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  • Pity and Emotion in Josephus’s Reading of Joseph
  • Sarah Judith Pearce

Pity must be directed toward a harm that is not deserved, following Aristotle (Rhet. 2.8, 1385b.13–16). In her analysis of Josephus’s construction of pity in his paraphrase of Genesis, Françoise Mirguet demonstrates how this principle is exemplified in Josephus’s account of Judah’s appeal to Joseph to release Benjamin for the sake of their father, Jacob (Ant. 2.140–59; cf. Gen. 44:18–34). Here, Judah’s speech endorses the view that only the innocent (the brothers’ father, Jacob) deserves pity and that this should outweigh the punishment justly deserved by the brothers: that Joseph “graciously give [χάρισαι] to our father” what justice demands for the brothers’ wrongdoing, and that he “let pity for [Jacob] be more powerful (δυνηθήτω … ἔλεος) than our wickedness” (Ant. 2.151). In what follows, I suggest that Judah’s appeal, as constructed by Josephus, is interesting also in other ways for thinking about the significance of pity and the subversion of its construction in Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

Questions of guilt, pity, and power are not straightforward in Josephus’s account of Judah’s appeal. While Joseph demands punishment only of Benjamin (framed for stealing Joseph’s cup), it is Judah who insists that the brothers’ collective punishment is “just” (Ant. 2.140, interpreting Gen 44:10, 16; cf. 2.155).1 And it is Judah, according to Josephus, who argues that the brothers’ appeal for clemency is not based on their pitying (ἐλεοῦντες) themselves but is because they have compassion (οἰϰτείροντες) on their father’s old age (Ant. 2.148).2 While appealing to Joseph’s [End Page 858] power, Judah aims to influence, even to control that power by defining what is just vis-à-vis guilt and pity.

Judah’s appeal to reason. In his epitaph for Joseph, Josephus praises the patriarch for his extraordinary virtue; he is to be remembered as a man who controlled everything by the use of “reason,” using his authority sparingly (Ant. 2.198). The appeal to Joseph as a man of reason also plays a major part in Josephus’s account of Judah’s appeal. Just before the appeal begins, Joseph rejects the brothers’ offer to put themselves forward for punishment in place of Benjamin: it is not “reasonable” (σώφρον), argues Joseph, to release Benjamin for the sake of those who have done nothing wrong, nor to punish them together with Benjamin, the only one of the brothers to be convicted of stealing Joseph’s cup (Ant. 2.138). This statement represents a significant expansion of Gen 44:17, in which Joseph rejects outright Judah’s offer to have all the brothers submit to punishment. Against this background, Josephus makes Judah appeal to Joseph’s reasoning powers (λογισμός) (Ant. 2.151; cf. 157) to persuade him of the grounds on which he should grant pity. Judah begins by appealing to Joseph’s superiority in virtue: to his “goodness” (χρηστότης) (2.140; cf. 157); to his superiority over lesser men in following “virtue” instead of “wrath”; to be “high-minded” (μεγαλόφρων), not mastered by wrath (2.141); to continue the gracious generosity and benefactions that had saved the brothers’ lives up to now (2.142–57).3 These are the virtues expected of a king, a thought perhaps directly inspired by Judah’s opening words to Joseph, “Be not impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh” (Gen 44:18 JPS). This is a God-given opportunity for Joseph to show himself the best kind of ruler; by exercising his authority as a “humane” (φιλάνθρωπος) leader, Joseph’s superiority is distinguished by extending his humaneness even to those who deserve the severest punishment (Ant. 2.145–46). In this respect, Josephus reflects a principle encapsulated within Greek-speaking Jewish tradition in the Letter of Aristeas. As a fundamental witness to the ideology of kingship in the Hellenistic world, Aristeas offers abundant advice—mediated by the fictional dialogue of King Ptolemy II Philadelphus with representatives of Jewish wisdom—including the idea that to grant “pity” is the work of the best kings. Thus, to the question posed by Ptolemy, “How might [the king] be humane [φιλάνθρωπος]?,” the Jewish sage...


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