Genesis 42

Joseph’s brothers arrive in Egypt in an attempt to procure some food for themselves and those others of Jacob’s family who remain in Canaan, waiting and suffering during the widespread famine. By this point in the saga Joseph has become the vizier (verse six), essentially in charge of everything, and evidently so assimilated to his forcedly adopted home that he is unrecognizable even to his own kin (verse eight: Joseph knows them but they do not know him). The brothers bow low in humility and Joseph’s first dream of Chapter 37 comes true directly, while his second dream (including the “sun” and “moon”: i.e. father and mother) might also arguably be understood as having been fulfilled indirectly since, while not physically present, the beseeching of the parents is surely included in the siblings’ petition. Joseph thereupon sets something of a trap, but also something of a prolonged and somewhat convoluted reconciliation underway: he grants his brothers both the sustenance they need and even returns the money they had paid for it (verse twenty-five), but then also keeps one of them (Simeon) as hostage to force their return with the absent Benjamin (his only brother with whom he shares Rachel as mother) in tow (verses eighteen through twenty). Beyond wanting to see this last brother (or only “full” brother) the text does not tell us what the narrative character Joseph may have had in mind and so we are left to wonder; it does, however, inform the reader of the depth of Joseph’s feeling for all his brothers, and surely too the nostalgia and melancholy that must have been summoned in him at the unexpected reunion. Note how Joseph is portrayed as the brothers speak amongst themselves:

42.23-24a: “They [the brothers] did not know that Joseph understood [i.e. comprehended their conversation, which was being conducted privately but within his hearing], for there was an interpreter between him and them [used, no doubt, by Joseph in order to camouflage his identity]. He [Joseph] turned away from them and wept.”

The story gives us Joseph: an arrogant or at least very naïve young man who dreams of his brothers and even parents prostrating themselves before him, actually tells this to the people concerned, finally upsets his brothers so much that they wish to kill him but instead sell him into servitude, he is taken to Egypt and after an initial rise and fall is made to rise again to astonishing social heights yet remains alone and separated from his birth kin. Those same brothers then come to where he is, begging for assistance and, in the knowledge that they are unaware of who he really is (indeed, they think him dead: see Reuben’s regretful lament in verse twenty-two), Joseph is overcome with emotion. This, naturally, is small wonder: thinking ourselves (as well as we might) into a setting like this we may marvel at Joseph’s self-control in not immediately blurting out everything. Why he does not is another point that the narrative withholds from us, but based on his actions in providing a great amount of nourishment for them to take for distribution to the family in Canaan, and additionally even giving their money back, it hints that Joseph has thoroughly forgiven the violent act which started him on the life journey he is now travelling. (I should add that some find the inclusion of the money bags in the provisions as an entrapment set far in advance à la the goblet incident in Chapter 44.1-17, but that is another situation distanced by both time and immediate context from the current one; moreover, in the overall flow of the events it is hard to imagine that Joseph could have foreseen such in the moment (even if the writer(s) picturing the literary figure did in constructing the tale).) In the wholly unanticipated – and probably not even remotely hoped for it seemed so impossible – happening of his brothers appearing before him and seeking his aid, Joseph opens his heart, gives abundantly, does not begrudge, and is pierced through by the sight of them. The novella of Joseph is one of a person growing ethically, acquiring the skill to place the other centrally and the patience to allow events to unfold with a grace that accepts and adjusts, who learns how to do what he can to effect the betterment of the surroundings wherein he finds himself; the present chapter demonstrates each of these points beautifully.

Genesis 41

The cupbearer from the previous chapter finally remembers Joseph before Pharaoh (verses nine through thirteen), and this being the smoothly built story that it is such happens at precisely the right moment. Pharaoh himself has had dreams which need interpreting, dreams which are in line and of the nature of the previous Joseph-related dreams: weakness superseding strength (his brothers’ sheaves bowing down to his; the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him: 37.6-7, 9), ill following good (the cupbearer being restored then the baker being killed: 40.20-22). Like those, Pharaoh’s visions relate through the symbols of gaunt cows consuming healthy ones and thin ears of grain swallowing full ones (verses two through seven) that firstly will be blessings and thereafter want and much need. On hearing the details Joseph – summoned for the task thanks to the cupbearer – again gives credit to the divine (verse sixteen) before explaining what kind of agricultural conditions may be expected for the next fourteen years. (Incidentally, this being a piece of well-told and positive fiction nothing of the sort happens, but imagine if Joseph had been wrong and the famine never came: would Pharaoh have been pleased to not need the emergency relief, or angered that so much had been stored away? At least the supply side economics made possible would have kept inflation down! And Joseph would have had a good long ride of it before being called into question.) What occurs after this, however, is to me the most intriguing aspect of the tale.

Joseph had been brought in to explain the content of Pharaoh’s dreams, that and no more. The scene is an exquisitely constructed one: The foreigner, fresh from prison, suddenly placed in the Egyptian court – the most powerful and wealthiest nation on earth – thanks to nothing more than the happenstance of the cupbearer being reminded (after two long years of Joseph’s languishing!; see verse one) of his own experience with a puzzling dream; anyone would be beside themselves in such a situation. Yet how does Joseph respond? He listens, finds the similarities between the pair of dreams (in fact they are the same dream, as Joseph states in verses twenty-six and thirty-two), and then duly gives to Pharaoh what he wanted: the meaning. Well and good; but Joseph does not stop with merely that: and this now is astonishing. The young, insignificant, outsider nobody in the presence of the most potent authority on the face of the planet keeps talking far beyond what was required of him, and not only does he continue he does so in the form of giving advice on what Pharaoh ought to do (verses thirty-three to thirty-six). This is some chutzpah! In reading these lines we recall that what we have received here from tradition is some form of myth (whether grounded or not – in whatever way – in a person who did exist, or instead in a figure that was completely made up, is largely irrelevant: in either case I do not think we can claim this as a historical account in the way we now reckon history), and so we should not be overly surprised that instead of being hauled away or even executed for his insolence, as indeed the baker had been for who knows what offense (Chapter 40 gives us a picture of Pharaoh as exercising his limitless rights quite arbitrarily), Joseph is granted the benefit of every doubt and not only carefully listened to but believed. That in itself is something of a miracle. What might we take from this tale told so beautifully?

One of the primary lessons that Genesis may be imparting to us through these extended Joseph vignettes (Chapters 37 and 39-50 are all centered on him) may at first appear to be along the lines of the importance of having self-confidence, but it is perhaps a rather more nuanced trait than that. It is not so much that Joseph believes in himself – as certainly he does appear to – but that he believes in what God/“God” has given to him and purposed him with in life. Initially were his dreams of Chapter 37 – as above – that caused him to wrongly take on a kind of arrogance (telling one’s older siblings and parents that they would prostrate themselves before one is not the humblest family position to take!) and which pointedly do not mention deity. The dreams told to Joseph which he deciphers, on the other hand, are each preceded by acknowledging God/“God” as the source and foundation for whatever ability Joseph is about to demonstrate (40.8 and 41.16). Joseph has learned not to trust in himself per se, but to rely on that which he has been invested with, and moreover to find in that a function and aim to fulfill during the days that he has. Like ourselves, he is filled with ignorance as to the whens and the whys – and certainly with regards to the hows and the how longs – but he recognizes an opportunity and seizes it, based in that same assurance and trust. The world is a sticky and messy place and a great many things can go wrong, but what I think Joseph – and much of Genesis – encourages attitudinally is that whatever might eventuate, it is the human place to act for the good of others in a faith that such might truly transpire.

Genesis 40

The capacity for dreaming may not be solely a human animal trait, but the tendency to place great significance into possible meanings – and great efforts at arriving at those meanings – surely must be one. Our dreams haunt us, and whether we place stock in them or not, I would be quite surprised to meet someone who did not think on their own dreams at least a little if such were remembered. The vividness and feel of a dream can even at times excel that of waking life, and given the vastness of the mind’s pre-aware (or “subconscious”, although for technical reasons I dislike that term and find it misleading) data processing abilities who is to say that we cannot learn something from dreams which otherwise would go unnoticed in the busyness of our days? Yet the future? Well, let us leave the door to mystery pleasantly open and simply smile agnostically.

In this chapter the plotline of the Joseph saga moves inexorably forward and we are given hints and foreshadowings for how the story will develop. Our man is in a prison of some sort, and judging by the apparent freedom of movement within it that he has, and that his fellow inmates are two servants of the royal court (the chief cupbearer and the chief baker), one would think that by the standards of the time it was not an altogether unpleasant holding house. (I am reminded of the treatment offending members of the samurai class received in Edo Period Japan: they were placed in apartments within the compound and had servants assigned to them; but that is many worlds away from our narrative.) These other prisoners each have strange dreams which trouble them and whose (presumedly important) meaning they should like to learn; we of course are immediately reminded of Chapter 37 and Joseph’s dreams regarding himself. The details of each are interesting, and the personal connections demonstrated make them seem like the sort of nighttime vision a person could have; Joseph – appropriately giving credit to the divine – assures the other men that answers can be found. Such are, and on telling them Joseph asks for a good word to be put in with Pharaoh on his behalf. What was predicted comes to pass as surely as Bet follows Alef, and the cupbearer goes to his reward while the baker goes to his punishment (execution, most unfortunately). However, and how very like life, the chapter ends with this:

40.23: “Yet the chief cupbearer did not think of Joseph; he forgot him.”

There are many ways in which we might take this verse: we could see it as an addition of some tension to the drama, a twisting of storytelling finesse; we could understand it as a part of the history of this figure, a portion of the real (“true”?) Patriarch’s days when things seemed dark and daunting; we could read it as a lesson for ourselves, one that may be applied in any era. There are others as well, of course; in the context of this section of the Book of Genesis though an underlying theme is that whatever events might appear to be on their surface for those (characters) living through them, and too for those observing them (including ourselves as readers (or hearers, historically)), guidance is being provided and God’s/“God’s” design is ineluctably being carried out. It may take time, and it may well eventuate in unexpected ways, but it will happen. This is an extremely comforting faith for those able to hold it, yet it raises terribly difficult – untenable, insurmountable really – questions of theodicy and demands for some explanation for the ills we find around us. Such issues are naturally well beyond the scope of our present efforts, and so we return to Joseph’s being forgotten as a point in itself away from the overarching series of occurrences. Joseph had done this good turn, not wrongly claiming it as from his own power (verse 8b: “So Joseph said to them, ‘Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams].’”), and requested merely to be remembered to the authority most likely to be able to help him. This did not happen. How did Joseph take it? What did he think about while he remained in prison? Was he resentful? Resigned? We are not told; and in that we are invited to place ourselves in his situation and ponder how we might feel and what we might do: an exercise like this can certainly teach as much – if not more than – all that may be gained from wondering on a dream.

Genesis 39

The story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife (sadly only identified by role and not by name) is very well-known, and is one about which a great many commentaries have already been written: mostly lauding Joseph’s commitment to ethical behavior and fortitude, and also often highlighting how although at first he may have appeared to suffer for doing the right thing in the end that led to great reward. Such is of course the obvious reading of the chapter, and it is a good one insofar as it goes. In our pages though I will neither repeat this traditional reading nor attempt to add to it, and similarly I will not take away from it nor suggest that it has somehow missed the point (which is kind of the default contrarian position). Instead I want to focus on Potiphar himself and what we learn of the man’s tendencies from a single striking – and easy to overlook – verse (actually only the first half of the verse). Consider for a moment the following:

39.6a: “He [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate.”

What does the text go on to relate? Hereafter we are given the picture of a head of household who is typically not at home, whose wealth, status, and power allow him to leave matters to his many servants, and who evidently does not spend much time with his spouse either, a person herself seemingly bored but – in the reverse of her husband – bound to their shared residence (and this presumably by the cultural customs and sociopolitical realities of the time and place). This is not an altogether uncommon portrait: naturally we can think of a great many literary tales filled with upper-class personages whose luxury affords them time but cannot provide much purpose. Our man here may be one of legion but that does not bother us either, and neither should we care that the teaching imparted could have come from many sources. Rather we turn our attention to where Potiphar is recorded as having done: “nothing save the food that he ate.” In other words, his position had put him in charge of the entirety, and he excused himself from everything save the most core of daily pleasures. Might we really take the following turmoil as only indirectly resultant from this attitude?

I think we may take this fable as a lesson in the dangers of disowning one’s duties. Potiphar did not ask to be born into a rich and high-ranking Egyptian family which supplied him with a life in the royal court, he simply was. It would be only too easy for us, from our contemporary conceptions of individualism and self-directed pursuits, to side with him and think that he cannot be blamed for not wanting to manage the tedious home affairs he had merely had thrust upon him by the seeming accidents of fate. Yet to do so would be to miss that by the very same set of virtues which burdened him with responsibility he was further tasked with the welfare of a great number of others: those who served him and/or lived with him. Putting a capable other (in this case, Joseph) in charge of that which one perhaps may not wish to pursue is indeed a potential method of ensuring the well-being of those servants/cohabitants, but it is an inauthentic and disingenuous means. Potiphar was born with a great deal put upon him; he could have wished things otherwise, he might have resented his place in the hierarchy, he may have yearned for the “freedom” of the peasant (the delusion of underclass romanticizing!), we simply do not know. We do learn, however, that whatever Potiphar’s thoughts and feelings might have been, he disregarded that which he ought to have been engaged in and chaos resulted. He did not ask for his fate – none of us do – yet there he was and, if we follow this line of thought out, he should have taken care for those responsibilities that were placed upon him. Again, if we read the narrative this way, that he did not necessarily seek being “a courtier of Pharaoh and his chief steward” (verse one; this because such a rank would have been related to inherited nobility) is immaterial. As are also, I think, any excuses that by freeing himself from home issues he was able to focus more on Pharaoh’s (and by extension the state’s) needs; Potiphar should have been attending to each. Looking to ourselves the exact same result is only too easy to see – and equally simple to neglect or to ignore from a modern individualist perspective – wherever we find ourselves in life, we are tied in with others and situations for whom and to which, and asked for or not, we are responsible. Our reading of this verse and its context asserts that we cannot leave this to others without causing harm. Now, whether this tonic to twenty-first century “me, me, me-ism” was intended or not is irrelevant really; what is pertinent is that it is there.

Genesis 38

The setting and story of this chapter contain details of practices that strike us as belonging far in the past (although some modern communities do apparently still follow the levirate marriage procedures hinted at here), but the relations between the characters in this tale are modern enough; or, rather, they are timeless. Since the narrative is some few steps away from the Joseph saga proper it is reasonable to think that it was once a separate entity altogether, placed in the broader context of Genesis by a later editor/redactor. Nevertheless it does “fit”, and interestingly enough the final portion on the births of the twins Perez and Zerah recalls the description of how Jacob and Esau came into the world (see 25.24-26). This is but one more example of the wonderful ways in which Genesis loops back onto itself even as it unfolds forwards.

Tamar the wronged widow teaches Judah – and each of us readers – a lesson on pursuing the right without being unnecessarily confrontational or aggressive about it. To modern eyes we may well find fault with her methods; after all, as the story goes, Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her, perhaps with the intent of becoming pregnant (which she did, but surely she could not have taken such for granted) and thereby providing an heir for her first husband: Judah’s eldest son with his wife Shua, a son who passed away before he could have had his own child due apparently to moral failings (verse seven: “But Er, Judah’s first-born, was displeasing to the LORD, and the LORD took his life.”). This duty owed Tamar and the deceased Er, as the text relates (verse eight), should have been accomplished by Judah’s second son, who was culturally tasked with giving his brother’s wife a child to receive his brother’s estate. However he did not: in an underhanded way he avoided this by “spilling his seed” (and hence giving us the English term “onanism”, taken from the character’s name); he too died early as a result of this unrighteousness (verse ten: “What he [Onan] did was displeasing to the LORD, and He [God/“God”] took his life also.”). With two sons gone Judah refused to give Tamar his third boy – which would have been the socio-historically appropriate thing to do – and thus Tamar, when she perceived her chance, engaged in her subterfuge.

Again, by contemporary standards much of this could seem abhorrent; but we cannot simply judge these tales by the same measures we use for those fables currently being produced. Taking a step back, what can we discover? Tamar knows what is due her, she knows what should have occurred but what did not, she knows that none of this is her fault, and she knows that by doing nothing no good will come of it and no wrongs will be righted. She therefore uses the tools at her disposal – quite craftily, we might add – and brings to fruition the end results that should have been. She moreover accomplishes this at great risk to herself, demonstrating an admirable strength of will and evidently a solidly grounded sense of justice. All of this, we note, she also achieved peacefully by herself, seeking neither recourse to the authorities (no boost from the “men in charge” for her) nor to violent means. She was almost executed for her plan (verse twenty-four), but that too she foresaw and had an extraordinarily intelligent response prepared and ready to be deployed (verse twenty-five). To his credit Judah acknowledges and admits his wrong, and thereafter does not repeat it (verse twenty-six), but it is clear that Tamar is the hero of this vignette. We readers do not need to deny that there is objectionable material in Genesis, but if we allow ourselves to focus on what at first blush appears to be hopelessly dated and out of touch with our present time we will miss the remarkable lessons that this text, first penned millennia ago, has yet to impart.