Narcissistic personality disorder: a mental condition in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for excessive attention and admiration, troubled relationships, and a lack of empathy for others.1
The Mayo Clinic definition continues by noting that the cause of this mental disorder is still unknown, but it may be linked to genetics, neurobiology, and/or environment, specifically “mismatches in parent-child relationships with either excessive adoration or excessive criticism that is poorly attuned to the child’s experience”.
The Joseph story in Genesis/Bereishit offers an example of some level of narcissism due to a parent’s “excessive adoration”. But narcissism in childhood and even adolescence can be outgrown if the narcissist learns a measure of humility, empathy, and appreciation for others. Does this happen with Joseph?
Jacob has twelve sons, but he showers attention on Joseph, and gives him an outrageously expensive garment. Joseph wears it even when he is in the fields with his jealous older brothers. He is a tattletale, and reports to their father when his brothers share unsavory gossip. And he tells his brothers two dreams of his in which they all bow down to him. (See last week’s post, Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy.)
These behaviors indicate that Joseph is a narcissist at age seventeen. If he notices his older brothers’ jealousy and hatred, he does not mind. When Jacob asks him to travel for several days to check up on his older brothers and report back, Joseph sets off in his fancy garment and walks right up to them as if he were invulnerable. They seize him and strip him.
And they took him and they cast him into the bor … (Genesis/Bereishit 37:24)
bor (בּוֹר) = a cistern with cemented walls, a pit, a prison, a grave.
They sit and eat lunch while they discuss whether to kill him. Then a caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and they pull him naked out of the bor and sell him as a slave.2 In Egypt, the Pharaoh’s captain of executioners, Potifar, buys Joseph.
The shock of being instantly demoted from the expensively-dressed favorite son to the naked slave of an executioner might lead some adolescents to wonder if they did something wrong. Does Joseph take his first steps from narcissism to empathy, from thinking only of his own importance to considering the feelings of others?
At Potifar’s estate God blesses all of Joseph’s work with complete success, so his master makes him steward over his whole household.3 Then Joseph, who is beautiful as well as successful, encounters a potential moral dilemma.
After these things his master’s wife fixed her eyes on Joseph and said: “Lie with me.” And he refused. He said to his master’s wife: “With me here, my master does not know what is in the house; everything that he has, he has placed in my hands. He is no greater in this house than I, and he has not held back anything from me except you, since you are his wife. So would I do this great evil and be guilty before God?” (Genesis 39:7-8)
What is Joseph’s motivation for refusing to have sex with Potifar’s wife? Is his speech an example of narcissism, or empathy?
Narcissism: Narcissists treat higher-status people with respect, even as they dismiss everyone they consider inferior. If Joseph is a narcissist, he wants to keep his record clean with Potifar and God.
Empathy: People capable of empathy can feel gratitude and affection. If Joseph is not a narcissist, he is grateful to Potifar for giving him so much trust and authority, and does not want to hurt the man who is good to him.
When Joseph and Potifar’s wife are alone in the house she grabs him and he flees, leaving his garment in her hand. (See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked, which argues that Joseph learns humility.) She lies and says he attacked her, and Potifar throws him in prison. But God blesses Joseph’s work for the chief jailer with success, and he becomes the virtual head of the prison.4
God sent Joseph two significant dreams when he was seventeen, both indicating that someday his brothers would bow down to him. Now, when he is 28, the Pharaoh’s chief butler and chief baker wait in prison for their judgments, and each has a dream on the same night.
And they said to him: “A dream we dreamed and there is no interpreter.” And Joseph said to them: “Aren’t interpretations for God? Recount, please, to me.” (Genesis 40:8)
What does Joseph mean by that?
Narcissism: Joseph is either equating himself with God, or at least assuming that he has a God-given power to interpret dreams which will always work.
Empathy: Joseph implies that only God can interpret a dream. Awkwardness makes him sound peremptory rather than hopeful when he asks the prisoners to tell their dreams.
Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (“In the end”), the Pharaoh has two dreams that none of his soothsayers or wise men can interpret. The Pharaoh’s chief butler remembers Joseph’s correct interpretations of the two dreams in prison, and speaks up.
And Pharaoh sent and summoned Joseph, and they brought him quickly from the bor, and he shaved and he changed his clothing and he came to Pharaoh. (Genesis 41:14)
The first time Joseph is brought up from a bor is when his brothers sell him into slavery just to get rid of him. This time it is when a king needs his skill.
And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “A dream I dreamed, and no one could interpret it. And I have heard it said about you, that you [merely] hear a dream to interpret it.” And Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying: “Not I. God will answer for the welfare of Pharaoh.” (Genesis 41:15-16)
Narcissism: Joseph is cleverly pretending to be humble, while reminding the Pharaoh that he speaks for God.
Empathy: Joseph is deflecting admiration out of the humble knowledge that he is only a mouthpiece for God.
Joseph (correctly) interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as indicating God’s plan to give Egypt seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. Then he adds gratuitous advice.
And now, may Pharaoh look for a man who is discerning and wise, and may he set him over the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:33)
This man, Joseph continues, should oversee the collection and storage of grain during the years of plenty and its distribution during the years of famine. Why does Joseph suggest appointing one man, and imply that it should be a newcomer rather than the usual government administration?
Narcissism: Not only does he want the job himself, but he knows that only he could do it right.
Empathy: He has observed the Egyptian government bureaucracy and believes a strong hand is needed, but he expects someone else in Egypt may be a better candidate for the job.
The Pharaoh responds with a narcissist’s dream-come-true.
And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you. You yourself shall be over my house and on your command all my people shall be ordered. Only by the throne will I be greater than you.” And Pharaoh said to Joseph: “See, I place you over all the land of Egypt.” And Pharaoh removed his ring from upon his hand and he placed it on the hand of Joseph, and he dressed him in clothes of fine linen, and he put a gold collar on his neck. And he had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they called out before him “Avreikh!”; thus he appointed him over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:39-43)
Avreikh (אַבְרֵךְ) = either an unknown Egyptian word, or an invention meaning “I cause kneeling” in Hebrew.
Joseph says nothing.
Narcissism: He believes he is getting what he deserves.
Empathy: He recognizes that since he is a complete unknown in Egypt, a lot of pomp is required to convince the people that he now has authority.
After the seven years of plenty, famine spreads over not only Egypt, but all of Canaan.
And Joseph was the tyrant over the land; he was the grain-seller to all the people of the earth. And Joseph’s brothers came, and they bowed low to him, noses to the ground. (Genesis 42:6).
Apparently Joseph, who must have a large staff, prefers to personally greet foreigners who bow to him and ask for rations. He recognizes his ten older brothers, but they do not recognize him. Joseph was 17 when they sold him; now he is 38, wearing Egyptian garb, and accompanied by a translator. He accuses his brothers of being spies, causing them to babble defensively that they are ten of twelve brothers—“and hey! The youngest is with our father today, and one is no more.” (Genesis 42:13)
Joseph gives them a test, supposedly to prove they are not spies. He will keep one of the brothers hostage while the others go home with food; but they must return to Egypt with their youngest brother to prove their honesty.
The brothers then realize their own lack of empathy, twenty years before.
And they said, each to his brother: “Ah, we are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw his distress in pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen; therefore this distress came to us.” (Genesis 42:21)
Joseph hears this, although he is pretending he does not know Hebrew.
And he turned around from them, and he wept. Then he turned back to them and he spoke to them and he took from among them Shimon, and he fettered him before their eyes. (Genesis 42:24)
Narcissism: Joseph weeps for himself, remembering how he wept at age seventeen when he was in their power.
Empathy: Joseph weeps in sudden recognition that his brothers have feelings and know they are guilty.
Joseph continues to carry out his elaborate charade and test. (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.) Because their father, Jacob, is unwilling to let go of Rachel’s remaining son, the brothers wait until they have run out of food before returning to Egypt with Benjamin. Joseph has his steward bring them to his palace and return Shimon to them. Then Joseph comes and makes polite conversation, not neglecting to ask if their father is still alive. Finally he takes a good look at Benjamin, his only full brother, who was a small child when Joseph was sold into slavery. Now Benjamin is in his twenties.
And Joseph hurried out, because his rachamim was kindled toward his brother and he needed to weep; and he came to the inner room and he wept there. Then he washed his face and he went out and he pulled himself together and he said: “Serve food.” (Genesis 43:30-31)
rachamim (רַחֲמִים) = compassion, loving feelings, affection, mercy. (From rechem (רֶחֶם) = womb.)
Here the Torah finally states that Joseph feels compassion toward someone. He knows that his father, Jacob, would treat Rachel’s only remaining son with favoritism. Perhaps he assumes that Benjamin, too, has suffered at his half-brothers’ hands.
This is a form of empathy. Can Joseph take the next step, and become interested in Benjamin as an individual in his own right, or will Joseph always see his little brother as a reflection of himself? When his elaborate test is completed, will he be able to consider his older brothers’ feelings as well? Or will the story be all about him?
The answer is hidden in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash.
- https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662. Only extreme cases of narcissism are classified as personality disorders, but the clinical definition applies to all levels of narcissism.
- Genesis 37:25-28.
- Genesis 39:1-6.
- Why does God keep blessing Joseph with success? Maybe this is the Torah’s way of saying that Joseph is inherently intelligent and capable. (Some narcissists are, and their commitment to their own importance drives them to work hard.) On the other hand, maybe the anthropomorphic God-character portrayed in the book of Genesis is testing Joseph by repeatedly making him successful under difficult circumstances. Maybe God wants to find out whether his clan will be worthy of leading the Israelites in the future. Modern scholars date the original composition of the Joseph story to J and E sources recorded during 922 to 722 B.C.E., when the Israelites lived in two kingdoms, with the northern kingdom dominated by the Efraimites, descendants of Joseph, and the southern kingdom dominated by descendants of Judah. When the Assyrian Empire swallowed the northern kingdom in 722 B.C.E., it seemed like a vindication of the Judahite narrative.