Knowing the truth, finding out at last what people who hurt you think, is not always a bad thing. We live our lives imagining the worst. We think they, whoever they is, hated us with some kind of pure malice or that something about us was so odious to them we really should be ashamed of who we are. Deep hurts from our past can define us in our own minds.
Could it be that Joseph imagined all these long years that his father had been relatively unaffected by his loss? Or worse, maybe Joseph imagined that Jacob had been a co-conspirator with his sons. But Judah’s words, uttered in a context where there was no reason for pretense, where his testimony was purely believable, gave the lie to Joseph’s long-held fears. שְׁנַיִם יָלְדָה־לִּי אִשְׁתִּי shenayim yaledah-li ‘ishti, “My wife bore me two sons,” said Jacob. Joseph hears, at long last, that he was not forgotten or unloved. His father counted the loss. His father loved Benjamin all the more because Joseph had been lost to him.
It is a beautiful thing when we find out that we mattered. We mattered to that person or persons in the past we weren’t sure about. Our existence left an imprint. We are not the reject we imagined ourselves to be. Someone loved us.
The truth is, we matter in the present and in the future too. Someone loves us. We left our fingerprint on the universe. Our existence matters. When we se someone else, in this case Joseph, come to that realization, it helps us see it in our own lives. It relativizes our shame and fear that we have been of no account.
Judah’s appeal (18), Judah recounts Joseph’s demand and the fact that bringing Benjamin will kill Jacob (19-24), Judah recounts Jacob’s declaration that losing Benjamin will kill him (25-29), Judah assures Joseph that Jacob will die with grief (30).
Judah’s speech is the thing, at last, that will convince Joseph to end the farce and embrace his brothers. The best motive me might imagine for this pantomime Joseph has perpetrated to their hurt is that he wanted to test them, to see if they had genuine remorse and if they had changed. At worst we have seen in Joseph lashing out in retaliation seeking to soothe old hurts by hurting others. The unusual thing for the reader to see is that Joseph has been willing also to hurt his father. Could Joseph suspect his father in either helping the brothers betray Joseph or somehow not caring that his son was lost all these years?
Judah had been the one to save Joseph’s life by suggesting they sell him to the caravan (37:26). Now Judah’s speech is so full of humility and pathos, Joseph is at last about to lose his emotional control and finally relent to help his brothers. Particularly poignant is the report of Jacob’s grief for Joseph, “Surely he has been torn to pieces!” The effect of Joseph’s loss on Jacob is summed up by the words Judah reports when Jacob says if the same fate befalls Benjamin, “You will bring down my gray hairs to Sheol!”
It seems Joseph has been callous, cruel, waiting too long to see signs of remorse in his brothers that will make him relent and save them. When he finally does relent, however, the past offense them will be truly dealt with and the reconciliation will be deep.
GENESIS 44:31 – 45:7
Bitterness does not have to be the last word. Sometimes we are able to see from a higher point of view. Sometimes we get access to the panorama visible from the other world, giving us a window into something deeper in this one.
The essence of prophecy is the revealing to human beings of a thoughts or a few thoughts from God. Even the slightest word from God about the smallest thing can, at times, shut down our fears and open up to us a vista we never imagined. One of the great nuisances of this present existence is the ambiguity of it all, the elusiveness of meaning we can grasp and hold on to.
But a small word from God to a prophet, which is an extremely rare happening and not one we should be trying to force or emulate, cuts through the fog and gives us a momentary glimpse of clarity. Real prophecy is rare, surprising, and pointed in its revelation.
The brothers are expecting to have their fate sealed by this potentate of Egypt, only to find first that he is their brother. Then they are expecting all the more for him to be vengeful. The great shame of their lives is being exposed and surely death and servitude await them. אַל־תֵּעָצְבוּ וְאַל־יִחַר בְּעֵינֵיכֶם ‘al-tei’atzvu ve’al-yichar be’eineichem, “Do not let yourselves be distressed or let yourself be angry in your own eyes,” says Joseph.
The word of prophecy is unexpected. It cuts through the normal and brings something extraordinary. God has shown Joseph, a wise man and seer through whom God has revealed things before to his family and also to Pharaoh, that the tragedy and reversal of his life means salvation for the family of Jacob and the whole region surrounding Egypt. One man’s suffering produces salvation for many people.
We learn from the Joseph story that suffering in life is consistent with redemption and deliverance. This is an important lesson because we are prone to a more simplistic view: if God loves us he will keep us from suffering.
There is no more pressing question weighing upon us than this one: must life be filled with pain, regret, and death? Joseph’s prophetic word uncovers a truth about our own lives. God has a purpose in letting us go through this. We are better off with reality being what it is than some imaginary world in which our choices are always protected, in which we always make a soft landing, where nothing can hurt us and we can hurt no one. The real world, despite its maddening ambiguity and senseless misery, is the best one from which God can and will propel us into happier destinies.
Judah offers himself as slave in Benjamin’s place (44:31-34), Joseph breaks down (45:1-2), Joseph reveals himself to his brothers (3), Joseph explains the divine purpose (4-7).
Judah redeems himself by his actions, offering himself as a slave in place of his younger brother. The very thing that Judah and the others caused to happen to Joseph, Judah is willing to take on himself so that his father will not be grieved a second time. We do not always have such a clear chance to redeem ourselves as Judah does here. But growing and overcoming and doing acts of kindness are the best ways to leave shameful deeds behind us.
Joseph’s cruel bent has at last come to its end. He is unable to take any longer the emotion welling up inside him. Having discovered how much he mattered to his father and now seeing his brother completely humbled, he relents and reveals himself.
The episode ends with remarkable statements by Joseph concerning God’s purpose in relationship to the freewill choices the brothers have made. Which is it? Did the brothers put Joseph in a pit because it was the divine purpose or did God use the brothers’ choice to bring about something good? Did God cause them to do it? Or did their action result in a counter-move by God that made something beautiful out of tragedy?
The text of Genesis is not attempting to answer that question. For one thing, it would be a foreign idea to them to say that God caused them to do harm to Joseph. The idea of God determining our actions (causing them) fits with some theologies (primarily Christian ones). A number of other texts in the Hebrew Bible can be used to support this idea of divine determinism, but on examination these texts are about God directing nations in a certain direction and not God coopting the dignity and freewill of his creatures.
The insight of the story, the thought that comes to Joseph, is something else. It is that God has used a bad situation for good. Therefore he says to his brothers in essence, “Don’t berate yourselves for selling me here into this place, because God has made something beautiful out of it.” The destiny of Joseph in Egypt fits with Paul’s idea that “God works all things for good for those who love him” (Rom 8:28).
Life is complicated. The motives of the people around us are complex, inscrutable. Things that begin well can over time become unbearable. Things that begin in misery can lead to great happiness. Effects surely have causes, but rarely can we say there is a simple cause-effect explanation for anything.
The brothers were jealous of their father’s favoritism toward Joseph. They threw him in a pit. Yet Joseph says, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.” It was not really either-or, the brothers or God, but really both and probably more things as well that led to Joseph being in Egypt.
Israel’s destiny in Egypt is good and bad and then good again. But who can know at the beginning of something how it will turn out? “In the day of prosperity be joyful,” says the Teacher (Eccles 7:14), “but in the day of adversity consider, God has made the one as well as the other.”
Israel’s entry into Egypt begins as a curse — Joseph enslaved — and become a blessing — the whole clan saved from starvation. But it will turn into curse again — the enslavement of all the people. As circumstances change it will become clear that Israel’s entry into Egypt was an eisodus (a migration into) that will need to become an exodus (a migration out of).
Any story has many chapters. In some the theme music is joyful and the outlook is rosy. In others the horizon is dark and somber notes are playing. What carries us through? What sustains the wise in hard times and sobers them in prosperous ones? The answer of Torah is knowledge, knowledge of God and his ways. Behind the machinations and complexities there are some things we know because God has told us. He will bless the families of the earth and the center of that blessing is the Jewish people. There will be times of blessing and times where the land is cursed. But God’s purpose is blessing.
The Joseph story is about the Jewish people and the nations and it is a picture of a happy ending, a foreshadowing of something great to come. “Those who wait for me shall not be put to shame,” God says (Isa 49:23). The nations of the world will learn the ways of peace from God through Israel, “for out of Zion will go forth the teaching and the word of Adonai from Jerusalem” (Isa 2:3). We see a microcosm of this in Egypt and the surrounding nations taking wisdom from Joseph and finding survival through a crisis. Life is complicated but we know it has a direction in which it is moving. God has made prosperity and adversity for the earth, but we know which one will prevail.
God sent me here (8), Joseph sends the brothers to bring Jacob and the whole family into Egypt (9-13), Joseph embraces his brothers (14-15), Pharaoh grants a choice place for Israel to dwell (16-18).
“I will bless those who bless you,” God had said to Abraham (Get 12:3). That pattern of mutual blessing has now come full circle in the Joseph story, especially when we hear Pharaoh say אֶתְּנָה לָכֶם אֶת־טוּב אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם ‘etnah lachem ‘et-tuv ‘eretz mitzrayim, “Let me give you the best of the land of Egypt.” Joseph has saved Egypt and now Egypt saves Israel.
Meanwhile, Joseph’s brothers have been terrified of him. Now he is weeping and instructing them to tell their father how he has ascended to power and to bring their father to him. As Joseph embraces Benjamin, the brothers are still afraid. Only when he weeps and embraces them too do we read “after that his brothers talked with him.”
The brothers are sent off to invite Jacob into Egypt and word comes back to Pharaoh’s household. Pharaoh offers “the best of the land” to Joseph’s family and offers a blessing: “Eat the fat of the land.” Isaac, in his blessing for Jacob (intended for Esau) had said, “May God give you . . . the fatness of the earth.” Now Pharaoh is offering just that.
The covenant blessings announced to Abraham bring a happy result for Jacob’s family and for Egypt as well as the whole region. A leading theme in the story is the potential for Abrahamic blessing to spill over from the clan of Abraham to the world. But the converse side, the “I will curse those who curse you” part, looms in the future when a Pharaoh will rise up who does not know Joseph.
Reversal. Unexpected good fortune. The redemption of a terrible hurt. The news that Joseph was alive made Jacob’s heart at first numb. The Hebrew phrase is used elsewhere of something enfeebled or crushed, paralyzed. We might say, Jacob’s heart stopped for an instant. He refused to believe. Joseph was alive and, even more, he was a ruler in Egypt.
What was needed to persuade Jacob this was true, not some fantasy or wish-fulfillment, was more detail. The sons told him everything Joseph had said and all that had happened. What happened next also involves a colorful Hebrew phrase: וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם vatechi ru’ach Ya’aqōv avihem, “Then the heart of Jacob came back to life.”
The ru’ach (רוּחַ “spirit”) is part of us that is below the surface. It is not simply our thoughts, feelings, and intentions. The rua’ch resides at a deeper level than that, more submerged, less available to our own sensation and the observation of others. It has been referred to as our unconscious self. It is a place that affects what we think and feel and do, but subtly, imperceptibly.
Jacob’s ru’ach had died a little with the loss of his favored son. The news that one of the great losses of his life had been suddenly reversed brought that part of Jacob back to life.
We can hardly imagine the stakes of our redemption. Most of the time we are numb, immune to the feelings that are possible for us. But great moments come and they overwhelm us. Wonder overtakes us. We submit willingly and fold into something greater than ourselves and surrender to it. When our moments will come — and we will have them, of that we can be sure — we will feel as we never felt before. The one who holds our redemption in his hands will not fail us.
Pharaoh offers full provision for Joseph’s family (19-20), Joseph weighs them down with provisions and gives extra to Benjamin (21-24), the brothers come to Jacob (25-27), Jacob is revived with hope (28).
Was Joseph giving from pure motives or implying vengeful triumph when he gave his brothers extra garments as a gift? Sarna notes the appropriateness of the gift in light of the history between them (JPS Commentary). But perhaps it was a deliberate message.
Even so, Joseph sent them home with provisions and gifts for his father. When they arrived, the author depicts their message succinctly: Joseph is alive and he is ruler over all Egypt. The brevity and impact of the message add potency to the narrative and Jacob’s reaction does not let the reader down. וַיָּפָג לִבּוֹ vayafag libbō, “And his [Jacob’s] heart went numb.” The reader can empathize. The father who has grieved so long hears in one instant that his son is alive and also the impossible to believe news that he is one of the most powerful people alive. Joseph is not only alive, but prospering and achieving greatness.
The effect on Jacob begins as numbness, as we can imagine, the confusing tunnel effect that can happen to us when our world changes in an instant. He could not believe the reversal of his bereavement until they shared with him all the details and everything Joseph had said. Then we read: וַתְּחִי רוּחַ יַעֲקֹב אֲבִיהֶם vatechi ru’ach Ya’aqōv avihem, “Then the heart of Jacob came back to life.”
GENESIS 45:28 – 46:27
Most of the time, God is silent. For various reasons, including our own insecurity and our religious yearnings, we want to imagine a God who talks to us. We are prone to believe claims that people hear God speak. In religious communities, cheap talk about God giving messages is all too common.
The reality from the Torah and the Bible as a whole is this: at most times and in most places, God is both silent and hidden.
Thus, through all of the story of Joseph, not once have we seen God appearing to or speaking to him. Yet as soon as Jacob is faced with a decision about whether or not to go into Egypt, he travels to the family altar and God appears to him and speaks.
With Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God made himself seen and heard. Not so with Joseph.
The three patriarchs represent the founders, the originators of the covenant promise and the clan that will carry that promise to the whole earth. But once the pattern and promise are established, God returns to his normal plan of concealment.
Our experience of God will be a quiet one and the insights we receive will be inaudible, the muted whispers of the universe revealing what is beyond this world. Seeing for us will be a matter of believing, not perceiving literally. The change from Jacob to Joseph should be a comfort to us, affirming for us that we too have a relationship with God even if he does not appear to us. And it is a caution, not to be too sure of ourselves.
Jacob’s determination to see Joseph again (45:28), vision of God at Beersheba (46:1-4), the journey to Egypt (5-7), Jacob’s genealogy (8-27).
With his soul returned to life, Jacob is determined to see Joseph in Egypt. His resolve is described in one word in vs. 28, רַב (rav, “enough!”).
Having heard all he needs to in order to make his decision, Jacob travels to the family altar in Beersheba. There was some trepidation about leaving the land again. Jacob had returned to the land, the place of blessing, and to leave it again raised questions about the continuity of the covenant promises. Would God go with him to Egypt?
As he had done many years earlier when Jacob was leaving the land, God appears and reassures him. “I will go down with you,” says God. “I will make you into a great nation there.” Jacob is comforted to know the Abrahamic promise will still be in force.
Genesis counts the people who enter Egypt with a genealogy. The number is seventy, a propitious one.
GENESIS 46:28 – 47:10
Few and evil are our days. In Hebrew “evil” does not necessarily imply that an intelligent and malevolent will is behind something. Forces of nature, trails and adversities in life, are called evil too. Jacob described his life in this way, meaning he had seen a great deal of hardship and also that he did not regard his life to be as remarkable as that of his father and grandfather.
No doubt Jacob thought of his early life and rivalry with Esau. He no doubt considered his long years competing with Laban, who was nearly his match in cleverness. His great fear at returning to face Esau. His night-long wrestling match with a manifestation of God. His ordeals with his sons, losing Joseph, watching his sons shame themselves. Jacob had endured many troubles and sorrows.
Yet he had risen above them all. His clan was strong and prosperous. He lived up, in fact, to the success of his father and grandfather in herding livestock.
But he described himself to Pharaoh in humble terms. Jacob who so often strove to be the best humbly accepted himself as last. The change in his self-perception is a transformation brought by the discipline of life. “The reproofs of discipline are the way of life,” says Proverbs (6:23). “Reverence for Adonai comes from wisdom’s discipline” (Prov 15:33).
“Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life,” Jacob said. “They have not reached the years of my fathers in the days of their sojourning.” What can the years of our life teach us? How has the view changed from what it was in our youth? How will it change in days to come?
Joseph rides out to meet his father (28-30), preparing to meet with Pharaoh (46:31-34), Pharaoh and the brothers (47:1-6), Pharaoh and Jacob (7-10).
Judah is in Goshen, the northern edge of Egypt, where the Nile river dumps into the sea. And his aged father Jacob, a wizened and venerable figure now, is with him. Joseph has not yet laid eyes on his father and a remarkable scene ensues. The Grand Vizier of all Egypt (Joseph) rides out on a chariot, stands before him a moment, and falls on his neck weeping. The picture is one of the amazing results of God’s promises to the Abrahamic clan.
Jacob, for his part, feels as if his life has become full now that he sees his lost son alive. אָמוּתָה הַפָּעַם אַחֲרֵי רְאוֹתִי אֶת־פָּנֶיךָ ‘amutah hapa’am acharei re’ōti et-paneicha, “Now let me die after having seen your face!”
Joseph, ever the careful and wise administrator, uses his craftiness to ensure a good land grant for his family. He uses the aversion that Egyptian upper classes had against shepherds and animal herders to gain a place removed from the capital. Goshen is a broad and good land. As for Joseph’s request, he specified it was only for a place for his family to “sojourn” (גוּר, gur, to live as a resident alien). In the Passover Haggadah, this is the basis of a tradition that the intention was only to remain here, and out of the land of promise, temporarily.
When Pharaoh meets Joseph, it is another remarkable scene. Jacob’s age makes him a formidable person, one who has seen much and knows much, so that even Pharaoh is impressed.
But Jacob’s self-description is humble: מְעַט וְרָעִים הָיוּ יְמֵי שְׁנֵי חַיַּי me’at vera’m hayu yemei shenei chayyai, “Few and evil have been the days of the years of my life.” He claims that his father and grandfather lived far longer, which must have led Pharaoh to wonder about this strange family and the blessings they seem to have encountered.
The brutal economic reality of Joseph’s time is a taxation based form of security which enriches Pharaoh. It saves the people, but at a high price. However, the reader can see this policy does not negatively impact Israel in any way. Their land grant is secure.
The price of survival is this world is often high. Governments form and promise some form of security in exchange for taxation and servitude. People pay and work, hoping the system benefits them according to its promise. In a world that lacks abundance and which does not spread blessings equally, we do the best we can as a human race.
But just as Israel in Egypt lives by a different economy, so the Torah will go on to reveal the potential for a completely different system for sustenance and security. Torah’s system is defined by the Shema, especially the second paragraph, Deuteronomy 11:13-21. If Israel obeys, the land of Canaan will have rain and produce abundant food. There will be both early and later rain, producing grass for livestock so the people may eat and be full with blessing.
The whole system is a hint that in God’s economy there is a potential for unlimited supply. The prophets looked ahead to such a possibility, a day when the land will be a filled with the knowledge of God as the water cover the sea (Isa 11:9). In that day, the harvest time will continue until the next planting (Amos 9:13). Mountains will drip sweet wine and hills will flow with milk (Joel 3:18). As for security, cities will be built without walls (Zech 2:4) and people will learn war no more (Isa 2:4).
The Joseph story foreshadows this, since the people of Israel thrive in a time where the nations make deals to owe taxes to Pharaoh in order to survive. We do what we have to now, but we wait with eager expectation for God’s economy to take over this one.
Joseph settles and sustains his family in Goshen (11-12), Joseph saves all Egypt and acquires all property for Pharaoh (13-19), Joseph nationalizes the land and makes the people tenant farmers (20-26), Israel prospers in Goshen (27).
Saving the people from famine, Joseph acquires their property in full for the throne. Far from caring that they are no longer free holders of their property, the middle classes of Egypt are grateful and Pharaoh’s wealth and power become immense. A new practice is established: all landholders will owe a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh perpetually for being sustained with food through the duration of the famine. The price of security is a huge tax. Joseph is working for the good of Pharaoh mainly, though his actions also keep the people alive through a crisis in which many would have died.
While most of the peoples diminish in greatness during the Egyptian famine, the blessings of Genesis 12 are at work and Israel receives a land grant. Pharaoh acquires the land of other peoples, but through Joseph makes a direct grant to Israel. They are now described with plural verbs, preparing the reader for the next phase of the story, as Israel multiplies and moves toward rescue from slavery.