The Hebrew Bible contains many unanswered questions and questions for which the answers provided seem inadequate. This, however, is part of the charm of Torah; it challenges us to exercise our powers of conjecture and imagination to supply plausible responses.
One of the most intriguing of these questions involves Joseph’s behavior after he has risen to such heights in the Egyptian bureaucracy that he is second only to Pharaoh himself. You will recall that Joseph’s brothers, jealous of Joseph’s special place in his father Jacob’s affections and incensed at the hubris reflected in his dreams, strip him of his many-colored coat and cast him into a pit. He is eventually sold into slavery in Egypt. To explain Joseph’s absence to their father, the brothers dip Joseph’s coat in the blood of a young goat and present it to Jacob as evidence that his beloved favorite son has been devoured by a wild beast. Jacob refuses to be comforted in his grief: “ ‘I will go down to Sheol mourning for my son,’ Thus his father bewailed him” (Genesis 37:35b).
After rising to high rank in the house of his master, Potiphar, chief steward to Pharaoh, Joseph lands in jail when Potiphar’s wife unjustly accuses him of trying to rape her because he declined her advances (Genesis 39:1–20). He is released from prison when a former prison-mate, Pharaoh’s butler, tells Pharaoh of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. Upon his release, Joseph insightfully interprets Pharaoh’s dreams as forecasting, after seven years of abundance, a seven-year crop failure that must be planned for. Pharaoh places Joseph in charge of the Egyptian economy and he becomes the most powerful man in Egypt except for Pharaoh. Pharaoh even places his royal signet ring on Joseph’s hand (Genesis 41:8–42).
Pharaoh also gives Joseph an Egyptian name—Zaphenath-paneah—and an Egyptian wife—a woman named Asenath, the daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. During the years of plenty, Joseph and Asenath have two sons (Genesis 41:45–50).
Although securely ensconced in power, Joseph makes no attempt, so far as the text tells us, to communicate with his family back in Canaan. Indeed, he names his firstborn son Manasseh, meaning “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51).
Interestingly, rabbinic tradition freely criticizes a number of aspects of Joseph’s career. In the midrash on Genesis, Joseph is criticized for asking his prison-mate, the butler, to intercede for him when the butler is released (Genesis 40:14–15). In 044other criticisms, some rabbis tell us that Joseph was on the point of yielding to Potiphar’s wife’s invitation to lie with her (Genesis 39:12) and resisted only because the image of his mother and father cooled his passion.1 Judah ha-Nasi questions Joseph’s decision to have his father embalmed before being taken back to Canaan for burial (Genesis 50:2–5), since this is clearly a non-Jewish rite. Yet nowhere in the rabbinic tradition is there any criticism of Joseph for failing to communicate with his family back in Canaan during the years of plenty. Either it was not an issue with the rabbis or they deliberately avoided the issue in the interest of promoting the image of the good Joseph. The problem, however, remains.
Joseph’s failure to communicate with his father during the seven years of plenty when he in effect ruled Egypt is especially puzzling in light of his solicitous attitude toward his father when his brothers come down to Egypt a second time for food during the famine: “How is your aged father, of whom you spoke? Is he still in good health?” he asks (Genesis 43:27).
When Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest, is found with Joseph’s silver goblet in his sack—Joseph has it planted there so Benjamin can be accused of stealing it—Judah makes his great appeal for mercy to Joseph, who is still concealing his identity from his brothers. Let me remain here as your slave, Judah pleads, but release Benjamin (Genesis 44). The word father (av), appears 14 times in this speech, as if to emphasize Jacob’s unrelieved grief at the loss of his son Joseph, as if to appeal to Joseph’s feeling for his father. As one commentator has noted, “The true beauty of Judah’s remarks lies in his ability to affirm explicitly his own responsibility while effectively ‘blaming’ Joseph for his father’s anticipated death.”2 At the same time, Judah’s. speech implicitly poses the question raised in this article: Why did Joseph never call home?
The problem is hardly a technical one. True, there were no telephones, but as Pharaoh’s second in command, Joseph could easily have dispatched messengers back to Canaan to convey the good news of his survival and subsequent political elevation. Admittedly, his administrative tasks were time-consuming and onerous, but this certainly did not preclude communicating with a beloved father.
Biblical characters in Genesis habitually fail to communicate well with immediate family members, and especially with ancestral homes. In this, Joseph is no exception. Abraham makes his epochal trek from Paddan-Aram to Canaan and establishes himself in his new environment. Although his immediate family and a nephew, Lot, accompany him to the new frontier, other members of the clan remain behind. Until Abraham sends his servant Eliezer back to Paddan-Aram to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:1–4), Abraham makes no attempt to contact members of the extended family he had left behind. Even recognizing the difficulty in an era without modern means of communications, it still seems odd that no messages were sent back before Eliezer’s, journey.
Joseph’s father, Jacob, is likewise guilty of a communications failure. After spending 22 years acquiring two wives (Rachel and Leah), two concubines (Bilhah and Zilpah) and 13 children in Laban’s household in Paddan-aram, Jacob heads back for Canaan. So far as we are informed by the text, Jacob made no attempt during his stay in Paddan-aram to establish contact with his mother, Rebecca, or his brother, Esau, whose birthright he had stolen. One can understand his reluctance to contact Esau; Esau had threatened to kill him. But the moral lapse in not contacting his mother appears inexplicable.
Joseph seems to be following in this line. But this is hardly an explanation—or an excuse.
Joseph’s failure to contact his brothers is more understandable than his failure even to let his father know he was alive. After what the brothers did to him, he had reasons. Yet his failure to contact his brothers may be intertwined with Joseph’s failure to contact his father. Did Joseph have some deep-seated antagonism toward his father, as he did toward his brothers? Elie Wiesel, in a bold, exegetical thrust, has suggested that Jacob originally sent Joseph to find his brothers at Shechem, where they threw him in a pit, because the patriarch wanted Joseph to be killed.
“The motive? Still the Akeda [the binding of Isaac—Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22:1–14)]. The memory of Mount Moriah [where Abraham placed Isaac on the altar]. At Peniel 045[were Jacob struggled with the angel (Genesis 32:22–32)], Jacob had wanted to imitate Isaac; here he could be wishing to emulate Abraham by sacrificing a son, his favorite son.”3
While this is a stimulating conjecture it places excessive dependence on imputing to Jacob a dark motive that seems inconsistent with his character.
Another possible explanation for Joseph’s antagonism to his father—if antagonism there was—is that Joseph might have seen himself as the victim of obsessive father love. Joseph was the son of Jacob and Rachel—Rachel whom Jacob loved, loved more than Leah (Genesis 29:30). And, as the Bible tells us, Jacob showered attention on the young lad. It may be an exaggeration to say that Joseph became a surrogate for Rachel, who had died in childbirth with Benjamin. Jacob’s doting on his favorite son doubtless occasioned a psychological tear in the fabric of Joseph’s image of himself.4 The midrash suggests that Jacob’s gift of the coat of many colors feminized Joseph—who is said to have curled his hair and painted his eyebrows; Joseph was becoming the Israelite Narcissus.5
Joseph does not, of course, understand the disfiguring nature of the attention that his father lavished on him, but when he attains manhood and maturity in Egypt he grasps the enormity of his father’s unhealthy preoccupation with him. Here there is a striking parallel with Jacob’s own experience with his mother Rebecca. It was she who connived to have Jacob steal his brother’s birthright and she who encouraged and directed his flight 046from Esau to the ancestral family home in Mesopotamia. In his adult years Jacob, with obligations to two wives, two concubines and many children, begins to realize the way in which his own mother had disrupted his value system and dislocated his life. For this he was unforgiving and refused to contact her during the years he spent with Laban in Mesopotamia. The resentment was so great that when Jacob meets Esau he doesn’t even ask about Rebecca. Joseph seems to be more interested in his father than Jacob was in his mother.
Or perhaps Joseph’s silence over the years can be explained on the basis of political expediency, as suggested by the medieval exegete Abarbanel. As Pharaoh’s second-in-command, Joseph had to be extremely circumspect in terms of his attachments and relationships. He was, after all, a foreigner, a non-Egyptian; there could be no suspicion regarding his absolute loyalty to the Egyptian crown.
The Egyptian attitude toward Hebrews is amply reflected in the episode where Joseph, still unrevealed to his brothers who have come to Egypt for food, orders a meal to be served. But Joseph eats by himself, the brothers eat by themselves and the Egyptians eat by themselves: “For the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Genesis 43:32). Given this uneasy attitude the Egyptians had toward the Hebrews (and undoubtedly toward other non-Egyptians), Joseph would have put himself at great risk by contacting his family and thereby identifying himself as a member of that nation.
Or perhaps Joseph’s failure to contact his father in those years was just part of his nature as a dreamer. According to Adin Steinsaltz, Joseph’s dream world exercised such a profound control over his psychic life that mundane things such as family were outside the periphery of his vision: “He became so dominated by the dream that he hesitated to digress from it. He did not even send a letter home saying, ‘I am here.’ ”6 In the Steinsaltz version, therefore, Joseph refrains from contact with kith and kin because he is afraid of dislocating or ruffling the fabric of his dream life. The fulfillment of his dreams is the only constant in his life. Unlike his father, Jacob, who may have harbored some doubts about the authenticity of his dreams, Joseph was convinced of the prophetic nature of his own. His conviction of their authenticity was reinforced with every fortuitous event that occurred after his arrival in Egypt. So strong was Joseph’s faith in dreams that he was able to transfer that faith into actualizing other peoples’ dreams as well. Thus he also “lived out Pharaoh’s dream.”7 Living in this dream world, he simply had no room for thought of father or family.
Which of these scenarios is the correct explanation for Joseph’s filial dereliction?
Each is wrong because all are right. “No hypothesis can bridge the discontinuities and resolve ambiguities by itself,” as Meir Steinberg has written.8 There can be no definitive answer because so many logical conjectures appear appropriate. It is as if the divine narrator created a set of circumstances that prompts the astute observer to pose the one question to which there is no correct answer but which focuses on the moral dilemmas raised by Joseph’s success in Egyptian society.
In this purview, the Joseph saga becomes the paradigm of the Jew who lives in a non-Jewish culture so completely that he forgets to call home. Unless one subscribes to an exclusively pious reading of the Joseph saga (in which Joseph’s Judaism remains intact throughout his tenure of office)9, Joseph’s career resembles that of the assimilating Jew who, having reached the apogee of power and acceptance in his new environment, cuts his bridges with the past, even at the cost of severing intimate ties with parents. Joseph and those who have followed in his path in Jewish history have often been able to provide self-serving justifications for their abandonment of these ties. Many who have trod this path have simply disappeared as identifiable Jews: Others, like Joseph, have, either through providential encounters or the alchemy of history, found themselves confronted with their Jewish destiny—and reembraced it.
Perhaps the question is not why Joseph didn’t call home but rather, after all those years of intoxicating success and acceptance in Egyptian society, he was willing and able to reassert his Israelite origins and return to the fold. That may be the real challenge of the Joseph story—especially for 20th century Jews.
The Hebrew Bible contains many unanswered questions and questions for which the answers provided seem inadequate. This, however, is part of the charm of Torah; it challenges us to exercise our powers of conjecture and imagination to supply plausible responses. One of the most intriguing of these questions involves Joseph’s behavior after he has risen to such heights in the Egyptian bureaucracy that he is second only to Pharaoh himself. You will recall that Joseph’s brothers, jealous of Joseph’s special place in his father Jacob’s affections and incensed at the hubris reflected in his dreams, strip him of his […]