Joseph and his Brothers

Rabbi Arthur Waskow 12/18/2003

Each year as the days darken into winter, the cycle of Torah readings returns to the story of Joseph and his brothers. It is almost as if the rhythm of the seasons were joining in the rhythm of the readings, to teach us that we are entering the dark side of the tradition.

And the story darkens us, each time we read it.

For the story of Joseph is one of ambition, envy, material power and slavery. Even darker: it is a story not only of slavery to human beings, but slavery to fate. It is a story of determinism, not the free will and vigorous choice that marked the lives of his forebears. Indeed, Joseph himself explains his suffering by saying it was all foreshaped by God, inevitable; and he explains the doubling of Pharaoh's dream/s by saying they were proof that the future was cast-iron.

And it is a tale of God's eclipse: In the whole long saga of Joseph's life — one-third of the Book of Genesis — he never has a clear and unambiguous conversation with God as did his forebears Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, and Jacob — even Tante Hagar and Cousin Ishmael.

Even in the dark of night, even in his dreams, Joseph cannot see God, cannot wrestle as did Jacob so as to turn fate into freedom. His dreams are miniature versions of his life, tales of the inexorable, "God" appearing only in the dark disguise of a path that is utterly determined.

Darkness reigns in the world when we read this story, and in the soul of the hero of the story.

Joseph lives his life in a spiral of ambition. On two dimensions of the spiral, he moves forward to rule over those who had been his equals, and falls back when his equals take revenge. On the third dimension of the spiral, he is always moving "upward" in the size and reach of the community he seeks to dominate.

He starts out small, in his own family. His very childhood seems to be a conspiracy between himself and his father to see him as his brothers' overseer, arnd even his brothers join in defining him that way. First Joseph reports to his father on his brothers' behavior. When he has some ambiguous dreams of his own power, the only dreams of his own that the Bible describes, his brothers and his father hasten to interpret the dreams as visions of his power over them. They teach him to think of himself as a boss or overseer. Then his father confirms the teaching by sending him to check on the brothers and report back. That is when they rebel, throw him in the pit, and sell him into slavery. Some overseer!

But the training as a boss continues. On the second curve of the spiral, Joseph starts as a slave in the household of Potiphar in Egypt. But Potiphar soon appoints Joseph to oversee the house, subservient still to Potiphar but in charge of everyone else. Just as Joseph found favor in his master's eyes, his master's wife cast her eyes upon him.

Did she try to seduce him? It is easy to imagine that this was only a trick, never a real seduction: a desperate, furious effort to overthrow an upstart slave. If he succumbed — into prison! If he refused — into prison! It ended as it was supposed to, with Joseph in prison. Just as the brothers had sold him into slavery, so she sold him with lies into prison.

And there, for a third time, Joseph becomes an overseer: the prison's warden puts him in charge of all the other prisoners. The prison prospers so much so that it becomes the preferred place to imprison Pharaoh's own high officers. Here Joseph interprets their dreams, but he is so unloved that even the butler whose return to the palace he predicts does not lift a finger to get him out of prison.

Finally Joseph gets his chance from Pharaoh himself, the father of his country. And Joseph, after years in prison, years of suffering and fury, does not hesitate: He has been an outcast and a foreigner long enough. He wants to be a powerful Egyptian. So he and Pharaoh agree to make him Supreme Overseer over all Egypt, Pharaoh's chief servant who will turn all of Egypt's yeoman farmers into cringing servants of Pharaoh. Indeed, Joseph volunteers to reduce all Egypt into one great prison-house, and Pharaoh triumphantly accepts.

What is the result? The people first harvest an abundance of grain, which they sell to Pharaoh's store-system. But when famine comes, they must year by year give Pharaoh their money, their cattle, and finally their land itself, in order to get bread to eat and seed to sow the land with. Thus step by step, Joseph reduces them to sharecroppers and all the land to Pharaoh's property. The role he had been practicing and learning all his life is fulfilled.

This time Joseph does the job so well that there is no one able to rebel and cast him into another slavery. Or so it seems until long after his death. When we turn to the early pages of Exodus and realize that the Jews have been flung into slavery by a Pharaoh who did not cherish Joseph, we may wonder whether the spiral has spun once again. Does the whole people suffer for Joseph's ambition?

Could there have been another path to take? Was it all truly inevitable?

Next week we will try to see the light we kindle in the darkness, try to look at possible alternatives.

May these days open up new light for all of us in our own darkened life-paths, new hope for all of us in times of despair, new possibilities when we feel the future closing tight upon us.

For more reinterpretations of Torah, see my book GODWRESTLING — ROUND 2.

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