Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Genesis: Dreaming Your Way to the Top

So after the weird aside with the sexual exploits of Judah and his children, the Bible brings us back to Joseph.

Remember that he had been sold to Potiphar, the captain of the Egyptian Pharaoh’s guard. And “the Lord was with Joseph,” so that he was successful at everything he did. Potiphar “saw that the Lord was with him,” and that everything he did succeeded, so he made Joseph the overseer of his entire household. But Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce him, and when he refused her repeated advances she claimed to her husband that he’d tried to seduce her (or rape her – the language is kinda flowery and vague). So Potiphar put Joseph in prison.

The prison overseer took a liking to Joseph (once more attributed to God’s intervention. Whatever happened to free will? Though I suppose to this point there has been no mention whatsoever made of the concept of free will, so there’s no reason yet to suppose it exists). So Joseph gets put in charge of the activities of all the other prisoners.

After he’d been there awhile the Pharaoh’s cupbearer and baker were put in prison for some unspecified offense. One night they both had troubling dreams, and in the morning Joseph noticed that they were kind of down. So he asked them about it.

“Gen 40:8 They said to him ‘We have had dreams, and there is no one to interpret them.’ And Joseph said to them ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Please tell them to me.’”

So Joseph is making the claim to either have a power reserved for God, or to speak for God. So the two men tell him their dreams, and he interprets them to mean that the cupbearer will be returned to Pharaoh’s favor and get his job back, while the baker is going to be hanged. And he asks the cupbearer to mention him to Pharaoh once he’s restored to favor, so he can be set free.

Three days later the baker is hanged, and the cupbearer is restored to favor but forgets to mention Joseph to Pharaoh (I guess accurate predictions of life-altering future events were so common and trivial back then that folks could just forget about specific episodes). So Joseph languished in prison for another two years.

Then Pharaoh has a couple troubling and related dreams. In one he sees seven fat cows eaten by seven skinny cows. In the other, he sees seven healthy ears of grain consumed by seven withered ears of grain. So he starts asking around his advisors if anyone can interpret his dreams, but none of them know of anyone. But then his cupbearer finally remembers Joseph, and mentions him to Pharaoh.

Pharaoh has Joseph brought to him to have his dreams interpreted. Joseph basically says he can’t interpret dreams, but if Pharaoh tells him the dreams then God will interpret them through him (does this sound to anyone else like standard psychic/medium schlock?). So Pharaoh tells Joseph his dream, and Joseph responds that God sent the dreams and they mean that there will be seven years of great plenty, followed by seven years of famine. He then goes on to say that Pharaoh should appoint someone wise to manage their food stores, and order that a portion of the food from the good years should be set aside and stored so there will be something to eat during the lean years.

Well naturally, the Pharaoh decided that this stranger, fortune-teller, and prisoner must surely be the wisest man in all the land, and therefore should get the job. Not only that, he essentially made Joseph his second in command over the entire kingdom (kinda funny that I’ve never really considered before whether this was reasonable behavior – but then, I was a child when I was taught this story). And gave him a wife (the daughter of the high priest of On). This wife, in the seven years that followed, bore him two sons: Manasseh, and Ephraim.

So Joseph had vast amounts of grain saved up during the seven years of plenty that followed. At the end of those seven years the famine began, and when people came to Pharaoh begging for food he told them to go see Joseph.

“Gen 41:56 So when the famine had spread over all the land, Joseph opened all the storehouses and sold to the Egyptians, for the famine was severe in the land of Egypt. 57 Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth.”

Fairly certain that “all the earth” is a gross exaggeration, though I suppose it might seem like a reasonable claim to an author ignorant of the true size of the earth and in how much of it people lived even back then. But to continue on… eventually Jacob (or Israel – he’s referred to by both names interchangeably in this story) hears that there’s grain for sale in Egypt. So he sends all of his sons except the youngest one Benjamin (the only one to share a mother with Joseph) to Egypt to buy some grain.

Joseph recognizes them when they arrive at the storehouse, but they don’t recognize him. So he decides to fuck with them a bit and accuses them of being spies. When they deny it, he has them thrown in prison (isn’t the abuse of absolute dictatorial power fun?). After a few days he comes to question them, and when they admit that they have another brother still back home, he tells them that the way they can prove themselves to be honest men is to return home and bring back their youngest brother.

Oh, and apparently most of this conversation takes place through an interpreter, as Joseph is pretending not to know his brothers’ language. But you don’t find this out until the end of the scene when it’s mentioned that Joseph is able to eavesdrop on his brothers’ conversations amongst themselves because they didn’t realize he could speak their language due to the presence of the interpreter. I have no way of judging the poetic merit of the script in the original Hebrew, but I can tell you this: failing to mention the interpreter and resultant linguistic deception until after the whole scene is almost over is crap storytelling.

Anyway, Joseph makes them leave one of their number, Simeon, as hostage against their return and sets the rest of them free. He sends them off with the grain they had purchased, and has one of his servants sneak the money they had paid for it back into their bags (embezzling from the Pharaoh’s coffers?).

They return home and tell Israel/Jacob what happened. He refuses to let Benjamin go back with them for fear that he might lose him (and seems to just write Simeon off as dead). Reuben offers to let Israel kill his own children if he fails to return with Benjamin, but for some odd reason the proposal to let Jacob kill some of his own grandkids to make up for losing a son doesn’t seem to hold much appeal (ya think?!). When they all discover their money is still in their bags, they’re scared that they might be accused of stealing it. So they don’t go back right away.

But eventually the grain starts to run out, and they have to consider going back to buy more. This time they manage to talk Israel into letting them take Benjamin with them, and Judah takes the responsibility for seeing that he is returned. Israel orders them to take presents to the man (Joseph), as well as the money that had been replaced in their packs after the previous trip.

This time when they meet Joseph and he sees that they have Benjamin with them, he has his steward instruct them to join him at his house. They try to give the steward the extra money that had been returned to them on the previous visit, but he tells them that their God had put the money in their packs and he had been paid. So even in a world where their God supposedly shows up and physically manifests to do impressive shit all the time, apparently it’s still OK to invent stuff that he did to give him credit for even when you know that an actual person was responsible.

But then, this part of the story is really about an elaborate prank Joseph is pulling on his dick brothers, so I suppose it doesn’t really matter much.

Anyway, there’s this big impressive meal with Joseph sitting at his table, the brothers sitting at theirs, and the Egyptians in the household sitting at yet a third (because eating with Hebrews is an abomination to Egyptians). Joseph shares the food from his table with his brothers, and Benjamin gets five times as much as the rest of them. Much merriment is had all around.

When the feast is over, Joseph instructs his steward to give them the food they came to buy, and to once again sneak the money they had paid back into their packs. But since he’s not done fucking with them yet, he also has his silver chalice snuck into Benjamin’s bags. Joseph waits a bit after they leave, then he sends the steward out to chase them down, arrest them and accuse them of stealing the chalice.

Of course the brothers are shocked, and invite the steward’s men to search their bags. And of course they find the chalice, and drag them all back to Joseph’s house where he informs them that he will be keeping Benjamin as a slave now. Now, since Judah had promised to take responsibility for Benjamin’s return, he takes Joseph aside for a word. And then he retells the whole fucking story of every goddamn thing that happened from the moment they first came to buy grain (forcing the reader’s eyes to glaze over for several verses), before finally getting to the point and offering to take Benjamin’s place in captivity.

Now, finally, Joseph can’t take it anymore and reveals his true identity to his brothers. And so there is a tearful reunion (slightly tinged by his brothers’ terror that the most powerful man in Egypt might have a grudge against them for the whole selling him into slavery thing).

OK… long story, and there’s still more to it, so I’m picking this as a good stopping point. The stuff that happens after this deserves its own posting, especially since I’ll be forced to partially retract my previous assertion that the Joseph story was about someone who behaved decently. Find out why, when we return!

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