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Appearance and Reality (Mikketz, Covenant & Conversation)

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02.12.2021

After twenty-two years and many twists and turns, Joseph and his brothers finally meet. We sense the drama of the moment. The last time they had been together, the brothers planned to kill Joseph and eventually sold him as a slave. One of the reasons they did so is that they were angry at his reports about his dreams; he had twice dreamed that his brothers would bow down to him. To them that sounded like hubris, excessive confidence, and conceit.

Hubris is usually punished by nemesis and so it was in Joseph’s case. Far from being a ruler, his brothers turned him into a slave. Now, unexpectedly, in this week’s parsha, the dreams become reality. The brothers do bow down to him, “their faces to the ground” (Gen. 42:6). It may feel as though the story has reached its end. Instead it turns out to be only the beginning of another story altogether, a tale of sin, repentance and forgiveness. Biblical stories tend to defy narrative conventions.

The reason, though, that the story does not end with the brothers’ meeting is that only one person present at the scene, Joseph himself, knows that it is a reunion.

“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them … Joseph recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him” (Gen. 42:7-8).

“As soon as Joseph saw his brothers, he recognised them, but he pretended to be a stranger and spoke harshly to them … Joseph recognised his brothers, but they did not recognise him” (Gen. 42:7-8).

There were many reasons they did not recognise him. Many years had passed. They did not know he was in Egypt. They believed he was still a slave, whereas this man was a viceroy. Besides which, he looked like an Egyptian, spoke Egyptian, and had an Egyptian name, Tsofnat Paaneach. Most importantly, though, he was wearing the uniform of an Egyptian of high rank. That had been the sign of Joseph’s elevation at the hand of Pharaoh when he interpreted his dreams:

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain round his neck. He made him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way.” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:41-43)

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.’ Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain round his neck. He made him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, “Make way.” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:41-43)

We know from Egyptian wall paintings and from archaeological discoveries like Tutankhamen’s tomb, how stylised and elaborate were Egyptian robes of office. Different ranks wore different clothes. Early Pharaohs had two headdresses, a white one to mark the fact that they were kings of upper Egypt, and a red one to signal that they were kings of lower Egypt. Like all uniforms, clothes told a story, or as we say nowadays, “made a statement.” They proclaimed a person’s status. Someone dressed like this Egyptian before whom the brothers had just bowed could not possibly be their long-lost brother Joseph. Except that he was.

This seems like a minor matter. I want in this essay to argue the opposite. It turns out to be a very major matter indeed. The first thing we need to note is that the Torah as a whole, and Genesis in particular, has a way of focusing our attention on a major theme: it presents us with recurring episodes. Robert Alter calls them “type scenes.”[1] There is, for example, the theme of sibling rivalry that appears four times in Genesis: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau and Joseph and his brothers. There is the theme that occurs three times of the........

© The Times of Israel (Blogs)


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