Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Joseph under African skies

Bible stories of Jewish saviors presage the Israelis who help repatriated South Sudanese children go to school
Come True education project, Uganda, photo credit: Come True

Was Joseph a “court Jew” — a Jew rewarded with high office and special privileges in return for services rendered to the king? Several recent commentators have read his story in that light, and it’s easy to see why.

There are intriguing parallels between Joseph and Mordecai, the Bible’s “court Jew” par excellence. A few examples (for others, see Aaron Koller on Esther): both Joseph and Mordecai come to the king’s attention through recollections — one written, one oral — of episodes involving two disloyal court officials. Both are presented with rings and paraded through the streets as a sign of their high standing in court. Both wield their power as bureaucrats; Mordecai disseminates decrees and Joseph manages Egypt’s grain supply. Above all, both are outsiders who attain positions of influence from which they are able to help their own people.

File:Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse – Le triomphe de Joseph Hilaire-Pader.jpg
The Triumph of Joseph, Hilaire Pader (1607-1677)
File:Jacob de Wet (I) - The Triumph of Mordechai - WGA25567.jpg
The Triumph of Mordecai, Jacob de Wet (1632-1675)

Yet intriguing as these parallels are, they’re ultimately misleading. The differences between Joseph and Mordecai are far more significant than the similarities.

Saving Jews is Mordecai’s raison d’etre, and indeed the book of Esther’s. When Mordecai encourages Esther to enter the beauty competition whose prize is a royal wedding, he’s already contemplating the value of having an insider in the court of a weak and erratic king. When he reports the assassination plot he overheard at the palace gates, he’s aware that the king will henceforth “owe him.” And of course he doesn’t hesitate to remind Esther that her loyalties lie with her people, when Haman threatens to annihilate them.

When Joseph enters Pharaoh’s court, by contrast, it’s not because he’s maneuvering to be in the right place at the right time to save his family. He simply wants to get out of prison (Gen 40:14-15). Whereas Mordecai prevents what can reasonably be described as the world’s first anti-Semitic pogrom, Joseph merely helps his own family among many others facing a natural disaster. When Joseph finally brings his family to Egypt, it’s not because they would have died in Canaan (they could have bought grain and carried it back, as they intended to), but because he wants them around to share his success (Gen 45:9-11). And in the long run, of course, he hasn’t exactly saved them by bringing them to Egypt; God will be forced to bring them out again with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.

We probably wouldn’t think of Joseph as a savior figure at all if it weren’t for the speech in which — for a range of complex reasons —  he credits himself with an extraordinary deliverance:

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5And now do not be distressed, or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to save life. 6For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. 8So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt (Genesis 45:4-8)

We the readers were not prepared for this. God has been very little evidence in the story so far (another parallel with Esther), and suddenly we learn that He’s been pulling the strings all along. Joseph had seemed to put his family far behind him when he arrived in Egypt (who can blame him?), but it turns out that all his achievements were for their benefit.

Clearly, this is not the whole story. Joseph is tailoring his words to fit his audience; it’s the family drama that concerns his brothers, not to mention many subsequent readers.

Here lies the essential difference between the Joseph story and the book of Esther. From start to finish, Esther is a tale of court intrigue where Jewish survival depends upon out-politicking the enemy. The Joseph story is neither a tale of court intrigue nor the record of the miraculous survival of a persecuted people. It’s the story of how an inspired and charismatic Jew helped to save “the world” (Gen 41:57) from a devastating famine that didn’t discriminate when it came to starving its victims.

Read as a family saga, as Joseph himself does when he relieves his brothers of the blame for bringing him to Egypt, the Joseph story shares some common ground with the book of Esther. But read as the story of a disadvantaged immigrant who made a massive contribution to the country that took him in when it was too dangerous to stay at home, the Joseph story has little in common with Esther. Joseph saved his family in the process of saving the world, not vice versa.

Joseph is not, I think, a “court Jew,” but an inspired and inspiring visionary who fulfilled the promise that God’s made to Abram when He called from his father’s house to the land of Canaan:

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

It’s natural that stories of the miraculous survival of a remnant play a central role in the Jewish collective consciousness. Jewish history is, for better (we survived) and worse (there was something to survive), full of them. But we shouldn’t repeat them at the expense of that other kind of story, in which Jews bring blessings to the families of the earth. Joseph is a wonderful example of that kind of story. Here’s another.

In 2012, Israel’s government repatriated a large group of African asylum seekers, including women and children, to South Sudan. The  country was between wars at the time, but the fragile peace soon broke, along with any future hope for the children who had been educated until then — in Hebrew — in Israeli schools.

From the Israeli government’s perspective, their responsibility towards the asylum seekers ended when they left the country. But two young Israelis saw it differently. They set up a charity called COME TRUE, in which Israelis partnered with South Sudanese parents to enable about 115 of the children who’d left Israel in 2012 to be educated in a boarding school in Uganda (there are no functioning schools in South Sudan). They made all the necessary arrangements (not trivial in any circumstances, and certainly not these), and started raising the money to pay the fees.

In the months of December and January, Ugandan schools have a long vacation. Danger and lack of funds prohibit many of the boarders, aged 5 to 19, from returning home to their families. In early December 2016, 100-plus children were moved out of their school to another facility in Uganda. Since regular staff members were on vacation and there was no money to pay replacements, two groups of Israeli volunteers aged about 20 to 40 went to work with the children until classes resume at the end of this month. And since there was no budget for activities during the vacation, the volunteers collected sports equipment, games and arts and crafts materials in Israel and carried them in their suitcases.

I know about this because my husband Chaim’s daughter Elisheva is one of the volunteers. We’ve had regular WhatsApp reports of the difficult living conditions (limited food, drinking water and clothing), unanticipated challenges (the death of a child’s parent; a tragic road accident that killed an American Jew who was making a film about the refugees and injured pupils from the school), and the traumatic past and uncertain future that constitute the lives of almost all these children. And we’ve also seen beautiful photos worth at least a thousand words.

For more information and to contribute to this wonderful project, click here. I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better present-day example of what it means to bring blessings to the families of the earth. If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And If not now, when?

Photo credit: Come True
Photo credit: Come True
Photo credit: Come True
Photo credit: Come True
Photo credit: Come True
Photo credit: Come True

If my title rang a bell, watch here:

Dedicated to my teacher and friend, Ed Greenstein, whose mother Golda just passed away

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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