Joseph and Moses

Joseph and Moses Compared


Howard Adelman

Joseph of the multi-coloured coat and Moses the leader of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt are the book ends of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Unfortunately, there is very little narrative between the book ends so the book ends become the story rather than the tale between. In my blog I made a slip and referred to Joseph as the Prime Minister of Israel rather than Egypt. I will use that error to explore how a Prime Minister of Israel should conduct himself and organize Israeli policy given the current impasse in the peace talks with the Palestinians. But I want to begin by comparing and contrasting Joseph’s rule under the Pharaoh of all of Egypt, and Moses as an adoptee of the Egyptian royal family transforming himself into a leader of the Israelite rebellion against the Pharaoh and leader of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.

I am assisted enormously in this task because the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s writings on this subject were published posthumously as a collection on vision and leadership that explored precisely this topic with the help of David Shatz (professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University), Joel Wolowelsky (Dean of Faculty at the Yeshiva high school in Flatbush) and Rav. Reuven Ziegler (an expert on Soloveitchik, not to be confused with the expert on refugee issues whom I know who is a law professor at the University of Reading). I am inspired by Vision and Leadership: Reflections on Joseph and Moses. However, as much as I am indebted to the great Rav Soloveitchik, I take full responsibility for the idiosyncratic conclusions I have drawn.

Further, though he and I share an immersion in Hegel’s dialectic as a tool to explore such a topic, dialectic, which has been mis-characterized, even by Soloveitchik’s followers, as involving positing a thesis and then an antithesis to forge a synthesis, will not be used in identical ways. However, I will spare the reader any exploration of the differences between Soloveichik’s and my use of dialectic. For me, suffice it to say, dialectic is a process of double negation. Confronting an issue with its opposite in order to negate the lack within each is part of the process, whether it is the positing of mastery emerging out of slavery and a new form of mastery emerging out of slavery, of good out of evil, or prudence and practicality out of imaginative constructions, of universality out of particularity, of presence out of absence.

A very different and much simpler form of dialectic is the use of comparison rather than double negation, taking two items or agents who seems on the surface to be radically different and Other to reveal both surprising similarities which, in turn, point to new otherwise previously ignored differences. It is this latter process which I will use.

Joseph and Moses were both very effeminate men. Joseph is introduced as a seventeen year old who is both immature and relatively child-like compared to his brothers. His brother Reuven referred to him as a child, ha-yeled. Joseph may have been very comely, but he did not seem to have a very attractive personality since he was a snitch and told on his brothers. Moses too when he is a young man does not appear very mature, but in a very different way than Joseph. He was rash letting his temper overtake his prudence ostensibly in the name of social justice. Yet both future leaders played identical roles, though at opposite stages in their lives. Both were shepherds. But Joseph started as a shepherd and rose to become the highest official in the court of Egypt serving the Pharaoh. Moses, in contrast, started as an adopted member of the royal family and when he had to flee became a shepherd in the land of the Midianites.

Both Joseph and Moses experienced rejection, though for very different reasons. Joseph, who was Jacob’s favourite son. Moses was no favourite of any father but remained a moma’s boy. Joseph became the object of his brother’s jealousy and they determined to kill him but, in the end, he was sold into slavery in a heinous act of injustice and his brothers told their father that his favourite son had been killed by a wild animal. They offered his bloodied multi-coloured coat as proof. Moses fled from his adopted grandfather, the Pharaoh, when he himself became the murderer, not driven by jealousy but by a sense of injustice when he intervened when an overseer was observed mistreating a Hebrew slave. Both Joseph and Moses were rejected and forced into exile, in effect, as refugees.

Women play crucial roles in their salvation. The key incident for Joseph takes place when the wife of his master, Potiphar, comes onto him and, when he rejects her, accuses him of trying to rape her. It is not clear why Joseph rejected her – whether it was fear of cuckolding his master or because she was an older woman and perhaps not attractive to him. It was not because he was gay since he later marries and has two sons. Ironically, the injustice committed against him this second time becomes the route by which he comes to the attention of the Pharaoh when he is sent to prison where he earns a reputation a seer and an interpreter of dreams.

In the case of Moses, he not only owes a huge gift of gratitude to his mother for giving birth to him but for having the wisdom first to hide and save him and then to ensure he comes to the attention of an Egyptian princess. Moses, too, must have been a comely child to attract the affections of the princess in such a strong way that she adopts him. Of course, he also owes to the wiles of his sister, Miriam, the clever trick of getting Moses’ own mother to be his nurse-maid. Further, after he fled and encountered the sexual harassment the women were getting at a well and intervened to safeguard the women, he too benefits as he is invited into the household of the Midianite Priest, Jethro. But the debt to women continues. For example, when Moses obeys God’s command to return to his people ad God becomes full of wrath when He learns that Moses failed to circumcise his son Gershom, it is Zipporah who intervenes with God and damps down God’s wrath by agreeing to have Gershom circumcised. The women in Moses’ life are important because he is saved time and time again by female goodwill. In contrast, Joseph benefits, from the intervention of a female, not because the woman was wily, though Potiphar’s wife was certainly a manipulative bitch, but because that manipulation was motivated by bad will. Joseph benefits in spite of women’s bad will and wily character and not because of it.

Their respective families are mirrors of one another. Both marry non-Israelite women (shiksas), Joseph an Egyptian, Asenath, named after the very ancient Egyptian Goddess Neith, a god of primal beginning, of creation and the patron saint of the Egyptian military. Moses married a Midianite, Zipporah, (a little bird) or a sparrow. With respect to the latter, recall the lyrics of an earlier blog by Hargreaves in the song “Goodbye Little Yellow Bird” that Angela Lansberry sang in The Picture of Dorian Gray where the sparrow is the one saying goodbye rather than join in the golden and secure life with a handsome man because the sparrow prefers her freedom. In the biblical case, Zipporah marries Moses but retains her feminine strength and independence of spirit. In any case, Moses was then just a shepherd and no golden canary — akin to Joseph who was a canary in both its meanings.

In a Greek midrash, Joseph rejects even a friendly kiss when he is first introduced to Asenath by her father, echoing the rejection of Potiphar’s wife but in a very different context, but this time because he did not want to kiss an idolater. Asenath, who first rejected any desire to meet Joseph because of his reputation of having tried to seduce Potiphar’s wife, and then at the site of him overcome by his splendour, breaks down into tears at her rejection, flees and rejects idolatry. Thus, both wives in effect convert, but Asenath does so because of her love of Joseph while Zipporah does so to defend her husband before his wrathful God. In fact, it is she, not her husband, who cuts off her child’s foreskin with a flint and confronts Moses with the sarcastic and ironic words: “Surely thou art a bloody husband before me.”

Both Joseph’s and Moses’ father-in-laws were priests, in the case of Joseph, Pentephres (also Pitipahara), priest of On, an ancient Egyptian town. In the case of Moses, Jethro was a Midianite priest. Joseph and Moses both have two sons and, therefore, neither is very prolific. Yet Jews are commanded to multiply. Further, between the time of Joseph when, within his father’s whole tribe there were only 70 persons at the beginning, at the end of their sojourn in Egypt over four hundred years later, the Hebrews numbered over 400,000. If you do the math, it works out, 70 becoming over 500 one hundred years later, 500 becoming under 5,000 another century later, that less than five thousand becomes 40,000 at the end of the third century. Only at the end of the whole exercise after four centuries do they become a body of over 400,000 by the time of the exodus. The people do eventually multiply.

But not Joseph or Moses! Joseph has Manasseh and Ephraim and Moses had Gershon and Eliezer. Manassah, from the Hebrew word nasha meaning ‘to forget’, means that, “God has made me forget all my hardships in my father’s house.” Ephraim means that “God has made me fruitful”. This is more a prophetic statement than any indication of the size of his brood. Moses’ children are there but as reflections of himself rather than their personal futures. Joseph too only had two sons but his real children would be the children of Israel who were really profligate in their breeding. It seems clear that Joseph was into his terrific new wife and his new life as the de facto ruler of Egypt who wore the king’s own signet ring with only the de jure ruler of Egypt, the Pharaoh, above him.

You certainly do not get that sense from Moses’ relationship with Zipporah that it was one of deep romantic love. Zipporah seemed to regard her husband as rather a wimp. Moses names his eldest son to indicate how Moses never felt at home. For his entire life he felt an alien, while living in the Pharaoh’s royal household while never feeling part of it, while leading the Hebrews but never learning to understand them and doing his job as an irascible and temperamental leader. Gershon means a sojourner, a stranger in someone else’s land. In naming his second son, Eliezer, meaning the Lord of my father was my help, Moses at least recognizes that he is just a vehicle and could not have accomplished anything without divine help. In other words, Moses on his own was a totally ineffectual leader, timid and unmanly – a wuss.

Moses was an intercessor and mediator, someone who was saved and drawn out of the water and not an initiator and actor in his own right. True, he practiced magic, but was not that much better a magician than the ones in the Pharaoh’s court. When the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord,” Moses is asked to intercede not only with God but to drive out the demons within them. In contrast, Joseph was an interpreter of dreams and not a magician at all. When the Pharaoh’s cup bearer was in prison with Joseph, he told Joseph of his dream of a vine with three branches that budded and blossomed and turned into grapes which the cup bearer squeezed and turned into wine for the Pharaoh’s cup. Joseph prophesied that it meant that within three days he would be restored to his old job in the royal household. When the Pharaoh’s baker told Joseph his dream of carrying three baskets of bread on his head and the birds eating the fresh bread in those baskets, Joseph said that it meant that in three days the baker would be beheaded and his body impaled on a pole. But the punch line comes when the cup bearer, who promised that he would not forget Joseph for interpreting his dream in such a positive way, just forgot all about Joseph.

Joseph intervenes between the shadows on the walls of the cave and future events which he foresees. He will later intervene on behalf of the Egyptian people to secure their future well-being when he interprets a dream to prophesy a famine in the land. Moses will intervene only on behalf of the Hebrews and between the people and God, but only to lead those people from the hardship of slavery into the wilderness of hardship that made slavery in Egypt look relatively easy. The basic difference is that Joseph is a prophet of physical survival, of life rather than desire, while Moses is the prophet of desire, of becoming whomever you want to be, of the Hebrews forging themselves into the nation as Israelites. Their radically different roles reflect their radically different upbringing.

Joseph at 17 years old was sold into slavery. Moses was brought up as a rich prince. Joseph, when he achieves the pinnacle of success in a relatively short time, “captures” his youngest brother, Benjamin, and holds him as surety that the brothers will return. Moses murders the overseer in a rash and impulsive act upon seeing the foreman mistreat Hebrew slaves. Joseph comes off, not as a traditional hero, a warrior prince willing to stand in battle against anyone as David will stand up against Goliath, but a hero who is willing to come face to face with the Pharaoh, the most powerful person in the land and tell it like it is without hesitation or quivering. Moses, on the other hand, needs his older brother, Aaron to accompany him, even though only he had been a prince in the court, and even then it is Aaron who has to speak because Moses stands before Pharaoh in fear and trembling and can only stutter.

Why does Pharaoh recruit the Hebrews to his government and land and reward Joseph with the highest office? Because, like all authoritarian leaders he needs talent and skills to rule and govern, for how do you collect taxes and rule over the people if they end up hating the king? The Vizier or Prime Minister must be wise and far-sighted and rule for the welfare of the people and not simply to suck them dry for the benefit of Pharaoh. So why does the a future Pharaoh turn against them. Because the Hebrews pose a demographic danger. They were seventy strong at the beginning and, after a century, had become a group of about 400 assuming four generations a century and a doubling in population each generation. Not yet a threat but a long enough time had passed for the new pharaoh to forget the service that the Hebrews had delivered to the Egyptians and the promises Pharaoh had made to Joseph and his people. At the end of the second century, there were over three thousand of them, still not a threat. Even at the end of the third century, there were only 25,000, enough to be noticed but still no threat.

The problem emerged in the fourth century when that 25,000 grew to over 400,000. Pharaoh, like all xenophobes before and after who feel threatened by growing and distinct minorities who are successful saw those increasing numbers as a demographic threat and was determined to embitter their lives and inhibit their future growth, including taking the drastic step of ordering the death of all male children. So the Egyptian saviours of the Israelites became their oppressors and the symbols of blood, sweat and tears took on a new meaning

Blood from an animal had been the false clue Joseph’s brothers had used when they soaked Joseph’s multi-coloured coat in animal blood to convince their old father that his favourite son whom they had sold into slavery was now dead. Blood was the clue that the Hebrews left on their door frames to tell God that the families within that home were Hebrews so that only the eldest of the Egyptians would be stricken and killed. In Exodus 24:6-8, Moses, who has now effectively become the high priest of the Hebrews, orders his assistants to sacrifice animals, divides the drained blood between that used for the altar and the other half which he uses to sprinkle over the people to get them to swear a blood oath that the people would obey God. Just as God shall be who He shall be, they shall become what they promise to become, servants of a divine master rather than slaves of an earthly one.

Bread is also a contrasting symbol. The dream of bread on the baker’s head adumbrates the pharaoh’s own dream about the seven fat and the seven thin sheaves and the forecast of a future famine. Bread becomes a symbol of Joseph’s prowess and his prudence and the people are ordered to put away a portion of their bumper crops for the period when the crops will fail. For Moses, an entirely other-worldly man, a leader not of survival but of forging a nation and realizing a new dream, bread is delivered as manna from heaven and God becomes the new master who rules with an outstretched arm to embrace his people and a mighty hand to convince them to follow while, for the previous four centuries one has the impression that the divine had slipped into the background as each man struggles to survive and feed his family as the glory days, as the Golden Age of living in Egypt, turns into the beholden days, into days of struggle and service and worst of all, Moses, the future leader, becomes an abuser of the law, even though aroused by an unjust act, and commits murder. Moses and the Hebrews will have to learn and discover the core of their creed, that the rule of law is the source of their salvation and not just putting bread on the table.

So Joseph who begins as a young lad full of himself and delighted in his role as his father’s favourite grows up as a source of antipathy and an object of jealousy and hatred by his own brothers. Moses grows up as a prince of the court who feels like an alien, like a stranger who is not accepted in spite of being adopted by a princess. Joseph’s tribe will gradually assume the idolatrous ways of their hosts while Moses will have to forge his people’s identity once again in the battle against idolatry, in the battle against taking any physical object in this world, whether it be a statue or a human said to be divine such as a Pharaoh, as an object of worship. These two prophets of the Hebrews will use prophecy and their roles as priests and political leaders using radically different approaches and for very opposite ends and will serve as judges of the law in totally opposite ways. Because Joseph never stopped being a strict adherent to the law while Moses had to learn the meaning of laws and rituals from scratch and teach them anew to his people.

Whatever their radical differences, both give off a radically different sense than the heroes esteemed by the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. For neither will be a warrior prince of the people.


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