Friday, December 7, 2007

Miketz: Joseph engineers a cliff-hanger

The Joseph story continues in this week’s parashah, which ends in suspense. It begins with Pharaoh’s two dreams; in the first, seven lean cows devour seven fat cows, while in the second, seven sparse ears of grain swallow up seven full ears. None of the magicians and wise men of Egypt can interpret the dreams, but the royal cup-bearer remembers how Joseph had interpreted dreams in prison. Joseph is still in prison, but very soon he is in charge of all Egypt.

Because we all know this story so well, it is hard to imagine, or remember, hearing it for the first time. Partly because of its very familiarity, we tend to accept all aspects of the story uncritically.

But is familiarity really the issue? The extreme economy of the narration, which within Genesis is matched only by that of the Akedah, seems to demand our full acceptance. It gives us very little with which to disagree.

This contrasts with the comparatively fanciful quality of some of the episodes in Genesis, and stands in much more striking contrast to much other ancient literature. Some other ancient narratives seem to use copious detail to provide verisimilitude. Biblical style, instead of attempting to overwhelm us with detail, tends to strip away almost everything that we might want to know, and persuades us to believe the narrative, or at least to suspend disbelief, through its sheer minimalism.

This minimalism has not, however, done anything to control our desire to know more. Within Jewish tradition it is the very source of midrash, post-Biblical elaboration that supplements the narrative, fills in blanks, and sometimes changes the meaning based on very slight evidence in the text.

Although the Joseph cycle provides a wealth of opportunities for midrashic elaboration, this section of it remains compelling exactly as it stands. Our focus, after Joseph rises to power in Egypt, is on the elaborate and somewhat cruel game that he plays with his brothers—and with his father, Jacob.

Although we are told that the name Joseph gives his first son, Manasseh, means “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (41:51), the cat-and-mouse game that he plays with his brothers shows that he has forgotten nothing. Many of the explanations that the Bible gives of names are fanciful, but this one is clearly misleading. There are some noteworthy details: when he decides to hold one brother hostage, he chooses Simeon, the most bloodthirsty and violent, and he plants his wine cup in the baggage of Benjamin, who has succeeded him as Jacob’s favorite. Benjamin also receives an extra portion at the dinner at which the brothers are mysteriously served in order of their seniority.

This section also gives us a picture of Joseph as highly Egyptianized. He has received an Egyptian name and taken an Egyptian wife who is, furthermore, the daughter of an Egyptian priest (and yet their children become the progenitors of two of the twelve tribes of Israel). Perhaps because of his Egyptian dress and manner, but also perhaps because of the way his experiences have changed him, his brothers do not recognize him.

He, however, recognizes them, and although his initial communication with them is through an interpreter, he is able to understand their private conversation. He hasn’t forgotten his roots; he’s faithful to his ancestry, a theme that will be even more striking with Moses, whose infancy is spent in Pharaoh’s court.