Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Blame

When something bad happens that is neither an accident nor an act of God, who gets the blame?

Blame a beast

Joseph’s ten older brothers cannot stand him anymore in last week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40-23). Their father, Jacob, dotes on him, and he lords it over his brothers. When they are out with the flocks Joseph spies on them, and brings back bad reports to Jacob.

Jacob Weeps over Joseph’s Tunic,
by Marc Chagall

Once the brothers say they are taking the flocks to Shekhem, but they make an additional day’s journey to Dotan. There they look back down the road, and see their seventeen-year-old brother. Is there no escape?

Several of the older brothers decide to kill him then and there, throw his body into a pit, and tell Jacob a wild beast ate him. But Reuben tells them to throw him in alive, so his blood will not be on their hands. When Joseph prances up tot them, they grab him, strip off his fancy clothing, and heave him into the nearest dry cistern. Then while they are eating lunch, they see a caravan heading for Egypt, and Judah convinces his brothers to sell Joseph to the traders as a slave. That way they get rid of him and make some money, too. Before they go home, the brothers dip Joseph’s fancy clothing in goat’s blood. The ploy works; when they show the bloody garment to Jacob, he believes Joseph was killed by a wild animal. So far, they have escaped the blame.

Blame the victim

Meanwhile a high-ranking Egyptian named Potifar buys Joseph. Potifar notices that everything his new slave undertakes succeeds, so he advances Joseph to the position of steward of his household. Then Potifar’s wife tries to seduce the handsome young slave, but he refuses her on ethical grounds. When she grabs at his clothing he runs away, leaving his garment in her hand.1

When Potifar comes home, his wife shows him Joseph’s garment and says:

“He came to me, the Hebrew slave that you brought to us, to fool around with me! But it was like I cried out at the top of my voice, and he left his garment beside me and he fled outside.” (Genesis 39:17-18)

Blaming the victim works; Potifar sends Joseph to prison.

Blaming the guilty for a different crime

Joseph’s run of success continues in prison, and thanks to God he correctly interprets the dreams of two men in custody awaiting their sentences. One is executed and the other is exonerated, exactly as Joseph predicted. Two years later, in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17), Pharaoh has two troubling dreams that none of his advisors can interpret. The exonerated man remembers Joseph, and he is brought up from prison.

Joseph tells Pharaoh that both of his dreams mean the same thing: seven years of plenty will be followed by seven years of famine. Then he gives Pharaoh some advice about stockpiling grain during the years of plenty. Pharaoh is so impressed with the young man that he elevates Joseph to his second-in-command. Joseph becomes a successful minister of agriculture.

After seven years, the famine comes not only to Egypt but to the whole known world. Jacob sends his ten older sons from Canaan down to Egypt to buy grain.

And Joseph saw his brothers, and he recognized them, but he acted like a stranger to them and he spoke to them harshly … (Genesis 42:7)

They do not recognize Joseph, who was seventeen when they sold him. Now he is thirty-seven, he has an Egyptian name, he shaves and dresses like an Egyptian, and he speaks through an interpreter.2 Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. They blurt out the first reason that comes into their heads why they are innocent of this charge.

Joseph’s Brothers Bow to the Governor, by Owen Jones, 1865

And they said: “Your servants are twelve brothers! We are sons of one man in the land of Canaan. But hey, the youngest is with his father now, and the one is not.” (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this scant information as a means to get the youngest of the twelve brothers down to Egypt—Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother as well as the only innocent one. He puts his ten older brothers in the guardhouse for three days, then announces that one of them must stay behind under guard while the rest go home with the grain.

“But the youngest brother you must bring to me, so your words will be verified and you will not die.”And they said, one to another: “Ah! We are asheimim on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he was pleading to us for pity, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress has come to us.”  (Genesis 42:20-21)

asheimim (אֲשֵׁמִים) = bearing the consequences of guilt. (A form of the verb asham, אָשָׁם = became guilty.)

The brothers finally blame themselves for doing something wrong. And they consider their punishment under a false charge their just deserts—although Reuben then tries to exonerate himself by saying:

“Didn’t I say to you: Don’t techetu about the boy? But you did not pay attention. And now here is the reckoning for his blood!” (Genesis 42:22)

techetu (תֶּחֶטְאוּ) = you be blameworthy, be at fault. (A form of the verb chata, חָטַא = was blameworthy, was at fault, missed the mark.)

Blame others for your own misery

Joseph keeps Simeon under guard while the others take grain home to their extended family. When they tell their father what happened, he complains:

“I am the one you bereave of children! Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and [now] you would take Benjamin! Everything happens to me!” (Genesis 42:36)

Now that Joseph is gone, Benjamin is the only remaining child of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Jacob flatly refuses to let Benjamin go.

The famine continues. When Jacob’s family in Canaan has eaten all the Egyptian grain, he tells his sons to go back to Egypt for more. Judah points out that the Egyptian minister said they could not see him again unless they brought their youngest brother with them.

And Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] said: “Why did you treat me badly, telling the man you had another brother?” (Genesis 43:6)

Again, Jacob thinks only about himself, and blames his ten older sons for his own misery. They are, in fact, guilty of taking Joseph away from him, but they sold Joseph to relieve their own misery, not to afflict their father. But a narcissist does not think other people have their own independent motives.

Take the blame in advance

Then Judah steps up and promises to take responsibility for Benjamin. First he points out that if Benjamin does not go down to Egypt, he will die of starvation, along with the rest of the family.

Then Judah said to Israel, his father: “Send the young man with me, and we will go, and we will live and not die: me, you, and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge; from my hand you can seek him. If I do not bring him back to you and place him before you, then chatati for all time.” (Genesis 43:8-9)

chatiti (חָטָאתִי) = I am blameworthy, I have missed the mark. (Another form of the verb chata.)

Judah makes no extravagant promises, but he does accept blame ahead of time if anything goes wrong. That is enough. Jacob lets Benjamin go with his brothers to Egypt.

Accepting the blame when you are guilty is an ethical response. Yet humans instinctively shrink from being blamed. We do not want to look bad, and we do not want to be punished. On the other hand, humans find it all too easy to blame others without knowing the whole story.

Joseph’s ten older brothers are all responsible, in one way or another, for his disappearance from Canaan. But they deceive their father so that his blame will fall on a wild beast rather than on any of them. Jacob fails to investigate at the time, and years later he blames them for his misery over the loss of Joseph even though he has no evidence against them. He is not an ethical blamer.

Potifar’s wife takes pre-emptive action by delivering a false accusation before Joseph can tell Potifar what actually happened. Blaming the victim is still a common strategy of the guilty.

Joseph does not even try to defend himself against the woman’s accusation. But he makes a false accusation himself when his brothers come to him to buy grain. His accusation lets him manipulate circumstances so that his brothers finally blame themselves for their old crime, and so that in the long run he can transplant his whole family to Egypt, alive and well. The only punishment he afflicts on his guilty brothers is their anxiety about what he will do to them.

Judah turns out to be the best at handling blame. Although as a young man he is guilty of talking his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave, he changes over the years—most notably when he sentences his daughter-in-law to death for an illegal pregnancy, then learns the rest of the story. He publicly admits he was wrong and stops the execution.3

By the second year of famine, Judah is able to accept blame ahead of time for whatever happens to Benjamin, knowing that it is the only way he can get food for the whole family. And in next week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash, Judah fulfills his pledge by volunteering to become a slave in order to save Benjamin from that fate.

Some of the characters in Genesis never change. But others learn how to accept blame when they deserve it. May more of us today learn how to overcome our natural tendencies to slap blame on others and dodge it ourselves. If Joseph and Judah can change, so can we.

  1. See my post Vayeishev: Stripped Naked.
  2. Genesis 41:14, 42:23.
  3. See my post Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.

Mikeitz & Vayigash: A Fair Test, Part 2

Did Joseph behave ethically when he deceived his brothers and secretly tested them during their two visits to Egypt?

Joseph is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1865

Last week I posted an essay on Joseph’s first round of testing, when his ten older brothers come to Egypt to buy grain in the first year of famine. When they meet the viceroy of Egypt, they do not recognize their brother Joseph, whom they had thrown into a pit and sold as a slave twenty-one years before.1 After they mention that their youngest brother is at home in Canaan, Joseph imprisons Simeon as a hostage, sells grain to the rest, and says they must return with their youngest brother. (See my post Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1.) This youngest brother is Benjamin, the only one of Jacob’s sons with the same mother as Joseph.

Joseph’s second round of testing begins in the Torah portion Mikeitz and concludes in this week’s portion, Vayigash. The following essay comes from an earlier draft of my book on moral mistakes in Genesis, which I am now rewriting.

Second Year of Testing

When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simeon, and invites them all to dine at his palace. He finally sees his baby brother Benjamin, who is now a young man.

Joseph Weeps, by Owen Jones, 1865

And Joseph hurried [out] because rachamav was stirred up toward his brother, and he needed to break into sobs. And he came into the inner room and he sobbed there. Then he washed his face and he left and controlled himself, and he said: “Serve bread!” (Genesis 43:30-31)

rachamav (רַחֲמָיו) = his compassion, his feeling of deep affection. (From the noun rechem, רֶחֶם = womb.)

Is Joseph moved to tears by a sudden feeling of love for his brother? Or is he feeling compassion over Benjamin’s situation? He would remember what it was like to live with a clinging father and ten jealous and dangerous older brothers.

Joseph keeps his brothers on edge by having them seated in order by age. Benjamin is obviously the youngest, but the ten older men, who were all born during a seven-year period that ended with Joseph’s own birth, are now middle-aged. No outsider could have guessed their birth order.

And he had portions passed to them from in front of himself, and Benjamin’s portion was five times bigger than anyone else’s. And they drank and they got drunk with him. (Genesis 43:34)

By giving Benjamin five times as much food as the others, Joseph displays unfair favoritism just as Jacob did when he gave Joseph an expensive tunic. This time the ten older brothers do not react to the favoritism.

Then the final test begins. Once again, Joseph has the silver returned to his brothers’ packs. He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack. The eleven brothers load their donkeys and set off early in the morning. Then Joseph orders his steward:

“Get up! Pursue the men, and when you catch up with them you shall say to them: Why did you pay back evil for good? Isn’t this what my lord drinks from and uses himself for divination? You did evil in what you did!” (Genesis 44:4-5)

The hint that the viceroy knows how to do divination, along with the previous day’s seating plan by birth order, might frighten the brothers into believing that the viceroy has magically divined their old crime. The steward overtakes the brothers as they leave the city, and repeats Joseph’s words.

And they said to him: “Why does my lord speak these things? Far be it from your servants to do [anything] like this! Hey, the silver that we found in the mouths of our packs, we brought back to you from the land of Canaan. So how would we have stolen silver or gold from your master’s house? [If] it is found with any of your servants he will die, and also we ourselves will become slaves to my lord.” (Genesis 44:7-9)

Their righteous indignation indicates that the eleven brothers all trust one another to refrain from stealing.

The Cup Found, by James J.J. Tissot, circa 1900

They quickly put their packs on the ground and open them, and the steward conducts a search, dramatically saving Benjamin’s pack for last. When the steward pulls out the silver cup, the brothers tear their garments in mourning. They accompany him back to the viceroy’s house, where they throw themselves on the ground in yet another prostration to the man who controls their fate.

And Joseph said to them: “What is this deed that you have done? Didn’t you know that a man like me does divination?” (Genesis 44:15)

Joseph is still playing his role in the elaborate test he has arranged. Judah answers for all eleven brothers.

And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord? How can we speak, and how can we be vindicated? The God has discovered the crime of your servants. Here we are, slaves to my lord, including us as well as he in whose possession the cup was found.” (Genesis 44:16)

In other words, Judah says the brothers are collectively culpable. He may feel that they are so united that if one of them commits a crime they are all guilty; or he may remember that all of them except Benjamin (and Reuben, who was absent at the time) sold Joseph as a slave, and therefore are just as guilty as the presumed thief of the silver cup.2

The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin could be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs for them to pass his test. But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.

And [Joseph] said: “Far be it from me to do this! The man who is found with the cup in his possession, he will be my slave; and [the rest of] you, go up in peace to your father.” (Genesis 44:17)


Joseph acts ethically by fulfilling his promise to release Simeon when the brothers brought Benjamin to him.

But planting an item in Benjamin’s pack and pretending it was stolen is a more serious kind of deception than hiding his identity as their lost-lost brother. Now Joseph is framing an innocent man for a crime he did not commit.

He probably does not intend the accusation to go any farther. Joseph enjoys creating dramatic effects (the mysterious return of the silver to their sacks,3 the seating order at the feast, the talk of divination). When he ends the test, he is likely to reveal everything, and savor his brothers’ shock and amazement.

Joseph may not realize that framing his little brother for the theft might ruin Benjamin’s reputation with his older brothers. What if, after Joseph reveals his identity, his older brothers thought Benjamin did steal the cup, and Joseph was covering up for him? His desire to amaze his brothers prevents Joseph from  choosing the morally better action of protecting his little brother’s reputation.

Nevertheless, he does no long-term harm to any of his brothers. In this week’s Torah portion, Vayigash, Judah appeals to the viceroy’s feelings and offers himself as a slave in place of Benjamin so that he can fulfill his promise to their father, Jacob, to bring him back. If Benjamin did not return, he says, it would kill his father.

“And now, please let your servant remain instead of the young man as my lord’s slave, and let the young man go up with his brothers. For how could I go up to my father [if] the young man were not with me? Then I would see the evil that would come upon my father!” (Genesis 44:33)

At this moral example of unselfish sacrifice, Joseph “could no longer restrain himself”.4 He dismisses all his Egyptian servants and reveals his identity to his brothers.  He invites his whole extended family to move to Egypt so that he can provide for them during the remaining five years of the famine.


What if Joseph’s older brothers had not passed the test? What if, despite their guilt over mistreating Joseph, they had not volunteered to become the viceroy’s slaves along with Benjamin? What if Judah had not proven that he met his promises, had compassion for his father, and sincerely wanted to sacrifice his own freedom to save his little brother?

Joseph’s plan in that case might have been to keep Benjamin safe in Egypt, and let his older brothers to back to Canaan with another year’s supply of grain, no matter how much their father grieved. He might even have planned to let them all starve after the grain was consumed. As long as he believed his older brothers were a threat to Benjamin, he could not just forgive them and let them live in Egypt, too. Alternatively, Joseph might have planned to imprison them for the rest of their lives, feeding them but denying them freedom of movement.

Whether he chose to lock up his older brothers or send them home, would it be ethical for Joseph to punish men who committed a crime 22 years ago and who, in his opinion, might do so again?

Since his brothers (especially Judah) do pass Joseph’s secret test, he avoids facing this moral question. But I suspect Joseph is so carried away by his own cleverness that he does not consider the long-term ethical consequences of his test.

  1. Genesis 37:18-28.
  2. It would be unethical of Judah to speak for his brothers without their prior approval, even by ancient Israelite standards, since he is not the oldest brother or otherwise the head of a household they belong to. However, the ten older brothers had agreed that God was punishing them for their long-ago cruelty to Joseph. They may have discussed it again later and agreed that they deserved to be punished further, perhaps by becoming slaves themselves.
  3. Genesis 42:35, 43:19-23.
  4. Genesis 45:1.

Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 1

Rorschach test, card 3

Evaluating the people we meet is a human reflex. But sometimes we go farther, and arrange tests in order to judge people by their responses. When is it fair to test someone?

Honesty requires advance notice when one person is testing another. We expect to be tested in certain situations, such as a job interviews or class assignments. But otherwise we assume that others are not testing us—unless they warn us ahead of time.

Some situations, however, involve a higher moral value than honesty. For example, you might ethically deceive someone in order to save another person’s life.

What about Joseph’s secret testing of his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Mikeitz? Is Joseph behaving ethically?

The following essay is from the first draft of the book I am now rewriting on moral psychology in Genesis.

The Test Begins

Joseph ruling in Egypt, by James J. Tissot

Joseph faces his ten older brothers again 21 years after they threw him into a pit and then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1 During those years, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy. He has spent seven years stockpiling grain in Egypt to prepare for the long famine he has prophesied. Now he is in charge of selling that grain.

And the sons of Israel came to buy grain among [others who were] coming, because the famine was [also] in the land of Canaan. And the ruler of the land was Joseph; he was the grain seller for all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and prostrated themselves to him, noses to the ground. (Genesis 42:5-6)

This fulfills Joseph’s adolescent dream in which his brothers were sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf.2

And Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he kept his identity from them and he spoke to them harshly. And he said to them: “From where do you come?” And they said: “From the land of Canaan, to buy grain.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. (Genesis 42:7-8)

When the brothers last saw Joseph he was 17. Now he is 38. He has an Egyptian name and wears Egyptian clothes. He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him. So he pretends to be the stranger he appears, and he speaks to them through an interpreter.

And Joseph remembered the dreams that he dreamed about them, and he said to them: “You are spies! You have come to see the naked places of the land.” (Genesis 42:9-11)

Joseph wants to accuse his brothers of something so he will have an excuse to detain them. Spying may occur to him first because when he was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob (a.k.a. Israel).3

And they said to him: “Never, my lord! Your servants have come to buy food. We are, all of us, sons of one man. We are keinim. Never have your servants been spies!” (Genesis 42:10-11)

keinim (כֵּנִים) = upright, honest, virtuous. (Plural of kein, כֵּן.)

Joseph knows that they were certainly not keinim when they sold him into slavery. But have they changed over the last 21 years?

He repeats that they are spies. Presumably it would be strange, in the Ancient Near East, for a ruler to send ten spies from the same family; in the book of Numbers, Moses sends one scout from each of the ten tribes to investigate Canaan.4

And they said: “Your servants were twelve brothers, sons of one man in the land of Canaan. And hey! The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one— einenu. (Genesis 42:13)

einenu (אֵינֶנּוּ) = he is not, he is nothing, he is absent.

What else can they say about Joseph? They probably wish they had not brought up their two missing brothers. Joseph accuses them a third time of being spies, and declares:

“By this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh! If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here. Send one of yourselves, and he will take your brother; and [the rest of] you will be imprisoned. And your words, yibachanu, [to see if] the truth is with you. If not, by the life of Pharaoh, then you are spies.” (Genesis 42:15-16)

tibacheinu (תִּבָּחֵנוּ) = you will be tested. (A form of the verb bachan, בָּחַן = tested.)

yibachanu (יִבָּחַנוּ) = they will be tested. (Also a form of the verb bachan.)

Joseph does say he is testing the ten men. But he claims he is testing them to see if they are really spies, when in fact he knows that are not. His actual reason turns out to be a test of how they will treat their youngest brother, Benjamin.

Jacob Caressing Benjamin, by Rembrandt, 1637

Benjamin is Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel. Since Jacob kept Benjamin home, Joseph knows that Benjamin has replaced him as the favorite son, the one his father dotes on. This raises the question of whether his half-brothers would ever treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him. What if they became more jealous of their father’s new favorite? Twenty-one years before they were willing to kill or sell Joseph.  Would they do the same to Benjamin?

Joseph throws all ten of his older brothers in prison for three days. When he releases them, he makes a better offer: nine of the men can return to Canaan with grain, and he will keep only one of them under detention in Egypt until they return with their youngest brother.

This modification of the test means that their families back in Canaan will not starve. Joseph realizes that one man could not handle all the donkeys they brought to carry grain.5 He is deceiving his brothers, but he is also feeding his whole extended family.

Then Joseph overhears them speaking in Hebrew.

And they said, each man to his brother: “Alas! We are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded to us for mercy, and we did not listen. Therefore this distress came upon us.” (Genesis 42:21)

This is the first evidence Joseph gets that his older brothers have changed. When he was seventeen, they were only concerned about getting rid of him for good without being held responsible. Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty. Throwing him in the pit and then selling him is the worst thing they have ever done, so they conclude it must be why God is punishing them now.

Joseph Weeps, by Owen Jones, 1865

Joseph turns away from them and weeps, but he still does not trust his brothers. He is determined to continue his test. He keeps Simeon as the hostage, and sells grain to the other nine. Then he has their silver returned to their packs just before they leave for Canaan. Again he orders them to return with their youngest brother, threatening that they will not see his face again unless they do.

At this point we might wonder about the purpose of Joseph’s test. Jacob would be reluctant to let Benjamin go to Egypt, but his brothers would gladly bring him whether they are keinim or not.

Probably Joseph is already planning the second part of his test. He knows that the famine will last seven years, so his brothers will have to return to Egypt the following year for more grain. If his ten half-brothers fail the second part of test, Joseph will be able to protect Benjamin by keeping him in Egypt.


Is Joseph’s deception ethical so far? Unlike his brothers 21 years before, he does no physical harm, and he enslaves no one. He takes a hostage, but gives clear conditions for Simeon’s release.

Nevertheless, restricting Simeon’s freedom is unethical. Simeon has committed no crime in Egypt. Furthermore, Simeon’s imprisonment does not actually achieve anything. Joseph should know that Jacob would rather let Simeon spend the rest of his life in prison than let Benjamin go to Egypt. And his brothers will have to return to Egypt for more grain anyway. It would have been equally effective, and more ethical, for Joseph to let all ten men go, with a warning that if they came to Egypt again without Benjamin he would turn them away.

What if he took his brothers aside, revealed his identity, and demanded an apology for selling him into slavery? Then he would not even be guilty of dishonesty. But his brothers might apologize out of fear, not remorse, and he still would not be sure that Benjamin was safe with them.

Perhaps Joseph’s devious route to reconciliation through a complicated test is actually the most ethical option at this point (though the test would be more ethical if he let Simeon go with his brothers). But will the test remain ethical when the brothers return? See my next post, Mikeitz: A Fair Test, Part 2.

  1. Joseph is 17 when his brothers sell him (Genesis 37:2, 37:12-27) and 30 when Pharaoh makes him the viceroy of Egypt (Genesis 41:44-46). He is 37 at the end of the seven years of plenty, and 38 when his brothers have endured a year of famine and come to Egypt to buy grain.
  2. Genesis 37:5-7.
  3. Genesis 37:2, 37:14.
  4. Numbers 13:1-20.
  5. Genesis 42:26.

Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2

The wise child, the wicked child, the simple child, and the child who does not know how to ask; these are the four kinds of children in the Passover Seder.  Can we find them among Jacob’s progeny?

Last week I argued that out of the three of Jacob’s children with speaking roles in the book of Genesis, Reuben is an unwise wise child, and Judah is a reformed wicked child.  You can read that post here: Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1.

The only other one of Jacob’s children who speaks is Joseph.  In the Passover Haggadah, the simple child says only, “What is this?”  Joseph says a great deal more.

Joseph: Complicated Simple Son

In fact, he talks too much.  By the time he is seventeen, four of his older brothers hate him because he brings bad reports of them to their father, Jacob.1  The rest hate him because he is Jacob’s favorite.  Joseph should notice their animosity, since “they could not speak to him in peace”.2

Joseph Reveals his Dream to his Brothers, by James J.J. Tissot

Yet he tells his brothers about two dreams in which they (thinly disguised as sheaves of grain, then as stars) are bowing down to him.3

Only a simple child would tell these dreams to brothers who already hate him.  Does Joseph realize how his older brothers feel?  Is he unable to imagine that they might lash out at him?

Their father, Jacob (who may also be deficient in emotional intelligence) sends Joseph off alone to check up on his brothers and their flocks.  As soon as he reaches them, they seize him, throw him into a pit, and argue about whether to kill him, let him slowly starve, or sell him as a slave.4  He pleads with them to no avail,5 and before the day is over he is a slave bound for Egypt.

The next time Joseph speaks is when his Egyptian master’s wife tries to seduce him, and he explains that he will not lie down with her because it would be wicked.6   It does not even occur to him to flatter her when he refuses her advances. She does not take his rejection well, and Joseph ends up in Pharaoh’s prison.

One morning in prison Joseph notices that two of his fellow prisoners, Pharaoh’s head butler and head baker, have “bad expressions”7—the first sign that he is noticing the feelings of others.  He asks them why, and they say there is no one to interpret their dreams.

Joseph in Prison, by James J.J. Tissot

Then Joseph said to them: “Aren’t dream interpretations for God?  Please tell me.”  (Genesis 40:8)

Is Joseph giving credit to God for his upcoming interpretations, or is he claiming that God gives him secret information?  Probably both.  Joseph’s predictions based on their dreams come true, and two years later when Pharaoh has a pair of puzzling dreams, the head butler recommends Joseph.

This time Joseph says God is revealing the future to Pharaoh through those dreams.8  The implication that God is giving Pharaoh, not Joseph, secret information indicates Joseph’s increasing sophistication.  He says the dreams are forecasting seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and throws in some advice: Pharaoh should appoint an insightful man to organize stockpiling and later distribution of food.  Impressed, Pharaoh appoints Joseph.  From then on, he is the viceroy of Egypt.9

When Joseph’s ten older brothers come to the viceroy to buy grain during the first year of famine they do not recognize him.  Joseph plays a complicated game, arranging elaborate tests to see if his brothers have reformed.10  Joseph’s premise is that he can judge his older brothers according to how they treat Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son and his new favorite.

Joseph still has grandiose impulses, and adds details to his game that are not strictly necessary.  For example, he invites them to dinner and seats them in order from oldest to youngest, although no Egyptian could guess their exact birth order.  They are astonished by his apparent magical power.11

The final test comes when Joseph plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, then accuses him of stealing it and decrees that the punishment is to stay in Egypt as the viceroy’s slave.  Joseph’s ten older brothers say they are all guilty and they will all be slaves with him.  Even this is not enough for Joseph, who insists that only Benjamin will stay.12  Finally Judah breaks the deadlock by explaining that their father could not live without Benjamin.  Judah begs to be the viceroy’s slave instead of Benjamin, and Joseph finally breaks down and admits who he is.13

But there is one more complication.  Joseph is so attached to his role as the savior of Egypt, Canaan, and his own family, that he says:

“And now don’t worry and don’t be angry with yourselves because you sold me.  Because hey! God sent me ahead of you to save life.  For this was a pair of years of the famine in the midst of the land, and there will be five more years when there will be no plowing nor reaping …  So now, you did not send me here!  Rather, God did, and he placed me as a father-figure to Pharaoh and as a master to all his household and a ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:5-8)

By the end of this speech Joseph is bragging about his high position.  As Pharaoh’s 39-year-old viceroy, he is older and wiser than he was at age 17.  But he is still as full of himself as a simple child.  He is also full of his theory of divine providence (at least for him and his family), and does not see that his brothers need his forgiveness.

Joseph invites the whole extended family to live in Egypt and benefit from his munificence.  Yet when their father Jacob dies, his ten older sons send a message to Joseph begging for a pardon.  They still do not feel safe with a simple child who has absolute power over them and never explicitly forgave them.

Then Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?  And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.  And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:19-21)

Whatever Joseph says to comfort them works, and they have a change of heart.  But I wish one of Joseph’s brothers would protest, “What is this?”

Benjamin: Speechless Son

Jacob has nine sons who are not quoted in the Torah.  He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is silent about her own rape, the subsequent proposed marriage, and the murder of her would-be bridegroom.14  I am tempted to call Dinah the fourth child in the Passover Seder, the “child who does not know how to ask”, so I could grandstand about how women in the Ancient Near East were pawns and chattels of the men, deprived even of the right to speak for themselves.15

But if Reuben, Judah, and Joseph correspond to the three children who ask questions, then the fourth child, who is amazed by the Passover rituals but cannot put together a question, must be Benjamin.

Benjamin is the youngest of Jacob’s children, and the only one who does not commit or witness any terrible deeds.  He has not even been born when Dinah is raped and Jacob’s oldest sons massacre all the men in the town of Shekhem.  He is only a toddler in Jacob’s camp when Joseph’s older brothers sell him as a slave.  The first year Jacob sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy grain, he does not let Benjamin go.  The second year, when Benjamin does go, he is a married man with children of his own—but he is leaving his father’s home for the first time in his life!

He is silent—probably flabbergasted—when the viceroy’s steward “finds” the silver cup in his pack and accuses him of stealing it.  Benjamin remains silent when his older brothers tell the viceroy they will all stay in Egypt and suffer the punishment of slavery.  Another man might protest at this point, but Benjamin is not used to making his own ethical decisions.

After the viceroy reveals that he is Joseph, he embraces Benjamin first.

And [Joseph] fell on the neck of Benjamin, his brother, and he sobbed, and Benjamin sobbed on his neck.  And he kissed all his brothers and he sobbed on them.  And after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:14-15)

Benjamin is the only one of Joseph’s brothers who sobs back.  He is overwhelmed by Joseph’s affection, and unlike his older brothers, he is innocent of any wrongdoing.  He can react freely, and non-verbally.

Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, Benjamin is the baby of the family.  It does not even occur to him to question what is going on.  We do not learn whether he ever grows up.

  1. Genesis 37:2.
  2. Genesis 37:3-4.
  3. Genesis 37:5-9.
  4. Reuben argues that they should throw Joseph in the pit without killing him outright, implying that he will eventually die of dehydration.  Reuben’s plan is to sneak back and rescue him (Genesis 37:21-22).  Judah persuades his brothers to sell Joseph to a passing caravan (Genesis 37:26-28).
  5. Genesis 42:21.
  6. Genesis 39:8-9.
  7. Genesis 40:7.
  8. Genesis 41:25.
  9. Genesis 41:39-44.
  10. Genesis 42:9-25, 43:26-44:17.
  11. Genesis 43:33.
  12. Genesis 44:16-17.
  13. Genesis 44:18-45:3.
  14. Genesis 34:1-31.
  15. Except for Rebecca, who can say “yes” or “no” to her engagement to Isaac (Genesis 24:57-58).


Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.


Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

A Feast and a Famine

Sometimes I cannot find any connection between the week’s Torah portion and the story I am analyzing for my book on ethics in Genesis.  Coincidence and synchronicity are lovely, but unreliable.

So here is a link to the first blog post I wrote on this week’s Torah portion in the book of Exodus: Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.  I have long been fascinated by the brief account of how Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and 70 elders climb halfway up Mount Sinai and see God’s feet on a sapphire pavement–and then sit down and eat.

Meanwhile, I am writing about Pharaoh’s two dreams that predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and Joseph’s advice on how to keep the Egyptians alive until the famine is over.  Pharaoh not only takes his advice, but makes Joseph the viceroy of Egypt so he can direct the operations.  This scene (Genesis 41:14-46) is unusual in the book of Genesis because both protagonists behave ethically toward one another and for the good of the people of Egypt.

Naturally Joseph is happy to get promoted from prison trusty to ruler of Egypt, but he does not engage in deception or any other unsavory act to make it happen.  He gives God credit for his dream interpretations, comes up with a sound plan through his own quick intelligence, and presents it in a respectful way.  Pharaoh bypasses the existing hierarchy of courtiers and makes the outsider Joseph the viceroy at age 30, giving him the status symbols he will need to be successful in the job.

You never know what human beings will turn out to be capable of doing.

Repost: Vayiggash

I went back to my 2014 post on Joseph as a “Serial Sobber”, and I could not resist tearing it in two and rewriting both parts extensively.  You can read the first part here: Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.  I’ll post the second part next week, after I finish rewriting it.

Unlike Joseph, I am a person who  does not cry easily.  I only break into sobs once every five to ten years, when I have been trying and trying to accomplish something, and I finally realize I have to give up.

There are also times when another person touches my heart and I feel moved, like Joseph, but the closest I get to weeping then is a small tightening of my throat.

My throat tightened a bit this week when I was walking around Split, Croatia.  Most of the other folks on the streets are Croatians, since this is definitely the off season.  It dawned on me that only people under 30 looked happy.  The faces of most older Croatians are engraved with lines of grim endurance, broken only when someone says hvala, “thank you”, and flashes a quick smile.

And then I remembered: Croatia used to be part of Yugoslavia under the totalitarian dictatorship of Josip Tito.  After his death in 1980 the country deteriorated further, and then war began: first between Croats and Serbs, then between an independent Croatia and the splintering Yugoslavia.  Croatia’s secession and independence were finally secured in 1995.  The Croatian economy began to recover around 2000, and the country became a member of the EU in 2013.

View from Narodni Trg, a popular plaza in old Split (photo by M.C.)

Now Split has a prosperous tourist industry.  Sunshine and a warm seashore help, but so do all the ancient stone buildings that nobody could afford to raze and replace during the second half of the 20th century, when so many other cities lost their architectural treasures to the brutal aesthetic of the time.  Now, thanks to the segments of “Game of Thrones” filmed in Split, the old city is more attractive to tourists than ever.

The young adults look relaxed and happy here.  But when I consider the older adults who lived through the war in the 1990’s, and some even through the Tito years, my throat tightens.  I respect them just for carrying on.


Repost: Vayeishev & Mikeitz

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

During four and a half whirlwind days in Rome we saw, among other things, the Pantheon, built 113-125 C.E.; St. Peter’s Basilica, built 1506-1612; and the Tempio Maggiore (Great Synagogue), built  1899-1904.  In some ways they all look alike: each is designed to enclose a large, impressive volume of space, horizontal as well as vertical; and the architecture is grand, with the circle, the square, and the Greek orders of columns and capitals repeated over and over again.  All three buildings project authority.

So I polished up my 2011 post on this week and next week’s Torah portions: Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Symbols of Authority.  The symbols of Judah’s and Joseph’s positions of authority include a cylinder seal and a signet ring, both used the way we use a signature to authorize a written order.  Judah also has his staff, as a clan leader.  And Joseph has his chariot, as the pharaoh’s second-in-command.


The architecture of sacred buildings can also include symbols of authority.  Roman Emperor Hadrian built the Pantheon as a temple for all the gods.  He had M•AGRIPPA•L•F•COS•TERTIUM•FECIT (“built by Marcus Agrippa in his third consulate”) carved on the front to glorify the ruler who erected the previous temple on that site.  As well as being a religious building, the Pantheon reinforced the authority of Rome’s government.

Cathedra, St. Peter’s

St. Peter’s is the pope’s church, in Vatican City.  Behind the central altar, where only the pope may serve mass, is the “cathedra”.  A cathedra is the seat or throne of a bishop in a cathedral, and the throne of the pope in St. Peter’s.  Originally when the pope announced a decision “ex cathedra” he sat in that throne to show that his word had ultimate authority.

The only true stained glass window I saw in St. Peter’s was the sunburst window in the wall above the cathedra, with a symbolic dove in the center representing the Holy Spirit.  It is the focal point of the church’s interior, drawing the eye to the relatively dark chair below.

The synagogue that Roman Jews built to celebrate their liberation from the ghetto has several good wooden chairs on the bima, the raised platform at the east end.  One is where the person holding the Torah scroll sits while the scrolls is dressed again in its cover, and its two crowns are put on.  The other chairs are traditionally used to honor important members of the community.

Ark, Great Synagogue

But the focal point, as in all synagogues, is the ark where the crowned Torah scrolls are stored in between readings.

These symbols put the text of the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) in the position of the authority, rather than a person.  And any adult Jew (male, in this orthodox synagogue) can step up on the bima and lead the service.



Mikeitz & Vayeishev: A Narcissist in the Pit?

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?

Joseph at seventeen

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

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?

Joseph and adultery

Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife, by Schnorr von Carolsfeld

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

Joseph in prison

Joseph in Prison, by James Tissot

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.

Joseph meets the pharaoh

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 Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, by Reginald Arthur, 1894

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, by James Tissot

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.

Joseph and his brothers

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 is Governor, by Owen Jones, 1869

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.

  1. Only extreme cases of narcissism are classified as personality disorders, but the clinical definition applies to all levels of narcissism.
  2. Genesis 37:25-28.
  3. Genesis 39:1-6.
  4. 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.

Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing

Someone harms you or your loved one.  There is no apology, no reconciliation.  Years later you are thrown together again.  What do you do?

Joseph sold as a slave,
artist unknown

Joseph faces his ten older brothers 20 years after they seized him, talked about killing him, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.1  During that time, thanks to his own intelligence and a prophetic gift from God, Joseph has become Pharaoh’s viceroy.  When Joseph sees his brothers again, they are bowing down to him and requesting permission to buy grain.

When the brothers last saw Joseph he was seventeen.  Now he is in his late thirties.  He has an Egyptian name, and wears Egyptian clothes.  He recognizes his brothers, but they do not recognize him.  So he pretends to be the stranger he appears, and speaks to them through an interpreter.

At first Joseph accuses them of being spies.  (He wants to accuse them of something, and spying may occur to him because when he was 17 he was a spy; he brought “bad reports” of his brothers to Jacob. See last week’s post, Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers protest:

“All of us are sons of one man.  We are keinim!  Your servants would never be spies.” (Genesis/Bereishit 42:11)

keinim (כֵּנִים) = (plural) upright, honest, virtuous.

Joseph knows that they were hardly keinim when they sold him into slavery.  But have they changed over the last 20 years?

He repeats that they are spies, and as the ten men from Canaan explain who they are, they mention that their father had twelve sons.

And hey!  The youngest is with our father now, and the [other] one is absent.  (Genesis 42:13)

Joseph uses this statement to test his brothers.  He says:

“In this tibacheinu, by the life of Pharaoh!  If you leave this place, then your youngest brother must come here.  Send off one from among yourselves, and he will take your brother; and you will be imprisoned.  And your words, yibachanu, [to see if] the truth is with you.  If not, by the life of Pharaoh, then you are spies.” (Genesis 42:15-16)

tibacheinu (תִּבָּחֵנוּ) = you will be tested.  (A form of the verb bachan, בָּחַן = tested.)

yibachanu (יִבָּחַנוּ) = they will be tested.  (Also a form of the verb bachan.)

Joseph throws all ten of them in prison for three days.  When he releases them, he overhears them speaking in Hebrew.

And they said, each man to his brother: “Alas!  We are guilty on account of our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us for mercy, and we did not listen.  Therefore this distress came upon us.”  (Genesis 42:21)

This is the first evidence Joseph gets that his older brothers have changed.  When he was seventeen, his brothers were only concerned about getting rid of Joseph for good without being technically responsible for shedding his blood.  Now they remember Joseph as a human being with feelings, and they feel guilty.

Joseph’s Brothers Find the Silver,
Aunt Louisa’s Sunday Picture Book, c. 1870

The test continues.  Joseph decides to keep only one brother, Simon, as a hostage.  He sells grain to the other nine, and sneaks their silver back into their packs just before they leave for Canaan. Again he orders them to return with their youngest brother, threatening that they will not see his face unless they do.

The youngest of Jacob’s twelve sons is Benjamin, Joseph’s only full brother—the only other son Jacob had with his beloved Rachel.  Their father, Jacob, always played favorites.  He loved Rachel more than his other wife or his concubines, and after she died he loved her elder son Joseph more than his other sons.  Joseph guesses that his father has become attached to Benjamin now, and he wants to find out if his half-brothers would treat Benjamin as badly as they once treated him.

He may also remember his baby brother fondly; he was an innocent child of six when Joseph’s older brothers could not speak a peaceful word to him.  Maybe Joseph wants to protect Benjamin in Egypt if their half-brothers turn out to be just as wicked as before.

Jacob, having already lost Rachel and Joseph, refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt.  He would rather leave his unloved son Simon in an Egyptian prison for life.  But the famine continues.  Judah (Jacob’s fourth son) points out that the whole family will starve to death if they do not return to Egypt for grain, and he pledges to be responsible for Benjamin.  Jacob finally lets him go.

When the brothers arrive in Egypt with Benjamin, Joseph releases Simon and invites them all to dine at his palace.  Nervously, the brothers tell Joseph’s steward that they found silver in their packs last time, and offer to return it along with more silver to buy more food.  This might show only that the brothers are smart enough to avoid being accused of theft; or it might indicate that they have become more honest.

At the feast, Joseph gives Benjamin five times as much food as the others, putting his little brother in the same position Joseph was in when Jacob gave him, and none of his brothers, an expensive tunic.  This time the ten older brothers do not react to the favoritism.

The Cup Found,
by James Tissot

Then the final test begins.  Once again, Joseph has the silver returned to the brothers’ packs.2  He also has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack.  Then Joseph sends the man to overtake the brothers on the road, make a show of finding the “thief” of the cup, and declare that Benjamin must remain in Egypt as a slave.

Instead of letting Benjamin take the blame, the brothers all return to Joseph’s palace with him.

And Judah said: “What can we say to my lord?  How can we speak, and how can we prove our innocence?  God has found out the crime of your servants.  Here we are, slaves to my lord, along with the one in whose hand the goblet was found.” (Genesis 44:16)

The older brothers’ solidarity with Benjamin might be the final piece of evidence Joseph needs.  But a lingering doubt makes him repeat that only Benjamin will stay as a slave in Egypt.

Then, at the opening of this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (“And he approached”), Judah steps closer to the viceroy of Egypt and tells the story of Jacob’s love for Benjamin, predicting that if Benjamin does not return, their father will die.  He concludes:

“And now, please let your servant stay instead of the boy as a slave to my lord.  And let the boy go up with his brothers.  For how can I go up to my father if the boy is not with me?—lest I see the evil that would find my father!”  (Genesis 44:33-34)

At that point Joseph’s test ends.  His older brothers have proven that they have changed for the better.

There is one piece of unfinished business.  Joseph has not had the opportunity to test his father, who never overtly harmed him, but did smother him with a narcissistic love, and did send him off alone and unprotected to find his hostile older brothers far away to the north.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father for two clues that Joseph blamed his father for some of his suffering.)

Joseph Recognized by his Brothers,
by Marc Chagall

Joseph has not forgotten his father.  Overcome with emotion, he sends all his attendants out of the room, bursts into tears, and says:

I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive? (Genesis 45:3)

Having tested his older brothers, Joseph will not punish them, will not take revenge.  But will he forgive them?

Will Joseph be able to forgive his father without testing him?  I will address these questions in next week’s post, Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.


Testing people who once harmed you or your loved one is harder in real life than it is in the Torah.  A few times in my life I have withheld my true feelings, looking for signs of change in people who once attacked me, but the evidence has always been ambiguous.  If reconciliation is possible, it happens in a different way.  And if reconciliation is not possible, the injured person can still find an inner healing.

May all of us who have been harmed without a reconciliation receive divine insight, so that like Joseph, we can reveal our feelings, let go of our disguises, and become whole.

  1. Genesis 37:12-27 (in the Torah portion Vayeishev).
  2. Robert Alter points out: “Meanwhile, as in dream logic—or perhaps one should say, guilt logic—the brothers, who once took silver when they sold Joseph down into Egypt, seem helpless to ‘return’ the silver to Egypt, as much as they try.” (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 253)