Joseph finds himself in the position to make his brothers pay for what they had done to him and he does not miss his chance
Pharaoh must have been a proto-economist because he had premonitions of the classic boom-bust cycle in the Egyptian economy, or at least that was how Joseph, freshly shaved and all cleaned-up from prison interpreted his dream of the emaciated cows devouring the fat ones. Be it as it may, we may all very well wish that we had Joseph running things in America today because his approach to handling the natural economic cycle differed quite a bit from the ones adopted by our own enlightened “leaders”.
When the economy was running a current account surplus, Joseph did not recommend expanding social welfare programs, increasing the size and pay of the civil service, embarking on useless vanity construction projects, or starting unnecessary wars. For the bust cycle, Joseph did not recommend printing money and reckless borrowing to fund the deficits. What he did recommend was stockpiling commodities during the good years so that they could be dispensed to the population as needed during the bad ones.
This recommendation, so unexpectedly adopted by the prudent pharaoh, made Joseph the man with a capital “M” in all of Egypt. All had to bow before him and he would decide who would eat and who would starve.
When the bad years hit, one of Joseph’s key roles was dispensing grain to various Egyptian vassals, such as the dwellers of Canaan, his own father’s clan among them. The ten brothers, the sons of Israel, thus appear in Egypt with their donkeys wishing to purchase grain from their brother, the subject of their cruel prank all these years earlier. Greeting them as an Egyption lord, he is unrecognized. They are not so lucky.
In front of him, Joseph sees ten men who are his half brothers. Who he does not see are his father or his one and only full brother, the only other son of Rachel, Benjamin. Joseph is ill-inclined to help out the ten men who (as far as he was concerned) left him to die in a dry well in the desert and revenge is immediately on his mind. But not only revenge. Joseph wants to find out the fate of the one person that is the closest to him on planet Earth, his brother Benjamin, whom Jacob refused to send along fearing that his loss to the dangers of the road would leave him with nothing to remind him of his first and only love, Rachel.
Joseph, ever the clever conniver, comes up with an elaborate scheme to both avenge himself upon his half-brothers and find out the real fate of his only full one. Here is his plan in the original (Genesis 42:1 – 20, my translation after Chabad):
Joseph was the ruler over the land; it was he who sold grain to the entire populace of the land and Joseph’s brothers came and prostrated themselves to him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and he recognized them, but he made himself a stranger to them, and he spoke to them harshly, and he said to them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan to purchase food.” Now Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.
Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed about them and he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” And they said to him, “No, our master, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are honest. Your servants were never spies.” But he said to them, “No! You have come to see the nakedness of the land.” And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is with our father today, and one is gone.” And Joseph said to them, “This is just what I have spoken to you, saying, ‘You are spies.’ With this you shall be tested: By Pharaoh’s life, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you and let him fetch your brother, and the rest of you will be imprisoned so that your words will be tested whether truth is with you, and if not, as Pharaoh lives, you are spies!” And he put them in prison for three days.
On the third day, Joseph said to them: “Do this and live I fear God. If you are honest, one of you will be confined in our prison, and you, go bring back the grain for the hunger of your households. And bring your youngest brother to me, so that your words may be verified, and you will not die.” And they did so.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Joseph’s plan was quite devious indeed. Surreptitiously placing the silver they had paid for the grain back in their saddlebags to be discovered later, he sows doubt and confusion in his half-brothers’ minds. When they finally return with Benjamin, he sends them back not only with the money (which they have returned to him), but having planted a valuable object in Benjamin’s luggage so he can “keep him as a slave” when he is “caught”. Joseph’s psychological warfare against his ten half-brothers begins its crescendo with the scene of the banquet that Joseph had prepared for them (Genesis 43:32 – 43, my translation after Chabad):
They set places separately for Joseph, for his brothers, and for the Egyptians who ate with them because the Egyptians could not eat food with the Hebrews, as it was an abomination to them. They sat before him, the firstborn according to his age, and the youngest according to his youth, and the men looked at each other in astonishment. Joseph had portions brought to them from before him and Benjamin’s portion was five times as large as the portions of any of them and they drank and became intoxicated together.
We rather causally learn an interesting fact about ancient Egyptians here; they apparently considered foreigners, or maybe only Hebrews, “unclean” and would not eat in their presence. This is one of those little anecdotes in the text that I find so fascinating because they, more than anything else, bear witness to its antiquity and authenticity. Ancient civilizations across the Fertile Crescent placed an enormous value on purity and purity in food preparation and consumption in particular. This observation about the habits of ancient Egypt could not have been made in the last centuries of the first millennium BC when the Hebrew Bible was being codified because by that time Egypt was thoroughly Hellenized and the old purity traditions were doubtlessly lost. The redactors of the Book of Genesis must have been working from very ancient texts, likely already a thousand years old when they held them in their hands to be able to brings us this echo from such a remote past.
As always, the Torah in this passage tells us something profound about the human condition, something that is being suppressed in our world today to all our peril. Joseph was the de facto ruler of Egypt; he had Pharaoh’s ring of power. But that made him no more Egyptian or any less impure than the lowest of the Canaanites, a Hebrew. Joseph, with all his power, was ever a foreigner and he would die as one. Joseph’s status was only awarded him because the favor he had carried with God had made him indispensable, so his strangeness, his impurity had to be tolerated for the common good of Egypt, nothing more.
As to Joseph, as much as he must have resented his half-brothers for committing him to a horrible death, he still recognizes in them his people, his clan, his family. The thought of not helping them never crosses his mind, though he plays a few cruel tricks on them that must have had them fearful for their own lives on more than one occasion.
We humans are not capable of treating every member of our species equally. We can only care deeply about our own family, be it nuclear or extended as in our tribe, our nation, our ethnos. This is not a bad thing nor a vestige of times past; it is precisely what makes us both human and humane. Caring for all is tantamount for caring for no one, a fact beautifully summarized in the immortal song “Et moi, et moi, et moi” by Jacques Dutronc. Here’s a stanza:
Seven hundred million Chinese
And me and me and me
With my life, my tiny pad
My headache and my hangover
I ponder and then forget
That’s just how it is
The Torah teaches us to care deeply about our own. Care actively, take care, in fact, and let the world take care of itself because that is what we know how to do best and that is all that we can do. Caring about “the world” is but a recipe for doing nothing but sit on the couch and write snarky commentary on social media and that, my friends, never did anyone any good at all.