Genesis Joseph, Pharaoh, and the Perpetual Stranger
Parashat Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1-44:17)
This year, as is often the case, we read Parashat Mikeitz on Shabbat Hanukkah, a celebration of light that affirms the durability of our Jewish identity during periods of assimilation and even oppression. In one such period—of assimilation in the United States and of genocide in Europe—Muriel Rukeyser spoke about the gift of being a Jew:
To be a Jew in the twentieth century Is to be offered a gift. If you refuse, Wishing to be invisible, you choose Death of the spirit, the stone insanity. Accepting, take full life. Full agonies: Your evening deep in labyrinthine blood Of those who resist, fail, and resist: and God Reduced to a hostage among hostages.
The gift is torment. Not alone the still Torture, isolation; or torture of the flesh. That may come also. But the accepting wish, The whole and fertile spirit as guarantee For every human freedom, suffering to be free, Daring to live for the impossible. (1944)
This poem, which later entered Reconstructionist and Reform prayer books, reads as a gloss, not only on the ambiguities of Hanukkah, but also on Joseph’s story in Mikeitz, where he faces the choice of embracing the gift of “torment” and “human freedom” or remaining “invisible.”
At the outset, Joseph is a Hebrew—an ivri. As scholars point out, this unstable word toggles between a geographical (“the one from beyond,” or “the migrant”) and an ethnic designation (derived, perhaps, from the sons of Eber in Genesis 10:21, although it refers only to the descendents of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob). In the context of Joseph’s (and later Israel’s) sojourn in Egypt, however, it distinguishes a Hebrew from an Egyptian as a marker of foreignness, itself an ambiguous concept. Joseph proudly declares himself a Hebrew in Genesis 40 even though a chapter earlier, Potiphar’s wife upbraids her husband for bringing a Hebrew into their house for sexual dalliance.
After Pharaoh reports his impenetrable dreams about cows and corn, his royal cupbearer recalls a person who might interpret them: “a young man, a Hebrew, servant to the captain of the guard” (Genesis 41:12). Rabbinic tradition understood his words differently than this modern translation, casting aspersions on the cupbearer for describing Joseph as a lad–na’ar, a foreigner/Hebrew—ivri, and a slave—eved, all assertions of his inferiority. More troubling, to my mind, is that he stops short of calling Joseph by name, as though his status as a Hebrew and a slave relegate him to namelessness.
Joseph’s transformation from a Hebrew slave to an Egyptian vizier begins immediately upon his release from prison, as he shaves and receives new clothes in preparation for his audience with Pharaoh. When he offers both an interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams and a plan for addressing the impending seven years of famine, Joseph accepts Pharaoh’s signet ring, another set of even finer clothes, and a gold chain, raiment that conveys his newly elevated status among the Egyptians. Finally, Pharaoh gives Joseph an Egyptian name and an Egyptian wife (although Rabbinic tradition insists that his wife, Asenath, was actually the daughter of Dinah and Shechem). For all intents and purposes, Joseph’s transformation from ivri to Egyptian is complete. He has become invisible. But has he accepted the “Death of the spirit?”
Intimations that he has not include the narrator’s continuing references to Joseph by his Hebrew name. And when Joseph becomes a father, he chooses for his sons not Egyptian names but Hebrew ones, connecting them to God’s grace in helping him overcome the suffering of both his early upbringing (Menashe) and of his affliction in Egypt (Ephraim). Beyond this ongoing connection to Hebrew, we find that after the birth of Joseph’s sons, Pharaoh himself seems to refer to Joseph by his Hebrew name. That name, however, could not have been the one that gained worldwide fame, since if it were, the sons of Jacob would have known that this Egyptian vizier was named Joseph and might have reasonably recognized him as their brother.
Despite these hints at an ongoing Hebrew identity, however, the word ivri itself remains submerged until the fateful scene of Joseph’s banquet with his brothers. As many commentators point out, both the brothers and the Egyptians find it astonishing that Joseph invites these Hebrew sheep herders for a meal, because both Hebrews, at least during meals, and shepherds (in Gen. 47) represent for Egyptians a toevah, a contested term which has traditionally been translated as an “abomination” (and as such stands at the center of the contemporary debate about the bible’s attitude towards same-sex intercourse in the book of Leviticus), but which, as Jay Michaelson and other scholars have argued recently, is in many contexts more likely to mean “foreign cultic practice.”
The verse reads: “[The servants] served [Joseph] by himself, and [the Hebrew brothers] by themselves, and the Egyptians who ate with him by themselves; for the Egyptians could not dine with the Hebrews, since that would be abhorrent to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43: 32). Modern commentators tend to see this verse as evidence of the Egyptians’ xenophobic feelings of religious and cultural superiority. Targum Onkelos, however, suggests that the source of the toevah was the fact that the Hebrews were eating lamb, an animal that Egyptians worshiped, which would make it impossible for them to eat at the same table as the Hebrews (Onkelos likely bases his reading on Exodus 8, where Moses doesn’t want to make an animal sacrifice among the Egyptian population for fear that they would take it as a toevah and stone the Hebrews to death). Onkelos’s suggestion, however, seems off as well, since no one among Joseph’s Egyptian staff appears to find it offputting that he calls for an animal to be slaughtered for the banquet. Most likely, the prohibition, much like kashrut in many traditional Jewish communities, served to maintain the boundary between Egyptian and foreigner–to prevent an expansion of the kind of cultural blending that Joseph and his family seem to represent.
If that is the case, however, why does Joseph also sit alone—neither with the Hebrews nor with the Egyptians? Is his isolation a result, as again many commentators suggest, of his own superior position over his Egyptian advisors and retainers? Indeed we have no evidence from the text that Joseph ever sat together with his staff—or that he didn’t. However, I want to speculate in the context of cultural boundaries that Joseph here is following the narrow path of the ivri with an Egyptian name: the one who crosses cultural boundaries must maintain these cultural distinctions internally, struggling to maintain his own identity while also remaining safe and alive. It also represents his place “in between,” in the liminal space between cultures that brings him such danger and such power.
Ultimately, like Moses after him, Joseph will reveal his full, composite identity in order to deliver his family and his people from affliction to freedom. That liminal status, however, will never leave him. And here perhaps we begin to understand that the fullest embrace of the identity of an ivri is not solely ethnic but also geographical and cultural: one who crosses over, stands forever in between, a perpetual stranger.
At Hanukkah, we celebrate his composite Jewish identity—Hebrews both stood apart and thoroughly mixed not only with Hellenists but also with all the cultures that we’ve assimilated and influenced over the centuries. And as Rukeyser’s poem reminds us, the choice to be a Jew is no simple gift, no stable identity; indeed it often feels easier to remain invisible, both personally and communally. Joseph’s full embrace of his liminal identity will deliver his family from affliction, but eventually lead the Israelites into slavery and near genocide in Egypt. So too Moses, who in recognizing his status as both Hebrew and Egyptian, will face much “torment” and “labyrinthine blood” in “daring to live for the impossible” and “suffering to be free.”
Rabbi Jim Morgan was ordained at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School, and serves as Rabbi/Chaplain for Center Communities of Brookline, a division of Hebrew SeniorLife, and as the Rabbinic Advisor for the Worship and Study Minyan at Harvard Hillel.
Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.