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SBL e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Is the Recent Antipathy to Joseph Justified?





APA e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Is the Recent Antipathy to Joseph Justified?








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Is the Recent Antipathy to Joseph Justified?

Contemporary abuse of a once popular biblical hero.


Is the Recent Antipathy to Joseph Justified?

Joseph, Overseer of Pharaoh’s Granaries, 1874.  Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Dutch/British.

The Righteous and Wise Joseph

The Joseph narrative, the longest running story in Genesis, covers his birth, youth, mature years and death, including details of both his family life and his public life. Like many biblical characters, Joseph has captured the imagination of later writers and interpreters, who retell or expand his story, and evaluate his character. In ancient times, Joseph was generally loved, and portrayed as worthy of emulation; Genesis Rabbah famously refers to Joseph as Yosef HaTzaddik (Joseph the Righteous).[1]

This positive view can still be found among modern interpreters. For example, the mid-twentieth century German giant of modern biblical scholarship, Gerhard von Rad, saw Joseph as emblematic of the Bible’s “wisdom” tradition:

[Wisdom texts] depict a man who by his upbringing, his modesty, his learning, his courtesy, and his self-discipline has acquired true nobility of character. He is, let us say it at once, the image of Joseph! Joseph, as the writer of the narrative draws him, is the very picture of such a young man at his best, well-bred and finely educated, steadfast in faith and well-versed in the world.[2]

Much of what animates the positive portrayal of Joseph has been his sexual restraint (rejecting the advances of his master’s wife), his wisdom (ability to interpret dreams, administrative talent), and the fact that he saves his family from dying of starvation during the famine. In modern times, however, another aspect of Joseph’s career—his actions as vizier—has caught the attention of interpreters, and, at least in Jewish circles, he is often depicted in a more ambiguous or negative fashion.

Savior of the World: A Positive Depiction (Ch. 41)

The description of Joseph as Egypt vizier appears primarily in two passages. The first, in ch. 41, seems entirely positive. Taken from captivity, Joseph appears before Pharaoh, interprets his dream, and proposes a plan that succeeds in dealing with the feast-famine cycle. Pharaoh elevates Joseph to second-in-command over the land of Egypt and the 30 year-old Joseph “goes out” (ויצא / ויעבור) over the land of Egypt to familiarize himself with local circumstances and put his plan into action.

The famine turns out to affect not only Egypt but the known world (vv. 53-57)[3] – this is quite odd since Egypt had a local ecosystem, depending on the annual inundation of the Nile, as opposed to Canaan, which depended on seasonal rains. Nevertheless, Genesis depicts Joseph as saving the entire known world, a hyperbole that presumably serves to move the story further (Canaan must also suffer famine if the brothers are to come to Egypt) as well as to underscore Joseph’s global importance (Gen. 41: 57):

וְכָל הָאָרֶץ בָּאוּ מִצְרַיְמָה לִשְׁבֹּר אֶל יוֹסֵף כִּי חָזַק הָרָעָב בְּכָל הָאָרֶץ.
So all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world.

The sun and moon and stars may never literally bow down to Joseph (Gen. 37:9), but “all the world” does.[4]

Despot of Egypt: Joseph’s Enslavement of the Egyptians (Ch. 47)

The second passage treating Joseph’s policies, Gen. 47:13-27, is more ambiguous. In it, we learn that Joseph has done more than rescue Egypt from a one-time catastrophe. He has instituted a new social system that reduces the status of the Egyptian farmer (though not the priests) by taking over all land as property of the crown and allowing Egyptians to farm the land as serfs in exchange for a twenty percent tax. Compared to the size of the intervening family drama (Gen. 42-45), Joseph’s policies are a brief note. Nevertheless, they comprise fourteen verses – a sizable length.[5]

Joseph’s Egyptian settlement caught the attention of modern thinkers interested in political science and the role of the Jew. Modern interpreters have focused on two questions: Is Joseph acting ethically? Where does this behavior fit in the overall storyline?

Maurice Samuel: Joseph as Disraeli

Maurice Samuel (1895–1972)

Some modern thinkers see Joseph’s heavy-handed policy making as good politics and solid administration. This was the view of Joseph presented by the great belletrist Maurice Samuel (1907-1980) in his Certain People of the Book, a remarkable book accurately claiming to be a personal reading, unbound by rabbinic traditions. Samuel likens Joseph’s “brilliant”[6]maneuvering to that of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British politician of Jewish origin, placing both of them in the tradition of “Court Jew”:

He (Joseph) has been called the Disraeli of the ancient world. The comparison goes much further than is usually perceived and if it has not been done, someone should write two Plutarchian parallel lives of Victoria’s Prime Minister and Pharaoh’s Vizier. There are many differences between the two men, but the similarities are astonishing. Both were brilliant, and brilliant alike in their ability to irritate and to charm. Both were “foreigners,” though Disraeli was second-generation English-born. Both were democratic conservatives concerned with the welfare of the masses as much as with the retention of traditional authority.
The two men even had, across the interval of more than three thousand years, a common bond in Egypt; Disraeli bought up the Khedive’s shares in the Suez Canal, in a bold and irregular maneuver and thereby determined England’s Egyptian policy forever after. The two men had a peripheral interest in the people of their origin, though in different degrees – and here again I touch on Joseph’s deviation from his mission; again I point out that though he was far more deeply involved than Disraeli in the fate of his people, Joseph gave his best to the country of his adoption.[7]

Samuel’s positive evaluation of Joseph’s “pro-government” policies, however, has found little resonance among contemporary Jewish thinkers.

Aaron Wildavsky: Joseph as Assimilationist and Tyrant

Aaron Wildavsky (1930–1993)

Political scientist Aaron Wildavsky (1930-1993) deserves great credit for the recent turn to the Bible as a political text. Wildavsky indicted Joseph as an assimilationist and as a tyrant, who abandoned his Israelite identity in exchange for power. Although biblical Hebrew has no word that directly corresponds to “assimilation,”[8] the Bible seems attuned to the theme and flags Joseph’s hybrid status.[9] And yet, the renaming, intermarriage and visible Egyptianizing of Joseph in Genesis 41 might be justified as mainly external. After all, if Joseph is to administer the nation he must be somewhat a part of it. Wildavsky, however, sees the Egyptianizing as intrinsic to Joseph’s identity and ethical makeup.

To emphasize Joseph’s abandonment of his heritage, Wildavsky compares him to Moses, the nurturing father of a nation:[10]

So Moses, born in Egypt becomes Hebraicized; Joseph, who grows up a Hebrew, becomes Egyptianized. Joseph, who leads his people into Egypt, is succeeded by Moses, who leads his people out. The opposition between the two is so great and so consistent…that it is difficult to believe it is unintended.[11]

Wildavsky’s reading, however, is problematic. Even if the Bible makes Joseph a precursor to Moses, it does not necessarily follow that Joseph represents a negative counterexample. The trajectories of the two diverge, but to deny the Egyptian elements in Moses seems forced.[12] The idea of Joseph as an anti-Moses has not found much resonance, but the critique of Joseph as an assimilationist[13] and a power hungry tyrant has.

Enslaving the Egyptians, Enslaving Israel

A key element supporting the negative reading of Joseph’s policies as vizier comes from the world of literary analysis. Why is this episode recorded in the Torah? What does it have to do with its overall narrative arc? Some scholars have appealed to the juxtaposition of the end of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus; by reducing the Egyptians to servitude, Joseph prepares the grounds for Israel’s own enslavement.[14] By making this observation, modern scholars can ostensibly find biblical support for their critique of Joseph’s despotic behavior.

Moses Pava

Dr Moses Pava

Moses Pava, Dean of Yeshiva University’s Business school, and an accomplished scholar of business ethics, critiques Joseph’s use of inside information and views Joseph’s consolidation of power as contributing to Israel’s plight as an enslaved population:

[T]here is a clear link between the Egyptian people’s willingness to sell themselves into slavery in Genesis, and their acceptance of Pharaoh’s plan to enslave Joseph’s descendants in Exodus.[15]

In other words, part of the reason the Egyptian people accept the enslavement of the Hebrews so quickly is because, unlike Pharaoh of Oppression (Exod. 1:8), they do remember Joseph, and his role in turning them into landless serfs.

Ivan Caine

An even more damning judgment on Joseph’s rule comes from the Rabbi Ivan Caine:

This is a story in which the pagan potentate (pharaoh) is depicted as benign, while the Hebrew hero, normally bearer of a high moral standard, is seen as behaving in a way that offends God… The ethical judgment of Joseph is not affected by the assumption of many that the Bible speaks as though it reflects an actual state of affairs in Egypt, where Pharaoh owned all the land except the temple estates, and exacted a crop tax of twenty percent. We read from our own Scripture that our ancestor bore down on the Egyptians with a cruelty which is not ascribed to Pharaoh himself.[16]

For these authors Joseph’s political failures are tied into his conscious abandonment of his Israelite identity and moral heritage, an abandonment of identity implied in the description of how Joseph chose the names of his two sons:

בראשית מא:נ וּלְיוֹסֵף יֻלַּד שְׁנֵי בָנִים בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא שְׁנַת הָרָעָב אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה לּוֹ אָסְנַת בַּת פּוֹטִי פֶרַע כֹּהֵן אוֹן. מא:נא וַיִּקְרָא יוֹסֵף אֶת שֵׁם הַבְּכוֹר מְנַשֶּׁה כִּי נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים אֶת כָּל עֲמָלִי וְאֵת כָּל בֵּית אָבִי. מא:נב וְאֵת שֵׁם הַשֵּׁנִי קָרָא אֶפְרָיִם כִּי הִפְרַנִי אֱלֹהִים בְּאֶרֶץ עָנְיִי.
Gen. 41:50 Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. 41:51 Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” 41:52 And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”

The past has been left behind, or so Joseph thinks, and the celebration of his new homeland heartfelt.[17] And yet, the fact that the names are given in Hebrew implies that the break is not really complete.

Has Joseph Lost his “Israelite” Roots?

Joseph is depicted as culturally Egyptian, which is only to be expected. Surely an intelligent lad such as Joseph would have rapidly mastered Egyptian language and customs. Recalling that he showed up in Egypt in his underwear (the ketonet passim having been torn from him), his dress, hairstyle, diet and general appearance must have changed considerably from Gen. 37, when he was brought down to Egypt.

Recall that before his brothers and father reenter his life, Joseph spent thirteen years in Egypt (from age 17 to 30) alone. When the text reports in Genesis 42:7 that Joseph “estranged himself” from his brothers, there is no hint that Joseph needed to alter his physical appearance to hide his identity from his family. The brothers do not recognize him and Joseph wants it that way as his use of a translator suggests (42:23). But the idea that the Bible is presenting Joseph as an assimilationist whose bad behavior in Pharaoh’s court led to the enslavement of his people does not follow from this family drama.

Joseph and God

First and foremost, Joseph’s relationship with God remains intact throughout the story, with multiple verses pointing to God as the source of Joseph’s continued success throughout the narrative (39:2-3, 5, 21, 23). Joseph explicitly credits God with granting him the ability to understand dreams (40:8, 41:16) and speaks to Pharaoh as if it were a given that his God has power over Egypt and the entire world (41:25, 32). Joseph even brings Pharaoh to recognize God’s hand in ruling Egypt (41:38-39).

When Joseph meets his brothers, he makes it abundantly clear that he believes God caused all things related to what happened to him, from his being sold as a slave to his becoming the vizier (45:5, 7-9; 50:19-20). Finally, it is Joseph on his deathbed who reminds the brothers that God will remember them and bring them back to the land (Gen. 50:24). This hardly sounds like the portrayal of a character who has entirely Egyptianized and forgotten his roots.

The Psalter also suggests that Joseph’s success is attributable to God:

תהלים קה:יז שָׁלַח לִפְנֵיהֶם אִישׁ
לְעֶבֶד נִמְכַּר יוֹסֵף.
קה:יח עִנּוּ בַכֶּבֶל רגליו [רַגְלוֹ]
בַּרְזֶל בָּאָה נַפְשׁוֹ.
קה:יט עַד עֵת בֹּא דְבָרוֹ
אִמְרַת יְ-הוָה צְרָפָתְהוּ.
קה:כ שָׁלַח מֶלֶךְ וַיַּתִּירֵהוּ
מֹשֵׁל עַמִּים וַיְפַתְּחֵהוּ.
קה:כה שָׂמוֹ אָדוֹן לְבֵיתוֹ
וּמֹשֵׁל בְּכָל קִנְיָנוֹ.
קה:כו לֶאְסֹר שָׂרָיו בְּנַפְשׁוֹ
וּזְקֵנָיו יְחַכֵּם.
Psalm 105:17 He sent ahead of them a man,
Joseph, sold into slavery.
105:18 His feet were subjected to fetters;
an iron collar was put on his neck.
105:19 Until his prediction came true
the decree of YHWH purged him.
105:20 The king sent to have him freed;
the ruler of nations released him.
105:21 He made him the lord of his household,
empowered him over all his possessions,
105:22 to discipline his princes at will,
to teach his elders wisdom.

Joseph’s Burial in Shechem

In addition, the theme of Joseph’s burial in Shechem functions as a kind of narrative glue connecting Genesis and the Joseph story to that of Moses and Joshua:

Gen. 50:25-26

וַיַּשְׁבַּע יוֹסֵף אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה. וַיָּמָת יוֹסֵף בֶּן מֵאָה וָעֶשֶׂר שָׁנִים וַיַּחַנְטוּ אֹתוֹ וַיִּישֶׂם בָּאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָיִם.
So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.” Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt.

Exod. 13:19

וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף עִמּוֹ כִּי הַשְׁבֵּעַ הִשְׁבִּיעַ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה אִתְּכֶם.
And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had exacted an oath from the children of Israel, saying, “God will be sure to take notice of you: then you shall carry up my bones from here with you.”

Josh. 24:32

וְאֶת-עַצְמוֹת יוֹסֵף אֲשֶׁר-הֶעֱלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִמִּצְרַיִם, קָבְרוּ בִשְׁכֶם, בְּחֶלְקַת הַשָּׂדֶה אֲשֶׁר קָנָה יַעֲקֹב מֵאֵת בְּנֵי-חֲמוֹר אֲבִי-שְׁכֶם, בְּמֵאָה קְשִׂיטָה; וַיִּהְיוּ לִבְנֵי-יוֹסֵף לְנַחֲלָה.
The people of Israel had brought Joseph’s bones up from Egypt. They buried his bones at Shechem in the piece of land Jacob had bought. He had bought it from the sons of Hamor. He had paid 100 pieces of silver for it. Hamor was the father of Shechem. That piece of land became the share that belonged to Joseph’s children after him.

Joseph’s remains and his burial in Shechem became a major trope for Second Temple and rabbinic literature.[18]

The Court Jew in the Bible: The Stories of Daniel and Megillat Esther

The reception of Joseph in biblical literature strongly implies that he was seen as a model court Jew, someone to be emulated. Scholars have long suggested that the stories of Daniel, and Esther/Mordechai allude to Joseph, borrowing from its plot and lexicon.[19] This is hardly surprising, since all three are diaspora stories about court Jews.

Daniel’s depiction based on Joseph is obvious: for example, he too interprets the king’s dreams when the kings own interpreters are baffled. Mordechai is depicted like Joseph when he withstands the temptation to bow to Haman the way Joseph withstood the temptation to sleep with his master’s wife:

Joseph (Gen 39:10)

Mordechai (Esth 3:4)

וַיְהִי כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ
וַיְהִי באמרם [כְּאָמְרָם] אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵיהֶם
And it was that she coaxed Joseph day after day but he would not listen to her… And it was that they spoke to him day after day and he would not listen to them…

Yoram Hazony: Daniel and Esther as Satires on Joseph

The use of Joseph as a model for Daniel and Mordechai implies that the authors of these stories saw Joseph as a figure worth emulating. Nevertheless, the contemporary philosopher, political scientist, and public intellectual Yoram Hazony, has argued that the works of Daniel and Esther are intended to satirize Joseph by highlighting how Daniel and Mordechai remain proud Jews, whereas Joseph gives in and assimilates.[20]

But this is a problematic claim. Joseph repeatedly calls the God of Israel to Pharaoh’s attention, gives his sons Hebrew names, at least as the Bible perceives them, eats segregated from the Egyptians he rules, seeks his father’s blessing (one cannot get more patriarchal than that), and makes his brothers swear to re-bury him in Canaan.[21] Is it not just as likely that Daniel makes didactic the religious loyalty implied in Joseph?

The argument for satire seems even more forced in the case of Esther, who, after all, changes her name, appearance, eating habits, and, presumably sleeps with a gentile king before reasserting her Jewish loyalties. Nobody in the scroll of Esther mentions God, making Esther unique among the books of the Hebrew Bible. By contrast, the perpetually God-invoking Joseph is a model of piety.

Why So Negative?

The negative stance towards Joseph’s behavior in Egypt exhibited by such talented scholars as Wildavsky, Pava, Caine, and Hazony appear to reflect two distinct modern concerns: social justice and Jewish assimilation.

Joseph’s taking advantage of the Egyptian people’s weak position to make them into Pharaoh’s serfs certainly goes against the modern Jewish ethos of tikkun olam (repairing the world), but it is unclear whether this bothered the biblical author who may have been presenting this maneuver as an example of Joseph’s astuteness. Even if a negative leitmotiv were deliberate, it would represent a small voice of criticism, drowned out in a biblical chorus of praise for Joseph and his accomplishments.

If concern regarding Joseph’s unfairness to the Egyptian populace has some basis in the text, the problem of Joseph’s assimilation seems to be a peculiarly modern Jewish invention. Certainly the text assumes a break—at least a temporary one—between Joseph and his family, but God never leaves Joseph’s side or his discourse.

To be fair, criticism of Joseph was not invented in the last half-century. Like any biblical character, the Sages subjected Joseph to scrutiny: Joseph’s failure to inform Jacob of his whereabouts was censured; his conduct with Mistress Potiphar raised many a rabbinic eyebrow; and his protracted testing of his brothers was questioned.

Nevertheless, criticism may be distinguished from animus. That this negative view of Joseph meets some political or anti-assimilationist agenda remains speculation on my part. What seems evident, however, is that Joseph has had a tough few decades.


January 2, 2017


Last Updated

December 2, 2022


View Footnotes

Prof. Alan T. Levenson holds the Schusterman/Josey Chair in Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and is the director of the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Ohio State University. Levenson is the author of The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel and America Transformed an Ancient Text, and Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages (2016), and a biography of the Manchester-raised author-translator Maurice Samuel (forthcoming).