[This essay on Joseph, his father and his brothers, Potiphar & prison, Pharaoh and slavery, is Chapter II of the book Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I wrote together, Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus & Wilderness Across Millennia (Jewish Lights). There is a dark side to Joseph’s life: He connected with God only in dark-time dreams, not like his forebears Avraham, Sarah, Rivka, Yitzhak, and Yaakov/ Yisrael); we always read his stories in the dark of the year; his life-pattern is gaining prestige & power over his equals through the patronage of a superior , and then getting thrown down (into a pit, prison) because of the resentment of those equals at his domineering power. Even the seemingly successful fourth spiral of this pattern — when as Pharaoh’s viceroy he subjects all Egypt to serfdom while saving them from famine — is successful for him but leads to enslavement of his clan in Mitzrayyim. To receive a copy of Freedom Journeys as a thank-you present from The Shalom Center in response to a tax-deductible contribution from you, please click on the “Donate” banner on the left-hand marginal column of this Website.]
II. Entering the Tight and Narrow Place
Mitzrayyim is the Hebrew word for Egypt. But it is not merely a geographical expression: It means the Tight and Narrow Place, that “-ayyim” ending making it a noun of twoness as “oznayyim” means two ears, “eynayyim” two eyes. Narrownesss doubled, as in English we might say “Between a rock and a hard place,” “Between the Devil and the deep blue sea.”
Perhaps it was originally a geographical description, pointing to the land that stretched for a thousand miles in a narrow band along both banks of the Nile, totally dependent on the river for its livelihood. To ancient Israelites it became as well a political and cultural critique: the narrow-minded land, a rigid place of slavery that cramped the body and the soul. Occasionally the Bible hints that any land could become Mitzrayyim: There was a danger that even an Israelite king could enslave his people, return them to “Mitzrayyim.”
In many great myths or legends, the beginning of the tale is a crystal of the whole. This great story begins with the tale of a single son of the man known as “Jacob,” a “heel” in all its English senses, who transforms himself into “Israel,” the “Godwrestler.” That son, Joseph, entered alone into slavery in Mitzrayyim.
Why and how? Because he drew on his father’s favor to lift himself above his older brothers. In the traditional culture of the ancient Near East, not only in the era of the Abrahamic clan but much later as well, the older son/s were expected to be favored. Yet Jacob himself had won favor above his older brother Esau, and Jacob’s father Isaac had won favor over his older brother Ishmael. Indeed, the family memories were that God had affirmed these reversals – and that in the long run, the alienated brothers had been reconciled with each other.
Perhaps those memories were why Jacob felt justified in reversing expectations by favoring Joseph. Perhaps he felt from his own life-history that God was trying to set a new standard of equality and justice, undermining the automatic power of the older, stronger sibling.
But Jacob’s sons did not accept these reversals as a family value for their unique clan. They reacted with far more bitterness and rage than Ishmael had brought upon the head of Isaac, or than Esau had brought upon the head of Jacob. They looked upon their father’s special privileging of Joseph and Joseph’s eagerness to play this role as a kind of family treason. They made sure this upstart would fall beneath them — first throwing him into a physical pit and then selling him into Egypt as a slave. Then they told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. So they got rid of the one and broke the other’s heart.
Once Joseph learned this pattern, this rhythm of rise and fall, with such emotional power —- love and power intertwined in his family like a choking hang-rope — he invited the rhythm to become the pattern of his life. He was joined in the invitation by three other men, surrogate fathers who in succession lift him above his equals – and let him down.
He became a slave in the household of Potiphar, a leading official. But he didn’t remain an ordinary slave for long. He so impressed Potiphar with his administrative skills in running the household that Potiphar (like Jacob) lifted him above the rest of the household — to power limited only by his master’s writ. But this disturbance of the usual household pattern robbed Potiphar’s wife of her special role, flung her down the stairs of privilege.
So she used the one power she had left – the power to trick Joseph into a sexual seduction. He rejected her, but she accused him of attempted rape anyway.
Here we might open ourselves to “read” the blank spaces, the unwritten stories, that the Rabbis called the “white fire” of the Torah text. The Torah, they said, was not written in black ink on white parchment, but in black fire – the letters – on white fire – the spaces. They said we must learn to read the white fire as well as the black fire.
So let us turn our imagination to the blank spaces in the story of Potiphar’s wife. Perhaps one way of bringing herself back into power in the household would have been to share Joseph’s bed. It is also easy to imagine that if he had responded to her sexually, she would have exposed him just as she did when he rejected her. That would have gotten rid of him entirely and restored her to her wifely power in the household – as it did according to the story that can read in the letters themselves, the black fire.
Whatever Joseph did, hidden beneath sexual attraction or seduction was power. (In a way, as the contest for power had corrupted Joseph’s loving childhood family.) Potiphar’s wife responded to her humiliation much as Joseph’s brothers had, by having him thrown into a dungeon. His imprisonment thrust him even lower than the humiliated role into which his rise to household chief had thrust her.
Yet in prison, Joseph replayed the pattern again. (It seems he could no longer choose whether to replay it or not; it had become the shape of his persona.) This time it was the prison warden who played the role of Joseph’s father and of Potiphar. With the warden’s help, he lifted himself above his fellow-prisoners. They fawned on him in the hope of winning advancement for themselves. But even the prisoner he did help did not reward this upstart. Instead, he evidently resented the pretensions of his equal to become his superior. Just as Potiphar’s wife had tricked Joseph into prison, just as his brothers had thrown him into a pit, the other prisoner forgot Joseph’s sage advice and left him in the dungeon.
Finally, Joseph got the chance to play out his life-pattern with the highest authority in the world — the Pharaoh, ruler of the world’s greatest empire – and at last his effort seems to have succeeded.
Pharaoh lifted him from prison to advise him (by interpreting dreams) how to deal with an impending economic , political, and ecological disaster – a seven-year famine in the fruitful land of Egypt and far beyond as well.
What was the result of Joseph’s advice? During seven years of plenty, surplus food was stored in Pharaoh’s custody. When famine came, the food could be doled out to meet the people’s needs. That could have been done at no cost to the yeomen farmers, no disruption of their holdings of their land. But Joseph’s advice, which the Pharaoh followed, was that the food the yeomen peasant farmers had grown not be freely returned to them when the need arose.
Instead, the people were required year by year to give Pharaoh their money, their cattle, and finally their land itself, in order to get bread to eat and seed to sow. Thus Joseph reduced them to sharecroppers. He could have honored and protected them, as he could have honored and protected his brothers, his fellow-slaves in Potiphar’s household, his fellow-prisoners. Instead, he demeaned them as he had demeaned these earlier “equals” in his life. He converted all their land into Pharaoh’s property (except from some reserved for ownership by the priesthood that served the gods and god-kings of Egypt). (Gen. 47: 13-26).
The ex-slave, ex-prisoner not only rose to preeminence in Egypt, second only to the king himself as he had been second only to his father, to Potiphar, and to the prison-warden. This time was different: Joseph seconded his master so well that there was no one able to rebel and cast him into another slavery.
Or so it seemed, as long as Joseph lived and for more than a century beyond.
Just as Joseph fulfilled what he had come to think his destiny on the huge political landscape of the world’s greatest empire, he fulfilled it as well — at last! – in the intimate embraces of his family.
They, living still in the nomad’s land of Canaan, were also caught in the world-embracing famine. They came to Egypt to seek food, and Joseph used his political preeminence to succor and protect them — but also to test whether harshness and jealousy still consumed them. Upon discovering that they were open to turning themselves toward compassion instead, he revealed to them who he was.
Joseph discovered they had changed by testing them: Under pressure, will they abandon their youngest brother Benjamin to an Egyptian prison to save their own skins, as they had long ago (for much less reason) abandoned Joseph to slavery in Egypt? Will they once again bring grief and despair on their father’s head by abandoning his beloved son Benjamin, as they had done long ago by pretending Joseph had been killed by a wild animal? No. They insisted on protecting Benjamin, they passionately appealed to their unknown brother the Prime Minister not to break their aging father’s heart.
What had changed in the dynamics of this dysfunctional family to make the brothers respond with honor and compassion?
We know of two major events in the family’s history that may have made change happen. One is a horrifying episode involving their sister Dina. She was raped by a local prince in a town of Canaan near where the clan of Jacob had been living. The prince then fell in love with her and asked to marry her.
Her brothers, with their father Jacob’s permission, agreed – on condition that all the men of the tribe agree to be circumcised as befitted those who might want to join the heirs of Abraham. The prince persuaded all the townsmen to agree – and on the third day after the circumcision, when they were most crippled by their pain, the two oldest brothers — Shimon and Levi – killed them all.
Jacob cried out that they had made his reputation stink in the noses of the whole countryside. But Shimon and Levi answered, “Shall our sister be treated like a whore?”
In the whole episode, the one person who never got to have a say was Dina herself. Her brothers, her father, the prince, the Torah itself never gave her a voice. No one asked her what she wanted. The story seems to be about the “honor” and reputations of the men in the family, not about compassion for Dina’s plight or even the pursuit of justice.
Perhaps Jacob responded so obliquely in the moment – expressing concern over his own reputation, not about the immorality of the murders — because he feared that in their rage, his sons might kill him too. (After all, they had brought him Joseph’s coat drenched in blood. Had he been killed by a wolf, or by these wolfish brothers?) Years later, living in Egypt with Joseph to protect him, now in old age on the brink of his own death, Jacob accused Shimon and Levi outright of murder and once again denied them the honors due his first-born sons.
During all those years between, what was life like in this blood-streaked family? If Jacob was silent out of fear, did his fear, his silence, his disgust, weigh down the family? Had his sons begun to feel some guilt, even repentance? Or were they caught in sullen rage? When in Egypt they faced the mysterious power of the Prime Minister whose name they did not know, did they respond out of a bully’s fear when confronted with a bully still more powerful, or out of late-grown caring for their father?
The second family episode involved another brother, Judah. He had married one of his sons to a woman not of the Abrahamic clan, Tamar. His son died. In accordance with the law about raising up a family to the dead man through a marriage to his brother, he married Tamar to his second son. He also died. Judah decided Tamar might be a jinx, and kept her apart from the remaining son to whose marriage-bed (and child) she was entitled.
But Tamar was not willing to bear the insult and the social dislocation of this unlawful widowhood and childlessness. During the great spring sheep-shearing festival – one of the celebrations that is later woven into the Exodus festival of spring – Judah set out on the road to the shepherds’ gathering-place. Tamar disguised herself in a booth along the way as a priestess with whom the shepherds evidently celebrated the fecundity of springtime through a sexual encounter. Judah had sex with her. She became pregnant. Back home, Judah was about to have her executed for adultery (in the marriage to which he had denied her access.) But she held out to him the staff and seal he had left with her along the way.
He cried out, “You are more righteous than I!” — freed her, and took as his heirs the twin boys whom she bore.
This story shows that Joseph’s brother Judah had matured beyond the harshness and contempt of his earlier life. Unlike the story of Dina, it shows both that a woman – Tamar – could act on her own and vigorously challenge the injustice put upon her, and that Judah could respond directly to a woman’s plight, even when it discredited his own reputation. When Joseph forced Judah to choose between saving his own skin or abandoning Benjamin, we can almost hear the cry, “He is more righteous than I!” coming from his lips. Judah’s self-transformation made it possible for Joseph to reveal his true identity and resolve the estrangement from his family.
He brought his father to Egypt, introduced him to Pharaoh (who treated him like an equal), and deferred to his father as head of the family. During these last years of honor and comfort, Jacob did one thing that transformed the future of the family. He had Joseph bring his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, for a grandfather’s blessing. Jacob gave the blessing with his left hand on the first-born’s head and his right hand on the younger’s head. When Joseph protested that he had it backwards, Jacob – who knew from his own life about reversing the blessings due the first and second-borns, insisted he knew what he was doing.
But what Jacob did to this grandchildren was quite different from what he had tricked his father into doing to him. Jacob had conspired to cheat, lie, and steal to win the blessing due his older brother Esau. Not till the deed was done did Esau learn what had happened, and the blessing he then received was stingier than the one that Jacob got, ambiguous in meaning rather than whole-hearted and full-throated. The result had been decades of estrangement and hostility.
But Jacob’s grandsons got his blessing at the same time, and they both knew what was happening. What’s more, it was the same blessing for them both: “Forever and ever may the children of our people be blessed to be like Ephraim and Menasheh.” (And still, 3,000 years later, that’s how Jews bless their male children.)
What happened at that moment? Here was the culmination, the final case, of the brothers’ struggles that run all through Genesis; but this one was very different. In each of the others, the warring brothers are ultimately reconciled: Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers. But it takes decades in every case. Decades of alienation, conflict, anger, fear, before they are reconciled.
Jacob, who has himself been through this process, dissolves it all between his two grandchildren in a single moment. If he had blessed them with the “correct” hands, he would have been perpetuating the official status quo of elder privilege. If he had acted like his father and grandfather, he would have created decades of distrust before they might have accomplished reconciliation. By bringing them together himself in a single moment, hands crisscrossed, he doesn’t leave it to the two of them to spend decades solving the problem. He himself intervenes, bringing to bear his authority —- moral and, you might say, political. He has more power than they, and he has the moral authority to do it.
And so we hear no more of bitter struggles between the siblings of a single family. When we meet Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, we hear of several conflicts among them – but mostly of cooperation and shared honor through most of their long lives. As we will see, the “first-born” question did not disappear – but it took a whole new turn after Jacob’s transformative act.
When Jacob died, Joseph with the support of Pharaoh’s officials gave him a month-long burial worthy of a king. The brothers were frightened –— because they assumed that only Jacob’s supervision was still protecting them from Joseph’s revenge. But now that Joseph was the indisputable head of the family, he responded with forgiveness and compassion. He did not bring upon his brothers the abasement he brought upon the farmers of Egypt.
But there is something strange and unexpected about this compassion. For Joseph explained it not in terms of his own emotional and spiritual growth, or for that matter the spiritual and emotional growth of his brothers. He explained it rather as a product of God’s inscrutable will. Though his brothers meant him harm by selling him into Egyptian slavery, Joseph said, God had used precisely this evil to create good –— for it had brought Joseph where he could save the family’s lives and fortune. So, he explained, there was no reason for him to seek revenge upon his brothers, and no reason for them to fear him.
Was this an obvious way for a member of the Abrahamic clan to think and feel? No. Joseph’s forebears, women and men, all had a sense of choice, of freedom to choose. For them this freedom had come from their direct encounters with God. Visions, Voices, Laughter, even Wrestles.
But Joseph experiences God only through dreams, dark semi-visions in the dark of night. And Joseph’s experience leads him to a dark vision of a God Who imposes a history devoid of freedom: Not only must human beings become slaves to a tyrant, but they are slaves to fate.
Joseph first expresses his determinism when he interprets the doubling of Pharaoh’s dream — not only seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows, but also seven withered ears of grain devouring seven good ears —- as proof that the future famine is inevitable. Only top-down control by Pharaoh and Joseph can match God’s fateful top-down imposition of a famine.
Was this the only way to save the family and all Egypt from starvation? Wasn’t Joseph free to choose another way?
For a moment, facing Pharaoh, Joseph says he cannot interpret the dream; he must ask God. But he does not wait to ask God. Do we have any hint of what God might have said?
Yes. A hint, that’s all. (As the rabbis taught, dreams are a hint of prophecy – one-sixtieth.) We have, much later in the Torah, God’s command of how to prevent famine in the Land of Israel. Every seventh year, the land must lie fallow and all debts must be forgiven. If this seventh year of restfulness is not granted to the land as is its right, than scarcity –- famine, drought, exile –- will follow. (Lev. 25; Lev 26: 34-35 and 43-45; Deut. 15; )
The seventh year? How evocative! Is this seven-year rhythm of abundance and scarcity only an accidental brush with the seven-year cycle that Joseph perceives in Pharaoh’s dream? Or is there an integral connection?
Perhaps God – Reality – the inner processes of all abundance and all fallowness —- intended Pharaoh’s dream to teach: There will be seven years of plenty. If you reap all seven years, there will follow seven years of famine. If you rest and let the land rest in the seventh year, you will have enough to eat. Abundance will spring from self-discipline.
IF — the word of freedom, not of fate.
What Joseph teaches Pharaoh in Egypt is like a photographic negative of what God teaches Israel at Sinai — dark where Sinai is light, light where it is dark.
Sinai teaches that God owns all the land; Joseph teaches it is Pharaoh — who claimed godship for himself — who owns all the land.
Sinai teaches that the priestly tribe of Levi are to hold no land at all. Their religious power is to be checked by making them materially dependent on the tithing of the other tribes. But in Joseph’s practice, the only Egyptians other than Pharaoh who still own their land are the priests. Thus in Egypt they have both spiritual and material power.
Sinai radically decentralizes power into families; Joseph’s practice radically centralizes power.
Sinai frees the earth to make its own Shabbat; Joseph’s practice enslaves the land itself to constant work.
Sinai provides that once a generation, every family can return to its own original piece of land. Joseph tears the Egyptians from their native turf, sending them hurtling into unknown regions of the Egyptian empire.
Joseph walks in the dark because he has no light from God. Given no vision that would light a path of free choice, Joseph becomes convinced there is no free choice and so he abolishes freedom for the people of Egypt.
No spiritual freedom, no personal psychological freedom, no political freedom, no economic freedom, no freedom for the earth — all these slaveries mesh.
After a lifetime in which all Joseph’s choices turn inside out upon themselves, so that when he chooses domination, it leads to slavery; when he falls into slavery it turns into domination — after such a lifetime, Joseph is drawn to determinism as a theory of life. That is how and why he can absolve his brothers of their guilt for selling him into slavery. It was all God’s decree.
Joseph had walked in the dark because he saw no light from God, no conversation with the universe but only a diktat. Was it his fate to be denied the light that had shone so brightly to his forebears? Or— by joining with his father in turning so early in his youth to rise above his brothers — had they together darkened Joseph’s path? Had the two of them called forth a version of the universe and God that was filled with Fate, not freedom? Driven by dreams that seemed to predict the future, did he become convinced there was no free choice to be had? Bereft of a clear vision that might have taught compassion, did he think the only path was seeking power, the only choice the one between more power and the pit?
And at last the pattern worked. Took decades of his life, but finally it worked. At last he stands on the pinnacle of the world, and no one can throw him in the pit again.
Or so it seems, until long after his death.
When we roll the parchment forward to the early passages of Exodus, we discover that his people, whom he had made so prosperous when Egypt was suffering from famine, have been flung into slavery by a Pharaoh who did not cherish Joseph. We may wonder whether the spiral has spun once again.
Every time before, Joseph’s effort to rise above his fellows has ended up by casting him beneath them. Does his ultimate triumph in becoming Pharaoh’s viceroy simply postpone and worsen the fall —- into a pit of slavery for all his people? Does the whole people suffer in slavery for the sake of Joseph’s triumph, for his turning Egyptian peasants into serfs, for his believing that neither he nor others had real freedom to make choices, for his conviction that only a dark vision of a darkly absent but insistent God was the world’s reality ?