March 2010

Top of This issue Current issue



Sy Schechtman


        Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible, ends with the Jews all safely ensconced in the “land of Goshen” that choice part of  Egyptian land  that a benevolent  Pharoah has   bestowed on the Jews  in great gratitude because his former Jewish slave, Joseph,  has  correctly predicted the abysmal future  that  his nightmare visions  portended,  and the concrete  realistic  measures needed to overcome  these dire projected events.  And thus consolidate and even increase his power.  Another token of his high esteem for Joseph is Pharaoh’s elevation   of him to the to the highest level of power,  regent co-equal with  Pharoah, titular leader of the Egypt,  one of the great kingdoms in the ancient world.  The bible does not specifically name the Pharoah involved nor does Egyptian  history reveal it.   But the period involved is assumed to be the interregnum period when the Hyksos invaded  and disrupted the orderly   dating  of events in ancient Egypt,   which before and after this approximately  300 hundred year interregnum was thorough and evidently historically  trustworthy.   Not only in this Hyksos occupation are the records scant  but no mention of any Jewish  presence has been found in ancient Egyptian history.

         According to Genesis, the first book of the Hebrew Bible,  all the Hebrew people living in neighboring, famine stricken Canaan were about 70 people.  “All the people belonging to Jacob who came to Egypt ----his own      aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons---all these           persons numbered 66.   And Joseph’s sons  who were born to   him in Egypt were two  in number.  Thus the total of Jacob’s household who came to him in Egypt was  70 persons.”    The final Exodus from Egypt,  according to the Hebrew Torah happened about four hundred years later, and although the number  of Hebrews under   Moses  great leadership is still a happy conjecture,  many responsible biblical scholars believe that about as many as 600,000 Jews departed,  aided by many seemingly miraculous  events  as at the passage of the Red(Reed?) Sea!

   ( Unquestionably the Jews at that time were following what in a somewhat later era was one of God’s  prime edicts to be “fruitful and multiply”,which today, lamentably,  only a small segment of Jews adhere to!)

        It is important to note here that Joseph’s remarkable story does not raise his image to that of Patriarchal status.     God spoke    to  Abraham, his son Isaac, and his son Jacob directly;   Joseph, Jacob’s son,  only had divine dreams  or could interpret unsettling dreams of others for their hidden fateful meanings.  And, later on, God spoke often to Moses, the peerless Jewish leader.  But the story of Joseph and his misadventures  and ultimate triumph has much that rings true today emotionally  and religiously.   And it starts in family discord  of father Jacob amidst his   12 adult sons in Canaan.   Evidently  “Jacob loved  Joseph best of all his sons, for he was a child of his old age;  and he made him an   ornamented  tunic.   And when his brothers  saw that  their father loved him more than any of his brothers,  they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.”

        Young Joseph had dreams of vain glory, too,  which he related  to his already hostile brothers.   “Look,  I have had another dream.   And this time the sun,  the moon and eleven stars were bowing down me.”   Also, 17 year  old Joseph was a helper  in the care of the flocks that he and his brothers tended.  “And Joseph brought back bad reports  of them to their father.”    Almost spontaneously one day, therefore, as they were in a distant field with the sheep and goats, as they saw tattle tale brother Joseph approaching …. “they said to one another,  ‘here comes that dreamer!  Come now, let us kill   him and    throw  him into one of the   pits; and we can say  ‘A savage beast devoured  him’.  We shall see what becomes  of his dreams!”  But, as Joseph later explains to his very guilty brothers, God had other plans.   For Reuben, the eldest brother, persuaded his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing  band of Ishmaelites whose final destination was Egypt..  Reuben convincingly argued “what do we gain by killing our brother and covering up  his blood.?  Come, let us sell him …let us not do away with him, after  all he is our brother and  our own flesh…”   Meanwhile, then,  as father Jacob  rent his garment in mourning over his most favored  son’s demise, Joseph intact and evidently impervious because of the Lords favor,  is sold by the Ishmaelites to Potiphar, a courtier of  Pharoah in Egypt  and his chief steward.   Here Joseph’s luck becomes temporarily  mired in the passions of  his boss’, Potiphar’s wife,s becoming increasingly ardent  in desiring Joseph’s sexual attention…. ‘Lie with me’…she insists (on several occasions) but he refused……”  valiantly   dissuading this woman when her husband  had been so trusting and generous with only the dalliance with his wife being  off limits.   Much has been written about this incident in western literature,  including the surmise that Potiphar was a court eunich, not too uncommon in ancient times for certain ceremonial duties,  and thus Potiphar’s wife---who is never named in the bible---perhaps had unofficial  sanction for her somewhat unbridled  need for sexual satisfaction.   Thomas Mann,  in his remarkable tetralogy—four volume novel!--- Joseph in Egypt,    devotes quite a bit of space to Mut,  Mann’s  name for this very unhappy woman.   Mann speculates that Joseph impressed Mut not only for his physical   attributes but also for his rise to prominence in Potiphars’  large household, for while still only with slave status he had Potphar’s full trust to oversee all domestic affairs.  That, as biblically stated several times  “God favored Joseph”….  And that Mut as well as several other perceptive people  were equally affected by his charismatic  personality. 

        However,  in the short term Joseph’s luck reached a new low,  as when he was thrown into the pits by his vengeful brothers.  This time, as he was fleeing her continuing importunities  she raised an outcry of  frustration……when she saw that he had left his coat in her hand and had fled outside……she called out to her servants and said to them, Look, he had to bring  us a Hebrew  to dally with us!   This one came to lie with me;  but I screamed  loud…   and when he heard me screaming at the top of my voice,  he left his coat with me and fled outside”.   Hearing this Potiphar had no choice other  than jail for hapless Joseph,   but  gradually from here his future brightened considerably. The chief jailer did not supervise  anything that  was in Josephs charge, because the Lord was  with  him, and whatever he did the Lord made successful.  Interpreting dreams,  in particular,  helped considerably.  Particularly those of Pharoahs chief courtiers,  the chief cupbearer  and chief baker.  Both had conflicting dreams on the same night  that Joseph  correctly interpretated.   That in three days the chief cupbearer would be pardoned  but alas for the chief baker!  “in  three days Pharoah will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole;  and the  birds will pick off your flesh.                                                                                                                                                                    

        Finally Josephs’  fame with dream interpretations   reached the  highest level in Egypt.   On two successive nights Pharoah had nightmares  none of his court magicians could  interpret.  The chief cup bearer finally recalled his most successful experience with Joseph’s dream interpretation---two years ago!-- and Joseph was rushed from the dungeon, had his hair cut and clothes changed and appeared before Pharoah to hear his famous dreams about the seven well fed cows   eaten by the  seven scrawny cows  and the seven healthy ears of corn scorched by the sun. Joseph tells Pharoah  that God has ordained seven years of  abundance and then seven years of famine and “all the abundance will be forgotten. As the land is ravaged by famine……and all  the abundance in the land of Egypt will be forgotten  because of the famine thereafter,  because the famine   will  be very severe….”        

        Now Joseph switches from important divination  to shrewd  administrative advice.   “Accordingly,  let   Pharoah take steps to appoint overseers over the land,  and organize the land of Egypt in the seven   years  of plenty. Let all the food of those good  years that are coming be gathered, and let the grain be collected   under  Pharoah’s authority for the seven years of famine that will come upon the land of Egypt so that the land may not perish in the famine”.   Immediately  Joseph went from dungeon to dictator for the plan ….pleased Pharoah and all his courtiers…could we find another like  him  since God has made all this known  to him”.  Pharoah contnued “See, I put you in charge of all the land of Egypt….I am Pharoah, yet without you no one shall lift hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”  At that time Joseph was thirty years old, when the land was full of abundant produce  and he was made the Grand Vizier  directly in charge  Egyptian Affairs  directly subordinate only to Pharoah.

        After seven years the famine started,  and soon became severe. “The famine,however, spread throughout the whole  world. So all the world came to Joseph  in Egypt to    procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world”. And also Jacob’s sons,  minus young Benjamin, made the trip down to Egypt.   Joseph knew them, but all they saw, bowing low and humble,  was this awesome Egyptian harshly calling them  “Spies!”    And he put them in prison for  three days.   After that Joseph relented somewhat, kept only Simon as hostage against their return and had their bags filled with grain and when they opened them back   in Canaan  found all the proposed purchase money returned in full!   They  assumed this was some awkward mistake at best.

       But soon a return visit for food was again necessary,  but this time the brothers told Jacob that Benjamin must also be involved  or no deal for grain would  be possible  as evidently this  man was strangely interested  in their family.  ….. And Jacob said  Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man that you had another brother?  They replied, but the man kept asking about  us and our family, saying, ‘Is your father still living?  Have you  another  brother’?   How were we to know that he would say, ‘bring your brother’?    So reluctantly Jacob cedes his youngest, Benjamin, only remaining son of his  deceased beloved Rachel,  to the return visit to the apparently hostile Egyptian Vizier,  the keeper of the grain.  When Joseph sees his younger brother among the group he is secretly thrilled  and he arranges  a group meal for  all at his house.   But he still has mixed feelings about  his brethren who tried to kill him about seven years ago, still   trying to play cat and mouse  with them.   “Fill the men’s bags with food, as much as they can carry, and put each ones money in the mouth of his bag.  Put my silver goblet in the mouth of the youngest one,  together with the money for his rations”.   But after they leave for home early next morning he sends his chief steward after them, accusing them of stealing the prized goblet.    And when they all return to Joseph’s house strongly protesting their innocence ….How could we have stolen any silver or gold from your master’s house! Whichever of your servants it is found with it shall die and the rest of shall  be slaves of my lord.

         When the silver goblet is found in Benjamin’s bag the ten other brothers are in a panic, with Judah speaking for them all, and he volunteering  to take Benjamin’s place.  “If I do not bring him back   I shall stand guilty before my father forever.  Therefore,  please  let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of  the  boy, and let the boy go back with his brothers.   For how  can I go back to my father unless the boy is with me?   Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!

        Joseph, at last, is completely transformed.  In one of religious histories most impressive personal revelations---and reconciliations--  he orders all  his attendants  to withdraw, “so that there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers.

    “I am Joseph.  Is my father still well?”   The brothers are all dumbfounded and could not answer.   But Joseph, now with a most profound insight new to him and the world at that time  that God rules history ….. “Now do not be distressed that you sold me hither;  it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.  It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and   there are still five years to come in which there will  be no   yield from tilling.   God has sent me ahead of you to    insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance.  So it was not you who sent me here but God;   and He has made me a father to Pharoah,  Lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.”    Joseph has here enunciated the powerful postulate    that God rules history.    One of the basic  general principles that all monotheistic religions seem to abide by.  That we get our just deserts.   That the punishment fits the crime in some heavenly inscrutable balance scale.   Or indeed that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds.   This, of  course,  is hotly debatable, including that mesmering condradiction that man has free will but everything is ordained  but, as stated at the outset,  more people are still signing on, even though  their immortal souls  may not have any genetic components.   Even though Enlightened Man now pictures God as waiting hopefully in the wings for humanity to at last do the right thing and live in a humanly holy way and bring on a messianic age.

        The end of Genesis, indeed, reflects one such dreary attempt.    Joseph, with Pharoah’s blessing,  utterly nationalizes all of Egyptian land and life.   Since the famine continues for seven years   almost all  of  private property is ceded to the government for life saving  grain.   “So Joseph gained possession of all Egypt for  Pharoah, every  Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them;  thus the land passed over to Pharoah.     And  he removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt to the other. …And they said,  “You have saved our lives!  We are grateful to my lord and we shall be serfs  to Pharoah.  Karl Marx,  son of a Jewish rabbi,  might have welcomed that as part of the grand  Dictatorship of the Proletariat, but most of us still take our aspirations in hard productive effort and a mystical, somewhat sublime human/heavenly effort for  the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity---under God.    And Genesis  starts us down that hopeful, holy path,   with the uniquely Jewish introduction  to the Divine.