Shame and Humiliation: Part I of V: Shaming and Shame

Shame and Humiliation

Part I of V: Shaming and Shame


Howard Adelman

Is shame a virtue or a vice?

Shame is what you do to yourself. Humiliation is what one person does to another. You humiliate your neighbour when you try to shame him or her. Trying to put a neighbour to shame is one ineffective way of trying to get rid of the shame you feel in yourself. Whether expressed inwards towards oneself or displaced outwards onto another, as the ancient Jewish sages wrote, “Better a man throw himself into a fiery furnace than publicly put his neighbour to shame.”

Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and got her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her so she could conceive. However, even though Judah had broken his promise to provide his other son as a husband for Tamar so she could have a child, even though he publicly denounced her as a prostitute when it became obvious that she was pregnant, Tamar refused to humiliate her father-in-law and the biological father of the foetus she carried in her womb. She revealed the truth only in private to him and not only informed him that he was the father of the child, but gave him clear proof. He decided on his own to acknowledge his guilt in not fulfilling his promise to Tamar and took responsibility as the father.

The story of Joseph, the favourite son of Jacob, and the coat-of-many-colours his father gave him, is also a tale of a refusal by Joseph to shame his brothers before their father. His brothers had pretended that wild animals had killed Joseph when they had sold him into slavery. When, many years later, his brothers, during a drought and famine, traveled down to Egypt for provisions, Joseph had risen to the highest position in the land next to the king. However, he kept his identity secret and made his brothers go back and bring his father. Joseph then revealed himself to them, but adamantly refused to humiliate his brothers by telling his father what happened. He lied. Joseph had not told his father earlier even to relieve the pain at the loss of his favourite son lest Jacob take out his wrath on his brothers. Joseph always made his concern for his brothers’ dignity as human beings primary. He fabricated a story to spare his brothers ignominy, humiliation and the wrath of their father.

If it is wrong to humiliate another and shame him or her in public, is it wrong to feel shame oneself? Carl Jung called shame the swampland of the soul. Steve McQueen recognized this when he directed and co-wrote the part of a sex addict played by Michael Fassbender in the movie, Shame. As it happened, when Shame was given its public release, Fassbender appeared in another movie released at the same time; he played Carl Jung in A Dangerous Method. It is 1904 and Carl Jung is treating a new patient, Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley), with Sigmund Freud’s new talking cure. Shame was also a theme in that movie for Jung diagnosed his patient as being obsessed with sexual humiliation, in her case, brought on by the abuse of her father.

In the film, Shame, Fassbender stands before the audience in full frontal nudity. What a contrast to being em-barr-assed! In fact, the movie is about the main character, Brandon, who insatiably pursued sex. Sex was not on display in such detail for titillation, but to allow the audience to get inside Brandon’s head and learn to understand a man running away from himself and escaping his deep sense of loneliness through sex. Standing nude before us, not with Fassbender’s usual macho body, we view Brandon as an addict who fuels his addiction with junk food while watching porn and masturbating.

Shame is the product of our loss of self-esteem, our increasing self-doubt and insecurity. When we feel shame, we have set aside any consideration of our self-worth. Shame feeds on self-loathing. That self-loathing, in turn, forms a vicious circle to propel us into behaviour that increases our contempt for ourselves even further. Shame is indeed a “soul-eating emotion” in Jung’s terms. I knew a mother of a grown daughter who obsessively shamed her offspring in public. The mother would directly tell her daughter, “Why can’t you do it as beautifully as ….N?” She asked her daughter rhetorically, “Why can’t your child be as smart as G?” That mother fed on humiliating her closest offspring, yet her daughter had learned to turn the tables and prevent shame from swamping her life and, most importantly, disrespecting herself and showing disrespect to her own mother. The daughter was still never perfect enough, still had to be everywhere exactly on time, still had to perform always at the highest standard. But she did not allow the shame to eat away at her soul as if it were the spiritual equivalent of a flesh-eating disease.

Shame is allowing your self-worth to be determined by how you appear to others. Ironically, shame, so tied with exposure, hides in the deepest recesses of your being, subverting your self-worth in the most devious ways. Fed by self-doubt and a low opinion of oneself, shame is not determined by who you are or what you do, but by the phantom of who you are supposed to be.

Why then is shame defined as a painful feeling that arises from a consciousness of dishonourable or improper behaviour towards another? It is because we project shame onto another and believe it is the other who behaved dishonourably? Tim was a sexist. Rachel was a dissembler, if not a liar, who, to compound her problems, showed no proper respect towards her parents. He or she should feel pain, we insist. He or she should be conscious of his or her misbehaviour. But it is we who cast stones who must become self-conscious of our behaviour. Tim Hunt did not feel that he was disgraceful. But he was disgraced. Rachel Dolenzal pursued her quest to identify with and fight for the rights of Blacks with intelligence and energy. But she was subjected to public shaming as a dissembler and even a liar.

Deborah Blum is not only an American journalist and columnist for The New York Times, but also a Professor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for best reporting for her series entitled, “The Monkey Wars” on the ethical conflict between scientists who use animals in their experiments and animal rights activists opposed to this purported cruelty to animals. As a star science reporter, she gave a parallel lecture to Tim Hunt’s in South Korea at the Ninth World Conference of Science Journalists. She wrote about what happened to Tim in an article for The Daily Beast called “Sexist Scientist: I Was Just Being Honest,” the title of which quickly informed readers about her view of Tim Hunt as well as satirizing rather than explicating and understanding his own account.

Both speakers had given their lectures. At the luncheon afterwards, they were each asked to add a few informal comments. Deborah talked about the way women make science smarter. Tim gave a tribute to women’s contribution to science. He then went astray to talk about his troubles with girls in the lab (supposedly humorously, and suggested perhaps structuring labs on the apartheid principle).

Deborah Blum’s nerves had already been set on edge when Tim referred to female scientists as “girls.” When he made his infamous remarks which I wrote about, Blum, along with two other science journalists, were appalled.  They tweeted simply to put what they had seen and heard on record, and the story went viral. Tim later protested that he had been “hung out to dry” and that he had only been joking, but to no avail. He insisted that no one had called him to ask him to explain what he meant. Blum took umbrage at that for she declared that she had made a point of asking Tim for that very explanation. In that explanation, Tim had evidently said that, “he was only trying to be honest.” But Blum never reports on what that explanation was. She presumes the remark was just a revelation of Tim Hunt’s sexism, though she quotes from his apology to the Korean female scientists and journalists. Most serious of all, in contrast to her award-winning series on the war between lab scientists and animal rights activists, she never even attempts to explore the war of righteous journalists battling for the purity of principle in a number of different fields and the sacrifice of individual human lives and reputations in that crusade.

Hunt had written that he regretted his “stupid and ill-judged remarks.” He added: “I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologize to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us.” Blum acknowledges that this indicated that the event was not entirely an “ill wind,” but not because Hunt’s remarks were not an ill wind, but because Hunt was forced to retreat and retract his sexist remarks – without ever determining whether those remarks were intended to convey a sexist worldview. Blum never tries to reconcile the remark, Tim Hunt’s apology and his behavioural record as a scientist and collaborator with women or to explore why he would offer such a tasteless joke. Instead, Blum went in another direction. She challenged characterizing the firestorm that followed as a “witch-hunt” and, instead, insisted that, although she sympathized with anyone caught is such a media storm, “if we are ever to effect change, sometimes we need the winds to howl, to blow us out of our comfort zones.  Because the real point here isn’t about individuals, isn’t about Tim Hunt or me.”

But that is precisely the nature of a witch-hunt. The individual hunted down and quartered does not count. What counts is the principle. And if Tim Hunt had to be sacrificed on the altar of pure principle, so be it. Further, it was not even worth investigating whether there was any empirical evidence to support her assumption that Hunt was a sexist. That was just a given. The remark was made. He said that he was trying to be honest. Case closed. And that has been the problem with most of the journalism coverage of both Tim Hunt and Rachel Dolezal. The frame determines what the facts are. Disputes over interpretations of so-called facts are set aside and certainly never traced to different frames of interpretation. Nor is her own role in igniting the firestorm critically investigated. After all, Deborah was just tweeting for the record. She had not intended to bring Hunt down. But when the corpse of his reputation lay in tatters, that was just the cost of upholding a principle. Quite aside from never investigating whether such pain was proportionate to the alleged offence, Blum never asks whether her offence might have been far worse than Tim Hunt’s. He apologized. She remained self-righteous.

However, shaming another begins with being made to feel ashamed of oneself. How do we combat shame that somehow has been instilled in us? By self-love. By self-respect. By attending to our actual performance rather than our inadequacies and all the ways we fall short. Shame is a cancer that can only be held at bay by subjecting it to laughter and derision, by forcing it into the light where it has a great deal of trouble thriving. For shame belongs in the shadowland of the soul. It is a saboteur, a terrorist of our spiritual health. It sends the message that we are unworthy and unloved, indeed, unlovable. Shame corrodes. Shame corrupts. Shame paralyzes and induces impotence.

That is why it is wrong to try to hang a scarlet letter of shame on another. If feeling shameful is a process of sickening oneself with the thought of oneself, shaming is often the effort to project that state of being onto another because of what one believes deep down about oneself. To project shame on another is to attempt to relieve oneself of that feeling no matter how we rationalize it. Why do we try to get rid of the feeling by ejecting it onto another? Because we feel deep down that we are not good enough and so try to bring down someone who appears too good, too active in the battle against privilege. Rachel Dolezal is a case in point.

And she was vulnerable. She did not show proper respect for her parents, whether they were her biological forbears or not. She somehow seemed ashamed of them. She stumbled when she tried to articulate who she was and who she was trying to become because she lacked an adequate intellectual framework to articulate her own aspirations within a more universal context. However, as I will later try to show, no matter what she had done, once caught up in a system of shame, there is no escape and no method of throwing off the shame. For it is akin to a Haitian curse, to having an effigy of oneself struck through with a long needle. The pain is excruciating and cannot be avoided. Further, the process, once accepted and dominant in a culture, gives official permission to allow others to portray the shamee, in this case, Rachel, as a dissembler, as someone who deliberately wore a disguise, because there was a grain of truth in it. The world is invited to join the exercise of shoving in pins. But the real truth was that Rachel courageously took on her own self-definition of who she was, and, further, stood up to the abuse and name-calling.

Tim Hunt, in contrast, when he cracked a stupid dumb joke and it backfired, fled the field when the abuse and put-downs poured in. He offered a clearly sincere and heart-felt apology, that, as can be expected when one understands witch hunts, was either ignored or misinterpreted and used against him. But he never joined the media circus. A Nobel Prize winner had been brought low. The institutions that are there to protect intellectuals from their deepest vulnerabilities because they venture to work on the frontiers of ideas, suddenly turned tail and allowed the lions to maul and scratch and bite their own offspring to deflect the public rage against themselves. Tim Hunt could be the most courageous of individuals in pursuing the frontiers of knowledge in a field where he had enormous expertise, but when he inadvertently left his comfort zone, and failed to perform up to scruff, the lions were waiting. Released into the arena of public opinion, Tim Hunt never had a chance. The feeling of inner doubt that he had worked his whole life to overcome through superb performance to insist that he was good enough rather than never being good enough, now escalated into a different domain altogether. “Who do you think you are?” Not satisfied with watching a highly respected man being drawn and quartered, the watchers and gazers, those who cried for more blood, tramped on the torn and shredded body to demonstrate their own disgust with themselves.

Do not get me wrong. Those engaged in humiliating another never experienced their sadistic behaviour, their efforts to humiliate, their desire to bring an esteemed person down, as an engagement in public humiliation. No. They were serving a higher purpose – fighting against sexism or combating a failure at transparency. Like the Puritan witch hunters of old, they were serving a higher calling. “This is who we are!” they shouted from their fountainheads in the media. “Now see where you are.”

But what about Jian Ghomeshi, Evan Solomon and Senator Mike Duffy when they failed in what they actually did, when their hidden selves – their sadism, poor judgement or greed – were exposed to the public glare? Should they not feel shame? Should they not be humiliated and disgraced?  Perhaps the media firestorm was far out of proportion to the slip-up of Rachel Dolezal and even more so of Tim Hunt, but surely those other three should be made to face the guilt for what they did.

Facing guilt and shaming are two radically different enterprises. Ensuring that they face what they did wrong does not require humiliating them. If they erred legally, it is for the courts to judge. If they failed ethically, society will hold them to account and convey what is unacceptable behaviour. There is no necessity to heap on humiliation. They may or may not feel shame. But we fail if we try to transfer our own sense of low worth onto any of them. Humiliating another is unacceptable, not simply or mostly about what is done to them, but about what we are doing to ourselves.

A shaming society is a society of witch hunts and public flogging. It is not a society that tries to raise the level of self-worth of everyone. A society of shaming is a society that says we all have equal value when that can only be done by bringing many of those with great value into the common trough. If they misbehave, they must be found guilty in the eyes of the law or in public valuation. They must be brought face-to-face with their guilt. But rubbing their noses in the trough of greed or a failure in transparency and recognition of what they did wrong, only enhances the difficulty they face in dealing with the truth about themselves. More importantly, it hides and displaces our failure to deal with the truth of who we are. They have done it to themselves by their behaviour. What those guilty of a crime or moral turpitude deserve from us is compassion and a sense of proportion. And it is the latter that is so sorely lacking when we engage in schadenfreude.

A society that respects guilt and allows and encourages confrontation with one’s guilt is a healthy society. A society which indulges itself in humiliation and shaming is a sick society. A communist system is a shame culture par excellence, a culture that undercuts any individual’s capacities to be allowed to feel guilty or grant recognition to another individual.

Shame is not the acknowledgement of guilt. Shaming is not the focus on what you did to harm another. Shame is not an effort to get someone to acknowledge that what was done was bad – though I will later discuss a hybrid that pretends and contends that it does precisely that. Shame is not assisting another to apologize sincerely and to take a punishment proportionate to their deeds. Shame is humiliating the other, is heaping scorn on another. And it is always done in the name, not of a specific legal or moral code, but in the name of a universal abstract principle – anti-sexism, honesty, Puritanism, communism.

Shaming someone because she did not show sufficient or proper respect for her parents is not an effort to allow Rachel to face her failure. For her failure is allegedly misrepresentation. The abandonment of respect for her parents was viewed as the core case of that failure, not the core of  failure in her altogether. For if she was alienated from her parents, that was simply an interpersonal problem between Rachel and her father and mother. But if she disowned her parents for the purpose of lying and dissembling before the public, then Rachel crossed a universal moral principle which we must all uphold –  honesty. And honesty is the demi-god before which all journalists must bow down in an uncritical idolatry.

That god was called Veritas, the goddess of honesty in the ancient Mediterranean world. I will not go into the difference between the parallel Athenian god, Athenaia, which offers a subtle explanation. Instead I will try to offer a mythological explanation of why representatives of the public media seem to take such much pleasure in revealing that a greatly admired or respected person has feet of clay. I will retell the tale about Veritas that can be found in Aesop’s Fables.

Tomorrow: Part II of V: Veritas, Prometheus, Mandacius and Humiliation

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.