Joseph: Power and Deception
Parshat Miketz: Genesis 43:16 – 44:11
I will summarize the story, but in my version of the lineal order and without the flashbacks that so enhance the suspense. Miketz means “at the end,” for we are coming to the end of the story of Joseph. And we are coming to the end of one cycle of deception and trickery in the exploration of the exercise of power. Instead of starting with the story and then providing an interpretation, the re-telling of the tale follows the revelation of the emotions at work and their meaning as I insinuate and introduce what I believe is the underlying sense of the story.
This is a story of loss, not simply famine in the land, but of famine in one’s heart. For although Joseph is given a wife by the Pharaoh, there is an emptiness, a longing. His heart is impoverished and he yearns to be reunited with his father and his brothers. Perhaps it is the incurable feeling of a boy whose mother died at the birth of his younger brother. It is a story that depends on fear, relieving the predisposition to fear when a stranger comes to a strange land and then escalating that fear. Then relieving it once again only to take that fear to an even higher level and greater degree of intensity.
By gradually increasing the strength of the apparent causes for that fear, without ever revealing the true underlying cause, the drama of the story follows the natural course of any tale of terror and story of fear and trembling. The fact that it is induced by a brother who was once sold into slavery, but is now in a position of power, the fact that the brother who is now in a position of power plays with his brothers and their fears as they do not recognize who he is, adds to the irony and terror of the tale. Joseph behaves as at once imperial and impressive and at other times as exhibiting the greatest self-effacement – than in itself an irony – and modesty. This only exacerbates the feeling of total confusion.
Joseph appears to be gratuitously cruel and merciless in his behaviour towards his brothers, adding to their misery by his capacious and beneficial treatment of them. The fact that the maliciousness appears to be unprovoked, that it seemingly has no roots in their behaviour, makes their suffering all the more intense, especially when everything Joseph seems to do does not seem to be rooted in any inimical motives. The unrestrained and excessive painful treatment plays against the luxuriant excess to which they are otherwise treated. To suffer such wanton orders, both in the direction of profligacy alternating with denial, to be so mean and at the same time, playful with one’s kin from a reader’s perspective, but subjecting them to the most ineffable behaviour, made all the worse by its alterations with mercy from above, is to offer a tale of trouble and turbulence.
Joseph is now in charge. He makes the choices. He determines the action. He is the agent of power. His brothers become putty in his hand, deprived of any control over their own actions. The once precocious, precious and preeminent gleam in his father’s eye has come into his own. Yet Joseph’s actions do not seem to be motivated by spite or an accumulation of vitriol. His actions do not seem heinous, but, upon understanding, seem even more ignominious. He creates situations which justify his actions as if dictated by the objective truth, whereas, personally, he has always behaved towards his brothers with kindness. Of course, this exaggerates their confusion. Rather than vitiating the horror of Joseph’s treatment of his bothers, the sense of their discomfort and then dread is increasingly enhanced as the vicissitudes of fortune and misfortune shift back and forth.
Note that the only truth in the tale is the truth of dreams, the truth of prophecy. The everyday experience of the brothers is of deception when they do not even know they are being played as fools. Veracity is sacrificed for a higher plain of revelation. And the actions are carried out, not by the Pharaoh who will one day visit the same treatment on the Israelites when they try to escape Egypt four hundred years later, but by their own flesh and blood, who, if he has not usurped the authority of the Pharaoh, simply uses and abuses that authority and power for his own playing with the emotions of his brothers. This is really The Tempest, the stormy story of emotional storm emerging from a parched land.
Joseph’s behaviour is far more reckless than that of his brothers who first set out to kill him and then sold him into slavery. Their actions were direct and unabated. They no sooner decided what to do than they carried out their act of villainy. But if their actions were foolhardy and reckless, what of Joseph’s now? After all, why should the brothers be willing to sacrifice Benjamin possibly just to get Simeon back? They could all be taken hostage once they returned with Benjamin. As Joseph now acted in such an audacious and overbearing manner, as he acted in total disregard of his brothers’ emotional fluctuations, and indeed exacerbated them, as he had the effrontery to flout any risk of danger to them suggesting he felt absolute power over the situation, as he, as was his character when he was a boy who so irritated his older brothers, behaved indifferent to propriety and convention, indifferent to any sense of prudence that stood in such extreme contrast to how he behaved in saving for the common good in preventing starvation in a period of famine, Joseph’s impudence and arrogance, his showmanship and effrontery had only grown more extreme with his ascension of power as the overlord or vizier of Egypt. That expression was not an aberration but the expression of the full flowering of his personality.
So he behaved with a smile and a wink, with perfunctory orders while exuding charm and consideration as his brothers shrivelled before him. I realize the text says nothing of this, that it concentrates on laying out the bare facts of what took place, and that I have had to surmise what takes place in the hearts and minds of the main players. But, in that sense, this is precisely how a movie works, and this tale is more like a movie than any other selection in the Torah, a perfectly appropriate after his disappearance, response to a section that is about a dream world that is sometimes filled with nightmares. After his disappearance, Joseph re-appears on the scene as his brothers’ worst nightmare.
The concision of the narrative is so at odds with its emotional richness as each verse is suffused with one dramatic overlay after another so enriched by fluid and liquid colour that was once stitched into Joseph’s technicolour overcoat. Why is Joseph so unperturbed by how he treats his brothers, by the pain his father must feel when he has to send his final and most innocent son forth with his brothers to redeem Simeon? By keeping his motive in his treatment of them so recondite so that they are unable to plumb the meaning of their treatment, their confusion and disorientation mounts. How could a man of such power who, against all norms, stoops to eat with them, how could a man capable of such grandiose hospitality and apparent rectitude possibly be mistreating them? The situation is so literally queer, so unexpected, so unpredictable, that, given everything that has preceded, one cannot help but suspect that Joseph himself is queer, that his propensities are as repressed and hidden as his motives. That he is so punctilious and precise in everything he does just adds to the suspicion. Beneath that seemingly prosaic exterior there must be a promiscuous soul which the brothers cannot discern, but we, the readers, can.
As the story of Joseph continues, he is the effective vizier of Egypt having risen from a stripling of a boy sold off to slavery to become a master of the world’s then most powerful country. He had become the overlord of all of Egypt after both the Pharaoh’s butler and butcher told the Pharaoh of their experience with dream interpretation by a bondsman of the jailer, a Hebrew by the name of Joseph. And his prophecies about the meaning of their dreams had come true and they had both been let out of jail and returned to their positions.
Joseph is a puzzling character. Temperamentally abstemious – certainly with the wife of Porphyry – he is also a man who loves display and the grand dramatic gesture. While never seeming to be intoxicated with the power he has acquired, when he deals with his own brothers, he gets them drunk. Frivolity and excess are juxtaposed against his emotional restraint and control when he first encounters his cynosure, Benjamin, once again after a separation of so many years. His dishonest behaviour with his brothers may be totally reprehensible, but it pales into insignificance with the way they treated him. Joseph is now playing both his father, Jacob, and his uncle, Esau, combining blunt and even acerbic talk with dramatic over-the-top manipulation. This is far beyond the dissembling that any of the women in the Torah had previously practiced.
Is Joseph’s deceit of a very different order of magnitude than that of his brothers or the dissembling of his grandfather and grandmother, of his great-grandfather and great grandmother? For his trickery is not a singular ruse, but a novel in itself. Further, it combines all the intriguing qualities of various demonstrations of the “feminine ruse.”
So the Pharaoh called Joseph before him and told him of two dreams that his wisest advisers had not been able to unpack. It was the story of the seven fat cows which went down beside the river to be joined by seven thin and starving ones. In the second dream, there were seven rich and full stalks of grain beside seven withered stalks. In both dreams, the withered devoured the fat and healthy. Joseph said that they were both dreams about seven years of healthy crops and cattle to be followed by seven years of famine. The dream meant that during the seven fat years, food should be put away to be distributed during the lean years. Joseph told the Pharaoh to appoint an overlord to ensure the forced saving from the fat years. Convinced of Joseph’s brilliant discernment and how sagacious he was, the Pharaoh chose Joseph to be his overlord.
During the first lean year – Joseph would have been thirty-eight-years-old – ten Hebrew brothers came from the land of Canaan to buy grain from the Pharaoh’s grain stores, having been sent by their father to do so. Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. He sold them the grain, but then stuffed the coins they paid back into their sacks without their knowing. His servants then accosted them just outside of town and then accused them, not only of theft, but of something far worse, of coming down from Canaan as spies. When they were brought back from the outskirts to Joseph’s house as supplicants, he ordered them to return to the land of their father and return with the youngest brother who was not with them. Joseph kept Simeon as surety for their return.
His half brothers, who sold him into slavery years earlier, return to redeem their brother. Did Joseph continue to keep his identity a secret lest his brothers come to believe that he was motivated in all he did by revenge and only interpret his behaviour as invidious? Simeon had been held hostage as assurance of their promised return. But they were all afraid. Something was not right. Why would a vizier of Egypt invite them to his personal home? Why had he sold them the grain they came for the first time, but stuffed their sacks with the very same coins that they had paid for that grain? Why had he accused them of spying? Why had they not been executed but asked to return with their youngest brother?
Jacob, their father, had sent waves and waves of gifts of sheep and goats to his estranged brother, Esau. Jacob had been very wary of Esau trying to fulfil the promise he made two decades earlier to kill him. The brothers were wary for a different reason; everything did not add up. They had not recognized their brother in his new position. If they had a hint that he was their brother, they would certainly be even more fearful, because they almost killed that brother but, instead, sold him into slavery. To get their money back for the grain they bought, to be invited to his personal home, then to be treated to a lavish banquet, wouldn’t you be suspicious? Would you not be quaking in your boots? Would you not be afraid that he would accuse you of theft and have all the brothers killed, especially now that they had returned with Benjamin as the vizier had ordered? For, as we learn, this was the second time they had been caught and accused of theft.
The first time, they had been freed and Simeon held hostage. They had to return home as his emissaries. When the vizier had ordered that they could only redeem their brother if they returned with Benjamin, Reuben had pleaded with Joseph. We told you under duress that we had a father and a younger brother. We told you that the child left at home had been born when his father was old, that his only full brother had been killed, and that Jacob, their father, having lost his one son of his most beloved Rachel, would be devastated if they required that they return now with Benjamin. But Joseph was unmoved. Once again they pleaded. This would kill their father. Please do not ask this of us. Joseph was unrelenting and thoroughly unscrupulous.
Their father would greet them upon their return and he would be so distressed. For he had insisted that when they took Benjamin, if any harm befell him, his hair would turn totally grey and he would go to his grave in absolute sorrow. Judah offered himself up as a hostage instead of Benjamin. He did not want his father to die of a broken heart.
Nevertheless, they decamped and returned home. When they returned once again, Joseph greeted them at the door, assured them they did not need to be fearful since the God of their father had returned the money they had paid to them. Joseph’s servants washed their feet and fed their pack animals. These were not simply gestures fulfilling the commandment to welcome the stranger. However, instead of easing their worries, their trepidation escalated. They paid Joseph due homage.
When Joseph saw his younger full-blood brother, he could not contain himself. He was overcome with a paroxysm of emotion. However, he repressed his desire to hug his younger brother and ran off to his bedroom to weep lest his countenance betray him. After he had sequestered himself for awhile, once he had gotten his act together, he returned to the banquet self-possessed. But his brothers became even more disconcerted. This highest and mightiest Egyptian – for, of course, that is who they took him to be – this man who stood next to the Pharaoh’s throne in power, sat down with them to eat. A man of his aristocratic position eating with ordinary herdsmen, that was unheard of in itself. But an Egyptian eating with a Hebrew! Did not Egyptians regard that as an abomination?
But in spite of their rising fears, and perhaps because of those fears, they ate and drank, perhaps even more than usual, and made merry for this could be their last meal. Did they even notice that Joseph had plied Benjamin with five times the lavish food that they had piled onto their plates? If they had, and they must have noticed, that was even more cause for fear. So they said, we have returned with the money we found in our sacks. Further, we have returned with more money to buy more food.
But lo and behold, the same thing happened. When they left once again, their sacks were stuffed not only with grain. Both the money they had brought the first time and the money they had brought the second time had been placed back into their sacks. But into Benjamin’s sack, a silver goblet was added. They knew nothing of this. Stupefied, they left the vizier’s house the next morning to return to the land of their father. But just outside the city, they were accosted by Joseph’s guards as Joseph had instructed them. The guards had sallied forth and accused them, as they feared all along, of not only stealing back the money they had paid, but the most precious piece of silver in the vizier’s household.
The brothers, of course, professed their total innocence. And as was the custom of such stories, they insisted that if anyone of them had been found with the governor’s silver, then he must surely be put to death. So Joseph’s servants went through the sacks, each in turn, from the eldest to the youngest. When they got to the last sack, what did they find? The silver goblet, of course. Of all the sacks to find such an object, to have it found in that of the youngest brother, the epitome of innocence, had to cause them real shock. I am sure that by the time the servants came to the sack of the youngest that they must have been fully relieved. For it was possible to imagine that one of the older brothers had done the dastardly deed. But never Benjamin!
All their mourning and rending their clothes did no good. They were now returned to Joseph’s house as prisoners and they feared the worst. Was this not a repetition of what had happened the first time when they had been caught outside the city with money in their sacks and ordered to return with Benjamin? Genuflect all they could, they could not evade being remonstrated and castigated by Joseph for betraying his hospitality. They offered to be enslaved rather than be put to death. But Joseph appeared to be inclined to be lenient and would only keep Benjamin as his bondsman. The other brothers were ordered to go home and this third time, return with their father. What were they to make of this behaviour, at once both so generous and so unexpected, and, at the same time, so unexpected?
Tune in again next week at the next episode in this series.