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SBL e-journal

Meira Polliack





Pharaoh’s Dreams and the Mirroring of Joseph’s Inner Life





APA e-journal

Meira Polliack





Pharaoh’s Dreams and the Mirroring of Joseph’s Inner Life








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"All I Have to Do Is Dream"

Pharaoh’s Dreams and the Mirroring of Joseph’s Inner Life

“I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours” ― Bob Dylan


Pharaoh’s Dreams and the Mirroring of Joseph’s Inner Life

Joseph Explaining Pharaoh’s Dreams, Raphael, 16th century. Wikimedia

“Dream, Dream, Dream”: Three Sets in an Up-and-Down Structure

The three double-dream scenes in the Joseph narrative (Gen chs. 37, 40–41) are interrelated on the literary level, and their connections subtly reflect and contribute to the development of the plot, and to the literary formation of Joseph’s character. Let us look at some of these connections:[1]


These three scenes progress in an upwardly mobile social direction—boy to minister to ruler.

In the opening story (ch. 37), Joseph, a seventeen-year-old lad, dreams that his brothers’ sheaves bow to him, and then dreams that the sun, moon, and stars do so too. Later, while in prison (ch. 40), Joseph encounters two of Pharaoh’s ministers, the chief wine-steward and the chief baker; the former dreams of squeezing grapes from three branches of a vine into Pharaoh’s cup, and the latter dreams of three baskets of bread on his head being picked at by birds. Finally, Pharaoh himself has two dreams (ch. 41), the first of seven healthy looking cows swallowed by seven scrawny cows, and the second of seven healthy heads of grain swallowed by seven scorched heads of grain.

The upwardly mobile status of the dreamers is contrasted with Joseph’s lowering social status, from a spoiled and comfortable son living among his brethren, the apple of his father’s eye, to a Hebrew (non-Egyptian) slave boy, and then imprisoned slave, in Egypt.

We have here an “up and down” movement or structure,[2] which suggests, firstly, that what meets our eye as a promising event can in fact be a disastrous one, and, secondly, whoever is up can come down and vice versa; things are not always what they seem, and life has no guarantees. Both these themes are typical of biblical wisdom literature, to which genre the Joseph story clearly belongs.

The three sets of double dreams[3] also set the tone in accentuating Joseph’s inner journey in climbing out of his physical and mental pit and regaining his power and success among the Egyptians, as well as reclaiming his leading status among his Hebrew brethren.


The latent content of both of Joseph’s dreams is very positive: the sheaves and the stars are all bowing to him. The latent content of the chief wine-steward’s dream is positive: he squeezes grapes and gives a cup of wine to Pharaoh. That of the chief baker is negative: birds pick at his bread while he carries it on his head. The latent content of both of Pharaoh’s dreams is eerie and disturbing, with healthy animals and heads of grain disappearing into the gullet of sickly ones. The dreams are sinister and nightmarish enough to awaken Pharaoh from his sleep twice.[4]

The valence of the first and last sets of dreams is in inverse proportion to their consequences. Joseph’s boasting of his dreams about dominating his brothers and parents, among other issues,[5] leads to their hating him, plotting to kill him, throwing him into a pit, and Joseph being sold as a slave to an Egyptian master. Pharaoh’s sharing of his nightmares, in contrast, leads him to finding Joseph, learning from him about the messages his dreams are conveying about the future, and ultimately allowing him to save his country and others from starvation.[6]

The middle pair of (contrastive) dreams is split in valence, and so are its consequences. It thus serves as a transition from the first to the third (repetitive) pairs: the chief wine-steward is reinstated, whereas the chief baker is executed. In their cases, telling their dreams had no effect on the consequences; Joseph’s interpretation simply gave each forewarning. Joseph and Pharaoh telling their dreams, however, did have an effect on their reality, in that Joseph is betrayed by his brothers and Pharaoh is given the opportunity to save his country.

Both of these literary features of the dream scenes (shifting hierarchy and valence) help move the narrative forward, give it depth, and underscore the literary artistry of the work.[7] The artistry of the final pair of dreams, those of Pharaoh, is the subtlest, conveying not only Pharaoh’s but also Joseph's troubled state of mind, and offering them both a redemptive message, whose deciphering is especially critical since it is life-saving to both in more ways than one.

“When I Feel Blue in the Night”: What Disturbed Pharaoh?

Pharaoh’s dreams appear twice in chapter 41, first when Pharaoh experiences them (realistically) (vv. 1–4), and later when he recounts them in detail to Joseph (vv. 17–21).[8] One significant detail of the cow dream that appears only when Pharaoh recounts it to Joseph stands out as an important addition:

בראשית מא:כא וַתָּבֹאנָה אֶל קִרְבֶּנָה וְלֹא נוֹדַע כִּי בָאוּ אֶל קִרְבֶּנָה וּמַרְאֵיהֶן רַע כַּאֲשֶׁר בַּתְּחִלָּה וָאִיקָץ.
Gen 41:21 When they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before. And I awoke. (NJPS)

Pharaoh’s phrasing accentuates how this detail especially disturbed him.[9] Not only are the healthy cows devoured by the scrawny ones utterly erased, as if they had never existed, but the scrawny cows do not become fuller and healthier, remaining as they were before, unaltered!

Without understanding what the healthy and scrawny cows symbolized, Pharaoh intuits here the possibility that something so bad could happen (to him? to Egypt?) that all the good that came before would be wiped away as if it had never occurred.[10] This is the most terrifying prospect of the dream, and because he is so alarmed, he feels great relief when Joseph interprets the dreams as he does.

Yet Joseph’s task is not really over, in that presaging danger and offering a practical solution is only part of the dreams’ solution. The ambitious and spoiled lad (dreams 1-2), enslaved and imprisoned with an unsteady future for better or worse (dreams 3-4), will also have to recognize that he too is a frightened man from within (dreams 5-6), no less terrified than Pharaoh.

“Dreams Are My Reality”: Joseph’s Unravelling of Traumatic Experience

Joseph puts Pharaoh’s mind to rest not only because his decoding makes sense but also because he is able to make use of this knowledge and take immediate action in order to defuse the danger foretold in the dreams. When Joseph gives him his interpretation (Gen 41:25–32) and then prescribes a steady course of action with confidence and assurance (Gen 41:33–37), Pharaoh immediately recognizes the solution as divinely inspired, describing Joseph as אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר רוּחַ אֱלֹהִים בּוֹ... אֵין נָבוֹן וְחָכָם כָּמוֹךָ “a man in whom is the spirit of God…. there is none so discerning and wise as you,” and assigning him the role of active leader (vv. 40–45).

Yet Pharaoh’s dreams have an additional layer and purpose, a subtle message directed to Joseph himself, about his present life and his dark past, which if correctly deciphered can change his personal reality. In order to do this he must retrace his steps in a mental sense, trigger the memory of his earlier dreams.

As a seventeen-year-old lad, the apple of his father’s eye, Joseph seems oblivious to how jealous his brothers are of him and how much they hate him. He is proud of his special coat, and actually shares his dreams of his brothers’ future obeisance to him as if they would somehow be excited with this prospect as well. His lack of empathy towards them and his blindness to their point of view on the matter is akin to that of his father, Jacob, and characterizes both of them as somewhat egocentric, or at least lacking basic interpersonal sensibility.

Joseph is thus in shock when, having been sent by his father to check on them, they grab him and throw him into a pit, either leaving him for dead or selling him into slavery.[11] While we do not hear Joseph’s reaction to the brothers’ treatment of him in the scene itself (Gen 37), later texts flash back to this moment, providing us with new details, logged in the protagonists’ memory, and only later released into consciousness.

When the brothers are thrown into jail by the man whom they know as Pharaoh’s viceroy, not recognizing he is Joseph, their brother, they say to each other:

בראשית מב:כא אֲבָל אֲשֵׁמִים אֲנַחְנוּ עַל אָחִינוּ אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ בְּהִתְחַנְנוֹ אֵלֵינוּ וְלֹא שָׁמָעְנוּ עַל כֵּן בָּאָה אֵלֵינוּ הַצָּרָה הַזֹּאת.
Gen 42:21 Alas, we are being punished on account of our brother, because we looked on at his anguish, yet paid no heed as he pleaded with us. That is why this distress has come upon us.

It is only here, in their memory of events which took place at least 23 years before,[12] that we learn how Joseph pleaded with his brothers when in the pit (בּוֹר), while they turned a deaf ear. His mental suffering at the time is captured not only by the memory of his physical cries but by the rare biblical idiom צָרַת נַפְשׁוֹ which may be rendered more literally as “the distress of his self.”[13] Such a traumatic experience cannot but affect Joseph’s mind-frame and worldview.[14]

Following this episode, his traumatic experience is repeated and deepened: Joseph finds himself in the house of Potiphar, a master who respects him and values his work (Gen 39), where he is promoted to majordomo, effectively running the house. And then, it all collapses when the master’s wife attempts to seduce him. When he refuses her, she concocts a claim of rape against him, at which point Joseph’s master turns on him and throws him into prison.

Joseph could have received a death sentence over the claims of Potiphar’s wife, yet again this fate is averted.[15] Nevertheless, a life-threatening event, when repeated, deepens the state of trauma, the anxiety and other reactions connected with it, and so strengthens its hold on Joseph’s memory and sense of self.

In prison, Joseph finds prominence yet again, just as he found in Potiphar’s household. This time, with the chief warden (Gen 39:21-23), his social status has shifted only slightly from majordomo to general manager of the prison. Here he encounters the dreams of the chief wine-steward and the chief baker, the only set of dreams that have opposite valences and meanings. As we have shown, these dreams mirror Joseph’s ambivalence between hope and despair.

We can gauge the depths of the latter feeling from his comment to the chief wine-steward. After interpreting his dream, and telling him he will return to his prominence and service at the palace, Joseph begs him to “remember him” (זְכַרְתַּנִי) to Pharaoh, explaining:

בראשית מ:טו כִּי גֻנֹּב גֻּנַּבְתִּי מֵאֶרֶץ הָעִבְרִים וְגַם פֹּה לֹא עָשִׂיתִי מְאוּמָה כִּי שָׂמוּ אֹתִי בַּבּוֹר.
Gen 40:15 For in truth, I was kidnapped from the Land of the Hebrews; nor have I done anything here that they should have put me in the dungeon.

We can almost hear the despair in Joseph’s voice. The reader might rightly imagine that, considering his life experience thus far, Joseph puts little stock in the chief wine-steward’s acting in good faith with him and speaking with Pharaoh—and he is initially correct. If his own family, his brothers, were able to plan his murder, ignore his plea, and forget about him (inasmuch as he is aware), as if he never existed in their lives, why should this complete stranger, from a different culture and socio-economic class, remember him to Pharaoh? Yet, surprisingly he does![16] Two years after the events, upon hearing Pharaoh’s dream, the chief wine-steward confesses, אֶת חֲטָאַי אֲנִי מַזְכִּיר הַיּוֹם (Gen 41:9). The Hebrew root ז.כ.ר in the sense of “remembering” or “making one remember” is one of the leading words in this narrative. We begin to ask ourselves, therefore, when will Joseph remember his dreams? Can he ask of himself what he asks of others in this respect?[17]

If the core message Joseph unpacked for Pharaoh was that the way we think and cope with the threat of deprivation has the potential to dismantle the threat, what does this mean for Joseph himself? While years of deprivation can make one forget even the distant memory of fullness and happiness, with special insight, one can try to take control of the terror. One can use the good times as an antidote of sorts to the destructiveness of evil times. This message surely applies to Joseph’s own life situation.

Joseph’s early years as the favored son of his father were in part good years for him. Yet his father’s discriminating behavior, and the symbolism in his dreams, which he believed presaged only better times to come, as well as his insensitive telling to his family, had the paradoxical effect of leading him to utter misery. Joseph’s bad years as a lad brutally torn away from his family, having to survive as a slave in Egypt, are years he would no doubt like to forget.

Such a traumatic reversal of hopes negatively colors everything about Joseph’s early life. Pharaoh’s dreams give Joseph a new opportunity for good years, but while he embraces this prospect, his new life is marred by the trauma of his youth, and by the urgent need to suppress it. This is clearest from the account of the names given to his two sons, fathered in Egypt, before the famine begins and the brothers appear before him:

בראשית 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 41:51 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.”

This naming process paints a portrait of Joseph’s inner feelings.[18] At this stage, he feels that his bad years still fully overshadow his good years, and so he must first forget them entirely (Manasseh). Only thus can he savor the prosperity he enjoys in Egypt (Ephraim) to which he is now entitled after many years of hardship (land of my affliction).

Joseph’s naming of his sons shows that even after his promotion to viceroy, and his marriage into an important Egyptian family, he remains scarred and haunted by what happened in his past. He remains weary of losing what he gained and being thrown back yet again to some pit. He remains in trauma.

His outward dashing appearance of health, richness and success, as ruler of Egypt, second to Pharaoh, son-in-law of the Egyptian high priest, tells us nothing of his inner deprivation, turmoil and broken sense of identity and self. Joseph is still clueless as to what disturbs him, though he was able to understand what disturbed Pharaoh. The dreams are still to unravel, therefore, limited by what his own self-reflection can bear.

“I Dreamed A Dream”: Joseph Remembers

Nine years after becoming viceroy, Joseph is forced to confront his past when his brothers return and his long-repressed dreams surface to his memory:

בראשית מב:ו ...וַיָּבֹאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לוֹ אַפַּיִם אָרְצָה... מב:ח וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ. מב:ט וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם.
Gen 42:6 … And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed low to him, with their faces to the ground…. 42:8 For though Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. 42:9 And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them.

Joseph’s recognition of his brothers is not just physical. He also recognizes, upon their bowing to him, that the enactment of his dreams in reality is beginning, in some way. This “down and up” movement of their bodies prostrating and then rising jolts the memory of his early dreams, yet only as a short flashback, and at this stage, quite a menacing one, if to judge by his immediately hostile reaction to them.

The unfolding of events, beginning with the memory of his dreams, forces Joseph to face his past. The continuation of the story underlines the disparity between the self-confident Joseph, now turned elevated statesman, who knows exactly what should be done in order to steer Egypt to safety, and his shattered inner world, in which nothing appears secure or whole.

Considering his traumatic past, Joseph may well be feeling endangered by his brothers’ reappearance in his now well-settled life. Will they drag him back to the dark experiences of his youth? Will they erase, by their mere appearance, his good years in Egypt? Will they swallow them up somehow, leaving no trace of their goodness?

“Dreams Come True (Sometimes)”? Joseph Losing Control

At first, the intent of Joseph’s actions vis-à-vis his brothers is hard to gauge, blaming them for spying, separating and imprisoning them, mainly frightening them out of their wits. Does he want to punish them? Take revenge? Hide from them? Or does he have some long-term goal in mind? Our understanding keeps shifting as the plot unfolds. When Joseph accuses the brothers of being spies and throws them in prison, it seems that he is venting and acting out his long-held anger. Then, when Joseph shifts his discourse, saying that he just needs to meet the eleventh brother, we begin to wonder whether he is being more calculating.

Though the text never reveals Joseph’s motivations, he is overall in control of the situation. Yet his veneer of self-possession cracks at certain points of great emotional strain. The first instance of this loss of control comes when Joseph overhears the brothers decry their guilt in ignoring his pleas, after which Reuben speaks:

בראשית מב:כב וַיַּעַן רְאוּבֵן אֹתָם לֵאמֹר הֲלוֹא אָמַרְתִּי אֲלֵיכֶם לֵאמֹר אַל תֶּחֶטְאוּ בַיֶּלֶד וְלֹא שְׁמַעְתֶּם וְגַם דָּמוֹ הִנֵּה נִדְרָשׁ. מב:כג וְהֵם לֹא יָדְעוּ כִּי שֹׁמֵעַ יוֹסֵף כִּי הַמֵּלִיץ בֵּינֹתָם. מב:כד וַיִּסֹּב מֵעֲלֵיהֶם וַיֵּבְךְּ.
Gen 42:22 Then Reuben spoke up and said to them, “Did I not tell you, ‘Do no wrong to the boy’? But you paid no heed. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” 42:23 They did not know that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between him and them. 42:24 He turned away from them and wept.

Joseph likely hadn’t known that any of his brothers had wished to protect him. Hearing this together with his brothers’ remorse proves too much, and Joseph needs to escape from the room to cry. This is not the only incident that elicits tears from Joseph. When he meets Benjamin, his full brother and the only other child of Rachel, he again loses control:

בראשית מג:כט וַיִּשָּׂא עֵינָיו וַיַּרְא אֶת בִּנְיָמִין אָחִיו בֶּן אִמּוֹ וַיֹּאמֶר הֲזֶה אֲחִיכֶם הַקָּטֹן אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם אֵלָי וַיֹּאמַר אֱלֹהִים יָחְנְךָ בְּנִי. מג:ל וַיְמַהֵר יוֹסֵף כִּי נִכְמְרוּ רַחֲמָיו אֶל אָחִיו וַיְבַקֵּשׁ לִבְכּוֹת וַיָּבֹא הַחַדְרָה וַיֵּבְךְּ שָׁמָּה. מג:לא וַיִּרְחַץ פָּנָיו וַיֵּצֵא וַיִּתְאַפַּק וַיֹּאמֶר שִׂימוּ לָחֶם.
Gen 43:29 Looking about, he saw his brother Benjamin, his mother’s son, and asked, “Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?” And he went on, “May God be gracious to you, my boy.” 43:30 With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. 43:31 Then he washed his face, reappeared, and—now in control of himself—gave the order, “Put out the bread.”[19]

Joseph’s plan requires that he maintain emotional distance from his brothers, but seeing his full brother is too raw, and he breaks down. Eventually, Joseph’s plan leads him to the arrest of Benjamin on the false charge of stealing his divining cup. Judah responds with a long speech about how the arrest of Benjamin would kill their poor old father, who loves Benjamin more than he loves them, just as he had Joseph.

At this point, Joseph’s emotions come bubbling to the surface. Although the text never clarifies whether this was the culmination of his plan or not, he breaks down and confesses all:

בראשית מה:א וְלֹא יָכֹל יוֹסֵף לְהִתְאַפֵּק לְכֹל הַנִּצָּבִים עָלָיו וַיִּקְרָא הוֹצִיאוּ כָל אִישׁ מֵעָלָי וְלֹא עָמַד אִישׁ אִתּוֹ בְּהִתְוַדַּע יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו. מה:ב וַיִּתֵּן אֶת קֹלוֹ בִּבְכִי וַיִּשְׁמְעוּ מִצְרַיִם וַיִּשְׁמַע בֵּית פַּרְעֹה. מה:ג וַיֹּאמֶר יוֹסֵף אֶל אֶחָיו אֲנִי יוֹסֵף הַעוֹד אָבִי חָי וְלֹא יָכְלוּ אֶחָיו לַעֲנוֹת אֹתוֹ כִּי נִבְהֲלוּ מִפָּנָיו.
Gen 45:1 Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, "Have everyone withdraw from me!" So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 45:2 His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh's palace. 45:3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.

Joseph finally sees the possibility of rehabilitating his past. In fact, wittingly or not, he has taken the very advice he gave Pharaoh and used it himself. He takes the circumstances of his brothers bowing before him—what he dreamed about at age seventeen with such dire results—and uses it to reconcile with his brothers.

The terrible years of suffering do not have to erase the good years of Joseph’s present and future. His father’s house has not come back to haunt him, to menace and “swallow him up” in a recurring traumatic cycle—rather, he can break this pattern once and for all.[20] Joseph can find a way to give place to the good alongside the bad, contain the bad alongside the good, as indicated in Pharaoh’s dreams, and so find some form of healing for himself and his family—a form of sustenance.

“Dreaming with A Broken Heart”: The Incompleteness of Healing

Our story is both optimistic and realistic. Trauma can be mitigated, but the breach with the person or people responsible for the trauma cannot be fully healed. We see this clearly in the scene that occurs after Joseph and his brothers return from burying Jacob.

בראשית נ:טו וַיִּרְאוּ אֲחֵי יוֹסֵף כִּי מֵת אֲבִיהֶם וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוּ יִשְׂטְמֵנוּ יוֹסֵף וְהָשֵׁב יָשִׁיב לָנוּ אֵת כָּל הָרָעָה אֲשֶׁר גָּמַלְנוּ אֹתוֹ. נ:טז וַיְצַוּוּ אֶל יוֹסֵף לֵאמֹר אָבִיךָ צִוָּה לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ לֵאמֹר. נ:יז כֹּה תֹאמְרוּ לְיוֹסֵף אָנָּא שָׂא נָא פֶּשַׁע אַחֶיךָ וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי רָעָה גְמָלוּךָ וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא לְפֶשַׁע עַבְדֵי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ וַיֵּבְךְּ יוֹסֵף בְּדַבְּרָם אֵלָיו.
Gen 50:15 When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” 50:16 So they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: 50:17 So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

The ancient Rabbis suggest different possible causes for the brothers’ fear. Midrash Tanchuma (mid-first millennium C.E.) suggests that on their way back from burying Jacob, Joseph stopped at the very pit in which they had thrown him and blessed God for miraculously keeping him alive.[21] Rashi (1040–1105) says that Joseph used to eat dinner with them in Egypt, but after their father died, Joseph no longer invited them.[22]

While both of these interpretations rely on imaginary midrashic gap-fillings and additions to the story, they bring out an important psychological reality. The brothers realize that Joseph can never really forget what they did to him, nor can he ever feel a natural, unfettered brotherly bond with them. They thus assume the worst, that Joseph still hates them, and has only reconciled with them to please their father.

To protect themselves, the brothers appear to concoct a story (not mentioned earlier in the narrative) in which Jacob left Joseph a message not to avenge himself on his brothers after his death.

בראשית נ:טז אָבִיךָ צִוָּה לִפְנֵי מוֹתוֹ לֵאמֹר. נ:יז כֹּה תֹאמְרוּ לְיוֹסֵף אָנָּא שָׂא נָא פֶּשַׁע אַחֶיךָ וְחַטָּאתָם כִּי רָעָה גְמָלוּךָ וְעַתָּה שָׂא נָא לְפֶשַׁע עַבְדֵי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִיךָ.
Gen 50:16 Before his death your father left this instruction: 50:17 “So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.’”

Joseph is so moved by his brothers’ fear that he loses control one last time:

בראשית נ:יז ...וַיֵּבְךְּ יוֹסֵף בְּדַבְּרָם אֵלָיו.
Gen 50:17 …And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him.

The brothers offer themselves as slaves, and Joseph calms them by promising to take care of them. His reaction does not imply that he has entirely overcome the trauma of his youthful experiences, only that he is able to reintegrate with his brothers, becoming a member of the same family, having learned to live with their traumatic betrayal of him, by confronting the memory of the abuse he underwent in the pit and in prison.

The wording of his final dialogue with his brothers captures the sense of reversal of fortune so pertinent to our story, the sense transferred from Pharaoh’s symbolic dreams to Joseph’s life experience, and given a similar solution in both cases, yet now affirmed in terms of religious belief as well: Evil and harm can be kept at bay, and don’t have to erase or squander all that is good and benevolent. This, Joseph explains to his brothers, is God’s true intention, as proven in his saving of the whole of Egypt and for their family specifically:

בראשית נ:יט אַל תִּירָאוּ כִּי הֲתַחַת אֱלֹהִים אָנִי. נ:כ וְאַתֶּם חֲשַׁבְתֶּם עָלַי רָעָה אֱלֹהִים חֲשָׁבָהּ לְטֹבָה לְמַעַן עֲשֹׂה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה לְהַחֲיֹת עַם רָב.
Gen 50:19 Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? 50:20 Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people.

Thus, Joseph takes hold of his traumatic experience and gives it meaning as part of a wider worldview and spiritual experience.

The story’s epilogue further enforces this understanding, with Joseph expressing the opposite sentiment he felt when he named Manasseh. Far from wishing to forget everything about his father’s house, at the age of 110, ninety-three years after he left his homeland permanently under such terrible circumstances, Joseph’s dying request is to have his body repatriated:

בראשית נ:כה וַיַּשְׁבַּע יוֹסֵף אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר פָּקֹד יִפְקֹד אֱלֹהִים אֶתְכֶם וְהַעֲלִתֶם אֶת עַצְמֹתַי מִזֶּה.
Gen 50:25 So Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “When God has taken notice of you, you shall carry up my bones from here.”

He does not wish his remains to stay in his adopted homeland, the land of his initial affliction, but wants them conveyed to his place of origin, where he experienced his first good years as a lad, the land of his dreams. Joseph’s “sense of an ending” as expressed in this final wish heightens his ambivalent yet strong reconnection with his distant past. His early years appear, in retrospect, no less important to him than his good years. In between these lie the bad years of suffering, which—through God’s mercy and Joseph’s acumen and wisdom—were unable to undo all that is good.


December 25, 2020


Last Updated

June 10, 2024


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Prof. Meira Polliack is Professor of Bible at Tel Aviv University. She holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil from Cambridge University and a B.A. from the Hebrew University. From 2012-2018, she was one of the Principal Investigators of the Biblia Arabica: The Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims international research project. She is the author of The Karaite Tradition of Arabic Bible Translation: A Linguistic and Exegetical Study of the Karaite Translations of the Pentateuch from the Tenth to the Eleventh (Brill, 1997); Arabic and Judaeo-Arabic Manuscripts in the Cambridge Genizah Collections (Cambridge University Press, 2001 [with Colin F. Baker]); Yefet Ben Eli's Commentary on Hosea, Judaeo-Arabic edition and modern Hebrew translation (Bar Ilan University Press, 2009 [with Eliezer Schlossberg]); and Yefet Ben Eli's Commentary on the Book of Zephaniah, Annotated Edition, Hebrew Translation and Introduction (Bar-Ilan University Press, 2020 [with Eliezer Schlossberg]). Among her edited books are Karaite Judaism: A Guide to its History and Literary Sources (Brill, 2003), and Jewish Biblical Exegesis from Islamic Lands, The Medieval Period (SBL Press, 2019 [with Athalya Brenner-Idan]).