As we walk through this week of reading Torah deeper into the life of Joseph, I am struck by his interpretation of Pharaoh's dream in such a way that it leads to his rise to vice-royalty and the turning of all Egyptians from yeoman farmers into serfs and sharecroppers to Pharaoh.
Joseph, unlike the “3 Patriarchs” and at least 2 of the 4 Matriarchs (and Hagar) doesn't have a direct communication with God, but only through dreams. He says only God can interpret Pharaoh;s dream, but there is no suggestion he pauses to listen for God’s Voice. He seeks quickly to turn the dream to his own benefit.
I think he got the dream “wrong.” I think his crucial mistake is that he said God is a determinist — the doubling of the dream meant there was no free will, only inevitability. There was no “If” in his interpretation, only “Must.” Not prophecy, but prediction; not “forth-telling” but foretelling. A temporary success, a long-range failure.
Imagine an interpretation that might have begun thus:
"There will be seven years of plenty. But if you pursue all your normal agricultural practices in the 7th year, there will follow 7 years of famine. Instead, let the land rest for the seventh year. Make shabbat shabbaton, shmita. Then there will be no famine. Everything depends on how you treat the land."
Then follow what Joseph does with the Egyptians. It is an exact black-and-white reversal of the land policy laid out in B’Har, Lev 25. . B”Har focuses on constant restoration of the land and of the community, not the sequestering of first the food, then the animals, then the people, as servants to the king.
B’Har says only YHWH owns the land; Joseph makes Pharaoh the owner of almost all the land. Who get to keep their own land? Only the priests, who in B’Har are precisely the only ones who do NOT get to hold land of their own.
In B’Har, each family gets to renew its own connection with its ancestral turf. In Joseph’s regime, all the Egyptians are torn from their own place and moved elsewhere (47:21).
This episode in Mitzrayyim, the Tight & Narrow Place, is the 4th time Joseph lives through being lifted from a place of rough equality into being put in charge as assistant to The Boss:
By his father over his brothers, and that ends badly;
By Potiphar over his household, including displacing Potiphar's wife, and THAT ends badly. (I think P’’s wife was not trying to sleep with Joseph but to destroy him for usurping her power. If he HAD slept with her, she STILL would have accused him of rape.)
By the warden in prison,who elevates him above the other prisoners, and THAT ends badly.
Finally Pharaoh elevates him, and —— that ends well when Genesis ends, UNLESS you keep reading. Whoops, after Joseph enslaved all Egypt, his folks are enslaved. The “big victory” of his life — at last at last, after all those disasters ----turns into a big defeat. A Big Disaster.
So I think the Torah is teaching a cautionary, not a triumphal, tale. Don’t be fooled by the Hyper-Wealth and Hyper-Power of the Pharaonic role. It will destroy you.
That’s also what It teaches in the Wilderness, as we approach our impending sojourn in Eretz Yisrael.
Or as privileged in Imperial America. It warns:
Don’t act as if you invented your prosperity. YHWH, the Interbreathing of all life, did.
So I think the story of Joseph stands beside Chapter 26 of Leviticus in warning what will happen if we arrogantly ignore the teaching of Chapter 25.