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Joseph – the right person in the right place at the right time

 

Joseph was an amazing person.  Whenever possible he promoted the idea that God, through His aspect of Elokim, involves Himself in the affairs of nations.  His family retained their belief in God despite living in a heavily pagan environment.  He was a role model for how Jews in a position of power should use their power to safeguard their people.  And he was an example as to how those in public service should use that position not to benefit themselves but to promote the welfare of everyone. 

Joseph’s concept of God 

 

In a vision, Joseph’s father Jacob “discovers” that there are angels of Elokim ascending and descending on a ladder based in the heavens that reaches down to earth.1  Above him is YKVK who promises Jacob that He will be with him, will guard him wherever he goes, and will bring him back to the very place he is now lying (Genesis 28:13-15).2  

 

Through this vision, Jacob (as well as the Bible reader) are shown that God’s general providence oversees the world through His aspect of Elokim and that His agents carry out His will on earth.  Right above him, on earth, the YKVK aspect of God will take care of his individual needs.

 

It was Joseph who took the concept of the general providence of Elokim to new heights of understanding.

 

However, at the same time, the discernment of YKVK in Jacob’s family begins to fade.  YKVK is mentioned in the Torah but the times are few.    

 

Following his vision of the ladder at Beth El, Jacob makes a vow to Elokim that if He will care for him and bring him back to his father’s home, then YKVK will be His God, that this stone that had been his headrest will become the site of a house to Elokim, and that he Jacob will repeatedly tithe to Him.3  Following Jacob’s marriage to Leah and Rachel, YKVK saw that Leah was unloved and allowed her to conceive, and she bore Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah (Genesis 29:31).  Following these births, Leah acknowledges the role of YKVK in her fertility (Genesis 29:33)  However, from this time on, there is no further mention of YKVK by Jacob’s family.  

 

This is not to say that God disappears from the Book of Genesis, but rather all mention of God by the family is in relation to Elokim.  Hence, Jacob’s anger flares up at Rachel when she asks him for a child and he says “Am I instead of Elokim Who has withheld from you fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:2)  From this point on, it is Elokim who allows the two sisters to conceive.  Hence, “Elokim remembered Rachel, Elokim hearkened to her and He opened her womb.” (Genesis 30:22)  It was angels of Elokim who met Jacob when he came back to Israel (“Jacob went on his way, and angels of Elokim encountered him.  Jacob said when he saw them: this is an Elokim camp! So he named that place Machana’im.” (Genesis 32:2-3)  And when Jacob prays to God to seek reassurance before going to Egypt to meet his long-lost son Joseph he slaughters sacrifices to the “God (lelokei) of his father Isaac” (Genesis 46:1), and it is Elokim who responds to him in night visions and reassures him. (Genesis 46:2).

 

Why was it that awareness of YKVK becomes remote from Jacob’s family? 

 

It would seem that the intimate connection that Jacob and his family felt with YKVK begins to disappear as the family grows larger.  God was still perceived as being part of the family’s life, but through His aspect of Elokim and not YKVK.  To an extent, they were integrating themselves more into their surroundings and seeing their own God within the context of the gods of the surrounding cultures.  This may be why Jacob felt compelled to have a “house cleaning” after meeting up with Esau and proceeding to Beth-el to fulfill his promise to Elokim – “So Jacob said to his household and all those who were with him: ‘Discard the alien gods that are in your midst; cleanse yourselves and change your clothes.” (Genesis 35:2)  In fact, even earlier, Rachel had taken her father ‘s teraphim while he was shearing his sheep and put them in her camel’s packsaddle.  During his search she sat on them so he would not find them.4  Why did she take her father’s idols?  The Bible is silent on this.5

 

It is not surprising, therefore, that the birth of Joseph was recognized through the Elokim aspect of God,6 and that Joseph speaks exclusively about Elokim when he comes to Egypt.

 

It is noteworthy that the involvement of Elokim in human affairs as enunciated by Joseph is far greater than that previously expressed in the Bible.  Never before has Elokim been involved in the fate of nations on such a microscopic level as credited by Joseph. 

 

However, this does not mean that YKVK was totally out of the picture?  To the contrary, the immanent aspect of God was still very much part of Joseph’s life.  But it may not have been obvious to him:

And YKVK was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; and he remained in the house of his master.  His master perceived that YKVK was with him and that whatever he did YKVK made prosper in his hand. (Genesis 39:2-3)

 

But is it really possible for Elokim to be so intimately involved in human affairs?  Could it be that Joseph was exaggerating?  

 

The Torah could not be more explicit in explaining that this was not so.

 

Joseph and his dreams

 

The brothers are dumbfounded to find their long-lost brother in front of them.  Judah has just volunteered to stay in jail instead of his brother Benjamin.  Joseph reveals himself to them and comforts them with the following words:

 

And now be not distressed, nor angry with yourselves, nor reproach yourselves for having sold me here; for it was to be a provider that Elokim sent me ahead of you ……..  And Elokim sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival in the land, and to sustain you for a momentous delivery.  And now it was not you that sent me here, but Elokim; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, master of his entire household, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” ((Genesis 45:5-8))

 

What is Joseph saying here?  You threw me into a pit while deciding what to do with me.  You then sold me to caravan men.  However, you are not ultimately responsible for my being here in Egypt.  This was all part of the Divine plan.  Elokim was working within your petty scheming to bring me to Egypt and ultimately to bring you here, since there are years of famine yet to come. 

 

Joseph expresses similar sentiments in the final chapter of Genesis.  Jacob is dead and the brothers are worried that Joseph will now seek revenge for their attempting to kill him many years ago.  They fabricate a message from their now dead father that he insisted that Joseph refrain from punishing them.  Joseph replies:  

 

“….  ‘Fear not, for am I instead of Elokim?  Although you intended me harm, Elokim intended it for good, in order to bring about what is at present that a vast people be kept alive.” (Genesis 50:20) 

 

Joseph saw it all clearly.  His descent to Egypt was part of something much bigger than his relationships between himself and his family.  Their coming to Egypt was part of the prophecy given to Abraham that his descendants would come to Egypt, that they would be delivered by God from oppression, and would in due time make their way back to Canaan.

 

Hence, prior to his death, Joseph makes the Children of Israel swear that they will bring his bones from Egypt to Canaan, because: 

 

Elokim will indeed remember you (pokod yifkod Elokim etchem) and you will bring my bones up out of here.” (Genesis 50:25)7

 

However, it is not only the descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt and their future deliverance that are part of the Divine plan.  Joseph also impresses upon Pharaoh that the famine itself that is about to descend upon Egypt is part of Elokim’s will: 

 

And for the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice, it is because the matter stands ready before Elokim, and Elokim is hastening to bring it to pass.”  (Genesis 41:32)

 

 In his commentary to the Torah, Rabbi Munk summarizes the approach that the Bible and Joseph are promoting: 

 

“The people involved in this episode appear as agents of Providence. The universal plans for the realization of the Messianic goals of history are carried out amidst the comings and goings, the dreams and grudges, the ambitions and vindictiveness of the children of the family of Abraham. And here the Torah gives us an example of the story of a family in which each person remains totally responsible for his acts although in a historical perspective they were acting as agents of the Divine.” 8 

 

A question.  How can these all-embracing activities of God be explained?  Is it really possible for a person to have free will and yet at the same time his actions fit into God’s designs?  

 

In the Joseph story, the Bible explains how this could be so.  It seems likely that to an extent the brothers were functioning within a “set-up”.  God was manipulating events outside their free will.  Hence. he deliberately exacerbated the tensions that existed between the offspring of Leah and the son of Rachel by allowing Rachel to pass away during her pregnancy with Benjamin.9  Thus the love that existed between Jacob and Rachel was transferred to her two children.  God also “fed” Joseph dreams that antagonized the brothers.  These dreams would aggravate an already tense situation.

 

Joseph has two dreams – one involving he and his brothers binding sheaves of corn in the field.  His sheaf stood upright whereas the brother’s sheaves bowed down to his.  Understandably, the brothers find this dream extremely annoying:  

 

“Would you then reign over us?  Would you then dominate us?  And they hated him even more – because of his dreams and because of his talk.” (Genesis 37:7-8)

 

The members of Jacob’s family were not farmers.  They were shepherds.  This dream must have seemed very ominous to the brothers.  Joseph was conjuring up powers removed from their daily lives.

 

If that was not enough, immediately after this the Bible tells us about another of Joseph’s dreams - this time the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to him:   

And he related it to his father and to his brothers. His father scolded him and said to him, ‘What is this dream that you have dreamt?  Are we to come – I and your mother and your brothers – to bow down to you to the ground?  So his brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.” (Genesis 37:9-11)

 

Jacob tried to defuse the tension by criticizing Joseph.  But the damage was done – “So his brothers were jealous of him ….. ” (Genesis 37:11)

 

Joseph’s dreams probably had a number of consequences.  They instilled in him the sense that he was born for great things.  This could have led to feelings of superiority that exacerbated the brothers’ feelings of jealousy.  

 

Indeed, when these dreams eventually started to become actualized, this confirmed to Joseph that he was part of an act much greater than the jealousies of his family.  Elokim was controlling events.  The brothers could not be exonerated for what they had done, but they could claim “extenuating circumstances” – and this is exactly what Joseph told them.    

Was Joseph a prophet?

 

Was Joseph a prophet?  

 

All his dreams have a prophetic aspect to them.  His brothers do indeed bow down to him to obtain sheaves of corn and his family does come down to Egypt when he is grand vizier of Egypt. 

 

One of the pillars of Jewish belief is that God communicates with man via prophecy.10Moses was unique in that he communicated directly with God face to face,11 while others received their communication from God in visions and dreams.  Joseph received two communications from God via dreams.  Was he not then by definition a prophet?

 

It is suggested that the answer is no.  Joseph never received a communication from God instructing him to pass on the content of his dreams to his family.  His dreams were so vivid to him that he felt compelled to tell his family, and in retrospect they turned out to have implications for the future.  But there is no suggestion in the Bible that this was prophecy.  If having meaningful dreams is a sign of prophecy, then the butler and baker and even Pharaoh himself could be considered prophets. 

 

There are Jewish commentators who feel that Joseph received prophetic communications from God when he interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, but most commentators do not take this path.12  The interpretations of the dreams of the butler, the baker and Pharaoh were contained within the dreams. 

 

If one accepts that Joseph was not acting as a prophet, then the Bible is teaching here an important principle.  Any person can receive a communication from God whether they be a butler, a baker or a Pharaoh.  It can take many forms.  It may be a dream.  It may be a series of events in one’s life.  

 

Clearly, these messages are open to misinterpretation.  There is a well-recognized “Jerusalem syndrome” in which people feel they are being driven by Divine instruction to do things in the Holy City that are dangerous politically or physically. How then does one know if a communication is truly from God?  The reality is that there is no answer to this question.  Divine inspiration does not come with a tag on it designating its source.   

 

In fact, this is precisely the situation that Joseph found himself in and it was only by putting the dreams into context that he realized they had meaning. 

 

Similarly, it is only the context, often with the passage of time, that we can see that God is helping us along in many of life’s important decisions.

 

Pharaoh’s dream 

 

How did Joseph figure out the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream?  One answer is that God directly conveyed to him the meaning of the dreams and what needed to be done.   This answer is rejected.  There was no direct communication between God and Joseph.  Joseph was not a prophet.  

 

Elokim provided a cloudy warning to Pharaoh, but He also provided many clues as to what the dreams meant and what should now be done about them.  

 

Pharaoh had two dreams.  The first one concerned seven cows emerging from the River Nile.  They were beautiful of appearance and they now grazed in the marshland by the river.  After them came seven cows of inferior appearance and lean in flesh that stood next to the beautiful cows and proceeded to eat them up.  Pharaoh awoke startled.  He then dreamed again.  This time there was no involvement of the Nile.  Seven ears of grain sprouted from a single stalk.  After them came seven ears of grain scorched by the east wind.  The seven thin ears of grain then swallowed up the seven full ears of grain.

 

Pharaoh was baffled and upset by his dreams.  He summoned all the necromancers and wise men of Egypt, but none were able to explain them.  

 

Why not?

 

Each of Pharaoh’s dreams contained the number 7.  In the ancient world, the number 7 was related to divinity.  Hence, Pharaoh could have suspected that the gods were sending him a message.  But which god?  There was a god of the Nile inundation called Hapy, but these two dreams were more than this god could handle.  The first dream involved the Nile and cows.  Cows in Egypt were used for plowing.  However, the Nile was not even mentioned in the second dream. The two dreams were clearly similar but they did not fit together within a polytheistic framework into a coherent whole.

 

Joseph was able to provide an answer.  The two dreams were in fact one dream.  Pharaoh was correct in assuming he was receiving a Divine message, but only one God could accomplish everything that happened in these dreams and His name was Elokim.  Elokim means the God of powers. 

 

Based on his experience with the dreams of the butler and baker, Joseph was aware that physical objects could represent time.  The three tendrils of the grapevine in the butler’s dream and the three wicker baskets on his head in the baker’s dream represented three days.  God helped Joseph with this revelation regarding time since Pharaoh’s birthday was in 3 days and this was a time in the ancient world for bestowing favors (although the baker was clearly an exception presumably because of the gravity of his offence).13  Similarly, the seven cows and seven ears of grain represented seven periods of time.  Since the Nile has a yearly cycle the cows and grain represented fourteen years.  

 

There are two descriptions of Pharaoh’s dreams in the Bible.  The first one describes what Pharaoh dreamed, and following this, after Joseph has been summoned from jail, Pharaoh explains to Joseph how he perceived his dreams.  There are subtle differences between the two accounts.  In addition, Pharaoh provides commentary on what he had seen.  It is these differences and comments that provided Joseph the meaning of these two dreams.

 

The first dream describes the second set of cows as being of “inferior appearance and of lean flesh (וְדַקּוֹתבָּשָׂר) (vedakos basar)” (Genesis 41:3).  The second time round, Pharaoh describes them as being of “inferior form and emaciated flesh (וְרַקּוֹתבָּשָׂר) (verakos basar).” “Dakos” in Hebrew means thin or lean.  “Rakos” has the meaning of limited in flesh or emaciated, coming from the same word as rak ( רק ) which means only and the root r,k,k (רקק) which means limited.  Pharaoh then adds a commentary of his own: “I have never seen inferiority like theirs in all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:19)   

 

 He also adds: 

 

Thus they came inside them. But it was not apparent that they had come inside them for their appearance remained as inferior as at first  ….” (Genesis 41:21)

 

In the second dream, whereas the Torah describes the ears of grain as “healthy and good”(Genesis 40:5), Pharaoh describes them as “full and good” (Genesis 41:22). Whereas the bad ears are described by the Torah as “thin (dakos) and scorched by the east wind”(Genesis 41:6), Pharaoh describes them as “shriveled (znumos)      (צְנֻמוֹת), thin (rakos) and scorched by the east wind” (Genesis 41:23).   The additional word znumos means empty.14  Joseph, when he summarized Pharaoh’s dreams, also understood that the seven ears scorched by the east wind would be (rekus) (הָרֵקוֹת), coming from the word rekmeaning empty (Genesis 41:27) 

 

Clearly, these were not just seven relatively good years and seven relatively bad years, but seven exceptionally good years and seven devastatingly bad years the likes of which had never been seen previously in Egypt.  Elokim was bringing surplus and famine to Egypt, and during the seven years of famine, the previous abundance in Egypt would all but be forgotten.

 

If Joseph were a prophet he would have received a communication from God what should be done about the situation.  But he was not a prophet.  The answer to Pharaoh’s dream had to be contained within the dreams themselves.

 

This is what Joseph meant when he said “It is Elokim Who will respond with Pharaoh’s welfare” (Genesis 41:16) and “What Elokim is about to do He has shown to Pharaoh.”(Genesis 41:28)15

 

It was probably Joseph’s solution to Egypt’s impending problem that impressed Pharaoh more than anything else.  Decrees from a divinity are just that.  There is nothing one can do about them.  If there really was to be a 7-year famine in the country, then Pharaoh was finished as a ruler.  He faced chaos and insurrection.  However, Joseph suggested a new concept to Pharaoh and his attendants.  If Elokim was sending Pharaoh a warning it could only be for one purpose - to take action.  

 

But what action?  

 

It was not conceit and opportunism that brought Joseph to offer an interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams, but the panic he conveyed to Joseph.  Pharaoh had described to Joseph (and this was the only description he heard) that the hunger would be like nothing seen before in the land of Egypt.  The cows in the famine would be not only thin but emaciated.  Similarly, the grains of wheat would be scorched by the east wind and empty.  Fortunately, the good ears of corn were not only “healthy” but “full.”  The solution was obvious.  The plenty from the years of “fullness” had to be used for the years of “emptiness”.

“The matter appeared good to Pharaoh and to all his servants.  Pharaoh said to his servants: “Could we find another like him – a man in whom is the spirit of Elokim?  The Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since Elokim has informed you of all this, there can be no one so discerning and wise as you….. “  (Genesis 41:37-39) 

 The dreams contained the solution.  It just needed a genius like Joseph to put it all together. 

A new spin on Joseph’s social policies  

 

Joseph’s social policies are often looked upon unfavorably by modern commentators. The classic Jewish commentators, on the other hand, give these sentences a miss.   This is good reason to examine them!

 

These are the problematic sentences:

 

“Thus Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field because the famine had overwhelmed them. And the land became Pharaoh’s.  As for the nation, he resettled it by cities (heevir oto leorim) (אֹתוֹ, לֶעָרִיםהֶעֱבִיר)from one end of Egypt’s borders to the others.” (Genesis 47:20-22)

 

In effect, Joseph creates a nation of serfs for the benefit of his boss Pharaoh.  Recalling European history, we have definite sentiments about serfdom and have little good to say about it.  One aspect of modern history is the breaking of the bondage to the lord of the manor.   

 

To add injury to insult, not only did Joseph create serfs from the populace, but he forcibly moved them from the properties their families had worked on for centuries in order to drive home to them that they ae no longer working for themselves – they were now working for Pharaoh.  

 

None of this seems much to Joseph’s credit.  

 

Admittedly, there are commentators who stress that Joseph did not forcibly disperse the farmers from their hamlets, as might be apparent from the Bible, but he moved them from one place to another in such a way that their social framework was not disrupted.16  This explanation hinges on the translation of “he moved it (i.e. the nation) to/by cities” and the suggestion that “le’orim” (לֶעָרִים) means “by cities” and not “to cities.”  However, this explanation is by no means obvious. 

 

The reality is that from the text it is impossible to know the social consequences of Joseph’s moves and what the people felt about them.  However, knowing Joseph and his modus operandi I would like to suggest that we examine Joseph’s moves with a more positive spin, since it is just as easy to view Joseph’s actions through positive lenses as through negative ones.  

 

Joseph was given absolute authority to manage the forthcoming crisis:

 

“Pharaoh said to Joseph: “I am Pharaoh.  And without you no man may lift up his hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” …..   Thus Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 41:44-45) 

 

During the years of plenty, Joseph gathered all the food in the land and placed the excess food from each geographical area into a central location.  In fact, there was so much food that it was impossible to keep account:   

 

And Joseph amassed corn like the sand of the sea in great abundance until he ceased taking stock, for it was without number.” (Genesis 41:49) 

 

What the text does not say is whether Joseph paid for the excess grain or just appropriated it.  In effect, it does not matter since the farmers would have benefited in both instances.  If Joseph had not siphoned off the surplus grain its price would have plummeted.

 

Moreover, as he will soon find out, or more likely anticipated since he was always one step ahead of the situation, one business endeavor inevitably leads to another, since matters can always be made more efficient.  

 

At this stage, Joseph was totally dependent on the goodwill of the people so that he could siphon off excess grain - which means that he was always working in their interest.  A win-win situation was now being created for the country, and it is likely that Joseph made sure that this win-win situation for the people, for the farmers, for the country and for Pharaoh would continue.  Joseph was teaching the country how a devoted civil servant should act.

 

He will need all his administrative skills as the famine strikes.  A major issue he has to deal with is what to do with the surplus grain he has accumulated when the famine arrives.  Does he sell it or give it away?  If he gives it away there is no change to the system, whereas if he sells it he can keep on improving Egyptian agriculture.  In fact, as the famine progresses, the farmers will help him carry out what he intended doing anyway – and the result will be a new social contract for Egypt.

 

When the famine comes Joseph begins selling corn to the people.  We may find it strange that the people have to go hungry before the granaries are opened, but Pharaoh would seem to have been responsible for this decision.  This may be the last significant decision he makes.  Everything is now in Joseph’s hands.  Pharaoh trusts him implicitly:

 

When all the land of Egypt hungered, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread.  So Pharaoh said to all of Egypt: “Go to Joseph. Whatever he tells you, do.” (Genesis 41:55)   

 

By now (and the exact sequence in terms of the years of famine is difficult to determine from the Biblical text), Joseph has extracted all the money in Egypt and Canaan and has brought it to Pharaoh.  As the famine continues, Joseph says to the people:

 

Bring your livestock and I will provide for you in return for your livestock if the money is gone.  So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in return for the horses, for the flocks of sheep, for the herds of cattle, and for the donkeys; thus he provided them with bread for all their livestock during that year.” (Genesis 47:16-17)

 

This man is brilliant!  The gathered livestock have to be fed otherwise they will perish.  Joseph has two alternatives.  He can either provide food to the people and to their livestock for free or he can take the livestock and feed it himself.  Unstated is that much of this livestock is useless to the government.  Admittedly, some of these animals can be sold for meat.   But what use does the government have for lots of donkeys?  They only have value if he lets the farmers use them.  Whether in the future the country will charge the farmers (i.e. they will be rented), will give them back for free, or sell them back when they have money is not stated.  In any case, he has saved the livestock of Egypt to everyone’s advantage.  

 

Unstated is that the country is edging to more and more towards a more socialist type economy.  As  a result of this, the civil service will need to expand considerably.  

 

Could it be that this accounts for Pharaoh’s offer to Jospeh’s family once they arrive in Egypt? 

 

“And Pharaoh said to Joseph:“……… and if you know of any capable men among them, appoint them as managers of the livestock over that which is mine.” (Genesis 46:6)

 

One can only guess that Joseph knew already what was going to happen next - he was going to take the farmers’ lands.  In fact, it was the farmers themselves who suggested this.  Do they do this out of desperation or because they know that Joseph is a fair person who is working on their behalf?  The text does not say, but we are in a position to surmise. 

 

This is what the people say: 

 

And when that year ended, they came to him in the second year and said to him: “We will not hide from my lord how that our money is all spent and the herds of cattle are my lord’s, nothing is left before my lord except for our bodies and our land.  Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land?  Acquire us and our land for bread, and we and our land will become bondmen to Pharaoh; and provide us seed so that we may live and not die, and the land will not become desolate.” (Genesis 47:18-19)  

 

In effect, Joseph is creating a partially “communist” or “kibbutz” system, but without the downside inherent in these systems.  He is gathering the people in “communes,” but not to a system that drives away competitiveness and the desire for improvement.  This is because the workers still keep the majority of their earnings. 

 

Joseph said to the people: “Look – I have acquired you this day and your land for Pharaoh; here is seed for you – sow the land.  At the ingatherings you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh; and four parts shall remain yours – as seed for the field, the [other] four parts shall remain yours – as seed for the field, food for yourselves, and for those in your household, and to feed your little ones.” (Genesis 47:23-24)  

 

Within the system that Joseph is creating there are continual convergences of interest.  Pharaoh wants his share of the crop to be as big as possible.  He can get this if the farmers work harder – and this is exactly what they will do since they can keep 80% of the grain.  The farmers would like as high a price as possible for their grain.  But the people also want a fair price when they buy the grain.  Pharaoh has the ability with his 20% of the grain to influence the market price.  In effect, he can administer price controls with his share of the market. 

 

In actuality, Pharaoh’s 20% of the grain constitutes a tax on the people.  It is a fair tax for both them and for Pharaoh.  One cannot be certain abou this, but this may well have been the maximum tax that the monarch could extract from the people, since they are no longer working their own land.  From now on he will have to keep within budget! 

 

Finally, and of upmost importance, he has taught the country how to care for the welfare of everyone.

This was the legacy of Joseph.  Unfortunately, although his system was “imposed as a statue till this day regarding the land of Egypt” (Genesis 47:26), his own reputation does not last.  

 

The Book of Exodus relates that “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph.” (Exodus 1:8)  

A new monarch should have known about Joseph because of all he had accomplished for the country, but for reasons to be explored in a subsequent chapter he did not.  This also was part of the Divine plan. 

Joseph and his brothers 

 

Joseph makes his brothers go through considerable anguish by imprisoning Simeon and then making them bring back Joseph’s younger brother Benjamin to secure Simeon’s release.  Why did he do this?  Why not just reveal himself as their long-last brother Joseph and dispense with four chapters of the Bible?

 

One answer is that he wanted them to demonstrate complete remorse for what they had done to him.  If they were put in the same situation as previously and this time they did the right thing their repentance would be complete.  

 

And this is exactly how the story unfolds.  

 

All the brothers are in front of Joseph, including Benjamin, and Joseph now threatens to imprison him for stealing his silver goblet.  The goblet in question had been planted in Benjamin’s sack.  In a moving speech, Judah rises to the occasion and offers to be incarcerated instead of Benjamin.  Benjamin is the son of the deceased Rachel while Judah is the son of Leah.  Joseph is appropriately touched. 

 

There is, however, another level to this story that recognizes that Joseph had more weighty things on his mind than the state of his brothers’ souls or his own feelings.  Joseph was aware from God’s prophecy to Abraham that there would come a time when the children of Israel would be enslaved but would eventually leave Egypt to go to Canaan.  It was essential that all this be in a state of unity.  The children of Rachel had to be reconciled with the children of Leah.  This realization was not the consequence of years of thinking.  What had happened to him in his father’s home was a thing of the past and had been out of mind.  But now, as he saw his brothers in front of him, he suddenly recalled his dreams:

 

Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them and he said to them: “You are spies!  You have come to see the land’s nakedness!” (Genesis 42:9)

 

What was the connection between the recalling of his dreams and concocting a story about them being spies?17  

 

In the first of his dreams all of his brothers bowed down to him in relation to sheaves of corn.  This had now happened and had demonstrated his authority.  It was now up to him to use this authority to unite the family.  The children of Leah had to make recompense to the children of Rachel.  And Judah did this by offering to stay in prison instead of Benjamin.  All that remained was for Joseph to impress upon them that he had completely forgiven them.

 

If one dream had been fulfilled, it was likely that the second would now also come about.  Joseph needed to facilitate this.  All his brothers and his father now had to come to Egypt.  There, they would acknowledge his authority and he would use this authority to save them from the remainder of the famine.  Admittedly, his mother was no longer alive, but her maid Bilhah had brought up Rachel’s two children following her death and would take her place.  

 

Did Joseph feel he had accomplished this task?  Perhaps.  If he did, he may well have felt great pain when his brothers came to him after Jacob’s death on the assumption that he had not forgiven them and had been waiting until the death of their father to take revenge.  He had gone through this great game for their benefit – and they had still not gotten the message!  They still felt they needed to make up a story about their father asking Joseph to forgive them.  Is it possible that this is why he wept again?   

 

“… so now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.   And Joseph wept when they spoke to him……………   Thus he comforted them and spoke to their hearts.” (Genesis 50:50:15-21)

 

He stressed again that they were forgiven and that “Although you intended me harm, Elokim intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).  

 

 Joseph had engineered reconciliation between the children of Rachel and the children of Leah.  The Children of Israel were now prepared for the difficult future they would face together in Egypt.  

  

But when was the time?

 

Joseph was the right person in the right place at the right time.  

 

But when was the time?

 

Kings I states that Solomon’s Temple was constructed 480 years after the Exodus: 

In the 480th year after the Children of Israel’s exodus from the land of Egypt – in the fourth year of Solomon’s reign over Israel, in the month of Ziv which is the second month – he built the Temple for Hashem.” (Kings I 6:1)

 

The First Temple was destroyed in 587 BCE.  From information given in the Bible it can be readily determined that Solomon succeeded to his throne in 970 BCE and began construction of his Temple in 966 BCE.   The date of the Exodus would have been 480 years earlier in 1446 BCE.   (See also the chapter on the Exodus for a fuller discussion of these points).

 

With this date in hand, it is possible to retrace the past.  A short period for the ten plagues can be assumed from the fact that Moses first spoke to Pharaoh when he was 80 years old, that he led the Israelites for 40 years in the wilderness, and that he died when he was 120.18  Thus, the 10 plagues would have lasted only a relatively short time and  Moses would have been born in about 1527 BCE.   This would be during the reign of either Amenhotep I or Thutmose I, both of whom belonged to the 18th Egyptian Dynasty. 

 

The Pharaoh who began persecuting the Israelites was likely Ahmose 1, the founder of the 18th Dynasty, who became Pharaoh over all Egypt 23 years before the birth of Moses in about 1550 BCE. 

 

Prior to this, the Hyksos were in control of the Nile Delta and Middle Egypt.  It was Ahmose I who completed the struggle began by his predecessors and drove out the Hyksos, thereby uniting northern and southern Egypt.  The dynasty he formed became the most successful and powerful dynasty in Egyptian history.

 

Who the Hyksos were and how they came to Egypt is far from clear, although it is an important topic when discussing Joseph’s history.  They are often considered to be of either Semitic or multi-ethnic origin and they took advantage of a general weakening of the Egyptian state to establish themselves in northern Egypt.  The beginning of their 15thdynasty is usually dated to between 1663 to 1648 BCE and they ruled during what is called the Second Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom.  They introduced advanced military technology into Egypt, such as the horse and chariot, advanced battle axe and composite bow and this would have given them a definite advantage in battle.

 

Their entry into the Nile Delta was probably forceful.  Josephus, quoting from the works of the Egyptian historian Manetho, wrote as follows:

By main force they easily seized it without striking a blow; and having overpowered the rulers of the land, they then burned our cities ruthlessly, razed to the ground the temples of gods… Finally, they appointed as king one of their number whose name was Salitis.”19

 

Some have suggested, however, that this may be historically inaccurate and that the Hyksos gradually infiltrated into the Nile Delta area and subsequently seized power.  Which scenario is correct is impossible to know.  The name Hyksos means in Egyptian “rulers of foreign countries” and the populace always regarded them as foreign invaders.

 

They established their capital and seat of government in the Eastern Delta at Avaris.  For a brief period they also occupied southern Egypt.  This occurred during the reign of the Pharaoh Khyan who ruled from about 1620 BCE and may have lasted only a few years.  However, the southern kingdom may have been under tribute to the Hyksos for a longer period of time.   

 

The political changes occurring in Egypt at the time of Ahmose I’s expulsion of the Hyksos may well be hinted at in the following biblical verse: 

 

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph.  He said to his people, “Behold! The people, the Children of Israel are more numerous and stronger than we.”  (Exodus 1:8)

 

This verse intimates that this particular succession was different from previous ones.  This king not only did not know of Joseph but he was a “new king.”  But do not all successions bring a “new king”?  Egyptian history provides the answer.  The ascension of Ahmose I begins an entirely new dynasty and there is no reason that he would have known or even wanted to know about Joseph.  

 Did Joseph serve the Hyksos?   The answer to this question hinges on the date on which Joseph and Jacob arrived in Egypt and how long the Israelites were in Egypt before Ahmose I expelled the Hyksos.  

 

The Book of Exodus informs us: 

The habitation of the Children of Israel during which they dwelled in Egypt (Septuagint: and in other lands) was four hundred and thirty years.  It was at the end of four hundred and thirty years, and it was on this very day that all the legions of God left the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 12:40)20 

 

With the Exodus a prophecy was fulfilled.  At the Covenant between the Pieces Abraham had received a promise:  

 

And He (i.e. God) said to Abram: “Know with certainty that your offspring shall be sojourners in a land not their own, they will enslave them, and they will oppress them four hundred years …………… And the fourth generation will return here (i.e. to Israel), for the iniquity of the Amorite will not yet be full until then. ”(Genesis15:13) 

 

This verse is hard to interpret since four generations are not usually equivalent to 400 years.  Midrashic tradition explains that the prophecy that Abraham’s offspring would live for 400 years “in a land not their own” commences with the birth of Isaac,  and not with the entrance of Jacob to Egypt.21  The 430 years mentioned in the verse from Exodus above is from the time the prophecy was made at the Covenant between the Pieces and took place 30 years before Isaac was born.22  

 

If this explanation is correct, then the Israelite exile in Egypt actually lasted only 210 years (i.e. 400 years minus 190).  This can be worked out from a verse in the Bible that states that Jacob was born when his father Isaac was 60 and Jacob was 130 when he arrived in Egypt.23  Hence, 190 years of the 400 year prophesy had already passed before Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt.  

 

If the Israelites left Egypt in 1446 BCE and Jacob arrived with his sons 210 years earlier then Jacob’s arrival in Egypt occurred in 1656 BCE or thereabout.  From the Bible, it can deduced that Joseph arrived in Egypt 22 years before his father Jacob and he began his political career 9 years prior to Jacob’s arrival.24  The date for Joseph leaving jail and becoming viceroy was therefore approximately1666 BCE. 

 Hence, Joseph’s political career began at about the same time as the Hyksos invasion of Egypt.  

 

This would explain a number of things: 

1.Jewish settlement was in the Nile Delta in the “Land of Goshen.”  This was the best of the land, in the land of Ramses.  This would have been well within the Hyksos kingdom

2.The foreign status of the Hyksos could explain why there was such readiness on the part of Pharaoh and his entourage to accept another foreigner such as Joseph into their administration. 

3.It would explain why there was such readiness on their part to accept Joseph’s brothers into senior administrative positions (“If you know of capable men among them, appoint them as managers of the livestock over that which is mine.” (Genesis 47:6))  

4.It would be compatible with Pharaoh providing Joseph with a chariot, since it is generally considered that the Hyksos brought chariots into Egypt.

5.It would explain why Ahmose I was so concerned about his Israelite population.  Until this time, the Israelites would have been a favored population in the Hyksos kingdom.  However, once the Hyksos were expelled the Israelites would find themselves in a very vulnerable position.  Ahmose I may not have been totally inappropriate when he considered the Israelites to be a security threat (“it may be if a war occur it too may join our enemies” (Exodus 1:10).  If the Hyksos had attempted to regain their kingdom, the Israelites may have considered aiding them.  Ahmose’s solution was to put the Israelites in labor camps so that he could keep a very close watch them.

6.The Torah tells us “that a new king arose over Egypt who did not know of Joseph”(Exodus 1:8).  The time from Ahmose I to the Exodus was about 100 years.  If the time from Joseph advising the Egyptians to the time of Ahmose I was 300 years, this would be considerable amount of time for trying to remember Joseph.  So much so that it would be surprising that the Torah mentions it.

 

Is there any other supporting evidence that the Egyptian exile lasted 210 years and not 400 or 430?

 

The reality is that the evidence is sparse – and this entire issue is a difficult one.  The prophecy at the Covenant between the Pieces mentions that “the fourth generation will return”.  This is born out by Scripture.  Kohath, Moses grandfather and the son of Levi, arrived in Egypt with Jacob and lived a total of 133 years.25  His son Amram, who was Moses’ father, lived 137 years.26  Moses left Egypt when he was 80.  This comes to a total of 350 years.  However, the sojourn in Egypt of these three generations would have been much shorter than this since their lives would have overlapped.  Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how these 4 generations could have produced 600,00 adult males leaving Egypt.27   

 

One solution to this is to say that the Hebrew “dor” means not a generation in the conventional sense but more in the way of a period of time in which a generation is still alive.  Also, perhaps, the Hebrew word “elef” means not a thousand adult males, but an armed group arranged by family.    

 In sum, an argument can be made that Joseph worked for the Hyksos, and that his interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams occurred during the early years of the Hyksos regime.  It may even have been for the first Hyksos king.  This argument, in fact, is made by the first CE Jewish historian Josephus.28  

 It all fits very nicely into the Bible – but the evidence we have is very circumstantial.

 

Joseph’s crowning achievement 

 

The influence of paganism was pervasive in Egypt.  Even Joseph’s father-in-law was probably an influential pagan priest.  This marriage could well have been arranged by Pharaoh to solidify his palace’s connection to the Egyptian priesthood. 

 

The relevant verse is as follows:

“Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Tzafnas Pane’ach, and he gave him Asnat the daughter of Poti Phera, priest of On, for a wife.” (Genesis 41:45) 

 

The  Egyptian name for the city of “On” was Annu (literally "[place of] pillars"), and it was located on the outskirts of the present city of Cairo.  It was known in Greek times as Heliopolis, or “the city of the sun,”and it received this name because of its temples of sun worship to the sun god Ra (or Re) and to the more local sun god Atum.  

 

“Poti Phera” means “He who Ra has given,” and it is highly likely that he was a priest to the son god Ra.  The name of his daughter “Asenat” means “she belongs to the sky goddess Nut”.  Joseph was given the more monotheistic title “Tzafnas Pane’ach” which means “The God has spoken and he (the bearer of the name) shall live”.  

 

Despite these strong pagan influences around him, Joseph’s household retained their links to the Israelite nation and to Jewish beliefs.  

 

It must be regarded as Joseph’s crowing achievement that he was summoned to his ailing father to receive the patriarch Jacob’s blessing of Joseph’s two children before he died: 

And now, your two sons who were born to you in Egypt before my coming to you, to Egypt, they are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.”(Genesis 48:5)29 

 

Joseph’s two sons are now effectively tribes, and because of this double portion, Joseph has symbolically displaced Reuben from the position of firstborn. 

 

Jacob then blesses Joseph by bestowing blessing on his two children:30 

 

He blessed Joseph and he said: ……  “May the angel who redeems me from all evil bless the lads, and may my name be declared upon them, and the names of my forefathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they reproduce abundantly like fish within the land.”(Genesis 48:15-16) 

 

Then he blesses the two children themselves:  

 

So he blessed them that day saying: “By you shall Israel bless saying: ‘May Elokim make you like Ephraim and like Manasseh ‘ – and he put Ephraim before Manasseh.” (Genesis 48:20) 

 

To this day, it is a custom among the Jewish people that parents bless their children with these words on Friday night.   

 

What was so special about Ephraim and Manasseh that they warranted being a source of blessing to all male Jewish children?  

 

The text does not say, but high on the list must certainly be the family’s retaining its belief in the existence of one God and its trust in Him despite the multitude of pagan influences around them.  Also, maintaining a moral family life despite the immorality of the surrounding culture. 

 To Joseph, there could be no greater compliment than this for all he had achieved. 

  

References

 1.The commentators note that the ladder is “set” towards the ground rather than being on the ground, implying that it was placed there from the heavens.  Why then were the angels ascending before descending?  A midrash suggests that the angels escorting him in the Land of Israel were replaced by those about to accompany him outsider the country, since the former do not leave the country. (Bereishis Rabba 68:12)

2.This chapter adopts the explanation that God was standing above him (Rashi and Bereishis Rabba 69:3), rather that above the ladder (Ramban).  Both explanations fit the Hebrew, but “above him” is more commensurate with the YKVK aspect of God. 

3.The Ramban points out that Jacob is not expressing doubt here, but that the Hebrew word “im”(אִם) can also have the meaning of “when.”

4.Genesis 31:34 

5.According to Rashi’s explanation of Genesis 31:19, which in turn is based on Bereishis Rabba 74:5, she intended separating her father from idolatry.  However, this explanation assumes that her father’s idols were difficult to replace – and one cannot be sure that this was the case.  

6.Genesis 30:22

7.The phrase “God will indeed remember you”(pokod yifkod Elokim etchem),with its doubling of the verb pokod,subsequently becomes a code word for the Jewish people that deliverance is at hand.  Pokod has the meaning of - to remember, to recall, to think of -  and these words will have resonance with the Jewish people when the time comes for delivery.  When the Children of Israel leave Egypt they do indeed take with them the bones of Joseph.  

8.Quoted in Bereshis: A New Translation with a Commentary Anthologized from Talmudic, Midrashic and Rabbinic Sources, Vol 1(b). Mesorah Publications.

9.Genesis 35:19

10.Maimonides writes in his Mishneh Torah: “It is [one] of the foundations of [our] faith that God communicates by prophecy with man.” (Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 7:1)  Without belief in the validity of Moses’ prophecy there is no Judaism.  

11.Exodus 33:11

12.For example, Rashi opines that God did communicate with Joseph directly.  He writes: He will put a response in my month for Pharaoh’s welfare. (Rashi to 41:16)  However, other exegetes such as the Ralbag, Ibn Ezra and Radak provide other explanations for Joseph’s comment

13.Genesis 40:20

14.Interpretation of Onkelos, also quoted by Rashi to Genesis 41:23. 

15.Another explanation is that God had given him the wisdom to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.

16.See the explanation of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch and Targum Onkelos to these verses.

17.Rashi writes that he knew his dreams were fulfilled when he saw his brothers (even though Benjamin was not present).  The Ramban disagrees and explains that Joseph engineered the fulfillment of his dreams so that all the brothers would bow down to him – including Benjamin.  In other words, Joseph arranged for the fulfillment of his dreams for the sake of them being fulfilled.  Only then could he reveal his true identity.  This would explain why he never contacted his father during his stay in Egypt.  The explanation presented here is different and follows to a degree that of Rabbi Hirsch in his commentary to the Torah to Genesis 42:9.  Nevertheless, Rabbi Hirsch sees matters in more personal terms and not with a tribal connotation.

18.Exodus 7:6 and Deuteronomy 34:7.

19.Josephus, Flavius, Against Apion, 1:86–90. 

20.Rashi to Exodus 40:6 explains the phrase “which they dwelled in Egypt” as meaning - which culminated in their dwelling in Egypt.  The Septuagint adds “and in other lands.”  

21.Mechilta, Parshas Bo 14:3.  This Midrash is reconciling two statements -  that the fourth generation would enter Israel and that the exile would last for 400 years.  The answer provided is the most widely accepted interpretation.  TB Megilla 9a discusses that to avoid reader confusion, the Septuagint inserted the words “and in other lands” to its Greek translation of Exodus 12:41.  Although this is the most accepted explanation, it is not the only one.  Another Midrash views the verse in Genesis as being conditional. The Egyptian exile would last three generations if the Jews , but otherwise would last 400 years (Yalkut Shimoni, Parshat Bo 210).   

22.Yalkut Shimoni, Parshas Bo 210.  According to Seder Olam I, Abraham was 70 years old at the Covenant between the Pieces and 100 years old at the birth of Isaac (Genesis 21:5).  

23.Genesis 25:26 and Genesis 47:9.

24.Joseph met his brothers 9 years after becoming viceroy.  There would now be 2 years of bounty and 7 years of famine.  Joseph left Canaan when he was 17 (Genesis 37:2) and was presented to Pharaoh at age 30 (Genesis 41:46).  He therefore arrived in Egypt 22 years before Jacob (9+(30-17)).

25. Exodus 6:18 

26.Exodus 6:20  

27.Exodus 12:37

28. Josephus, Ant 2:15.2 and Ag Apion 1.14.  However, he also dates the Exodus to the Hyksos expulsion Ant 2.9.1

29.There is a disagreement among the exegetes Rashi and Ramban as to whether this had any territorial consequences.  Rashi felt it had none, as each person from each tribe was given equal territory.  It had significance only in terms of tribal princes and banners and the location of their inheritance.  However, the Ramban feels that each member of the tribe of Ephraim and Manasseh received twice as much land as the members of other tribes. See also TB Horayos 6b and TB Bava Basra 123.

30.Commentators note that no direct blessing of Joseph is mentioned.  Perhaps Joseph’s blessing is not mentioned in the text (Sforno). More likely is that by blessing Joseph’s children he was in effect blessing Joseph (Ramban, Rashbam and Radak)

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