Blogging The Bible

Why Joseph Is My Hero

Chapter 42
Please bear with me for a minute while I digress to tackle a strange subject: Egyptian public policy during the Josephean administration. Joseph is, of course, Pharaoh’s viceroy during the fat years and the famine. To hear the author of Genesis tell it, he’s the best viceroy the Middle Kingdom had ever seen. But to a modern reader, Joseph is appalling. Here’s what he does: During the seven fat years, he gathers grain from all over the country in warehouses. When the famine comes, he sells grain to the hungry Egyptians and to foreign buyers. This is all well and good. As the famine worsens, Egypt’s peasants return to Joseph to beg for help. So Joseph sells them more grain, collecting “all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt … as payment for the rations.” The people were still hungry. Joseph feeds them, but seizes all their horses, sheep, cattle, and donkeys as payment. The famine continues. The Egyptian people, having given all their money and livestock to Pharaoh, come back to Joseph once more. This time, Joseph takes all their land in exchange for grain: “Thus the land passed over to Pharaoh.” Joseph explains the new deal to them: They will be sharecroppers, and will hand over one-fifth of their harvest every year to Pharaoh, keeping the balance for themselves. They reply, “We are grateful to my lord, and we shall be serfs to Pharaoh.”

Didn’t someone write a book on the biblical roots of capitalism and free enterprise? How did he handle this episode? Our hero Joseph abolishes private property, turns freeholders into serfs, and transforms a decentralized farm economy into a command-economy dictatorship. This is bad economics and worse public policy. This is China, 1949. Joseph is Chairman Mao. (And, to speculate a little bit, perhaps this centralized dictatorship established by Joseph is what ultimately led to the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. Once you create a voracious state apparatus, it must be fed. Is it a surprise that slavery became part of its diet? In a less totalitarian state, perhaps slavery wouldn’t have been as necessary or as feasible. This digression has been brought to you by the American Enterprise Institute.)

Chapters 42, 43, 44, 45, and 46
But that’s my last bad word to say about Joseph. On to Joseph’s reconciliation with his family, which is a four-chapter rush. As a story, the tale of Joseph rocks. First of all, it rockets forward, propelled by an incredible narrative drive. Second, it makes sense—unlike a lot of the other Genesis stories: The plot is clear, and the characters behave in complicated, recognizably human ways. And, best of all, it’s rife with tension: We are forced to wait for Joseph’s redemption. But Genesis doesn’t let us off easy. It keeps us glued to our seats, chapter after chapter, holding on for—to borrow a reality-TV expression—the “reveal.”

The IMDB-style plot summary: Facing famine, Jacob dispatches all his sons except beloved Benjamin to Egypt to buy grain. They are brought to Joseph to beg for his help. They don’t recognize him, but he recognizes them. Testing his brothers, he calls them spies and demands that one stay as a hostage until they return with their youngest brother. The brothers somehow recognize that this is payback for their cruelty to Joseph: “Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us.” Joseph overhears them and weeps privately. They depart with grain, and Joseph takes Simeon as his hostage. Back at home, Jacob refuses to let Benjamin return to Egypt, even after Reuben * offers Jacob his two sons as a sacrifice if Benjamin is hurt. (There are baklava-like layers of hostage complexity: One son offering two grandsons so he can take another son back to ransom yet another son, all at the behest of still another, missing son.) Finally, the famine is so severe that Jacob agrees to send Benjamin. When Joseph sees Benjamin, he again weeps privately. He sells them more grain. He plants his own silver goblet in Benjamin’s grain sack, then sends his servants to stop the brothers and accuse them of theft. He demands that whoever stole the cup serve as his slave. When it turns up in Benjamin’s bag, the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph (as in his dream). Judah pleads eloquently for Joseph to spare Benjamin, saying it would kill their father. He implores Joseph to take him as a slave instead. Finally Joseph, “who could no longer control himself,” reveals himself to his brothers. Joseph weeps again. “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians [in other rooms] could hear.” Then Joseph forgives them sweetly and wholly.

He sends the brothers back to Jacob, but not before throwing his arms around Benjamin and weeping one more time. Jacob and all his sons and their families—70 people in all, not counting wives or daughters, which, of course, the Bible doesn’t—move to Egypt. Joseph meets them along the way, embraces his father, and “wept on his neck a good while.” Then they settle in Egypt with Pharaoh’s blessing and prosper.

The beauty in this story, beyond its basic happy ending—brothers redeemed, father at peace, etc.—is the heart of Joseph. Even as he tricks his brothers and makes them suffer, he is anguished. His weeping is no sign of weakness. It proves his goodness. He forgives them the terrible wrong they did him. And he forgives them because the Lord is with him. His acknowledgement to God is pure and heartfelt. When he forgives his brothers, he tells them:

Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves that you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. … God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.

To me, Joseph is the most persuasive argument for faith in Genesis. His consistent belief in the Lord, even through slavery and prison, carries him forward. This faith doesn’t merely make him great and powerful, though it does. It also makes him good. It makes him able to weep, and weep, and weep again, and forgive.

Chapter 48
Jacob cannot stop his old tricks. On his deathbed in Egypt, he decides to adopt Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Manasseh as his own. As Isaac was when he tricked him out of Esau’s blessing, Jacob is blind. Jacob intentionally places his right hand on younger son Ephraim and his left hand on older son Manasseh. Joseph tries to switch the hands—”Not so, Father … for the other is the first-born; place your right hand upon his head.” But Jacob refuses. He says Ephraim deserves the greater right-handed blessing, because Ephraim will be the greater man. Jacob just has to connive and wheedle and play favorites, even while dying.

Until reading this, I never knew why, when Jews bless our sons on Shabbat, we bless them in the name of Ephraim and Manasseh. It turns out we are following Jacob’s instructions: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.” I find it unsettling, in a good way, that the very words I spoke to my son (himself a “Jacob”) Friday night, in a Hebrew I don’t understand, are exactly the same words that my fathers and forefathers have been speaking to their sons every Friday night for 3,000 or 4,000 years. Until this passage, my journey through the Torah has been about reading a great story, exploring my people’s history and learning moral (and immoral) lessons. The religious practices Genesis describes are animal sacrifices, altar-building, idol-burying—things that have absolutely nothing to do with my life in 2006. This blessing is the first moment that the Torah intersects with my actual religious life—where its instructions are still living and followed (by me). I know there are dozens of more such moments to come (Passover rituals, etc.), but this first one really gets me.

Jacob summons his sons to his deathbed for their blessing. You’d think from the text that he hadn’t been paying attention, but has he ever! He strips Reuben of the rank of firstborn, because Reuben slept with Jacob’s concubine—an incident that Jacob never mentioned when it happened. “For when you mounted your father’s bed, you brought disgrace—my couch he mounted!” The next two sons, Simeon and Levi, were the murderers of Shechem’s family—an incident Jacob made little of at the time. But now, he casts them out, condemning their tribes to subservience and weakness. “Cursed be their anger so fierce, and their wrath so relentless.” Fourth son Judah—the stand-up guy who offered himself as a slave in Benjamin’s place—is called the “lion” by Jacob and blessed with authority over the others. The other brothers are dealt with more cursorily, but there are lots of great animal metaphors: Dan is a “serpent by the road.” Issachar is “a strong-boned ass.” Benjamin is “a ravenous wolf.” It’s pretty obvious, and Etz Hayim confirms this, that these paternal blessings are a way of explaining the status of each of the tribes at the time Genesis was written. The tribe of Judah was supreme in Israel, which is explained by Jacob’s blessing and Judah’s stand-up behavior. The tribes of Simeon and Levi were a mess, so Genesis explains this with Jacob’s curse.

Chapter 50
Jacob and Joseph die, and that’s the end of Genesis.

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