osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

Yosef and the Big Charade

Last day of vacation before going back to work. So I will squeeze in my big thing from Mikeitz. Spoiler warning for next week.

So this year, I came to a very different conclusion about what is going on with Yosef and the story. For one thing, like everyone else, I am bothered by the "why didn't Yosef write home." And the behavior with his brothers seems at best odd, at worst cruel. The traditionalists answer this later by saying that Yosef needed to test his brothers to see if they had changed. But why? Modernists and revisionists rather like the idea that Yosef was a vindictive a-hole. But this later doesn't square very well with the text. On several occassions, before Yosef breaks down before Yehudah's display of self-sacrifice, Yosef becomes emotionally distraught over his actions. He does not appear to enjoy what he is doing, or even moralize over it, in the manner one would expect if there were -- consciously or uncosciously -- about revenge.

I'll start with the first question about writing home, which is, to some degree, prelude to the second. Why didn't Yosef write home? First, we must keep in mind that sending a message home was not a matter of running to the post office and getting a stamp. To send a message to Yisroel, who is a nomad capable of changing his location at any time, and for all Yosef knows, has moved again, Yosef would need to hire someone to take a message a significant distance and then scout and investigate where Yaakov had gone. Nor can I imagine that during the period of Yosef's slavery would Yosef's master Potiphar have been happy with this. "Hey boss, mind if I write home to my clan in the land of the Hebrews to tell them that you are holding me a slave?"

But what of the seven years he served as Prime Minister during the "fat years?" Certainly he would have had the resources and freedom to send a message to his father.

There can be many explanations. Perhaps he feared that revealing his relationship to a foreign clan of nomads would harm is position. But there is no indicator of any such concern later, when Yosef does reveal his relationship. To the contrary, he confidently tells his family that Paro will provide them with land, and he correctly anticipates that Paro will be pleased to see them.

I suggest a different explanation. Yosef saw in his adventures the Hand of God. He remembered the dreams, and he feared to take action that was not obviously consonant with the dreams. Had he sent a message to his family explaining his position and inviting them to join him, what would the reaction of his brothers be? Would they have come down to Egypt willingly? Or would their jealousy have kept them away. Also, Yosef knew that God planned a sequence of events that would bring first his brothers to bow to him, and then his entire family. LAcking instruction, trusting in God, Yosef chooses to wait and apply hiself to the task God has clearly set him -- preserving Egypt and the rest of the world from the oncomin famine.

This helps to explain the oddity of language and what follows when Yosef again sees his brothers. The text here is interesting. Gen 22:1-9. We are told that Yaakov sends his sons down to Egypt to get grain, except Binyamin. So that, in v. 6, when "the brothers of Yosef came and bowed before him, their faces in the earth" there are only 10 brothers, not 11. Yosef recognizes them, but greets them roughly, asking as to the land of their originz and their purpose. v.7 But why? Clearly he knows who they are. Perhaps he is ascertaining whether they have recognized him, since the next pasuk reiterates "while yosef recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him."

V. 9 then contains the oddest statement of cause and effect: "And Yosef remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them, and he sad to them 'you are spies' etc." If Yosef was concerned about whether the brothers had done t'shuvah, or if he were seeking revenge, why does he remeber the dreams? Should he no remember the pit, and what they did to him? Yes, at one level the dreams were responsible. So perhaps he is concerned how they will react when they see the dreams come true? But then we should expect the text to at least reference the behavior of the brothers, such as "and he remembered the dreams and what they had done." But there is no reference to the behavior or reaction of the brothers. Only the dreams are referenced.

In addition, it is useful to recall that the word "zachor," remember, does not necessarily mean to recall from a state of forgetfullness, but to take action or take note of something at the appropriate time. For example, "and the Lord remembered Rachel, and the Lord hearkend to her and opened her womb." (30:22) This does not mean God went "D'oh! I forgot about Rachel being childless. Silly me." It means thatthe appropriate time had come for God to act and answer Rachel's prayers. Similarly, when Yosef asks the Butler "if I am remebered to you kindly, remember me to Paro" he is not asking for casual reminiscence, but for the Butler to act on Yosef's behalf and advocate to Paro for his release.

So when Yosef "remembers the dreams," this does not necessarily mean Yosef is saying "oh yeah, right, 20 years ago I had these cool dreams." Rather, he is taking action based upon his dreams. And, checking reality against the dreams, something is very wrong. Because their are only ten brothers here, not eleven.

Yosef is now faced with a conundrum. He can let the brothers buy food and leave, trusting that Hashem will somehow make everything come out as it should. Or he can take action to make the dream come true and get all 11 brothers together down in Egypt to bow to him. Given their possible Jelous attitudes, Yosef logically fears that merely revealing himself will not prompt this action. Even the brothers are glad to see him (something about which he has no evidence), there is no certainty that they will bow before him as required.

Yosef therefore hacthes a plan designed to bring the brothers down together and fulfill the dream. He trumps up an accusation against the brothers and forces them to acknolwedge the existence of their brother (this combines the version given in 41:10-11, where the brothers appear to volunteer this information on their own, with the retelling by the brothers to Yisroel in 43:7, where they state that "the man asked us many questions about our origins and birthplace and was our father alive and did we have another brother.") (Indeed, as we shall see in the course of the tale, the narration is frequently compressed, with details omitted until necessary. Unlike the story of Avraham's servant sent to find Yitzchak a bride, the text here does not bother with repeating anything and fills in blanks only where necessary.)

Initially, Yosef tries to keep all but one of the brothers and send one of them back for Binyamin. (v.16). Apparently the brothwers refuse, for Yosef puts them under house arrest together for 3 days. Only when it has become clear that the brothers will not send back one of their number does Yosef offer a different deal -- he will keep one of them in custody while sending back the rest.

At the same time, Yosef is also attempting to persuade the brothers. Initially, he pretends to be the pur Egyptian potentate, swearing "By the Life of Paro." But, on the third day, when Yosef switches strategies, he tells the brothers "I fear God" and therefore they can count on him to keep his word. (As we know from the story of Avraham and Malkitzedek, there were folk in the World at that time who feared God, even among the worshippers of idols (such as Avimelech). So the brothers would not find it unbelievable that this Egyptian idolater might also fear the true God). He also reminds them that someone has to take back food or the rest of the clan will starve. The brothers therefore assent. (v.20) At the same time, however, the brothers appear to have believed that whoever would be left behind would suffer, since they say "But we are all guilty on account of our brother, that we saw his suffering and were unmoved."
Reuven takes this opportunity to demonstrate his total unfitness to rule by reminding them that he, Reuven, had told them it was a bad idea and tried to stop them, but noooooo, they wouldn't listen. (However just Reuven's complaint that he is suffering on account of his brothers' actions not his own, it ill behoves a leader to make such comments in times of peril. However understandable as a human reaction, what makes a leader is setting aside one's personal wants and desires for the benefit of those you lead.)

Had Yosef only cared about whether the brothers had done teshuvah, he would certainly be satisfied. Indeed, he is so emotionally moved that he secretly weeps (v.24). Nevertheless, he takes steps to further deepen the mystery and persuade the brothers of the Divine hand in all this. Yosef orders the money returned to their sacks, a move Yosef will later attribute (through his servant) to the hand of God. This also sets the brothers up for what is to come. Knowing that they have been victims of this ploy, they will not doubt for an instant that Benjamin is likewise the victim of either human malice or Divine retribution.

On the brother's return, Yosef is careful to stage manage everything to make the dream come true. Although the brothers arrive "before Yosef," (43:15) Yosef does not appear to greet them personally. Instead, he instructs his servant to take them home, and restores Shimon to them before his entrance. This way, all 11 are together when Yosef enters, and all bow to meet him in accordance with the first dream. (v.26)

Of course, Yosef still has to arrange for the second dream. Hence his ruse with Binyamin. I suggest (although there is no evidence for this in the text beyond the circumstantial case) that Yosef intended to keep Binyamin as a means to bring down Yaakov. Given Yaakov's affection for Binyamin, as attested to by the brothers, Yaakov would come down to free Binyamin if Yosef had kept him.

Thus, Yosef leaves nothing to chance. He arranges the seating and the meal. He instructs the servant on what to say when they apprehend the brothers. (44:4). But Yehudah unexpectedly throws a wrench into everything, thus proving his own fitness to lead.

Throughout this second visit to Egypt, the brothers are treated as an undifferentiated collective. In verse 44:14, however, we are told that "Yehuda and his brothers came to the house of Yosef." Why is Yehudah suddenly singled out? If any brother should be singled out, it should be Binyamin.

I suggest that Yehudah made a decision on the way back to Yosef's house that set him apart from his brothers. Yehudah decided that, no matter what, Binyamin was going home, even if that meant that he, Yehudah, stayed behind. Yehudah had accepted responsibility for Binyamin. No circumstance, even one completely beyond Yehuda's control, even one for which Yehudah bore no blame, would allow Yehudah to shirk this responsibility. In this manner, Yehudah stands in marked contrast with Reuvain, whose response in the time of crisis was to remind everyone that it was not his fault and that he was not responsible.

Yehudah's decision throws Yosef out of kilter. For this reason, he "can no longer contain himself regarding all who stood efore him" (45:1) and drops his pretense. Perhaps Yehuda's plea persuades Yosef that he can trust the brothers to conform to the dream, or perhaps his feelings for his father cause him to burst forth in a manner that imposing on his brothers did not. But the text makes clear that Yosef's actions are spontaneous and contrary to his original plan, in marked distinction to the careful planning and stage acting that marked his actions from the time he saw his brothers.

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded