The Joseph Story - Part III: Absolute Exile

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18−47:27

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi David H. Aaron

The most intractable theological conundrum of all monotheistic religions is the question of how God is manifest in history. Oftentimes the whole issue of divine involvement in historical events is distilled to the problem of evil and undeserved suffering-what is frequently labeled the problem of"theodicy."The issue can be framed simply as: if God is benevolent and able to act upon God's sense of what is just, why do innocent people suffer? Almost as pressing is the problem of free will. If God has a hand in designing the unfolding of human affairs, how can free will be possible? Theologians since antiquity have contrived a vast array of thought games to get around the obviously irresolvable tensions that result when people insist on sustaining belief in a moral deity, while also granting that deity power over the intricacies of nature and history alike. Attempts at rationalizing history vis-à-visan ethical and potent deity generally result in three scenarios: (1) believers are required to suspend critical thinking and form a faith somehow unaffected by the travails of history they readily experience; (2) believers are required to accept and integrate the paradoxical into their approach to life; or (3) believers are required to withdraw into the mind-set that our inability to resolve this tension is the result of our intellectual limitations and not something problematic about the ideas or, for that matter, God.

This essay is being written for those who find scenarios 1 through 3 unacceptable. If you are not such a reader, then you will probably not find this essay terribly meaningful. But if, like me, you have grown thoroughly impatient with the"theological reasoning"that has no grounding in our daily experience of life, then perhaps this essay will prove satisfying.

I am starting from the position that the problem of theodicy-or God's responsibility for history in general-is a problem we should resolve by deconstructing its various components to expose its ill-formed foundations. (Note: this is not an essay about whether God exists or not-that's quite a different discussion. The concern here is the history of belief regarding God, which is regularly grounded in biblical sources.) The ideas that God engineers history, is incapable of evil, and is all-powerful have extremely shallow and fragmentary roots among biblical writings. The strong coalescence of these ideas, especially as they have been bantered about by Jewish and Christian theologians since antiquity, has its roots in that remarkable historical episode known as Hellenization-the collision of Hebrew narratives with Greek ("Hellenistic") philosophical ideas. These strange bedfellows-Hebrew and Hellene-whose relationship involved periods of insatiable attraction interspersed with deep feelings of mutual repulsion-spawned many offspring, one of which was theology itself. Until this fusion of cultures took place, no Jew thought "theologically." That is, no Jew thought to harmonize in a systematic way our experience of nature and history with some abstract, philosophically derived notion of God and the mechanics of the external world of which God was a part. It would never have occurred to a reader of Genesis to come up with a rationalization of history the way theologians do to this day. In most of the Hebrew Bible (not just Genesis), God functions as a character like many other characters. God has feelings, changes God's mind, acts abruptly, sometimes manifests deep concern, and at other times shows insouciant indifference. Not a single verse in the Book of Genesis attempts to justify or explain the character of God's powers over history or nature. Rather, it simply ascribes some acts to God and leaves others to the winds of personal discretion and chaos. There are, of course, among the verses of Psalms and the poesy of prophets various claims as to God's powers over creation and the sustaining forces of nature, but no passage in our Hebrew Bible comes even remotely close to the kinds of contrived writing about Israel's patron deity as would be found after Judaism met Hellenism.

This, of course, does not mean that certain writers, among the panoply of authors whose works now make up Genesis, were not attuned to certain problems in the way history unfolded. This is especially true of the team of redactors who fashioned the final form of the book. I have advocated among these essays the principle that the core stories of Genesis existed in some literary form prior to their inclusion in the final document that now constitutes the first of five books in our Torah. Tensions among the various stories, which were not originally intended to be juxtaposed in the anthology before us, were inevitable. Making matters worse, the ideological overlay that holds the book together-those elements that elucidate the covenant regarding land, wealth, and progeny, as well as the genealogies-also caused narratives to chaff against one another and the goals of the redactors themselves.

In the present parashah, that chaffing resulted in a number of sores that the redactor could not let fester. If we step back to gaze upon the patriarchal narratives, from chapter 12 onward, we find ourselves in a series of short stories that are framed to facilitate the fulfillment of our ideological overlay. The patriarchs acquire wealth and eventually produce progeny-neither without divine intersession. The piece that is altogether missing is the land itself. The Book of Genesis ends without acquisition of the"Promised Land"(see commentary on Lech L'cha). Theology aside, one readily notices that this problem with the narrative leaves the reader wondering why the redactor fashioned the story as he did. But before we address that concern, let us turn to those passages in Parashat Vayigash that dramatically conflict with the overarching goals of the redactor.

The transference of Israelites from Canaan to Egypt is detailed in the following verses:

. . . the sons of Israel lifted Jacob their father, their little ones, and their wives onto the wagons that Pharaoh had sent to carry him. They took their livestock and the possessions they had amassed in the land of Canaan and they came to Egypt-Jacob and all his progeny with him. His sons and his sons' sons were with him, his daughters and his sons' daughters-all his progeny that he brought with him to Egypt. (46:5-7)

These verses make clear that every living "Israelite" moved from Canaan-the Promised Land-to Egypt, a land that would initially host them hospitably, but eventually embitter their lives through forced enslavement. Obviously, the tension here only emerges if you know the Book of Exodus. But imagine, for a moment, that the story in Exodus was unknown. Would Genesis have ended the same way? There is considerable evidence suggesting that the book concluded differently. Imagine the Israelites living in Egypt just until the famine resolved itself. Based on Joseph's own predictions in Genesis 41, seven bad years would follow seven good years, meaning the famine would end fourteen years from the moment of Joseph's prediction. While in Egypt, as was the case with Jacob in Paddan-aram, the Israelites' numbers would increase, eventually allowing them to return to their Promised Land to experience the covenant fulfilled.

But this is not how our story turns out. Once the redactors of Torah decided to situate Genesis and Exodus as a progressive, chronological set of narratives, Genesis could not possibly end with the Israelites back in Canaan. In other words, the original ending had to be dumped in order to accommodate a new setting. The tensions between that original story and Exodus are notreal historical tensions, they are literary tensions; intractable problems that emerge when you place, side by side, two narratives that were originally written independently of one another. Both, as it turns out, are historical allegories of eras long past, and they engage in a similar manner a number of common literary and thematic elements. Both stories involve Israel developing into a vast nation in Egypt. Both stories involve a lowly Israelite rising to powers derived from the Pharaoh's own household. Both use themes of slavery and liberation in a variety of ways.

Let us consider some of these elements in greater detail. Why would both Genesis and Exodus involve situating the ancient Israelite in Egypt? During the authors' own lifetime, the Diaspora of significance was in Mesopotamia. That is, after the destruction of the Temple in 586 b.c.e., there would develop a significant Jewish presence in what is today Iraq, Iran, Turkey, the Balkans, and beyond. The array of conquerors from Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and then Greece left Egypt a secondary power, at least when it came to dominating the Jewish homeland. While conquerors who derived from Mesopotamia were in place, one could write an allegory about Egypt with impunity. Once Persia fell to the Greeks-the first non-Mesopotamian power to factor into Middle Eastern politics in a"global"way-satires would then arise regarding eastern lands, such as the of Book of Esther-a Diaspora-based story that makes a travesty of some imaginary eastern kingdom of Shushan. The author of our Joseph story situated Israel's development in Egypt with the hope that we would return to the Promised Land a great and mighty population. The story of Israel in Egypt put forth by the Exodus author simply was not part of the Genesis author's consciousness. (That is, I'm differentiating the"author"of the stories from the"redactor"who organized them to produce what is now the Book of Genesis, situated before Exodus.)

Conflicts between the stories, however, outnumber their commonalities. In Parashat Vayigash, we meet a most curious narrative about the development of Israel in Egypt. We are told that the famine was exceedingly severe, affecting the entire world (47:13). Joseph's original plan was to store supplies during seven plentiful years so as to have supplies for the seven years of want. What was not elucidated in the initial plan was just how vicious Joseph would be in impoverishing the populace:

[At this time] no food was to be had in all the world, for the famine bore down very heavily. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished on account of the famine. Joseph now collected all the silver found in the lands of Egypt and Canaan as payment for the grain that the people were buying, and Joseph brought that silver into Pharaoh's palace. When the silver in the lands of Egypt and Canaan was spent, all Egypt flocked to Joseph, saying, "Let us have food-why should we drop dead in front of you because the silver is exhausted?" And Joseph said, "Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the silver is exhausted." They therefore brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for horses, holdings of sheep and cattle, and asses; that year he provided them with food in exchange for all their livestock.

That year ended, and they approached him in the following year and said to him,"We will not hide from my lord that the silver is spent and our animal holdings belong to my lord-there's nothing left before my lord but our bodies and our soil. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our soil? Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh. Distribute seed, so we can live and not die, so the land is not deserted!"Joseph then bought all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, for each Egyptian had sold his field, because the famine had overwhelmed them. Thus the land came into Pharaoh's possession. And he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt's border to the other. Only the land belonging to the priests did he not buy, for the priests had an allotment from Pharaoh, and they ate their allotted portion that Pharaoh had given them; they therefore did not sell their land.

Then Joseph said to the people, "Whereas I have this day acquired you and your land for Pharaoh, here is seed for you to sow the land. When harvest comes, you must give Pharaoh a fifth, and the other four portions will be yours for seeding the field and to be food for you and your households, and for your little ones to eat." And they said, " You have saved our lives! We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh!"(47:13-25)

As the phrases in bold indicate, Joseph transformed the entire population of Egypt into what is commonly called corvée laborers. This was not an uncommon phenomenon in ancient Egypt. The Egyptian hierarchy regularly conscripted commoners into forced labor during those seasons of the year that agricultural workers-the vast majority of peasants-were dormant. The evidence suggests that men, women, and children were all included in the corvée system (for a brief overview, see Encyclopedia of the Archaeology of Ancient Egypt, edited by Kathryn A. Bard and Steven Blake Shubert [Routledge, 1999], p. 745). A detail conveyed in the very last verse of this parashah suggests that the Israelites were not only exempt from serving as slaves, but also they somehow benefited from what amounts to insider trading:"Israel thus settled in the land of Egypt, in the region of Goshen. They struck roots in it, were fruitful and multiplied greatly"(47:27).

Had the story ended there, Joseph, the man who reached Egypt as a slave sold to the house of Potiphar, would have engineered the acquisition of all Egyptian lands for his Pharaoh, the indenture of the starving countryside's populace when they were most vulnerable, and the enrichment of his own family-Jacob's descendants. Thus, the Joseph story would have resolved two parts of the covenant's details-wealth and progeny. All that was left was a return to the land.

That the enrichment and proliferation are the result of a divine hand in history is also made blatant. One might have thought Joseph to bear something of a grudge against his cruel brothers. But our story's author dispenses with that concern quite readily in three verses:

[Joseph said,] "And now, don't be troubled, don't be chagrined because you sold me here, for it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. There have already been two years of famine in the land, and [there remain] five more years without plowing or harvesting. 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 over the whole land of Egypt." (45:5-8)

With yet deeper ironic overtones, the same sentiment is conveyed a few lines from the very end of the book. Once Jacob dies, the brothers worry that Joseph might exact revenge. "Here we are, your slaves!" they proclaim (50:18). The brothers who despised Joseph's early interpretation of dreams, all of which entailed subordination to him, now happily accept the role. But for those of us aware that barely a paragraph separates us from beginning the Book of Exodus, we are not sure whether this is ironic foreshadowing or a coincidence of imageries that was fostered by the fusing of these two works into one volume.

These passages should not be confused with a post-Hellenistic, theologically charged concept of divine determinism. Notice, God manages to engineer some aspects of history, but not others. After all, were God all-powerful and ethically good in the conventional theological sense, it would be reasonable to wonder why God would tolerate a famine in the first place-what is essentially a natural disaster that affects the wicked and the kind, the adult and the child, indiscriminately. But such questions did not occur to the writer of this story and they should not play a role in our own reading strategy. Authors cannot address questions that never occur to them. The Genesis author had no problem whatsoever with a God who had a limited influence over history. Indeed, he never imagined attributing all events to divine fiat. If this issue strikes us, as modern readers, as a problem in the narrative, then we have (perhaps unwittingly) acquiesced to the post-biblical theologian's preference for language games. Such theologians continue to foist upon contemporary readers the notion that everything in history must fit into a nice neat package, because God does not involve God's self in contradictions. But the reality of God is a local-literary, rather than a global-literary, phenomenon. Each author depicts history and God the way he or she thinks best, and not according to the way (theologians think) the world works. Different approaches result in altogether irresolvable tensions, not because the real world naturally harbors paradoxes but because humans harbor dissonant perspectives on life and history. Voices clash when we insist on hearing them all at once. Attuned to their distinctiveness, we might facilitate hearing discrete melodies more clearly. And in the end, perhaps we will choose to sing along with one rather than another.

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

© 2008 David H. Aaron

A Local Experience of God

Daver Acher By: Neal Katz

Rabbi Aaron's insight to this week's parashah is a powerful argument for the biblical critical approach to understanding the Torah. Indeed, if we are able to parse out the discrete literary units in the text, we may appreciate better the role of God in the individual texts rather than looking for a unifying theology throughout the Bible. As I understand Rabbi Aaron's article, the assumption that the various biblical authors were tied to a global theology is both anachronistic and disingenuous to the text. Some people might suggest that breaking the Bible into distinct literary units destroys the prospect for holiness. They argue that unless the Bible can be understood as a single literary work, with a global theology, written with divine inspiration, it is not worthy of being called a holy text. But I disagree. In fact, I am drawn closer to the text when I appreciate the narratives as separate stories developed in separate locales. I am more invested in a Torah that calls on me to struggle with a myriad of God-concepts and a text that attempts to understand how my ancestors struggled with their understanding of God. And I am empowered by a tradition that calls on me to be part of the discussion, rather than an observer of the discussion. In these ways and more, the text engages me.

In this week's parashah, in the first line of chapter 46, the text states,"Israel and all his company set off on their journey and they came to Beersheba, where he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac." Here we find a simple but powerful example that God can be best understood as a local experience. When the text speaks about Jacob/Israel offering a sacrifice, it adds that the sacrifice was made to the God of his father, Isaac. Why was it necessary to use the phrase "God of his father Isaac?" Would not it have been more economic to simply tell us that Israel offered a sacrifice to God-period? What can we learn from the additional information that the sacrifice was offered to the"God of his father"?

Perhaps the text recognizes that while the "God of his father" is still the One True God, Isaacexperienced God differently from his son Israel. In other words, when the text uses additional verbiage to distinguish"God of"this person, or"God of"that person, it is teaching us that each of us experiences God in our own personal, localized way. We know that the first blessing of theAmidah prays to the "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, God of Sarah, God of Rebekah, God of Rachel, and God of Leah." So it is commonly taught that the inclusion of extra words "God of . . ." tells us that each ancestor had an individual relationship with God. It is the same God, but the experience of God is personalized.

Rabbi Aaron's line tha t"the reality of God is a local-literary, rather than a global-literary, phenomenon" speaks to this very issue. While he is discussing this phenomenon as a way to understand how God related to the variety of biblical authors, it can also be used to understand that our own relationships with God are personal and local. Like our biblical ancestors who developed the texts of our Torah, may we celebrate our personal relationships with God and tell our own stories of pain and joy, struggles and redemption.

Rabbi Neal Katz is the rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas. You can learn more about Congregation Beth El by visiting

Reference Materials

Vayigash, Genesis 44:18-47:27
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 281–297; Revised Edition, pp. 286–301;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 259–280

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