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SBL e-journal

Jan Joosten





Joseph and the Limits of Wisdom



APA e-journal

Jan Joosten





Joseph and the Limits of Wisdom






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Joseph and the Limits of Wisdom

Joseph is a model of wisdom. In one story, however, where it is told how Joseph acquired all Egyptians and their land for Pharaoh (Gen 47:13–26), readers can only wonder whether his conduct is really held up as an example. As it seems, the Torah uses this story to teach an important lesson: wisdom is good, but it is to be channeled by the law.


Joseph and the Limits of Wisdom

Joseph overseeing the gathering of grain in Egypt, St Mark's Basilica, Venice, c. 1275. Wikimedia

Heroes with Failings

The Bible has no ideal figures. Abraham admirably follows the call of God to leave everything behind, thus becoming God’s friend (אַבְרָהָם אֹהֲבִי, Isa 41:8) and an inspiration for hundreds of generations of believers. But in the next story he turns around and asks his wife to lie for him: אִמְרִי נָא אֲחֹתִי אָתְּ “Say you are my sister,” putting her in a humiliating and potentially dangerous situation.

Moses is elevated from humble beginnings—floating in a papyrus basket on the waters of the Nile—to the highest glory as God’s prophet and mediator. But his complex and conflicted personality makes him unfit as a model for readers of the Bible.

Solomon prays for wisdom rather than riches or the lives of his enemies, so he may govern God’s people. But he always manifested a Machiavellian streak, and at the end of his life he goes astray, lapsing into idolatry because of his love of women. The Bible willingly cuts its heroes down to size at the first occasion.

David Sins for God’s Benefit

The focus on human frailty and fallibility serves in the biblical economy to elevate God. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud expressly establishes this link between human imperfection and God’s elevation. Psalm 51, which the psalm’s superscription ascribes to King David after his sin with Bathsheba, contains the following statement:

תהלים נא:ה כִּי פְשָׁעַי אֲנִי אֵדָע וְחַטָּאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד. נא:ו לְךָ לְבַדְּךָ חָטָאתִי וְהָרַע בְּעֵינֶיךָ עָשִׂיתִי לְמַעַן תִּצְדַּק בְּדָבְרֶךָ תִּזְכֶּה בְשָׁפְטֶךָ.
Ps 51:5 For I recognize my transgressions, and am ever conscious of my sin. 51:6 Against You alone have I sinned, and done what is evil in Your sight; that You may be justified when You speak, and may be found right when you judge.

These words are interpreted by Rava (early 4th cent. C.E.) in a surprising way (b. Sanhedrin 107a):

אמר דוד לפני הקב"ה גליא וידיעא קמך דאי בעיא למכפייה ליצרי הוה כייפינא אלא אמינא דלא לימרו עבדא זכי למריה
David said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: “It is revealed and known before You that if I sought to suppress my evil inclination, I would have suppressed it; but I said: I will sin, so that they will not say a servant overcame his master.”

According to Rava, David sinned with Bathsheba because he didn’t want to be perfect and enter into competition with God. David committed a single sin so God alone might be found righteous.

Virtually all biblical heroes fail or show moral weakness at one point or another in their lives. Nevertheless, one figure in the Hebrew Bible comes close to perfection, namely Joseph.

What About Joseph?

The Joseph story is an accomplished literary work whose import cannot be reduced to a single objective, but one thing it certainly does is present Joseph as a model for young Israelite readers or hearers of the story to emulate. Mothers and fathers in ancient Israel wouldn’t have wanted their sons to be like Judah or, רחמנא ליצלן, God forbid, Reuben. They wouldn’t have wanted them to be like Abraham, Moses or David. But they would, I submit, have loved them to follow in the footsteps of Joseph.

Joseph’s Exemplarity and Biblical Wisdom

Admittedly, as in the case of Moses, Joseph’s beginnings are a bit difficult. In his youth, he is spoiled by his father, and behaves like a brat, telling tales about his brothers and informing them of his dreams that one day they will bow to him. But from the moment he is sold into slavery, Joseph consistently displays an array of highly prized qualities—traits admired in ancient times as well as today.

Despite his setbacks, being sold into slavery and then being thrown in prison after a false accusation of rape, Joseph doesn’t sulk, but remains attentive to his fellow humans. He is at ease with the criminals in prison, but also knows how to speak to the Pharaoh in his throne room. He is able to seize the right occasions, but also to say no when it is required (notably he resists the advances of his master’s wife). He is modest and fears God. When he is confronted with his brothers in Egypt, he puts them to the test, but never exacts vengeance upon them, not even after their father has died.

Above all, Joseph is efficient; he gets things done: He manages Potiphar’s house, interprets dreams, and knows what to do when God reveals that a famine is coming.

Joseph as a Paragon of Wisdom

According to German Bible scholar and theologian Gerhard von Rad (1901–1971), Joseph exemplifies exactly the qualities promoted in the Book of Proverbs: readiness to learn, high self-esteem, “fear of God,” and persuasiveness in speech.

The Joseph story shows that wisdom works: if you apply its precepts, you will lead a successful life. If Proverbs were thought of as a school curriculum, Joseph could be its emblematic graduate.[1] In Gen 41:39, Pharaoh expressly designates Joseph as a paragon of wisdom: אֵין נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ “there is no one so discerning and wise as you.”[2]

Joseph’s Purchase of Egyptian Land in the Context of Wisdom

The observations about Joseph and wisdom should frame how we read the passage in Genesis 47:13–26, which tells how Joseph changes Egypt from a nation of free farmers and stockmen into a single production unit in service of the palace. According to this story, having stored up all the surplus of the land during the seven years of abundance, Joseph has a monopoly on basic supplies for the seven years of famine. He exploits this royal monopoly without restraint: he collects the Egyptians’ money, then their livestock, their land and their bodies. In the end he relocates the entire population from the countryside to the cities—although evidently still making them work the land.

The reader cannot help but ask: Is all this still exemplary behavior? Perhaps on second thought I don’t want my child to grow up and be like Joseph. But does such a reservation really reflect the ancient author or is it is a knee-jerk ethical evaluation from a modern reader?

It is not easy to know whether Joseph is held up for criticism in the passage under investigation. Let us look at the question from three points of view:

The Characters

The characters in the story think Joseph is doing the right thing. This is true for Joseph, presumably, but more significantly, is true for the Egyptians as well. After the whole process of royal acquisition of Egyptian assets is complete, the Egyptians say to Joseph:

בראשית מז:כה הֶחֱיִתָנוּ נִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי וְהָיִינוּ עֲבָדִים לְפַרְעֹה.
Gen 47:25 You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be slaves to Pharaoh.

The expression “may it please my lord” (נִמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי, literally: “May we find favor in your eyes”) is opaque in English, but in Hebrew it is idiomatic. As Arnold Ehrlich (1848–1919) first discovered, it means something like: “thank you.”[3] For example, when David gives Mephibosheth’s estate to Ziba, the latter’s slave, Ziba replies:

שמואל ב טז:ד הִשְׁתַּחֲוֵיתִי אֶמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ אֲדֹנִי הַמֶּלֶךְ.
2 Sam 16:4 I bow before you. May I find favour in your sight, my lord the king.

Again, what he means is “thank you.”[4] The Egyptians are thankful to Joseph for saving their lives, at whatever cost.

The Author or Narrator

What the author thinks of Joseph’s doings, in this passage, is much less obvious. As the 19th century German Bible scholar August Dillmann (1823–1894) remarks, the author “hat kein Wort der Billigung”—has nothing good to say about the entire process. But neither does he expressly condemn the process. As so often in the Bible, the author “shows” but does not “tell.”[5]

The author’s reticence has led practically all commentators to think that the author approves of Joseph’s doings. Jon Levenson goes as far as to state that the author enjoys the passage: Joseph goes up, the Egyptians go down, and the Israelites are safely tucked away in the land of Goshen—what is there not to like?[6] The episode, in this view, was told in praise of Joseph’s managerial skills, or as a model of how to serve a king.

The Readers

As to readers, from antiquity to the present time many exegetes have evaluated Joseph’s policy positively: Joseph is acting as a wise and faithful superintendent of the realm. He is open about his intentions and not motivated by self-interest. True, the Egyptians end up having to pay 20% of their yearly income to Pharaoh, but that was a fair price to pay for survival. Until recently, then, three points were generally held: the Egyptians are happy, the author praises Joseph’s actions, and the reader is supposed to endorse the positive evaluation.

In some recent writing, however, exegetes have expressed a different view: what goes on in the story is inacceptable to them. Peter Weimar calls the episode “an irritating section of the Joseph story” (“ein irritierender Abschnitt im Rahmen der Josefsgeschichte”).[7] The enslavement of the Egyptian people, Joseph’s unyielding drive for economic gain, and the totalitarian thrust of his actions have led to negative evaluations of Joseph’s behavior in this section.[8]

Clash Between Reader and Author?

The negative view is generally, as far as I can tell, held to be opposed to that of the author: the author approves Joseph’s doings, but we, modern readers today, do not. Twentieth century critics such as Weimar do not differ on the alignment of viewpoints: like earlier exegetes they too think the author intends the readers to come away with a positive impression of Joseph. Where they differ is that they do not bow to the author’s authority as they perceive it. They refuse to play the game. In effect, they attribute the ethical discomfort the passage generates to the author of the story.

It seems to me, however, that the negative impression of Joseph’s actions recounted in Genesis 47 is in fact shared by the author,[9] who, in spite of his reticence, is here condemning Joseph’s actions. Joseph’s failure is not recounted, in this case, to glorify God, as in the examples explored above, but in order to make an important point about Wisdom.

Narrative Irony

The author, as we saw, is studiedly neutral in telling of Joseph’s economic policy. Such an authorial stance typifies biblical stories. In the tale of Abram and Sarai in Egypt in Genesis 12, the author similarly withholds all express judgment. This does not mean that he condones what Abram does (nor what Pharaoh does). Readers are supposed to make up their own mind, honing their moral sense in confrontation with real-life situations—real life in a different culture and a distant past.

In our story, the author is not completely neutral. One point where he shows his hand, so to speak, is verse 25, mentioned above, in which the Egyptians express their thanks to Joseph. In a global view, gratitude may indeed have been in order. If Joseph hadn’t foreseen the future, and planned ahead, many Egyptians would have died of hunger.

Yet in response to the successive taking away of their silver, their animals, their land, and their personal freedom, the expression of thanks sounds a bit acrid. If Joseph were to kick them next they would still mumble, נִמְצָא־חֵן בְּעֵינֵי אֲדֹנִי, “thank you lord”; what other choice did they have?

On the level of the story (what happens in Egypt in the days of Joseph), the Egyptians’ thankfulness signals perhaps less their contentment than the breakdown of all resistance. Or, perhaps, their professed gratitude is really a muted curse. Meanwhile, on the level of the communication going on between the author and the reader, it is hard not to think there is some authorial irony in the Egyptians’ response.

From the vantage point of verse 25, the whole story would seem to be ironic. Joseph plays the benefactor and the Egyptians kiss his hands, but it is all big lie. Flavius Josephus seems to be sensitive to these nuances, for he reduces Joseph’s role in the story to a minimum, making the Egyptian people into the active party, and their removal from their land a natural consequence:

Ant. 2.189 Joseph sold them corn for their money. But when their money failed them, they bought corn with their cattle and their slaves; 2.189 and if any of them had a small piece of land, they gave up that to purchase them food, by which means the king became the owner of all their substance; and they were removed, some to one place and some to another… (trans. William Whiston)

Josephus’ intention is to rephrase the biblical story so as to bring glory to his people and their ancestors. But in an indirect way, through omission and rephrasing, his retelling highlights problematic elements of the biblical version of the story.

It is hard to imagine that the author of the story was not aware of these elements. In Genesis as opposed to the Antiquities, events do not just follow their course: Joseph brings them about. He relentlessly directs the Egyptians to dispossess themselves of their belongings and their personal freedom. Joseph’s actions are reminiscent of the proverbial frog cooking in a pot full of cold water that never jumps out if the water is heated slowly.

Did Joseph Bring About Israel’s Enslavement?

The wider context of the Joseph story gives strong confirmation to the idea that Gen 47:13–26 was not told to illustrate a success, but a failure. Only a few pages later in the story, we find the Israelites in Egypt serving as slaves. Pharaoh is a hard-hearted autocrat, single-mindedly focusing on the glory and might of Egypt. There is no hospitality, and no respect for human life.

Egypt, in Exodus, is depicted as a totalitarian state. Its moniker, especially in Exodus and Deuteronomy is בית עבדים, “house of slavery.” This picture does not fit the country to which first Joseph and then the entire Israelite family flee in the latter chapters of Genesis.

In Genesis, Egypt is a land of opportunity and relative fairness, a welcome haven for economic refugees, and, according to Gen 47:13–26, a land where each family lived on the produce of their ancestral plot of land. In fact, the impression our text gives is that Egypt, before the seven-year famine, was like the land of Israel as it is depicted in many biblical texts.

How did Egypt change? The narrative suggests that Joseph’s actions related in Gen 47 were a key factor in the transformation of Egypt. At the risk of exaggerating, one might say Joseph unwittingly created the monster from which God one generation later had to rescue his people in order to make them free again.

The Israelites go unmentioned in Genesis 47. Perhaps, settled separately in the land of Goshen, Joseph’s reforms did not affect them. However, in the wider scheme of things, even if they escaped its effects initially, the totalitarian system would affect them at some point. But there is more.

Joseph Versus the Slavery Laws

The Torah contains several passages whose demands openly conflict with Joseph’s policy in Genesis 47. According to Exodus 21 and Deuteronomy 15, slaves In Israel were to serve only for seven years, after which they were to be liberated again. According to Leviticus 25, every 50 years land that had been sold outside the family was to be given back to the original owners. These laws speak of a political vision that was completely opposed to the course of action followed by Joseph.[10]

Admittedly, these laws may not originally have belonged to the same document as the Joseph story. If Gen 47:13–26 belongs to the Jahwist strand of the Joseph story, as many documentarians and neo-documentarians believe, the author may not have been aware of the laws we now find in Exod 21 (E), Lev 25 (H) and Deut 15 (D).

Even if he was not aware of them, however, he may have known legal teaching of this type. The laws of liberation of Hebrew slaves and restitution of land resonate with many other commands aiming to preserve freedom and economic sufficiency: laws on alms, gleaning, the interdiction on usury. It is hard to think that the author of our story in Genesis 47, and his intended readers, didn’t know of any of these stipulations.

Wisdom and the Law

Although Genesis 47:13–26 is a a surprising section showing Joseph in a light hitherto unsuspected, we must consider is as an integral part of the Joseph story. The author’s overall concern is to show that “Wisdom works,” showing Israelite youngsters a model to follow. If you can be like Joseph, you will succeed in life.

To his global message, however, a caveat needs to be added: Wisdom is not enough, you also need the law. If you blindly follow Wisdom’s precepts, you will succeed, but be careful what you wish for! If Wisdom is not balanced with a sense of justice, it can lead you astray, with catastrophic results. Exactly because Wisdom works, it needs to be channeled by the law.


December 31, 2019


Last Updated

March 25, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Jan Joosten is Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford. He holds a Ph.D from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a Th.D from the Protestant Faculty in Brussels, and an HDR from the University of Strasbourg, where he also served as Professor of the Old Testament. Among his many publications are People and Land in the Holiness Code. An Exegetical Study of the Ideational Framework of the Law in Leviticus 17-26 (VTsupp 67), Collected Studies on the Septuagint. From Language to Interpretation and Beyond (FAT 83), and (with Ronald Hendel) How Old Is the Hebrew Bible? A Linguistic, Textual, and Historical Study (Anchor Bible Reference Library). Joosten is the editor (with Eberhard Bons) of the Historical and Theological Lexicon of the Septuagint.