“It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

Well, it’s been a bit of time since I did a post on the weekly parashah. Let’s break that trend.

This week we have Parshat Vayigash, the second-to-last Torah portion in Genesis. Vayigash starts with the story’s big reveal: Joseph yet lives. His brothers and father come to Egypt to live during the famine.

Hooray, right? Well…there’s this, in Genesis 47:19:

Buy us and our land with bread.

It turns out that the Joseph story puts the narrative’s enslavement of the Israelites at Joseph’s feet. Surprised? Read on.

Who is being purchased in Parshat Vayigash? Why, the Egyptians. By whom? Joseph…for Pharaoh (Gen. 47:20-21):

So Joseph purchased all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for they sold Egypt–each man his field–for the famine bore heavily upon them; so the land came to belong to Pharaoh. And he caused the people to cross over into the cities, from the farthest reaches of one border of Egypt to the other.

Joseph buys both the land of Egypt and its inhabitants for Pharaoh, in exchange for food to allow the Egyptians merely to survive the famine. He gives the inhabitants seed so that they can cultivate the land and give 1/5 of its produce to Pharaoh. But before all of that, he scatters the population throughout Egypt, in effect separating individuals from the land they had previously owned and setting them to work in new places.

So, let’s be clear on what’s happened here: Joseph has enslaved Egypt. All of it. All the land. All the people. In exchange for enough bread to survive, and labor into the future.

This is a fascinating episode. The text says that Joseph, who had himself been sold into slavery, returns the favor. Not upon his brothers–though certainly we can assume that his brothers could be seen as dependent upon Joseph’s good graces from this point forward–but upon Egypt. Joseph and his brothers are portrayed as equivalent in large part to the priests of Egypt; the priests, we are told, were not deprived of their land and continued to receive a subsidy from Pharaoh. The sons of Jacob are said to have acquired land in Egypt, where they prospered.

Consider, in context, what this means. Joseph enslaves the Egyptians lock, stock, and barrel. He elevates his brothers to positions of power. They are said to have taken hold of the land of Goshen; the word used is vayyeahazu, from the Hebrew root aleph-het-zayin, meaning to seize or take, often as an inheritance. They don’t simply hold land; they own land taken from others.

Simply put, the text of the Torah has set up the narrative about Moses.

How so? Recall that the Torah’s narrative of Moses explains that over the years, subsequent Pharaohs arose and did not remember Joseph. They knew they had a foreign body in their midst that had grown large, and we are told that the Egyptians took action to subdue that body by enslaving it.

We don’t talk much about the narrative lead-in to that episode. Vayigash is the lead-in. The narrative in Vayigash shows the reader a situation in which only two groups other than Pharaoh–Pharaoh’s priests (whose prosperity and stipends depend upon Pharaoh’s prosperity and good graces), and the children of Jacob–possess any claim to the land of Egypt.

That story is, at bottom, the set-up for the story in Exodus. The sons of Jacob are the only non-Egyptian owners of Egyptian land in the biblical narrative. They prosper after the effective head of the family–Joseph–enslaved the bulk of the Egyptians.

The narrative, in other words, sees Joseph bait a trap into which the Torah drops the Israelites.

Admiral Ackbar from Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, captioned as he shouts

It’s a trap!

We are not accustomed to looking at the story in this way. In fact, the biblical text itself impairs this reading by breaking up the narrative. We get the story of Jacob’s death, the blessings of Jacob upon his sons and (in Joseph’s case) grandsons, and the family portrait that begins the book of Exodus. (Exodus’s name in Hebrew is Shemot–literally, “names”–and begins with a brief sketch of Jacob’s family.) All of this interrupts the flow of the narrative, and lets us forget what has just happened in our story: Joseph has enslaved Egypt and set his own family as one of a few overlords in the land.

Why do interpretations like this matter? They matter because, when we take seriously the text as we have it, we can gain a different appreciation of the assumptions of the time. Slavery, you see, wasn’t considered to be wrong by the authors of the Torah. The Torah’s narratives about the Egyptians don’t blame the Egyptians for holding slaves; they blame the Egyptians for holding the wrong people as slaves.

That realization should affect how we see a variety of aspects of Jewish life. Is Passover really about freedom? The story of Joseph suggests that we may need to speak harder truths at the Passover Seder than we usually do. We need to acknowledge as contemporary Jews that the biblical story of the Exodus is part of our cultural legacy–but that in some very important ways it is not our story.

This is true of many other stories that make up the mythology of the Jewish past. It’s true of the stories about the Maccabees and Hanukkah. It’s true of the stories of the early rabbis. It’s true, too, of many stories of the Hasidim so beloved in many modern circles.

Owning that truth? That, I think, is the real challenge of redefining Jewish culture in our age. And so, I leave you with a last question as another Hanukkah slips out December’s door: what stories do we tell that mask what is really happening in Jewish life?

2 thoughts on ““It’s a Trap!,” or, How the Torah’s Narrative Blames Joseph for the Israelites’ Slavery

  1. Very interesting, and certainly not an easy truth to confront. I like how you tied the two books together so that they were uninterrupted by the blessings and lineage.

  2. Pingback: Slouching Towards Passover | A secular Jew in Indianapolis

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