An "Interview" with Patriarch Joseph of Egypt

by John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

The story of Joseph begins at Chapter 37 of the Book of Genesis and continues all the way to the end, constituting the most well-documented narrative in the entire book. In spite of the wealth of detail, however, there are some serious problems that need to be resolved. These are:

(a) How aware was Joseph of the family tension that had built up to an intolerable level, leading to subsequent events (e.g., his confinement in the pit and being sold to the Ishmaelites);

(b) what exactly happened between him and Potiphar's wife; and

(c) was his later treatment of his brothers too harsh or not harsh enough?
To explore these questions, we have invited Joseph to The Struggler for an exclusive interview.

STRUGGLER: Patriarch Joseph, how aware were you that trouble was brewing between you and your brothers? St. John Chrysostom insists on your innocence, that everything that happened was part of a divine plan that everyone was unwittingly playing out. The author Maen Niehoff, on the other hand, uses phrases such as "alarming degree of insensitivity" and "frivolous, if not ill-meaning." Josephus excuses your youthful ignorance, insisting that you approached your brothers to elicit an interpretation of the dreams that you yourself could not understand, and that you were otherwise "passive" and "well-behaved" towards them. But the Genesis Rabbah comes down on you hard for having brought "evil reports" of them to your father, Jacob. Could you enlighten us as to what really happened?

JOSEPH: That there were tensions is hard to deny. But many years have elapsed since those events, so my own memory is unclear. You shouldn't forget that I was just a young stripling at the time. However, I would have to side with both Chrysostom and Maren — yes, I was young, very young, but at the same time insensitive toward my brothers. I didn't have to wear that coat of many colors that so provoked them to do what they did. But Josephus was way off. If I hadn't been able to interpret dreams myself, then how could I have possibly gotten out of prison for doing just that?

As for the Genesis Rabbah, there is no denying that I had lots to tell my father about their shenanigans.

STRUGGLER: Genesis is completely silent on these.

JOSEPH: Genesis Rabbah gives only three examples. First, they ate carrion meat. (One of our flock was killed by a lion, and they helped themselves to the meat while it was still fresh.) Second, they treated our half brothers, born to my father's maids, as their own servants. Third, they made passes at the local women.

You see, my brothers were utter scoundrels! A case in point: Genesis 34 tells of their treacherous behavior toward the Hivites that caused my father's name to "stink among the inhabitants of the land" (Gen. 34:30). My father knew they were continually up to no good, so he made me their "overseer," so to speak. This was just the beginning of my long career of overseeing — first over my brothers, then over Potiphar's house, and finally over the whole land of Egypt. Genesis Rabbah also says I knowingly walked into trouble near Shechem, but my father said, "Go," so I went.

STRUGGLER: Moving on to the events in Potiphar's house, what exactly went on there? Chrysostom insists that Egypt was a barbaric land, so you were bound to be mistreated there. Philo tends to agree, saying that the amorous advances you endured come with the job of politician, especially in a promiscuous land such as Egypt. However, the Pseudo-Jonathan takes a more "National Enquirer" approach to this by pointing out that it was quite possible you were the one who was attracted to Potiphar's wife. After all, it insists that you went to the house during a festival when no man was present, or even should have been present, and that you approached her, but had second thoughts. This, according to the Pseudo-Jonathan was what really got you into trouble there.

JOSEPH: I have to disagree with Chrysostom. Egypt was not a barbaric land. If Potiphar had wanted to, he could have had me killed on the spot, but he didn't. I feel I was remarkably well-treated there. Egyptians had an intensely anti-Semitic animus. Nowadays they would have called us "tent heads," "camel jockies," "desert rats," or worse. But no matter what they thought of me as a Jew, they always rewarded me well for a job well done. However, it wasn't personal effort that brought that about. When God is on your side, there is no need for the moving-and-shaking that comes with an administrative position. Things seem to move and shake of their own accord. Don't think they couldn't see that.

As for its promiscuity, I can tell you now that Egypt was a veritable cesspool, so what Philo says is very much true.

But I really must take exception to what Pseudo-Jonathan says. You have to remember that I was Potiphar's slave. I was not free to come and go as I pleased. If he wanted me to be in the house going over the accounts even during a festival, that's the way it had to be! So let's put the question to Pseudo-Jonathan: What was she doing at home during a festival with no man around but myself? Obviously up to no good, from what happened. "Do not judge from appearances," therefore, "but judge with right judgment" (John 7:24).

STRUGGLER: You make a very good point, Joseph, so let's move on to the third and final question: How do you feel about the way you treated your brothers, they not knowing who you were at the time? Philo says you were in a position to wreak vengeance on them if you had really wanted to. Genesis Rabbah seems to concur that the harshness fit the crime. Chrysostom also thinks it finally caused your brothers to feel pangs of remorse for what they had done to you.

JOSEPH: Joseph: For once I have to agree with all three. Who could possibly think I was going to let them off lightly? On the other hand, I couldn't be too severe since what they had done to me was all part of God's plan. I could in no way punish them for doing God's Will. You have to consider too that those pangs of remorse made them all the more circumspect in their treatment of Benjamin, and that, I think, made up for all that they had done to me.

STRUGGLER: Well, unfortunately our interview must come to an end. The conclusions we can draw from it are: (a) your.actions towards your brothers were prompted by a mixture of naïveté and carelessness; (b) Potiphar's wife's behavior was prompted by the general lasciviousness of Egypt; and (c) your treatment of your brothers was balanced in its harshness.

JOSEPH: Thank you. Yes, I think that sums it up rather well.

John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

A Note on Genesis Rabbah

Our interview with the Patriarch Joseph makes mention of a work that some of our readers may never have heard of, namely the Genesis Rabbah. What exactly is it?

According to Jacob Neusner, who co-authored Jewish and Christian Doctrines with Bruce Chilton (London, New York: Routledge, 2000), it is a so-called midrash or Jewish commentary on the first book of the Pentateuch. It was compiled over a period of time ending about 400 a.d., at a great turning point in Jewish history. Pagan Rome had become Christian Rome, and Julian the Apostate's denial of Christianity in 360 a.d. set off an anti-pagan backlash that "rapidly engulfed Judaism as well."

This called for a reformulation of what it meant to be Jewish since the gentiles also claimed to be the "New Israel." Therefore, the Genesis Rabbah set about interpreting Genesis, not so much as a record of the past, but a story of the present and future as well.

Neusner presents the following illustration of Rabbah reasoning:

From Genesis Rabbah XLVIII:x

"Let a little water be brought" (Gen. 18:4): Said to him the Holy One, blessed be he, "You have said, ‘Let a little water be brought.' By your life I shall repay your descendants back for this: ‘Then sang Israel this song, "spring up, O well, sing you to it'" (Num. 21:7). . . .

That recompense took place in the wilderness. Where do we find that it took place in the land of Israel as well? "A land of brooks of water" (Deut. 8:7).

And where do we find that it will take place in the age to come? "And it shall come to pass in that day that living waters shall go out of Jerusalem" (Zech. 14:8) [pp. 64-65].

Surprisingly, when it came to Christian Rome's claim to be the New Israel, the Jewish sages did not deny it. Yes, they seem to respond, you are descended from Isaac — just as Esau was also descended from him, but it is Jacob who got the birthright. When not equated with Esau, Rome is also equated with Ishmael, as in the following illustration:

Genesis Rabbah XLV:ix

So long as Abraham was alive, "he [Ishmael] shall dwell." Once he died, "he fell." [His father's merit no longer protected him.] Before he laid hands on the Temple, "he shall dwell." After he laid hands on the Temple, "he fell." In this world "he shall dwell." In the world to come, "he fell."

Much of the Genesis Rabbah is concerned with "merit," trying to gain justification through good works, particularly through the good works of one's ancestors. This is diametrically opposed to what Saint Paul has to say about justification through faith.

John Bockman, Tokyo, Japan

Contemporary Giants?

J. Richard Greenwell, a Tucson-based mammologist and secretary of the International Society of Cryptozoology, has set about dealing with another of the still unsolved zoological issues. In the past he has taken part in searches for a dinosaur-like creature in Central Africa and for a big cat in Mexico called an Onza. He now proposes to organize an expedition to determine once and for all whether or not Bigfoot exists.. He and three other researchers will spend three months in the rugged Siskiyou Wilderness in the six Rivers and Klamath National Forests in northern California searching for an elusive eight-foot, 800-to-1000 pound ape-like animal that "walks like a man," popularly known as Bigfoot. Reports of such a creature date back to the nineteenth century, and sightings increased in the 1950s when lumber roads were cut in the previously inaccessible mountains.

Adapted from The Tucson Citizen, May 9, 2000

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