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Secrets and Lies: The Joseph Saga

The first half of Parshat Miketz is mostly about dreams and is very long and repetitive. Pharoah has dreams and Joseph interprets them and is raised to be second in command to Pharoah.  The second half of the parsha is more interesting to me. The plot begins when “all the world came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world” (Genesis 41:57).  Jacob hears about the fact that there is food in Egypt and sends his sons without Benjamin to Egypt to get grain. This is what happens:

Joseph recognized his brothers; they did not recognize him. Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them, Joseph said to them, “You are spies, you have come to see the land in its nakedness.” … And they replied, “We your servants were twelve brothers, sons of a certain man in the land of Canaan; the youngest, however, is now with our father, and one is no more.” But Joseph said to them, “It is just as I have told you: You are spies! By this you shall be put to the test: unless your youngest brother comes here, by Pharaoh, you shall not depart from this place! Let one of you go and bring your brother….And he confined them in the guardhouse for three days (Genesis 42: 8-17).

Because the brothers have been too open and have not concealed the existence of Benjamin, they have opened themselves up to Joseph’s manipulation of them. The brothers argue among themselves and Joseph hearing them “turned away from them and wept…and took Simeon from among them and had him bound before their eyes” (vs 24). Joseph provides them with grain and puts their money back in their sacks, which terrified them when they found it on the way back: “they turned to one another, saying, “What is this that God has done to us?” (vs 28). They go home; tell their father what happened. He initially refuses to send Benjamin back with them, but  when the famine is too great and they are starving, Jacob reluctantly sends Benjamin back with them.

And Israel [Jacob] said, “Why did you serve me so ill as to tell the man that you had another brother?” They replied, “But the man kept asking about us and our family, saying, ‘Is your father still living? Have you another brother?’ And we answered him accordingly. How were we to know that he would say, ‘Bring your brother here’?” (Genesis 43: 6-7)

The brothers conceal the fact that they offered the information freely. It is only after they return to Egypt with Benjamin that Joseph will ask if his father still living and is he healthy?  They set out on the road again, this time with Benjamin and are treated royally by Joseph. He sends them off with gifts. But this time Joseph does something similar to what he did earlier:

Joseph instructed his house steward as follows, “Fill the men’s bags with food, as much as they can carry, and put each one’s money in the mouth of his bag. Put (tasim) my silver goblet in the mouth of the bag (be-pi amtahat) of the youngest one, together with his money for the rations.” And he did as Joseph told him. With the first light of morning, the men were sent off with their pack animals. They had just left the city and had not gone far, when Joseph said to his steward, “Up, go after the men! And when you overtake them, say to them, ‘Why did you repay good with evil? It is the very one from which my master drinks and which he uses for divination. It was a wicked thing for you to do!’” He overtook them and spoke those words to them. And they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servants to do anything of the kind! Here we brought back to you from the land of Canaan the money that we found in the mouths of our bags. How then could we have stolen any silver or gold from your master’s house! Whichever of your servants it is found with shall die (asher yi-matzeh ito mey-avadecha va-met); the rest of us, moreover, shall become slaves to my lord.” He replied, “Although what you are proposing is right, only the one with whom it is found shall be my slave; but the rest of you shall go free.” So each one hastened to lower his bag to the ground, and each one opened his bag. He searched (va-yechapes), beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest; and the goblet turned up in (va-yimatzeh) Benjamin’s bag. At this they rent their clothes (Genesis 44: 1-13).

The parsha ends with a cliffhanger with Joseph telling them to go back in peace to their father. Reading this story, I realized that the motif of hiding and concealment pre-dominates.

RACHEL HIDES LABAN’S HOUSEHOLD GODS

Joseph’s hiding of the wine cup in Benjamin’s bag, reminds me of Rachel’s hiding and stealing her father’s terafim. There are many common themes and even language between the two passages:

Meanwhile Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel stole (va-tignov) her father’s household idols. Jacob kept Laban the Aramean in the dark, not telling him that he was fleeing, and fled with all that he had. Soon he was across the Euphrates and heading toward the hill country of Gilead (Genesis 31:19-21).

Laban overtook Jacob….And Laban said to Jacob, “What did you mean by keeping me in the dark and carrying off my daughters like captives of the sword? Why did you flee in secrecy and mislead me and not tell me? … Very well, you had to leave because you were longing for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” Jacob answered Laban, saying, “I was afraid because I thought you would take your daughters from me by force. But anyone with whom you find (timtzah) your gods shall not remain alive (lo yichyeh)! In the presence of our kinsmen, point out what I have of yours and take it.” Jacob, of course, did not know that Rachel had stolen them (vss 25-32).

Laban goes into the tents, first of Jacob, then of Leah, then the tents of the two maidservants and finally entered Rachel’s tent.

Rachel, meanwhile, had taken the idols and placed them (va-te-simem) in the camel cushion and sat on them; and Laban rummaged through the tent without finding them. For she said to her father, “Let not my lord take it amiss that I cannot rise before you, for the period of women is upon me.” Thus, he searched, but could not find (lo matzah) the household idols (vss 33-34).

COMPARISONS BETWEEN THE TWO STORIES

I will summarize by comparing the similarities between the two tales:

  • Rachel steals the household gods with special power (terafim); she hides (va-tesimem) them in the pillow of her camel; Jacob keeps Laban in the dark; her father catches up with them after 3 days; He accuses them of theft. Jacob swears whoever took them will die; Laban starts searching first in the oldest daughter’s tent and then gets to Rachel’s. They then escape/cross borders and have a happy ending with a peace treaty between Jacob and Laban.
  • Joseph tells his steward to put (tasim) his holy wine cup (with its supposed powers of divination) in Benjamin’s bag; The brothers leave; the steward catches up with them almost immediately. They are accused of theft! the brothers swear that whoever did it will die and the rest of them will become slaves; The steward starts his search with the oldest brother and he gets to the youngest at the end. They go back;  Joseph cries and in next week’s parsha reveals himself to them; And the happy ending will see the whole family reunited, back together in Egypt.

The major difference between the two stories is that Laban does not find the terafim and they are not returned to him, whereas presumably the sacred wine cup is returned to Joseph. Moreover, the root of the word steal (ganov) appears seven times in the first story but not in the second one. That’s because Benjamin didn’t steal anything, whereas Rachel did. And also, the happy ending is marred, because of Jacob’s vow that whoever took the terafim will die; Rachel is going to die in childbirth.

HIDING, SECRETS, CONCEALMENT, LYING

In addition to the hiding and concealing and lying going on in these two stories, there are many other instances of this misbehavior in other biblical narratives. A short list will suffice:

  • Adam and Eve hiding from God
  • Cain hiding his deed from God
  • God wondering should he hide anything from Abraham
  • Jacob hiding his identity to get his father’s blessing (with his mother’s help).
  • Brothers hiding from Jacob what they did to Joseph
  • Joseph concealing his real feelings vis a vis his brothers
  • Yocheved hiding the baby in the ark
  • Samson hiding the secret of his hair from Delilah
  • David hiding his adultery and Bathsheba’s pregnancy from Uriah
  • Michal lying to her father about David and putting terafim in his bed to save him
  • Elijah hiding in the cave
  • Esther hiding her identity from the Persians

GOD’S HIDING IN THE JOSEPH CYCLE

The list can go on, I would like to end by linking this to parshat miketz, which started out with Pharaoh’s dreams. Dreams conceal all sorts of hidden things and one needs a psychiatrist, or a Joseph, to interpret them. God does not make an appearance in the Joseph saga. Unlike his forefathers, Joseph never sees or hears God or His messengers. Is God hiding?  There is some irony here, because when Joseph was born, God was very present (four times in fact):

Then God remembered Rachel, and God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my reproach”; and she named him Joseph, saying, “May the LORD add to me another son!” (Genesis 30: 22-26).

However, from Joseph’s perspective God is not only responsible for his success, but God was with him all along, working in a hidden way, in secret. And that is why he can utter these amazing words to his brothers:

 “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Genesis 45:4-5).

But we will have to wait in patience to hear these words, for they will be uttered in next week’s parsha. Meanwhile the brothers are suffering the consequences of their former sins, lies and secrets. Stay tuned!

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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