From the Depths of the Pit to Viceroy of Egypt

From the Depths of the Pit to Viceroy of Egypt

By Avraham Sofer*

In this week’s reading Joseph’s life takes a major change of direction: from persecuted brother, isolated and abandoned, he rises all at once to greatness, becoming the actual leader of the Egyptian empire of the times. It is well worth tracing the course of Joseph’s life from the beginning, examining how from the very outset he perceived what lay in store and acted accordingly.

Joseph was born into a complex, knotty family setting. Leah had six sons, and the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, had two sons each. When Joseph was born, his mother said, “G‑d has taken away [‘asaph] my disgrace” (Gen. 30:23), and so she named him Joseph, hoping that the Lord would give her yet another [yoseph] son, and thus her status would be equal at least to that of the concubines.

When Jacob was preparing to encounter Esau, Joseph was placed alone, alongside his mother (Gen. 33:2). Later, his mother died while giving birth to his only brother, leaving Joseph on his own alongside his baby brother (Gen. 35:16-20). Up to this point, there is nothing notable about Joseph, and he is but a secondary figure in Jacob’s large family. It is interesting that thus far there is no description of a particular emotional bond between Jacob and Joseph, nor is there any account of a conversation between the two.

At the beginning of Parashat Va-Yeshev, after the Torah lists the offspring of Esau (chapter 36), it goes on to the offspring of Jacob, describing at length and giving prominence to the figure of Joseph. Note that at this stage Joseph is orphaned of his mother, isolated from his brothers, far younger than them, and serving as errand boy of the sons of the concubines (Ibn Ezra on Gen.37:2). However, Scripture attests that “Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons.” What was the source of that love, and why did Scripture make the line of Jacob dependent on Joseph? This is answered by the midrash (Genesis Rabbah, 84.6), which describes many similarities between the course of life of father and son. It follows from this midrash that Jacob identified with the figure of Joseph and viewed him as the one who would directly carry on from him and hence he had an ornamented tunic made for him. This favoring caused his brothers to hate him vehemently, “so that they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Gen. 37:4).

Joseph understood his father’s message well. He had dreams that showed him destined for greatness, and instead of keeping them to himself, he told them to his brothers. They immediately understood their import and hated him even more (Sforno, on Gen. 37:6). At this point Scripture describes the feeling of the brothers, saying “his brothers were jealous of him.” This makes one wonder, for one would have expected the brothers’ reaction to have been jealousy when Jacob preferred him over them and made him an ornamented tunic, and hatred when Joseph told them his dreams! Instead, Scripture describes hatred at the outset and jealousy at the end. In my opinion, the reason is that when Jacob had an ornamented tunic made for Joseph his brothers felt he was doing this out of love mixed with pity due to Joseph’s tragic personal position, and therefore they hated him for being the favored son. But when they heard Joseph’s dreams, they came to realize that Joseph was the chosen son, continuator of his father’s line, like Abel who was preferred over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, and Jacob over Esau. Therefore, at this stage they were jealous of him for being the chosen one from amongst the sons.

Henceforth, a sense of being chosen will accompany Joseph throughout his life.  When his brothers go to pasture their father’s flocks in Shechem, Jacob fears lest some mishap befall them and asks Joseph to go see how they are faring. Joseph immediately complies, saying “I am ready”[1] (Gen. 37:13). Both Jacob’s request and Joseph’s response are surprising and appear to be cut off from the course of events: Joseph, after all, knows that his brothers hate him so much that they cannot say a friendly word to him, and Jacob knows (at least) that the brothers are jealous of Joseph. However, according to the interpretation offered below, all is clear: Jacob assumed that Joseph was the one to continue his path, and therefore had an ornamented tunic made for him. In his eyes, Joseph’s dreams confirmed his assumption, and therefore he “kept the matter in mind”[2] (Gen. 37:11), waiting for fulfillment of the dreams. After having had his dreams Joseph, as well, knew that he had been chosen to carry on the line, and therefore neither of the two was put off by the brothers’ hostility.

When Joseph reaches his brothers, they strip him of his ornamented tunic, cast him into a pit, and sit down to eat; and ultimately Joseph is sold to Ishmaelite traders. Throughout this horrendous scene, Joseph’s voice is never heard. Scripture describes the course of events laconically and one-sidedly, from the vantage point of the brothers, and never does Joseph speak, not even from the depths of the empty pit. The brothers take the tunic, dip it in blood, and have it presented to Jacob in a way that would imply that Joseph has been killed. Jacob mourns and wails, but refuses to be comforted. In view of what we said above, Jacob’s and Joseph’s behavior is understandable: Joseph does not protest or put up any opposition to his brothers because he knows that he is the chosen son. He accepts his brothers’ cruel treatment of him, knowing that what is happening is but part of a series of events that ultimately will lead to the fulfillment of his dreams. Jacob refuses to be comforted out of expectation that the dreams will be fulfilled.

Indeed, immediately upon arriving in Egypt Joseph begins to succeed at his every endeavor, and the Lord makes him prosper. Even Potiphar the Egyptian notices (Gen. 39:3-4) and puts him in charge of his household, thereby winning the Lord’s blessing. Then, however, the wife of Joseph’s master seeks to lie with him. When he refuses, she frames him, presenting Joseph’s garment as proof of her trumped up claims (Gen. 39:16-18). Again, just as when he was sold, a garment of clothing serves as circumstantial false evidence of Joseph’s sorry state. Potiphar has Joseph incarcerated, but here, too, Joseph does not make his voice heard. Scripture provides no description of Joseph’s response to the intrigue connived against him. Here we see a characteristic and systematic way of behavior on the part of Joseph: even when he is greatly wronged he does not complain, rather he accepts the judgment, understanding that this is but another stage leading to fulfillment of his destiny.

Even in prison the Lord makes Joseph do well, and the chief jailer puts all the prisoners in his charge (Gen. 39:21-23). The amora Samuel provides an interesting interpretation here (Sotah 36b), that at first Joseph had intended to lie with Potiphar’s wife, but then he saw the image of his father in the window and this kept him from going wrong. On the deeper level it seems that not only the image of his father kept Joseph from failing; the fact that he was the one directly carrying on the line of his father and was destined to be the one to deliver his father and his family—that is what he saw reflected in the image of his father, and thanks to this Joseph managed to withstand the test of temptation.

When Joseph presents these two events from his own point of view, saying to the chief butler, “For in truth, I was kidnapped from the land of Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon” (Ge. 40:15), he does not speak out of little faith and criticism of G‑d, rather out of thinking that Pharaoh might have mercy on him and release him, understanding that Joseph had not been at fault in these events.

In two years’ time Joseph begins to rise to greatness and realize his original destiny. He solves Pharaoh’s dreams, and the latter dresses him in fine linen, places a gold chain around his neck, and appoints him ruler over all of Egypt. Joseph evinces tremendous administrative talent, gathering the produce of the land of Egypt during the seven years of abundance and serving essentially as leader and provider of rations for the entire region.

At this stage Joseph has been completely out of touch with his father and his family for close to thirteen years, and in the course of this time has risen from the depths of the pit, literally, to great heights. It appears on the face of it that he has forgotten them altogether, especially in view of the fact that despite his rise to greatness he has not seen fit to get in touch with his father and inform him of this. However, as soon as his first son is born he calls him Manasseh, because “G‑d has made me forget [nashani, connected with Menashe, or Manasseh] completely my hardship and my parental home” (Gen. 41:51). One meaning of the verb nashani is to forget, and that is how some commentators read it. However, it also can be taken as relating to nosheh [to be a creditor], which reading seems more apt.[3] Joseph says that by virtue of the Holy One, blessed be He, he owes a debt to his misfortunes and his family. In other words, due to his personal tragedy he ascended to greatness; therefore he chose to name his firstborn thus. Either way, it is clear that his nuclear family was always in his awareness.

When his brothers arrive to buy food in Egypt and bow down to him, Joseph immediately recognizes them. But he does not call to mind the way they mistreated him, rather, he remembers his dreams and wishes to make them come true. Therefore, he brings trumped up charges against them, accusing them of being spies. He does all this in order to get Benjamin to come down with them. Then, when his brothers all bow down to him together, he will have made his dreams into reality and will reveal himself to them. This also answers the question of why, having risen to greatness in Egypt, Joseph did not see fit to inform his father that he was alive; he knew and understood that fulfillment of his dreams would be possible only when in Egypt, as viceroy and dispenser of rations, and not in the land of Canaan, as a common man.[4]

In this description, reading between the lines, we can see throughout how Joseph understood the denouement from the outset. He knew that every stage in the course of his life was part of a direct and fascinating progression of events leading towards the divine objective he was destined to fulfill. This process is described concisely by Joseph himself, when he addresses his brothers, after having revealed his identity to them, as follows:

Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that G‑d sent me ahead of you…G‑d 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 G‑d; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.

Translated by Rachel Rowen

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* Avraham Sofer, attorney and mediator. Originally published in 2016. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] Rashi:  “An expression denoting humility and eagerness, being quick to obey his father’s command even though he knows that his brothers hate him.”

[2] Sforno:  “For he thought that the dream would come true, and he waited expectantly for it to be fulfilled.”

[3] Samson Raphael Hirsch, on Gen. 41:51:  “Nashah also means ‘to be a creditor’ and nashani can just as well mean:  G‑d has made my misfortunes and my family into creditors.  What had seemed to me hitherto misfortune and mishandling, G‑d has made the means to my attaining the greatest joy, so that I am deeply indebted to my misfortune and my family.” (SRH, The Pentateuch, trans. I. Levy, p. 587.)

[4] See Nahmanides on Genesis 42:9.

Last modified: 26/11/2017