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The Joseph Story - Part II: Fantasy, Jewish Style

  • The Joseph Story - Part II: Fantasy, Jewish Style

    Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1−44:17
D'var Torah By: 

Surely the most fanciful aspect of the entire Joseph story is the status achieved by Joseph in the administration of the Egyptian monarchy. Upon interpreting a dream as predictive of a national disaster, Pharaoh ascribes to Joseph the "spirit of God" (Genesis 41:38) and straightaway places him in charge of his people's administration. Pharaoh tells him, "You shall be in charge of my household, and all my people shall obey your word; only I, The Throne, shall I be greater than you" (41:40).

If we relate to this literature as history, we will apply the wrong genre criteria in evaluating its meaning. There is no evidence of there ever having been an Israelite who governed over Egypt. Attempts to link Joseph with historical personages or to sketchy references in ancient annals to short-lived foreign rulers all fail. This is not history. We have here a Cinderella-like fairy tale, where the despised brother not only ends up making good, but of all things, ascends to the most powerful political position in a foreign land, barely a notch below the authority of the monarch himself. Moreover, what gets him there is the interpretation of dreams, a symbolic activity meant to represent a form of divinely sanctioned wisdom-but here, wisdom put to work in exile and quite distinct from other forms of sign reading that are associated with priests, prophets, and temples.

I think it fair to say that kings do not regularly promote men who are prisoners on Monday to secretary of state on Tuesday (although recent events in American politics may force us to rethink such things). In real life, we should imagine that a king's loyal advisors would be less than pleased about being bypassed for this prized position, not to mention subordinated to a former Hebrew slave of unknown origins. One is expected to suspend all calls for plausibility in fairy tales, because the rules of this literary genre demand as much. Were we to seek historical feasibility, we would be ignoring all of those literary signals that instruct us on how to read and understand this story. This is fantasy, pure and simple, but fantasy with deep meanings.

The Book of Genesis is ostensibly about the creation of a clan that has a privileged status vis-à-vis a patron deity. That status is to be expressed through three rewards: possession of a land, the production of progeny, and the accumulation of wealth. Strangely enough, Genesis never raises the question of governance, either in terms of a monarchy or a priestly oligarchy. How odd that a people, in writing of its origins, fails to mention the ascendancy of its king, or even outline the structure of its governing bodies. Of course, later in Israel's history there will be chronicles of various kings and stories of clan leaders, but these are written subsequent to or independent of the Book of Genesis. The Books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles are later attempts at more normative annals, bringing Israelite narratives somewhat more in line (thematically and structurally) with those of foreign peoples.

But I am speaking here of the Jews' origination stories, not depictions of later historiographic eras. The evidence suggests that in all other cultures of the ancient world, the kings themselves were quite keen on having told the very stories that linked their own family's ascendancy to the crown. But this is not the case in Genesis. Strangely enough, Exodus will also avoid this theme. Indeed, the entire Torah ignores the question of indigenous governance beyond that of the priestly caste (Levites) and clan patriarchs, save for one brief passage in Deuteronomy, which reads as follows:

"If, after you have entered the land that the Eternal your God has assigned to you, and taken possession of it and settled in it, you decide, 'I will set a king over me, as do all the nations about me,' you shall be free to set a king over yourself, one chosen by the Eternal your God. Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin." (Deuteronomy 17:14-15)

Notice that God does not actively promote the establishment of a monarchy; according to this brief passage, it is simply left as a matter of choice. In other ancient Near Eastern cultures, where covenants between gods and kings are the foundations for the patron-vassal structure on which nations are built, legends tell of a monarch's illustrious rise to power made possible through divine favors. The contrast with Israelite literature is simply overwhelming. The Torah neither requires nor even predicts the establishment of a monarchy. What could account for such an approach? Had there been a king in Israel when this literature was composed, then Deuteronomy 17 would not have left monarchy as an option. That is, no king would lend support to an official history that does not include his ascendancy as divinely ordained (or at least historically inevitable). But none of the Torah books predict or call for a king. Rather, they offer remarkable alternatives to the role of king.

There is, of course, Moses. He is a man raised and educated among (Egyptian) royalty, but upon assuming the leadership of his own people, he is called prophet rather than king. Moreover, he yields no heir as kings are wont to do. His successor is a military man turned prophet bearing no familial relationship to his mentor. And true to form, he himself leaves no heir. This unconventional paradigm is an Israelite creation, with no literary or historical antecedent known to us.

Indeed, it is an act of ingenuity to frame leadership as possible outside of the monarchic model. But it is not this model of leadership alone that proves at odds with historical precedent, it is the place of that leadership. Moses will reign over Israel in Egypt and in a vast wilderness, not in a Jewish land. The greatest Jewish leader of all times reigns in the Diaspora.

Similarly, there is deep irony in the fact that Joseph becomes an almost-king in Egypt but, like Moses, leaves no heirs eligible to serve as Israel's future redeemer. He is quite specifically framed as the redeemer for his present generation, only all traditional notions of redemption are turned on their head. Upon disclosing his identity to his brothers, Joseph proclaims:

"So God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. So it's not you who sent me here but the God who made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord of all his household, a ruler of the whole land of Egypt." (Genesis 45:7-8)

The vocabulary alone should strike us as discordant. The redeemer is made "ruler" of a foreign land, and "deliverance" (ostensibly from the famine in Canaan) occurs through peaceful transference into an exilic sojourn. How bizarre that our origination story should focus on our survival as requiring displacement from the Promised Land through a leader whose rise from slave to lord over the land is designed directly by God.

The particulars of Genesis are rendered irrelevant by a verse at the opening of Exodus, which tells us a new king arose who knew nothing of Joseph's era (Exodus 1:8). This is one more method of distancing Jewish history from the normal patterns assumed by other peoples. Israel's first redeemer transfers the people from Canaan to Egypt; but Israel's second redeemer is destined to reverse the path. Only, that second redeemer will come not from the house of the man who, for all intents and purposes, ruled as king in Egypt-Joseph. Instead, the redeemer will hail from the house of Levi, the very clan that will never hold land in Israel and whose power will emerge through priestly rather than monarchic authority. At each and every point of the story line, conventional thinking about leadership, inheritance, and monarchy are undermined.

Joseph speaks Egyptian and marries Egyptian women; Moses is raised as an Egyptian and marries a Midianite and a Cushite. Somehow, the history of interpretation has downplayed these profound depictions of Jewish life in exile, where positions of power imply a kind of social integration that is figuratively represented by the taking of foreign wives (keep in mind Solomon's excesses along these lines, including seven hundred wives taken from among the Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Zidonites, Hittites, and, of course, the Egyptians [I Kings 11:1-3]; but all that takes place on Israelite rather than foreign soil and is readily condemned by the authors). The conflicted attitudes toward life in the Diaspora, which pit clan-allegiance against the desire for power and stability, perhaps underlie that secondary phrase in the Deuteronomic passage noted above: "Be sure to set as king over yourself one of your own people; you must not set a foreigner over you, one who is not your kin" (Deuteronomy 17:15). If you read the Book of Deuteronomy as pertaining to the Land of Israel, you will understand this edict as concerned with a "future era" when governance of Israel might fall to a conquering power. And such a reading is surely plausible. But more valid, in my opinion, is to understand this as a comment about Jews living in foreign lands. In one's own land, while enjoying independence and sovereignty, a people would hardly think to entertain a foreign leader, unless it is forced upon them (a scenario Deuteronomy does not intimate). But if you are living in a foreign land, the question of allegiance becomes particularly thorny. By making Joseph an almost-king in Egypt, the Jews could think of themselves as having lived under the aegis of someone from amongst themselves. And the same would be true when Moses emerges as ruler of Israel in Egypt and the wilderness. In effect, when in exile, it is hoped that Jews will not sacrifice control over their own cultural destiny, as they might otherwise be expected to do. Ultimately, the hope was that Jews, through merit (like Joseph) would rise to positions of power even in foreign lands, thereby guaranteeing cultural autonomy. Such a structure would enable them to think of themselves as having a "kinsman" ruling over them.

Alas, it is all fantasy-there was never an Israelite in Egypt who reigned from the house of Pharaoh, nor has there ever been a Jew who rose to rule a foreign land quite like Joseph. But it is a fantasy born of anguished times, when the pressures to assimilate into an inhospitable world of competing cultures forced Jews to imagine new approaches to survival. Until that time, the world had not imagined it possible for a people to preserve a cultural identity without enjoying the stability of traditional sovereigns in a land all their own. Through a parable about survival in exile, we learn that history could be defied.

David H. Aaron received his doctorate from Brandeis University and ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati. He is professor of Hebrew Bible and History of Interpretation at HUC-JIR, Cincinnati. His most recent book is Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue (T & T Clark, 2006). You can contact him at

©2008 David H. Aaron

Who Is Joseph; Who Are We?
Davar Acher By: 
Dvora E. Weisberg

David Aaron offers a masterful analysis of Joseph's ascent to power in Egypt, arguing that we cannot read the events described in our portion as historical but must instead see them as a meditation on Jewish power and security in the Diaspora. I would like to suggest that insofar as the story of Joseph in Egypt is a story about Jewish life in the Diaspora, we also should consider how Joseph's personal life and that of the rest of Jacob's family upon their arrival in Egypt contributes to our understanding of what it means to be a people or a religious community outside of the land deemed ideal for that community's existence. Moreover, this story, like all of the patriarchal narratives, emphasizes that Israel is not only a people, but also a family, experiencing all of the complexities featured in family life.

The story of Joseph's experience in Egypt is one of professional success; Joseph becomes a powerful government official. At the same time, his personal life before the reappearance of his family is less than ideal. Before his appointment by Pharaoh, Joseph is continually made aware that he is an outsider. A favored slave in his master's house, Joseph cannot be trusted with his master's food, because as a Hebrew he cannot touch food consumed by Egyptians (Genesis 39:6, 43:32). When Potiphar's wife falsely accuses Joseph of rape, she speaks of him, both to her servants and to her husband, as "a Hebrew" (Genesis 39:17), implying that Joseph's nationality makes him problematic. Pharaoh's cupbearer refers to Joseph as a Hebrew when he mentions him to Pharaoh (Genesis 41:12), suggesting that even as he recommends Joseph as a man who might be able to help the king of Egypt, he regards Joseph first and foremost as a foreigner.

Joseph himself experiences his rise to power in Egypt, his very existence there, as dislocating. The name he gives his firstborn son indicates both his desire to forget his past and embrace his Egyptian self and his inability to truly do so. He names his son Manasseh, claiming, "For God has made me forget [nashani] all the troubles I endured in my father's house" (Genesis 41:51). But no person who has truly forgotten his parental home alludes to it in naming his child! Joseph cannot forget, and the reappearance of his brothers demonstrates the emotional attachments he has to his family of origin. Even when he names his second son Ephraim in recognition of his fruitfulness, Joseph refers to Egypt as "the land of my affliction" (Genesis 41:52).

Joseph's continuing connection to his family in Canaan is made clear in our Torah portion. When Joseph sees his brothers bowing before him, he has a number of options. If he has truly "forgotten" his parental home, he would sell food to his brothers and send them back to Canaan unaware of his identity. If he craves vengeance but is unprepared to reveal himself to his brothers, he could refuse them food or have them killed. Instead, Joseph chooses a course of action that forces him to reconnect with his family of origin, with all of the fascinating and problematic family dynamics it entails. Apparently, Joseph is only fully satisfied when he and his children have been reintegrated into Jacob's family, when he has reasserted his identity as a foreigner, and the brother of a group of nomadic shepherds at that.

Joseph's proclaims to his brothers:

"So God sent me ahead of you to assure your survival in the land, and to keep you alive for a great deliverance. So it's not you who sent me here but the God who made me a father to Pharaoh, a lord of all his household, a ruler of the whole land of Egypt." (Genesis 45:7-8)

This is read by David Aaron as a bizarre twist to the Israelites' story: the survival of the Israelites requires their displacement to Egypt and the rise of one of their own to power in a foreign land. But it also captures the moment in which Joseph is able to integrate his two selves, the Hebrew shepherd and the powerful vizier. His dreams of grandeur now make sense to him, as he recognizes that power can be used to serve his brothers rather than to subjugate them. We can also read this proclamation as Joseph's attempt to reconcile with his brothers by turning their betrayal of him into an almost prophetic decision. This narrative thus reflects both Israel's political and deeply personal struggles.

Dr. Dvora E. Weisberg is associate professor of rabbinics and director of the Lainer Beit Midrash at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles, California.

Reference Materials: 

Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258