If I asked which one of these characters was a hero, I would be asking a Greek question. The Jewish question is whether any one of the above, particularly Joseph, who is often celebrated as such by many, is a prophet. In Homer’s Greece, a hero (ἥρως, hḗrōs) fights bravely whatever side of the battle he is on. Heroes are especially powerful and noble. Over time, the concept of a hero evolved to designate not quite a god, though some gods were heroes, but a dead person who lived on as a spirit to protect the living. Joseph lived on as a spirit to doom the Israelites to slavery and the Egyptians to a genocidal exercise of power.
Prophets are different than heroes. They are said to be individuals in contact with the one God to carry the message of God to their fellow Hebrews. They are not simply diviners, though they may engage in projecting the future if the Israelites fail to correct their behaviour. A female can be a prophet. Rashi named seven. But prophets were mostly men. Of the 48 he designated for that honour, Jacob was included even though, as we have read, he was not a man of the greatest integrity. He was certainly not a hero.
On the other hand, against much of popular belief, Joseph was not named by Rashi as a prophet. After all, where does it say that Joseph talked to God? Where does it say that Joseph carries a message to the ancient Israelites to scold them for their behaviour?
My question, however, is neither about heroism nor prophecy, but about ethics. Am I speaking about virtue ethics? Virtue is about a person’s character. Be honest. Be charitable. Virtue ethics attends to the characteristics a person must possess to act properly. Normative ethics refers to right actions as a condition for becoming a righteous person. Virtue ethics refers to the right characteristics a person must possess to perform a right action.
Virtue ethics stresses the good. Normative ethics stresses what is right. Virtue is concerned primarily with defining the good, normative ethics with defining what is right. One way scholars have distinguished the Hellenistic culture from the Hebraic one is to suggest that the Hellenes stressed virtue while the Hebrews stressed ethical norms.
The Joseph saga, particularly the portion read this week, should allow us to test that radical distinction as well as assess specifically whether Joseph is worthy of being characterized as a prophet. In this comparative analysis we will both try to bring out the character of these four protagonists as well as the socio-political ethos implicit in their behaviour. It is ironic that this portion begins with the phrase, “And he drew near,” where the central figure of the story, Joseph, is one who distanced himself from the beliefs of his Israelite tribe while it is Judah who managed to draw near to Joseph, to touch him and thereby draw Joseph back to his roots.
Take Pharaoh first and foremost, for he was the most powerful person in the land. Unlike the Pharaoh Abraham encountered, he is not a buffoon. Unlike the Pharaoh of Exodus, he is definitely not an intolerant tyrant. The Pharaoh of the Joseph story appears to have at least the following characteristics:
- He is tolerant rather than bigoted and shows no animosity to people from other cultures;
- He is a reformer, open both to individuals of merit and to making changes to protect and benefit his people;
- He is beneficent, certainly to those who strengthen his rule and bring him honours in front of his people and even invites pastoralists, the Israelites in this case, who were generally despised by ancient Egyptians, to own land and settle in Egypt;
- He rewards success; he sees that Joseph is successful and he makes him his right-hand man in charge of both his personal household and all of Egypt.
- He delegates, trusts and allows Joseph to control all the assets of the Egyptian kingdom, make the rules and set the terms for the political economy of the land.
With respect to the last point, it is clear that this Pharaoh is not a world-historical figure intent of setting his personal stamp on history and shaping the nature and governing principles of the polis. His governing norm seems to be a minimalist one – make sure the least advantaged are at least fed. Recognize the natural endowments of others and facilitate their development. He would seem to conform in this regard to John Rawls’s depiction of the characteristics required of a ruler. This Pharaoh would appear to be a cosmopolitan liberal beneficent ruler, but one with little concern with whether Joseph is an opportunist who might over the long run undermine Egypt or whether he is guided by a moral compass at all. It is sufficient that Joseph identifies with a very powerful god.
What about Israel, previously named Jacob? He seems to be the exemplification of a Rortyan rather than a Rawlsian character. After all, Jacob, unlike Pharaoh, believes strongly that a national identity must be preserved and protected. He clearly and strongly leans towards sentiment in making determinations rather any cold calculation or, for that matter, any obligations handed down by tradition. Jacob, unlike Pharaoh, may have been interested in ensuring the distinctiveness of his tribe, but showed no ability or even interest in preserving the autonomy and self-sufficiency of his extended family.
Israel passed on a basic premise to all his descendants that the most important goals are community survival and the preservation of the distinctive norms of the Israelite people. To do that, the community had to share a common belief system, one with a special concern for social justice and ensuring the liberty and freedom of its people. It is a nation in which norms could only be modified with great difficulty and in accordance with very prescribed rules.
Hence, the preoccupation with shortcomings, inadequacies and failures and the stress on prudence in world affairs. Further, the lessons concerning conduct come from practices and from telling stories and offering a narrative of the history of the group with all its blemishes highlighted. Jacob would prefer his people were fed rather than refuse to uproot themselves from the promised land. Further, with Ephraim and Manasseh, he would continue the pattern of entrusting leadership to the prudent second born rather than the gung-ho heroism characteristic of the first born.
What about Joseph as depicted in chapter 46?
|א וַיִּסַּע יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכָל-אֲשֶׁר-לוֹ, וַיָּבֹא בְּאֵרָה שָּׁבַע; וַיִּזְבַּח זְבָחִים, לֵאלֹהֵי אָבִיו יִצְחָק.||1 And Israel took his journey with all that he had, and came to Beer-sheba, and offered sacrifices unto the God of his father Isaac.|
|ב וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים לְיִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמַרְאֹת הַלַּיְלָה, וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב יַעֲקֹב; וַיֹּאמֶר, הִנֵּנִי.||2 And God spoke unto Israel in the visions of the night, and said: ‘Jacob, Jacob.’ And he said: ‘Here am I.’|
|ג וַיֹּאמֶר, אָנֹכִי הָאֵל אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ; אַל-תִּירָא מֵרְדָה מִצְרַיְמָה, כִּי-לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל אֲשִׂימְךָ שָׁם.||3 And He said: ‘I am God, the God of thy father; fear not to go down into Egypt; for I will there make of thee a great nation.|
|ד אָנֹכִי, אֵרֵד עִמְּךָ מִצְרַיְמָה, וְאָנֹכִי, אַעַלְךָ גַם-עָלֹה; וְיוֹסֵף, יָשִׁית יָדוֹ עַל-עֵינֶיךָ.||4 I will go down with thee into Egypt; and I will also surely bring thee up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon thine eyes.’|
Just as Jacob took advantage of his father’s blindness, Joseph would go further and cover his father’s eyes so that he could not see how Joseph was radically altering the Israeli polity and, further, that Jacob could not see that Joseph was sowing the seeds for the enmity that would befall the Israelites because of the political and economic reforms Joseph introduced to Egypt. Further, Joseph claimed not only to rule over his brothers in the end, but to even be a “father to Pharaoh.” Joseph was the real power behind the throne.
|ח וְעַתָּה, לֹא-אַתֶּם שְׁלַחְתֶּם אֹתִי הֵנָּה, כִּי, הָאֱלֹהִים; וַיְשִׂימֵנִי לְאָב לְפַרְעֹה, וּלְאָדוֹן לְכָל-בֵּיתוֹ, וּמֹשֵׁל, בְּכָל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.||8 So now it was not you that sent me hither, but God; and He hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and ruler over all the land of Egypt.|
However, look at Joseph’s loyalties and his favouritism. He cried over his reunion with his brothers, even more over his reunion with his father and most of all when seeing his full brother, Benjamin. He is a sentimentalist writ large, but one without an overriding universal principle so he can initiate and preside over a regime that does take care of the least fortunate by doling out food, but which also reduces the status of farmers from freeholders to peasants as wealth is amassed for Pharaoh. Joseph quickly assimilates into Egyptian society and surrenders his clothes, his habits and his language.
I would argue that the hero, in the Jewish rather than Greek sense, in the story is not Joseph and certainly not Jacob or Pharaoh. It is Judah. Joseph was a peacock and loved the dress and display of Pharaoh’s court. He had no trouble donning the dress and life style of the Egyptian elite.
Judah, in contrast, is not gamey. He does not plant gold or goblets in his brother’s sacks. He does not play with the feelings of others. This week’s portion opens with Judah’s long and repetitive narrative of the interaction of the Israelites with Joseph and which culminates with his impassioned plea to Joseph to take him as a slave rather than imprison Benjamin.
|לג וְעַתָּה, יֵשֶׁב-נָא עַבְדְּךָ תַּחַת הַנַּעַר–עֶבֶד, לַאדֹנִי; וְהַנַּעַר, יַעַל עִם-אֶחָיו.||33 Now therefore, let thy servant, I pray thee, abide instead of the lad a bondman to my lord; and let the lad go up with his brethren.|
Dena Weiss in her commentary asked, why, before Judah makes that bold and self-sacrificial request, does he first repeat the whole story of Joseph’s recent interactions with his brothers who do not recognise his kinship with them. As Weiss says, it is a very long and repetitive speech and says nothing that Joseph does not already know. Judah offers a lesson in diplomacy and the art of creative ambiguity in how he recollects what had happened.
First, history and the narrative are coloured by selection rather than objectivity. In the attempt to make a moral point, details that might detract are deliberately omitted – the fact that Joseph falsely accused his brothers of being spies or that Joseph probably framed them by planting the money and the goblet in their travel sacs. Rather, Judah tells a tale of how what has occurred has been so painful for their father. If Joseph really believes that he is even the father of Pharaoh, even if metaphorically, then Judah has the insight to know where to touch (and manipulate) Joseph’s feelings, which are primarily egoistic.
Thus, without turning himself into a sycophant, Judah knows what to tell Joseph to prevent him from becoming defensive while making an emotional appeal to his narcissism. The speech is not about justice as fairness nor about just norms for a society or agents in conflict, but about bringing about a more just outcome than might otherwise be the case. Ethics becomes heuristic. The point is the outcome not the norms for producing it. Focus on facts and the future and not on failures. Appeal to empathy rather than normative abstractions and rules, first and foremost by displaying your feelings rather than hiding them as Joseph did.
Joseph has power. Though Judah does not know it, Joseph may also be vengeful. Otherwise, why all the deceit and trickery and to what end? Judah, without being righteous offers himself for a sacrifice for his father’s sake. Recall that until his brothers came to buy food, Joseph had virtually forgotten his father’s household and had bought into the ostentatious display of wealth, a self-serving pattern . Judah never indicates that he is morally superior to Joseph, though he really is, but not one strain of self-righteousness crept into his speech to Joseph.
Most of all, Judah appeals to hope for the future, not Joseph’s prescience about it. That prescience allowed Joseph to take advantage of others and rise through the power structure. Who in your judgement is the more virtuous?