Jacob in Aram. Modern scholars have instead proposed that, with the eponymous Benjamin being just a metaphor, son of the south/son of the right are references to the tribe coming into existence in a geographic situation to the south of Ephraim, the more dominant tribe. In the Samaritan Pentateuch, the name is consistently written as בן ימים - with a terminal mem - making it Benjamim, and would literally translate as son of days; some classical rabbinical literature argues that this was the original form of the name and was a reference to the old age of Jacob when Benjamin was born.

According to classical rabbinical sources, Benjamin was only born after Rachel had fasted for a long time, as a religious devotion with the hope of a new child as a reward, and by then Jacob had become over 100 years old. Benjamin is treated as a young child in most of the Biblical narrative, but at one point is abruptly described as the father of ten sons; textual scholars believe that this is caused by the genealogical passage, in which his children are named, being from a much later source than the Jahwist and Elohist narratives, which make up most of the Joseph narrative, and which consistently describe Benjamin as a child.

Benjamin's sons

The genealogical passage names each of the sons; classical rabbinical tradition adds that each son's name honors Joseph:
  • Belah (meaning swallow), in reference to Joseph disappearing (being swallowed up)
  • Becher (meaning first born), in reference to Joseph being the first child of Rachel
  • Ashbel (meaning capture), in reference to Joseph having suffered captivity
  • Gera (meaning grain), in reference to Joseph living in a foreign land (Egypt)
  • Naaman (meaning grace), in reference to Joseph having graceful speech
  • Ehi (meaning my brother), in reference to Joseph being Benjamin's only full-brother (as opposed to half-brothers)
  • Rosh (meaning elder), in reference to Joseph being older than Benjamin
  • Muppim (meaning double mouth), in reference to Joseph passing on what he had been taught by Jacob
  • Huppim (meaning marriage canopies), in reference to Joseph being married in Egypt, while Benjamin was not there
  • Ard (meaning wanderer/fugitive), in reference to Joseph being like a rose

The Torah's Joseph narrative, at a stage when Joseph is unrecognised by his brothers, describes Joseph as testing whether his brothers have reformed, by secretly planting a silver cup in Benjamin's bag, then publicly searching the bags for it, and after finding it in Benjamin's possession, demanding that Benjamin become his slave as a punishment; the narrative goes on to state that when Judah (on behalf of the other brothers) begged Joseph not to enslave Benjamin and instead enslave him, since enslavement of Benjamin would break Jacob's heart, this caused Joseph to recant and reveal his identity. The midrashic book of Jasher argues that prior to revealing his identity, Joseph asked Benjamin to find his missing brother (ie. Joseph) via astrology, using an astrolabe-like tool; it continues by stating that Benjamin divined that the man on the throne was Joseph, so Joseph identified himself to Benjamin (but not the other brothers), and revealed his scheme (as in the Torah) to test how fraternal the other brothers were. However, some classical rabbinical sources argue that Joseph identified himself for other reasons. In these sources, Benjamin swore an oath, on the memory of Joseph, that he was innocent of theft, and, when challenged about how believable the oath would be, explained that remembering Joseph was so important to him that he had named his sons in Joseph's honour; these sources go on to state that Benjamin's oath touched Joseph so deeply that Joseph was no longer able to pretend to be a stranger.

In the narrative, just prior to this test, when Joseph had first met all of his brothers (but not identified himself to them), he had held a feast for them; the narrative heavily implies that Benjamin was Joseph's favorite brother, since he is overcome with tears when he first meets Benjamin in particular, and he gives Benjamin five times as much food as he apportions to the others. According to textual scholars, this is really the Jahwist's account of the reunion after Joseph identifies himself, and the account of the threat to enslave Benjamin is just the Elohist's version of the same event, with the Elohist being more terse about Joseph's emotions towards Benjamin, merely mentioning that Benjamin was given five times as many gifts as the others. A version of the Joseph narrative appears in the Qu'ran, which also mentions Benjamin, describing him as having been regarded particularly highly by Joseph, and by Jacob; Baidawi, the quintessential mediaeval commentator on the Qu'ran, records that there was a tradition that the brothers had been made to sit in pairs at the feast, so that Benjamin had to sit on his own, which resulted in Benjamin weeping over the loss of Joseph. Not only is Benjamin treated as the favourite brother of Joseph, and a favourite of Jacob, but classical rabbinical sources also stress the fact that Benjamin is referred to as the beloved of Yahweh in Deuteronomy; these rabbinical sources concluded that Benjamin died without ever committing sin - one of only four men to have done so (the other three being Amram, Jesse, and Kileab).

See also


  1. Genesis 35:18
  2. Jewish Encyclopedia, Ephraim
  3. Peake's commentary on the Bible
  4. Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed
  5. ibid
  6. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible?
  7. Genesis 35:19
  8. Richard Elliott Friedman, Who wrote the Bible?
  9. Jewish Encyclopedia
  10. Genesis 46:21
  11. Genesis 44
  12. Genesis 43
  13. Genesis 43:30
  14. Genesis 43:34
  15. Sura Yusuf
  16. Shabbat 55b


External links

  • The Jewish Encyclopedia, 1908: Benjamin. Material on the tribe, its territory, Rabbinical tradition and Islam, where Benjamin is not specifically mentioned in the Qur'an.

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