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Vayiggash: Never See My Face Again

This week we are continuing the story of Joseph and his brothers, the longest story in the book of Genesis.  I’ll remind you that in last week’s post we talked about the word בִּלְעָדָ֑י  bil’adai.  We heard Joseph say this word to Pharaoh in Gen 41:16, when he was hauled out of prison and Pharaoh asked him to interpret his dreams.  Joseph said, bil’adai — you don’t need me for this.

He was speaking very modestly and perhaps also trying to make sure that he was protected if something went wrong.  We also said last week that in v. 44 of that same chapter Pharaoh used the same word to indicate Joseph’s rise to greatness, saying, “I am still Pharaoh, but no one will lift a hand or a foot in this Kingdom to do anything without you”: bil’adekha.  Whatever Joseph meant when he himself said that word, he definitely took full advantage of his newly granted power.

Given that he had woken up that morning in prison, you might certainly say that Joseph was catapulted to greatness — and the shift in usage of the word bil’adei signifies that.  Joseph’s dramatic rise is confirmed in a very interesting and unusual way in the first verse of this week’s reading, when Joseph’s brother Judah approaches him and says the following:

Please, my lord, let your servant speak a word in my lord’s ear.  Don’t be angry at your servant; like you — like Pharaoh. [Gen 44:18]

We have the expression in English, “like father, like son.”  Judah is using a very similar idiom to confirm precisely what Joseph already knows:  I, Judah, take you to be Pharaoh’s equal.  In Gen 44:23, this equivalence appears again, in a quite subtle way.

As Judah — not realizing that the grand vizier of Egypt, who holds their fate in his hands, is his brother — recounts the story, Joseph had told them that when they returned to Egypt, if they didn’t bring with them the brother who had stayed behind, “You will not see my face” (Gen 44:23 and 26; see also 43:3 and 5).

We do not hear Joseph himself use this expression.  But if your biblical antennas are up, you recognize that another biblical character did use it.  In Exod 10:28, a different Pharaoh orders Moses to leave his presence and warns him, “You shall not see my face again.”

Now, at least through the eyes of Judah, we have Joseph anticipating exactly what a future pharaoh of Egypt would tell Moses.  “Like you, like Pharaoh” — and it’s a Pharaonic thing to say “You shall not see my face again.”

The assertion “you shall not see my face” is not a common one.  We do find someone else saying it: King David, in 1 Samuel 3 and again in 1 Samuel 14.  No doubt you will remember the other biblical character who says something of the sort, to Moses:

You cannot see My face, for a human cannot see My face and live … I will shield you with My hand until I pass by and then remove My hand and you will see My back.  But My face cannot be seen.

Joseph, then, is not merely acting like a king.  He is also perhaps assuming the same semi-divine nature that the Egyptian Pharaohs claimed.  We readers of the Torah, though, understand something Joseph claims to know but does not actually comprehend.  He actually is God’s representative on earth, in the sense that he is manipulating events as God wants them manipulated.

Later, in Gen 45:8 and again next week in 50:20, he will tell his brothers that it was not really they who sent him down to Egypt, but God.  Indeed, if Genesis 15 is to be believed, that is certainly true — but Joseph understood nothing about it.

When we hear Judah putting into Joseph’s mouth the assertion “You shall not see my face again,” we can see it as a plot device and imagine that we understand it completely.  However, if we go on to notice that this is a kingly, even godly thing to say, I believe we are appreciating the Torah at a deeper level.  The Torah has provided something for us to understand at a superficial level, but there is something more profound waiting for us when we return to consider it again.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at torahtalk.substack.com and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis 1 at michaelcarasik.substack.com.
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