Wibble Wednesday: Happy endings (Genesis 44:18–47:27)

The penultimate section of Genesis is פָּרָשַׁת ויגש (“Then he approached” portion), drawing the most dramatic section of this story to a close. It goes without saying I’ve liked the Joseph arc, which drew to its climax last week, and from here on most of the story is cleanup.

The quick snarky summary: Joseph threatens revenge on the one brother who maybe had nothing to do with his troubles in the first place. Things get heated and shouty, and Joseph finally decides he’s had his fun and brings his brothers in on the joke. We are told in far greater detail than is really necessary about the logistics of moving a household from Canaan to Egypt.


Most of the legitimate drama of the Joseph arc appeared last week, and we had the setup for the big showdown. It’s been established that Jacob really, really didn’t want to let Benjamin go to Egypt, and now Joseph has done exactly what Jacob feared and turned his ire on Benjamin. As discussed last week, it’s not clear why Benjamin’s being targeted here: as Joseph’s junior, it’s not entirely clear that he was in on the whole sibling-rivalry plot, and as Joseph’s brother (rather than half-brother) he’s presumably more well-liked by Joseph than the others (which isn’t pure speculation: he shows emotion and favoritism respectively in 43:30 and 43:34). The logical interpretation is that, knowing the importance Jacob placed on bringing him home, Joseph is using Benjamin to twist the knife in the brothers’ wound. Whatever the cause, we start this section with Judah arguing rather strenuously against their treatment. Here, as in Chapter 43, he gives a version of their first meeting which is entirely different from that which actually occurred in Chapter 42. Here, as in his last recounting of the story, Judah blames Joseph for interrogating them closely about their family, which never happened in the original narration; note that in 42:13 the brothers freely volunteer their origins, their familial relationship, and the existence of Benjamin. So Judah’s off to a pretty rocky start: he is inaccruately recounting an encounter to someone who was there and knows he’s lying. Lying to Jacob might’ve had some blame-deflecting properties, but lying to Joseph here is just dumb. Particularly since he then goes on to give a nicely unembellished version of how things transpired back at home, where he might’ve actually been able to get away with enhancing the truth if he hadn’t already raised Joe’s suspicion.

Incidentally, the latter half of Chapter 44 presents a rather striking example of a phenomenon we’ve already seen several times, that of the doubled text. Several times now, we’ve seen places where a specific bit of narrative is recounted twice in close succession. Some times the two tellings differ only in style (Eliezer’s meeting with Rachel vs. his recounting of the same to Bethuel and Laban, Judah’s conversation with Jacob vs. his retelling to Joseph), while in others there are significant differences in content (the two creations, the brother’s meeting with Joseph vs. Judah’s recap thereof). These doubled texts, as I understand it, are a large part of the multiple-author approaches to the Bible, suggesting that the entire story is drawn from some lost foundational text, and that at some point two different narrations of the same legends were spliced together. As always, I’m a bit surprised by just how evident the splices end up being, and how shoddy the editorial work is (in light of the aggressive agenda of the Deuteronomical revisionists, who don’t seem to have been philosophically opposed to cutting and pasting vigorously to make the text more to their liking). Other than the phenomenon of doubling (and Judah’s possibly editorially-induced mendacity), there’s not too much new information in this section: Judah tells of their father’s grief, which seems like it’d be a more effective ploy to play on Joseph’s sympathies than the attempt to shame him is.

Whether Judah is actually convincing, or whether Joseph’s bored with this game, or whether he figures he’s screwed them around enough, we next get a well-executed resolution. Joseph sends out the attendants, which is a nice way of shielding both himself and his brothers from embarrassment, and then cries so loudly that there was no point in the seclusion, and there is forgiveness and hugs and kisses all around. Benjamin is once again emphasized and singled out for attention, affection, and even lavish gifts, which seems like a good way to make the whole ugly story of resentment start all over again with a different son of Rachel as the protagonist. The story devolves quickly into logistics, which are as dry as the previous section was emotional: Joseph discusses particularly the property and food-provision arrangements he can make for their family.

Frankly, the only interesting bit of the logistical arrangements is that Joseph’s generosity is matched by Pharoah, who is for some reason extremely happy about the prospect of supporting his vizier’s family. Pharoah has been conspicuously absent from the story since raising Joseph to power, and it doesn’t seem like he should know, or care, about Joseph’s family or his relationship therewith. Definitely when Joseph took it upon himself to interrogate a bunch of Canaanite grain purchasers, Pharoah wasn’t involved in any way. I’m not seeking a full explanation of the bornze age Egyptian administrative apparatus, but Pharoah’s absence from the story up to this point has been kind of odd. Presumably he was inserted here so that his generosity could be contrasted with future cruelty, but I might be getting a bit ahead of myself with that bit.

Jacob gets another dream vision at this point, and it’s basically a rehash of promises the patriarchs have been getting since Abraham, but we can read it as divine approval for travel to Egypt. We also have the first of many censuses of the house of Israel here. The nation at this point is small enough to be listed in its entirety, so the census is actually a list naming all members of the group. The numbers are a bit wonky, however: Leah’s offspring number 34, two of whom are dead, but the count’s given as 33 in Genesis 46:15. The number “66” given in 46:26 as the list of all offspring coming to Egypt works, if we use the number 34 34 offspring of Leah, subtract Joseph, who was already there, and his sons, who were born there, and Er and Onan, who are dead. Adding back in Jacob, Joseph, Ephraim, and Manasseh, we get up to the magic number 70, but this is kind of cheating, since in no real sense did Ephraim and Manasseh “come to” Egypt.

Interestingly, there are only two women in the census. One is Dinah, whose story has been told. The other is Serach the daughter of Asher, who appears nowhere except in censuses, but who captured the imagination of the rabbis, who created some fanfic for her. Notably, that she was a skilled harpist, and wove into her song the information that Joseph was alive and revived Jacob thereby, and for this great deed was taken to Eden alive. Apropos, a pop quiz: which seven Biblical figures dis the Sages claim entered Eden alive? You got Serach bat Asher for free. If you know your Bible-text pretty well, you might get two more: Enoch (the great-grandfather of Noah; see Genesis 5:24), and Elijah (see II Kings 2:11). The other four are pretty much impossible unless you’re familiar with the specific lore surrounding them: Eliezer (the servant of Abraham), the daughter of Pharoah, Ebedmelech the Cushite (a minor character in Jeremiah 38), and King Hiram of Tyre (who wasn’t even Jewish, so I have no idea why he’s in this list).

After the census, logistics continue. We learn that the Egyptians hate shepherds, which seems an ahistorical detail: maybe the Egyptians disliked nomadic Semites, most of whom were also shepherds. I’m pretty sure the Egyptians raised sheep themselves. The upshot of all this is that the Israelistes are sequestered off in a corner of the country, Goshen, which the narrator, Joseph, and Pharoah all report to be rich land, so the Israelites seem to actually derive profit from prejudice here, if I understand right. And they’re not done profiting from it, because 47:13–26 has an ugly little incident which could be twisted awfully easily to fit comparatively modern anti-Jewish stereotypes: Joseph is a canny dealer who sells grain at inflated prices, preying on the Egyptians and repossessing their livestock and land. From a liberal modern standpoint this seems more than a little unconscionable: the produce of the farmers back in 41:47–49 was collected at what was somewhere between a 20% and 100% tax rate (depending how a word in 41:34 is translated) for redistribution at a profit to outsiders and for the welfare of the Egyptian people. Selling it back to the same farmers who originally provided it seems a rather dirty trick, but that’s unlimited monarchy for you. From a verisimilitude standpoint, this story’s awfully suspect not because I can’t believe in a king being horrible to his subjects and those subjects taking it, but because I’d think national allegiance would play a larger part. Joseph’s not an Egyptian, which no matter how useful he is makes him in some respect antagonistic to the Egyptian state in crisis. I’m not seeing Pharoah sitting idly by while a foreigner systematically bleeds his nation.

But, hey, in a few chapters, he’ll bleed ’em back.

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

One Response to Wibble Wednesday: Happy endings (Genesis 44:18–47:27)

  1. treegestalt says:

    I can’t believe Pharoah needed a foreigner to teach him how to bleed ‘his’ people. If one is born and raised as a ‘god’, solidarity isn’t the first virtue to come to mind…

    There’s a tendency, even reading in English, not to notice ‘double text’ in a story one is too thoroughly familiar with. With everything in Hebrew, serving as a sort of musical ‘score’ for recitation, a repeat or two can slip by easily: “Haven’t I heard this part before?” — “Yes, we chanted it last year around this time.”

    By the time a scholar starts ‘studying’ the text, he’s looking at it from a different standpoint than an editor’s. “Why did Hashem put this repeat in here?”

    Meanwhile, there’s this other Bible study blog (used to be a group blog, and might, yet again) — which may or may not suit you, but great if it does! http://lightthruthepages.wordpress.com

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