Wibble Wednesday: Edmond Dantès goes to Egypt (Genesis 41:1–44:17)

This week I’ll be discussing פָּרָשַׁת מקץ (“Later” portion) which is a nice long, uninterrupted bit of cohesive narrative, stopping just short of the climax.

The quick snarky summary: Joseph, whose hardships have not exactly been onerous, continues to suffer the Least Unpleasant Slavery ever, where, after a short display of acumen, he becomes the second most powerful person in one of the Near East’s major empires. His family continues to be a bunch of well-off but not extraordinary nomadic herders, so they’re really no match for him when he decides it’s time to wreak a bit of vengeance. Jacob’s other sons continue to display the intelligence and good judgment that previously resulted in acts of genocide and unplanned pregnancies.


Most of the previous bits of the text have been vignettes of a sort, with a couple of verses dedicated to one incident, and then some chronology, and then a completely unrelated incident, and so forth. Jacob’s life has a certain amount of structure imposed on it by the rivalry with Esau, but ultimately, most of Genesis consists of disjointed sections. This portion is rather unique in that it’s really telling a single story with a single narrative focus, which is long enough that it spilled over into the previous and following parshot. Thus far we’ve seen sibling rivalry, envious harm, and the sufferings of the previously envied party. Not that Joseph really suffers much, mind: as seen last week, pretty much everything that happens to him after his original betrayal is actually pretty good, in that he gets promoted to a managerial position everywhere he goes. But despite failing to really create any impression that Joseph has suffered in his servitude, the basic framework of the story demands a revenge narrative here. Oddly, it’s a pretty straightforward example of the form, and doesn’t give me grist for rumination the way the more diffuse parshot have. But, anyways, we can get down to the story, analyzed section-by-section.

Pharoah has two dreams, which are awfully similar in their particulars. We’re later told that these two dreams have the same meaning, and that the doubling is just for intensification purposes, but since I invariably wonder about the editorial backgrounds of these stories, I have a sneaking suspicion the doubling might be the result of clumsy splicing, the same way the two creation stories were. Anyways, none of the wise men of Egypt can interpret these dreams, which seems kind of weird, since I’d think any halfway decent fabulist could come up with a symbolic meaning for them: possibly even the right meaning, particularly for the second one., and nobody would be able to say they were wrong until it didn’t come to pass. Narrative flaws are usually smoothed over by divine power, so we might be able to imagine that God frustrated their speech and made them really unconvincing, and move on. This incident triggers the cupbearer’s spotty memory, and it occurs to him to tell Pharoah about the prisoner he’d forgotten about, which is actually a pretty believable foible of human nature and memory, that he’d forget his promise until his memory is jogged.

Joseph’s interpretation is pretty starkly given, predicting seven years of plenty to be followed by seven years of famine, which seems like a pretty straightforward interpretation, as I mentioned earlier. But Joseph’s nicely modest about it, and in verse 41:16 gives all the credit to God. He also gives unsolicited advice, which is also rather commonplace: namely, that given this foreknowledge, they ought to warehouse grain. Pharoah’s evidently easily impressed,b ecause these fairly simplistic intepretations and resource-management advice are enough for Pharoah to proclaim Joseph the wisest man in the land and promote him to chief administrator. I’m a little less impressed myself, and I’d think there’d be some sort of probation period given that there’s as of yet no reason to believe Joseph is actually right. Like, maybe he could make Joseph a granary administrator first, and if things work out the way he said, and Joseph does a good job, maybe then raise him to be the Minister of Agriculture? But I guess this sort of bold, decisive character-judgment and decision is why he’s Pharoah and I’m not.

So raised to the pinnacle of the social ladder, with fancy clothes and chariots and people to yell “Abrek” (either a variant on the Semitic ברך, meaning “blessing”, or an obscure Egyptian word), all Joseph needs to match the achievement of his father and great-grandfather (no, I’m not even going to compare him to his grandfather) is a family and a name change, and he gets both. Pharoah gives him a new name, although other than mentioning his receipt of the name, it’s never mentioned again. More significantly in the long term, he marries the daughter of Potiphera and has two sons. I am pretty certain that, despite the similar names, this is a different guy than the Potiphar who bought him, since this one’s a priest. His

Chapter 41 ends with the report that the famine is worldwide, which makes God seem a bit capricious. Seven years of abundance followed by seven years of shortage is OK, in a great-balance kind of way, but giving one particular land seven years of abundance and then delivering the famine on everyone seems a rather cruel move. One might argue God engineered this to bring the sons of Israel in supplication to Joseph, but that just raises another question for me: why would God want to do such a thing? I can understand making Joseph successful, since God’s a big fan of the House of Israel, but dragging his brothers down seems kind of unnecessary.

But Chapter 42 gets us into the actual fateful meeting between Joseph and his brothers, with the neat reversal of their positions of power from before. There are basically three ways a meeting like this can go. There’s the forgiveness route, where the once-wronged party reveals himself to his persecutors and treats them well, and all are reconciled. There’s the revenge route, where he uses his newfound power and anonymity to destroy his tormentors. And there’s the way this story goes, where he just fucks with their heads for a while. We’re told Benjamin doesn’t go with, which is significant, although why Jacob kept him at home isn’t clear. Maybe he was regarded as too young to travel? But we’re not told he was excluded from previous groups of the brothers, so he was presumably herding sheep with them back when they sold Joseph, which was at least nine years previous. One view is that the sons of Rachael, like Rachael herself, were particularly cherished, which explains how Joseph grew up spoiled and Benjamin is being shielded. Jacob’s pretty canny though, to realize just how pear-shaped this mission’s going to go. The brothers are taken into custody pretty much immediately, and told to send only one of their number back to bring out their brother to prove that they’re not spies (exactly how this will prove they’re not spies isn’t clear). This might be another editorial wart, because Joseph backs down from this extreme position and reverses the terms, with one brother staying in prison while the other ten go home. Here the brothers immediately surmise that all this is befalling them because of what they did to Joseph, which is of course correct, but it’s kind of surprising that’s what their mind leaps to. I mean, yes, it’s a pretty memorably nefarious act, to sell your brother, but were I them, I might consider, at least briefly, the possibility that I was being punished for massacring the unarmed citizens of a city instead, or maybe, in the case of Reuben and Judah, for sleeping with the wrong people. Apropos of Reuben, he’s quick to remind the others that he wasn’t onboard with the whole Joseph-selling plan. I imagine that the response was “Fine, we’re being punished for selling our brother, and you’re being punished for fucking your stepmom. Now shut up and help load the grain,” but that they cut it from the text at some point. So Simeon (why Simeon? why not?) gets left behind, the others start for home, and just to confuse them, Joseph returns their money secretly, and succeeds in confusing the hell out of them.

Unsurprisingly, none of this makes Jacob happy, and the interaction between Jacob and Reuben in response to these unpleasant revelations borders on the comical: Jacob whines about how he’s always pursued by hardship, and Reuben offers to let Jacob kill his own two sons if the mission fails. Unsurprisingly, Jacob is not actually tempted by this generous offer to let him murder his own grandsons, although we are not fortunate enough to be graced with his reply to this particular grotesque proposition. But in the end Jacob doesn’t really have a choice, since they’ll starve otherwise. Bargaining his way to acceptance of this fact, he goes over the facts of the story with Judah, and either Judah has a poor memory, or is lying, or is the victim of editorial scissors, because the conversation he recounts in 43:7 is completely different than the one which actually took place, in which the brothers freely volunteered their familial relationship. Once they do set out, they bring along the agricultural products of Canaan as a gift to Joseph. I guess the famine can’t be that harsh, if they have pistachios and almonds and suchlike. Maybe only the grain got blighted.

On their return, Joseph’s hot-and-cold tactics decide it’s time to play good cop and he plies them with hospitality and food, and is extremely polite and kind to Benjamin. The exact nature of the Joseph-Benjamin dynamic I can’t quite figure out: is he extremely fond of his brother, and demanded his presence just to see him again, or was Benjamin among those who sold him, and thus a target for his head-games? Joseph’s behavior is so inconsistent here it’s hard to get a handle on, but I don’t think the inconsistency is a narrative failing, necessarily: it seems like an effective way to keep his brothers perpetually off-balance, never knowing if they’re going to encounter rage-vizier who throws them all in jail or courtesy-vizier who seats them all at his table and inquires after their father’s health.

Speaking of keeping them off balance, the next morning Joseph is back in punishing mode, and frames Benjamin for theft. This act lends some credence to the stance that Joseph is punishing Benjamin just as he is the other ten brothers, since he’s singling him out for persecution here. One thing that strikes me as odd is how easily the brothers cave on the issues of guilt and punishment. In 44:9 they actually suggest a punishment more severe than that Joseph intended, and in 44:16 they basically admit guilt, which seems a bit strange, given that they are in fact not guilty.

Unfortunately, this parsha stops a bit short of the climax of this tale, but all in all this was a pleasing read, with narrative cohesion and fairly good characterization, which is more than could be said for many previous sections. We’ll finally get to the thrilling conclusion next week, with one last bout of accusations and threats.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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