Today we are going to start telling the story of Joseph, the favorite of the 12 sons of Jacob, which is the last section of the Book of Genesis. The main point of this whole story is that it explains how the Israelites got to Egypt. Because after Genesis comes the Book of Exodus, which is the story of slavery and Moses and coming back to the Promised Land — the story we tell over Passover. But how we got to Egypt in the first place — that’s today’s story.
The story begins with Joseph, 17 years old, the first-born son of Rachel and the favorite son of his father, Jacob. To indicate his favoritism, Jacob makes Joseph an ornamented tunic, or “coat of many colors”. Because of this favoritism, Joseph’s 11 brothers hate him. Out looking for his brothers one day, Joseph runs into a strange man (the Torah provides no information on him or what his deal is) who points him in the right direction, thus sealing his fate.
Joseph’s brothers at this moment are conspiring to kill him, such is their jealousy. But they eventually come up with a better idea than just digging a pit and leaving his body in it: they decide to sell him into slavery to a passing caravan, dip his coat in lamb’s blood, and bring it back to Jacob, who is thus convinced that Joseph has been killed.
Joseph arrives in Egypt and is sold to a high-ranking official of the Pharaoh, a man named Potiphar. But when Joseph refuses the advances of Potiphar’s wife, he is thrown in jail. There, he interprets the dreams of two officials — the cupbearer and the baker — whom Pharaoh has imprisoned; his interpretations come true, as the baker is executed but the cupbearer is restored to his position.
Late one night two years later, Pharaoh has two dreams. In the first, seven handsome cows come up out of the Nile River. But they are followed by seven ugly cows. In the second dream, seven ears of healthy grain grow on a single stalk. But after them come seven thin and scorched ears that eat up the healthy ones. When Pharaoh’s magicians can’t interpret these dreams, the cupbearer says, “you know, I knew this guy in prison…”
And so Pharaoh brings Joseph before him and asks for an interpretation. The seven healthy cows and the seven healthy grains are seven years of an abundance of food, says Joseph, and the seven ugly cows and grains are seven years of famine. Pharaoh is so impressed that he appoints Joseph to the second highest-ranking office in Egypt, putting him in charge of preparing for the years of famine.
Thanks to Joseph, Egypt weathers the seven years of famine with plenty of grain. But the rest of the world is struggling, and back in Canaan Jacob decides to send ten of his sons to Egypt to score some grain.
- Joseph: the favored son of Jacob, who gives Joseph a special coat. Through the actions of his brothers, he ends up in Egypt — first as a house slave, then in jail, then in Pharaoh’s court, as a famous interpreter of dreams.
- Joseph’s 11 brothers: Enraged by their father’s favoritism, they sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan, and use his coat to convince Jacob that his favorite son is dead.
- Pharaoh: ruler of Egypt and an insomniac, who has Jacob interpret his dreams.
- The line of patriarchs and matriarchs ends with Jacob, as Joseph is not considered a “founding father.” Nor does God make an appearance for the rest of Genesis. Joseph does not speak with God or receive the covenant, or have the kind of personal relationship enjoyed by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God instead remains in the background as an invisible hand nudging things here and there.
- Parental favoritism is bad. Jacob’s overt and excessive favoritism towards Joseph enrages his other children such that they take revenge on Joseph, tearing apart the family dynamic.
- Our human actions have unintended consequences, some good and others bad. The anonymous stranger who guided Joseph to his brothers may have thought he was being helpful. But his actions led to Joseph’s enslavement. But Joseph’s enslavement led to his triumph. If Joseph had never run into the stranger, he wouldn’t have found his brothers that day, and all of Jewish history that came after would not have happened.
- Jewish tradition teaches us that life is cyclical. We have good years and bad years. Sometimes we’re the favorite son, other times we’re thrown in a pit. Sometimes we achieve high status, other times we languish in prison. But if we, like Joseph, maintain our faith through the bad times, and keep it in reserve during the good, then no matter what befalls us we, too, can come to rule Egypt.
- Joseph’s identity no longer seems tied to that of his family. He was forcefully evicted from his home, has been embedded in Egyptian society for years now, married an Egyptian woman, has his own family, has achieved an ultra-high status in Egyptian society, and bestows names on his two sons that reflect this deep ambivalence. But he is about to face a reckoning that will test some of the most central values of Jewish tradition: forgiveness, destiny, the strength of family, and the call towards home.
- Joseph actually has two coats that work against him. The first “coat of many colors” angers his brothers and leads to his enslavement. The Torah later records that Potiphar’s wife grabbed another coat as he fled her seductions, using the garment as “evidence” that he tried to sleep with her.
- Joseph, at thirty years old, receives from Pharaoh an Egyptian wife named Asenath, with whom he will have two sons: Manasseh and Ephraim, who themselves will go on to lead two of the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
- First use of the term “Israelite” to refer to this family as a collective people. It’s first applied to a description of Jacob’s sons as the b’nei Yisrael — the “children of Israel” i.e. the children of Jacob (who is now called Israel). We don’t yet have the term “Jewish” or even “Judaism”, and although Abraham has been referred to as a Hebrew, that term is used only rarely.
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© Jason Harris 2017