Names and Games: Joseph’s Politics – Mikeitz Genesis 41-44
After Joseph was made Prime Minister of Egypt by Pharaoh and was renamed Zaphenath Pa’neah, and after he married Asenath (“she who belongs to the goddess Neith”) who was the daughter of the governor of On, Poti-phera (“whom Ra has given”), why does Joseph name his firstborn son, Manasseh (“God caused me to forget all of my father’s house,” ch. 51) and his second son, Ephraim (“God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.” Ch. 52)? After all, Manasseh is about the past, forgetting that past. Ephraim is about the present, the wealth and power Joseph currently enjoyed in Egypt. But Joseph came to power, not because of his past, but in spite of it, not because of his status at the time, for he achieved that status suddenly and precipitously after being a prisoner in a dungeon. He came into his position of power and wealth because he could interpret dreams and read the future. He was a diviner. Yet his first son was named in relationship to the past and his second in relationship to the present.
Naming is always very significant in the Torah. In terms of Joseph’s new name, scholars have suggested that Zaphenath is an early transcription error and that the name was probably Zat-en-aph. It means, “He who is called,” though other commentators have suggested that the name means “a revealer of secrets.” Since “Panea” is probably derived from the Egyptian word, “aneah,” ankh or ankhu, meaning “is alive,” Joseph’s new name, “Zaphenath Pa’aneah” is usually interpreted to mean, “he who is called Anakh” or “God speaks and he lives.”
It is God who was responsible for saving Joseph’s life through the serendipity of Judah suggesting that he be traded for money rather than allowed to be torn apart by wild animals. It is God who is responsible for the serendipity of the chance passing of the slave traders who were off to Egypt. It is God who is responsible for the attempt of Potiphar’s wife to seduce him and his rejection of her advances, either because he was not attracted to her or because he felt a strong loyalty to her husband or because he feared the consequences or a mixture of all three or because he was uninterested in women altogether. That rejection and her trumped-up charges led to his being thrown into prison.
It is God who is responsible then for Joseph’s chance meeting with the butler and the baker and his interpretation of their dreams. The butler survives, is released from prison, gets his old job back as a cup-bearer, hears of Pharaoh’s dream and informs Pharaoh of Joseph’s unique gift of divination. Though Pharaoh calls Joseph to explain his (Pharaoh’s) dreams about the fat and the thin cattle, the healthy wheat and the shrivelled stalks, Joseph would not be in that place at that time without God’s efforts to raise Joseph up and give him a new name and a new life as a wealthy and powerful Prime Minister of Egypt. Further, Joseph then insists that, “Not I; God will give an answer [that will bring] peace to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:16) Later, he will forget God as the source of his well-being.
What about Asenath? She belongs to the goddess Neith, the Egyptian god of war and hunting. One thinks back to Esau and envisions Joseph marrying a female version of his uncle. But if Esau was easy going, Neith is fierce. She carries the symbol of those Hebraic twins in the form of two bows that face one another on her shield. Neith has a fiery fury and is associated with rapids and the primordial waters of creation. She carries the scepter that is the symbol of power and authority. Like Joseph, she is the protector of the royal house of the Pharaoh. She is also a goddess who can give birth without having had sex, important because Joseph may have been gay and uninterested in having sex with Asenath. Neith is also the symbol of ankh, life that is part of Joseph’s new name.
The couple have two sons. Manasseh is the eldest, the first of a long line of successors bearing the same name, beginning with the son and successor to King Hezekiah (Kings 21:1). According to Matthew, Manasseh was an ancestor of Jesus as well as of men who divorced their foreign wives in bursts of Jewish puritanism. In the final descent, Manasseh was the patriarch of dissident idolatrous priests. It should be no surprise that future generations largely avoided the name Manasseh.
Joseph in his new life has all but forgotten his nine brothers who sold him into slavery, forgotten Reuben, his oldest brother who failed to save him, and even his younger beloved full brother, Benjamin. Not once did Joseph when he was all powerful inquire into the well-being of his father, Jacob. One can imagine that, as he became more powerful, he became even more narcissistic. And Manasseh was the symbol of that forgetting, for the name is derived from the verb נשה (nasha) meaning forget. If Joseph in his new life was given a new name and a new life and a name that meant life, his first son’s name was connected with נשם (nasham) meaning to breathe or gasp for life. If Joseph was the epitome of life lived to its fullest in an exhibition of power and authority, his eldest son found it difficult to breathe in a world in which Joseph’s past had been forgotten and even buried.
At least until his brothers were sent down to Egypt in search of food during the famine, Joseph had moved upward and away from his life as a shepherd to fulfill the destiny set out in his early dreams. But he had not yet witnessed his success through his brothers bowing down before him. He had moved away. He had moved up in the world. Manasseh was the symbol of that. For נשׂא (nasa’) means precisely moving up and away. Joseph had accomplished this because he had proven to be an oracle, משא (massa). But had he lifted himself up through his powers of divination or been lifted up? Did he hold his head up in independence and pride or, alternatively, in supplication? In carrying the enormous responsibilities of state, did he also carry a huge burden of guilt for his forgetfulness? Was Manasseh the projection of that forgetfulness?
But there is another side to Manasseh. Joseph takes a personal interest when he learns that his brothers have come down to Egypt to buy food. But they have come without Benjamin for Jacob would not risk the departure of the youngest son of his beloved Rachel. So while Joseph takes an inordinate interest, נשׁא (nasha), in these lowly Hebrews, he enters into a long family drama to both beguile and deceive (נשׁא – nasha) them, just as his mother deceived her father, Laban, when she stole his idols, as his father deceived Isaac when he stole Esau’s blessing. Joseph comes from a heritage of deception. As he espies his brothers, he charges them with being spies.
But נשה (nasha) also means to lend on credit. When Abraham first came down to Canaan, he refused to accept a gravesite as a gift. He insisted on paying for it. The brothers too come down to Egypt to pay for food. But Joseph ordered his minions to put the money of his brothers back into their sacks unbeknownst to them. And when they returned a second time, with both the original money as well as new money to once again pay for their food, Joseph had insisted that he would not acknowledge them unless they brought their brother with him on a second visit. This time, they came with Benjamin in tow in order to free Simeon and prove their honesty.
Once again, Joseph tricks them and not only puts back all their money into their packets, but puts his silver goblet in Benjamin’s sack. Then, after they leave, he sends his men after them to accost them and discover the goblet in Benjamin’s pack, but only after his brothers echo Jacob’s pledge to Laban when he sought his stolen idols. “Whichever one of your servants with whom it is found shall die, and also we will be slaves to my master.” (44:9) So Manasseh becomes the symbol not only of forgetting, but using all the variegated meanings of his name to connote a special way of re-enactment, remembering and recalling.
What about Joseph’s second son, Ephraim, the son whose name stands for and evokes the present wealth and status of Joseph? For Ephraim derives from פרה (para), to bear fruit or be fruitful. Joseph had been fruitful and bore two sons. Joseph enjoyed the fruits of his divining and management skills and had become wealthy and powerful. But there was a dark side. Joseph had forgotten his God and his father. When his brothers arrived, he remembered. He inquired after his father’s welfare after the passage of so many years. His father was still alive and still in mourning – for his wife Rachel who died in childbirth and for his favourite son whom he had come to believe had been eaten by wild animals when sent on a spying mission for him to look at what his brothers were up to.
The name Ephraim comes from פרס (paras) which also means to break in two or divide, a breach as in an agreement or covenantal arrangement with God. Joseph had violated his covenant with God as he became caught up with his status, with his position, with his wealth and with his power. Joseph had forgotten his father and his God. His two children were reminders both of the forgetting and the new idolatry into which he had sold himself and become enslaved. This is the core of the story, built on the multiple meanings of the two names of his children and the divide between the forgetting of the past and the glorying in the present. The text is also a series of twice-told tales as signs of the cosmic importance of what is being told. (In the appendix, I include Act 3, scene 4 of one of William Shakespeare’s lesser historical plays, The Life and Death of King John, to emphasize the importance of twice-told tales and repetition in literature and what they signify.)
Jacob repeats his words: “And take your brother, and get up, go back to the man. And may the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man, and he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin, and as for me as I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” [my italics] (Genesis 43:13-14) As Joseph told Pharaoh when he first met him and after Pharaoh told him his two dreams, “And concerning the repetition of the dream to Pharaoh twice, that is because the matter is ready [to emanate] from God, and God is hastening to execute it.” (Genesis 41:32) Because of the importance, because of the immanence, all must be a twice-told tale and each told in two different ways but saying the same thing, and each an echo of an earlier tale that, rather than becoming hackneyed through the repeated telling, gains breadth and depth.
Look at the number of twice-told tales in this one section:
1. Pharaoh’s two dreams – of the seven healthy and seven emaciated cows and the seven ears of healthy grain and then the seven thin and withered stalks.
2. There is a butler and a baker, each with dreams, but opposite interpretations and outcomes.
3. Pharaoh retells his two dreams twice to Joseph, the second time with a bit of elaboration – “I have not seen such ugly ones throughout the entire land of Egypt.”
4. There are two political authorities, that of Pharaoh and that of his second in command, Joseph. The latter is given a raiment of fine silk, a signet ring, a golden chain around his neck as symbols of his authority, as well as a chariot of the second rank. And we recall Tamar, the foremother of King David, taking Judah’s signet ring, his leader’s staff and belt as identifiers as surety for his promise of payment of a goat in return for sexual favours.
5. Joseph has the two sons mentioned above who mirror the present facing but forgetting the past.
6. When his ten brothers come down to Egypt and prostrate themselves before Joseph to buy grain and do not recognize him, we readers recognize the repeat of Joseph’s vision of the ten sheaves of whet bowing down to an eleventh.
7. Then there is Joseph’s accusation that the brothers are spies which adumbrates the story of the twelve spies, each from the tribe descended from one of the brothers, who were sent by Moses to spy on the land of Canaan; in this case, the accusation of coming from Canaan to spy on Egypt is a false charge.
8. Then there is the irony of the guilt the brothers felt when their brother Simeon is kept in prison and they all recognize that, “we are guilty for our brother, that we witnessed the distress of his soul when he begged us, and we did not listen. That is why this trouble has come upon us.” But it is that very brother, live and well, who is now causing them so much stress.
9. Reuben, just as he was when he believed that Joseph had been killed by wild animals, is distressed the most. He remonstrates his other brothers: “Didn’t I tell you, saying, ‘Do not sin against the lad,’ but you did not listen? Behold, his [Benjamin’s] blood, too, is being demanded!”
10. Just as Joseph went to prison when he first went to Israel, so Joseph put Simeon in prison. Recall from last week’s blog, it was Simeon along with Levi who kill all the adult males of Shechem in revenge for the “rape” of Dinah. Simeon was the rashest of the brothers, but very strong and fearless. He was also the one who was probably most jealous of Joseph. Did Simeon propose Joseph be killed? Did he push Joseph into the pit? There is much speculation on this given Simeon’s character and his relationship to Joseph. And this is an instance of what goes around comes around.
11. Putting their money secretly in their sacks echoes and should remind his brothers that they sold Joseph into slavery so they could put money in their sacks.
12. They keep repeating that they are honest, and Joseph insists on their proving their honesty, reminding us how they lied to their father about Joseph’s death.
13. In the meanwhile, Jacob is even more bereaved than ever. He lost Joseph – so he thinks. He lost Simeon who is now in jail. And he believes he might now lose Benjamin. This is an echo of Judah who lost two sons and withheld the third from Tamar only to have the breech in customary law reverberate against him so that it is he who fathers the child by his son’s widow.
14. The brothers travel twice to Egypt to purchase food. Two times, the money they paid was put back in their sacks. On the second trip on their return, twice the last payment was put there. Everything is a sign of double trouble and a message of the seriousness of each event.
15. Jacob prays: “may the Almighty God grant you compassion before the man, and he will release to you your other brother and Benjamin, and as for me as I am bereaved, I am bereaved.” (Genesis 43:14)
16. Twice the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph just as Joseph dreamed twice that they would.
The whole of the parshat is an echo chamber. What is the connection between this doubling down and Joseph’s rising up out of the pit and going away? As Medici says twice in the first two segments of the Netflix series, deception is right if it serves a higher good. Unlike his father, Joseph did not practice deception out of self-interest, but in order to give his brothers time to become conscious and confess the error of their ways. He wanted them to discover and admit the truth about themselves instead of his confronting them directly with it. Joseph is the one who abandons political practice radically among the Israelites, shifting from the appeasement and cowardice of Abraham, the impotent politics of Isaac, a man suffering from PTSD, the politics of deception of his own father. He becomes the progenitor of a politics based on foreseeing and planning for the future where dreams foretell reality and deception is used to achieve a higher good. Finally, the Hebrews have developed, through Joseph’s example, a politics in which deceit is only used for lofty purposes. The nation finally has an ethical foundation to its spirit.
That is why Joseph is named, “God speaks and he (Joseph) lives.” And he lives on in us when we practice the art of honest politics.
Appendix: Act 3, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s The Life and Death of King John
The play is about the ethical beginnings of the British realm, the period when the Magna Carta was forged. In this scene, it is the French King, Philip, who is in despair. His fleet had been scattered into the winds. Angiers has been lost. Arthur Plantagenet, son of John’s elder brother, Richard, has been taken prisoner. Pandulph offers false comfort. Lewis, acknowledges that the loss is unprecedented. To be unique, however, in this sense is to be ashamed and to be unable to discover meaning in the loss.
K. Phi. So, by a roaring tempest on the flood,
A whole armado of convicted sail
Is scatter’d and disjoin’d from fellowship.
Pand. Courage and comfort! all shall yet go well.
K. Phi. What can go well when we have run so ill?
Are we not beaten? Is not Angiers lost?
Arthur ta’en prisoner? divers dear friends slain?
And bloody England into England gone,
O’erbearing interruption, spite of France?
Lew. What he hath won that hath he fortified:
So hot a speed with such advice dispos’d,
Such temperate order in so fierce a cause,
Doth want example: who hath read or heard
Of any kindred action like to this?
K. Phi. Well could I bear that England had this praise,
So we could find some pattern of our shame.
But then Constance, the mother of the captured Arthur, makes the King’s despair look feeble in one of the greatest passages of grief in literature:
Because my poor child is a prisoner.
And, father cardinal, I have heard you say
That we shall see and know our friends in heaven.
If that be true, I shall see my boy again;
For since the birth of Cain, the first male child,
To him that did but yesterday suspire,
There was not such a gracious creature born.
But now will canker-sorrow eat my bud
And chase the native beauty from his cheek,
And he will look as hollow as a ghost,
As dim and meagre as an ague’s fit,
And so he’ll die; and, rising so again,
When I shall meet him in the court of heaven
I shall not know him: therefore never, never
Must I behold my pretty Arthur more.
Pand. You hold too heinous a respect of grief.
Const. He talks to me, that never had a son.
K. Phi. You are as fond of grief as of your child.
Const. Grief fills the room up of my absent child,
Lies in his bed, walks up and down with me,
Puts on his pretty looks, repeats his words, [my italics]
Remembers me of all his gracious parts,
Stuffs out his vacant garments with his form:
Then have I reason to be fond of grief.
Fare you well: had you such a loss as I,
I could give better comfort than you do.
I will not keep this form upon my head
When there is such disorder in my wit.
O Lord! my boy, my Arthur, my fair son!
My life, my joy, my food, my all the world!
Constance exits followed by King Philip to check and ensure she will not harm herself. Lewis then comments:
There’s nothing in this world can make me joy:
Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, [my italics]
Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man;
And bitter shame hath spoil’d the sweet world’s taste,
That it yields naught but shame and bitterness.
The speech is, of course, ironic, because it is the twice-told tale that is anything but tedious for the repetition reveals the cosmic import of the events.
With the help of Alex Zisman