When we left Joseph, he was in prison after having just correctly predicted the fates of the cupbearer (remember, that’s an actual thing) and baker. This Parsha kicks off with the Pharaoh having a couple of very similar dreams. Pharaoh starts looking for someone to interpret them and that’s when the cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, per their deal in the last Parsha.
The cupbearer vouches for Joseph’s dream-reading abilities, so Pharaoh whips him out of prison to interpret his dreams. Joseph determines that the dreams were one and the same for a single warning––seven years of famine following seven years of abundance. The repetition was just God saying, “Yo, I’m serious! This is coming!”
Joseph hatches up a plan to save food during the seven good years to prepare for the famine. Pharaoh is into it and in the blink of an eye, Joseph is no longer a lowly prisoner, but now in charge of Pharaoh’s court, commanding all the people of Egypt.
“Only with respect to the throne shall I be superior to you,” Pharaoh tells Joseph.
Not only that, but Joseph gets Pharaoh’s signet ring and is rocking some sweet fresh robes of fine linen and a golden chain around his neck. That’s a hell of a promotion. Pharaoh reiterates the power Joseph now wields:
“I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.”
Last but not least, Pharaoh gives him a wife––Asenath, daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On.
An interfaith family! How modern.
At the time, Joseph was just thirty-years-old. Now, don’t feel bad if you weren’t commanding an ancient kingdom by thirty. As you can see, promotions and careers moved much faster back then, especially when you’re close to God and can interpret dreams for a Pharoah.
The seven years run by as planned, full of abundance, and Joseph becomes the father of two sons, born to him by his wife, Asenath. (Given how seeds moved around in the Biblical era, it feels worth clarifying this point.)
Manasseh and Ephraim are the sons, each with deeply meaningful names. Manasseh means, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.”
It’s as if Manasseh was being preemptively guilted for not visiting his parents more often.
“You don’t visit enough! I should’ve known you wouldn’t. Just look at your name.”
“You gave me this name, Mom! GOD!”
Then there’s Ephraim, which means, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.”
It sounds to me like the beginning of a Kayne West song.
“God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.
People wonder about my life if it’s fact or it’s fiction.
If you wanna find me, I’m a be in an entirely different section.
‘Cause I’m gonna help a crazy man win the next election.”
(Note, I have very little reference point for making this Kayne joke other than I know he likes Trump and his is the voice I first heard when I imagined this as a rap, for better or worse.)
As Joseph predicted, the famine comes after seven years of abundance. The people of Egypt cry out in hunger and go to Pharaoh for bread.
“Go to Joseph,” he says. “Whatever he tells you, you shall do.”
I was surprised to see Pharaoh not immediately take credit for Joseph’s preparation. Certain leaders might say something along the lines of:
“I have the bread! All of the bread! Such great bread, this bread. I will give you the bread! My idea!”
Joseph responds to the crisis and rations out the grain to the Egyptians. What Joseph didn’t account for is that the famine wouldn’t be limited to Egypt. Suddenly “all the word came to Joseph in Egypt to procure rations, for the famine had become severe throughout the world.”
Gee, what does that remind you of? The climate crisis, perhaps?
I can’t remember how many times I’ve heard people say something to the effect of, “Well, we live near freshwater, so we’ll be fine!” The idea being that if the worst-case scenario comes, people from my original neck of the woods (on the shores of Lake Erie) will be fine because there’s plenty of fresh water and it’s not like it gets as hot as Qatar or anything.
But such self-centered thinking ignores the rest of the world where that’s not the case. (It’s also ignorant to the fact that fresh water can dry up with rising temperatures, but I’m leaving that be for now.) This is why we have international climate conferences and not just a block meeting, so leaders from around the world can get together and bravely determine: “We’re fucked! Let’s agree on that and figure out the rest in the next meeting.”
Joseph didn’t have the benefit of knowing what was going down with the rest of the world. Sure, maybe he could’ve assumed that the famine wouldn’t be limited to the specific boundaries of the Egyptian kingdom, but he certainly didn’t have the technology we have warning us of the catastrophes to come.
The Brothers Are Back
Since the famine extended beyond Egypt, Joseph was about to get some interesting visitors––his brothers––for the calamity had extended to the land of Canaan. Joseph recognized them but he decided to act like a stranger and speak harshly. His brothers, on the other hand, did not recognize Joseph.
So, Joseph decides to fuck with them. He calls the brothers spies and demands to meet the youngest of the twelve brothers. Joseph lets one go to fetch the youngest brother while the others remain confined in the guardhouse.
The brothers feel like idiots. They take their sudden change in fortune as punishment for how they had treated Joseph.
Joseph overhears their conversation and decides to let them go with some grain and money he hides in their packs. He holds Simeon as ransom and demands that they return with the youngest, Benjamin. When they get back to Jacob/Israel in Canaan, he’s pissed.
“Joseph is no more and Simeon is no more, and now you would take away Benjamin. These things always happen to me!”
This English translation makes Jacob sound a bit like a whiny teenager, but let’s let it slide.
Reuben determines to get Benjamin back, putting up his two sons as ante.
“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you.”
Damn, Reuben! Didn’t you learn from your ancestor Abraham that we don’t need to threaten our children and that in fact, it’s very frowned upon? Besides, in what world is a grandfather satisfied with losing their son in exchange for getting to kill two of his grandchildren?
The Silver Goblet
The famine is going strong and food is starting to run out again with our friends in Canaan. They need to go back to Egypt and procure rations, but they recall the warning Joseph gave them not to return without the youngest brother.
Finally, Jacob agrees to let Benjamin go to Egypt. When Joseph sees them, he has his servants prepare a feast. The brothers are fearful throughout and even offer to return the money Joseph originally sent them off with. Joseph brushes it off and releases Simeon.
At one point during the visit, Joseph becomes overwhelmed with emotion seeing his brother Benjamin. After weeping in a separate room, as one does when trying to maintain an intimidating facade, Joseph returns to begin the feast.
Later, he packs his brothers’ bags again, giving the money back to them that they brought. He also sneaks a silver goblet into Benjamin’s bag.
After the brothers take off, Joseph sends a servant out to them, demanding to know who stole the silver goblet. Naturally, the brothers are confused and swear they haven’t done a thing. But when they find the silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag, they’re marched back to Joseph who determines that Benjamin will stay as his slave while the others go back to their father.
Obviously Joseph, who put the goblet into Benjamin’s bag himself, is up to something. I imagine him doing his best Steve Urkel impression: “Did I do that?”
To the brothers’ credit, they ask to stay as slaves with Benjamin, but Joseph won’t have it.
“Only he in whose possession the goblet was found shall be my slave; the rest of you go back in peace to your father.”
Onward with Parsha Vayigash.