Harry Freedman
Writing on Jewish history, Jewish books, Jewish ideas

Why Was Joseph Flawed?

Joseph, Mordechai and­­­ Daniel have much in common. So much that the two later accounts, the stories of Mordechai and Daniel, appear to be literary reworkings of aspects of the Joseph tale.

Each of the three ascends from the depths and humiliation of exile to become the ruler of a foreign land. Joseph is elevated to high office because he is the only person in Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams. Daniel similarly; he may have been a mere youth but he did what none of the wise men in Babylon could do, he explained the meaning of the terrifying image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.

Mordechai, like Joseph, was wreathed in royal finery and led in procession through the streets.  Daniel and Mordechai both refused to compromise their religious behaviour. Mordechai would not bow down to Haman; Daniel would not eat the king’s food or wine.

Each played a role in the future destiny of the Jewish people. Had Joseph not gone to Egypt and become viceroy, the Exodus would never have taken place. Had Mordechai and Esther not saved the Jews from the destruction planned by Haman, we would not be here today. And Daniel’s visions prefigured the rebuilding of the Temple and laid the foundations for the doctrine of the messiah, a cornerstone of later Jewish theology.

But despite these and other similarities between the three characters, there is one significant difference in their narratives. Joseph is the only one whose background is disclosed. Daniel and Mordechai both appear on the scene fully fashioned, as members of an exiled community. Whereas Joseph’s life story is spelled out in detail. It is a troubling tale.

For although rabbinic tradition describes him as Joseph the righteous, hatzaddik, when we look at his history he doesn’t seem to be as saintly as we might believe. He tells tales about his brothers when he is young; he tricks and deceives them when he is older. He is good looking, and he knows it, taking advantage of his physical attractiveness to find favour in the eyes of both his gaoler, and of his slave owner Potiphar. His beauty gets him in trouble with Potiphar’s wife. As viceroy of Egypt he institutes a feudal system, taxing the people heavily for the misfortune of suffering a famine. Worst of all, after being sold into captivity he rises to undreamed of power in Egypt yet doesn’t even bother to tell his grieving father that he is still alive.

Unlike Mordechai and Daniel, Joseph doesn’t pay much attention to God. We don’t hear of him praying. Indeed, one of the few times he invokes God is when he names his children. It’s a giveaway for how he really feels: “Joseph named his first-born Manasseh, for God has let me forget my trouble and my father’s house. And the second he called Ephraim, for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

In naming his children Joseph celebrates the fact that he has been torn from his family. Unlike Moses, who mourning his exile, names one son Gershom, ‘for I am a stranger in a strange land’ and the other Eliezer ‘for my father’s God was in my aid’.

The stories about Mordechai and Daniel remind us Joseph at his most successful. They do not reflect Joseph’s flaws. But it is Joseph who we call righteous, not Mordechai or Daniel. And not just because Joseph is the son of a patriarch, with a story that is central to biblical history. Joseph is righteous because he is human. Like all of us, he has faults. But it is these faults that led to his life experiences and created the conditions for his success.

Mordechai and Daniel are great stories, but they are not real in the way that Joseph’s is. We learn from Joseph. It is much harder to learn from Mordechai or Daniel.

My next book Kabbalah: Secrecy, Scandal and the Soul will be published by Bloomsbury in January 2019

About the Author
My latest book, Reason to Believe is the authorised biography of Rabbi Dr Louis Jacobs. Louis Jacobs was Britain’s most gifted Jewish scholar. A Talmudic genius, outstanding teacher and accomplished author, cultured and easy-going, he was widely expected to become Britain’s next Chief Rabbi. Then controversy struck. The Chief Rabbi refused to appoint him as Principal of Jews’ College, the country’s premier rabbinic college. He further forbade him from returning as rabbi to his former synagogue. All because of a book Jacobs had written some years earlier, challenging from a rational perspective the traditional belief in the origins of the Torah. The British Jewish community was torn apart. It was a scandal unlike anything they had ever previously endured. The national media loved it. Jacobs became a cause celebre, a beacon of reason, a humble man who wouldn’t be compromised. His congregation resigned en masse and created a new synagogue for him in Abbey Road, the heart of fashionable 1970s London. It became the go-to venue for Jews seeking reasonable answers to questions of faith. A prolific author of over 50 books and hundreds of articles on every aspect of Judaism, from the basics of religious belief to the complexities of mysticism and law, Louis Jacobs won the heart and affection of the mainstream British Jewish community. When the Jewish Chronicle ran a poll to discover the Greatest British Jew, Jacobs won hands down. He said it made him feel daft. Reason To Believe tells the dramatic and touching story of Louis Jacobs’s life, and of the human drama lived out by his family, deeply wounded by his rejection. Reason to Believe was published by Bloomsbury Continuum in November 2020 in the UK and will be published on 12 January 2021 in the USA. You can find out more about my books and why I write them at
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