The Crucial Contrast Between Joseph and Moses

Moses acts, while Joseph sees himself as being acted upon.

From Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.

From Joseph Interprets Pharaoh’s Dream, c. 1896-1902, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot. Via the Jewish Museum.

Dec. 11 2015
About the author

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award. His Lives of the Dead: Poems of Hanoch Levin earned a PEN Translates award and was released in 2019 by Arc Publications. He was ordained by Rabbi Daniel Landes and is completing a PhD on William Tyndale’s translation of Deuteronomy.

This week’s Torah reading (Genesis 41:1 – 44:17) starts with the word miketz, “at the end,” signifying the conclusion of Joseph’s early period of struggle and imprisonment in Egypt and the start of his rise to power under Pharaoh. Actually, the entire next phase of Israelite history is prefigured in this reading—a phase that will end in liberation and exodus. At both the beginning and the end, we find the Egyptian ruler in deep water: figuratively in the first case, literally in the second. But there is a great difference between the personality of Joseph, the Jew upon whom this week’s Pharaoh leans, and that of Moses, whom a later Pharaoh will chase to the water’s edge and beyond.

And it was at the end of two entire years of days
And Pharaoh was dreaming
And here he was standing at the Nile
And here were seven fine-looking and fairly fleshed cows
And they grazed in the meadow.
But here seven other cows rose after them out of the Nile,
Bad-looking and barely fleshed
And they stood by the cows at the bank of the Nile
And the bad-looking and barely fleshed cows
Ate the good-looking and healthy ones
And Pharaoh awoke.

Jumping forward, I can’t help noting the contrast between Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dream (and his second dream about healthy and blasted ears of corn) and Moses’ response in Exodus to Pharaoh’s demand for a sign of his divinely mandated mission. Joseph is a psychologist, and his follow-up advice takes the form of an action plan to be implemented by an unnamed “man of vision.” Moses, accompanied by his brother Aaron, is a prophet. The two throw to the ground a thin and barely fleshed stick, soon to be joined by the ornately worked and glamorous sticks of Pharaoh’s scholars and magicians. All of the sticks will turn to snakes, but Moses’ snake will eat the Egyptian snakes.

But Pharaoh awoke and here it was a dream
And it was morning and his spirit was rattled
And he sent and called all the scribes of Egypt
And all its scholars and Pharaoh told them his dream
And no one could solve it for Pharaoh. . . .
And Pharaoh sent and called for Joseph
And they chivvied him from the pit
And he was shaved and his robes were changed
And he came before Pharaoh.
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, I dreamed a dream
And there is no decipherer of it
But I was told you hear a dream to solve it.
But Joseph answered Pharaoh saying,
Without me God would answer for the peace of Pharaoh.

This last is one of the remarks always cited as demonstrating Joseph’s God-fearing nature, in that he declines to take personal credit for the analysis he is about to offer or personal responsibility for its far-reaching consequences. The remark could also be interpreted as a warning: without the intervention of a Jewish prophet to offer Pharaoh a lifeline, Egypt would be entirely destroyed.

But in this line I also see Joseph’s self-effacement, in the sense not of humility but of being less than self-aware or self-reflective. Here and elsewhere in this week’s reading, Joseph does not see himself as acting. Rather than acknowledging his own part in events, he plays the part of the good slave, whose successes reflect well on his master rather than himself. Having internalized the role, he stifles the pain, anger, and suffering that have accumulated over the years to form his personality. In this regard he presents a model of assimilation: if you want to rise to power, it’s best to take no credit for your own achievements and show nothing of your own desires. Let the throne swallow you whole.

Joseph said to Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s dream is one,
What God is doing, He’s told Pharaoh.
And about the dream being repeated to Pharaoh twice,
It’s because the thing is ready to come from God
And God is hastening to do it. . . .
But now let Pharaoh look out for
A man clever and wise and appoint him over the land of Egypt.
Pharaoh should act and command commanders
And arm the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty
And they will collect all the food of these coming good years
And they’ll amass produce under Pharaoh’s hand, food in the cities to store it
And there’ll be food deposited for the land
For the seven years of hunger that will come to be
In the land of Egypt, and the land won’t be cut down by the famine.
But Pharaoh said to his servant, Can we find
Such a man who has God’s spirit in him?
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, Since God apprised you of all this
There is none clever and wise as you.
You shall be in charge of my house
And at your mouth all my people will kiss.
Only the throne will I make greater than you. . . .
And Pharaoh called Joseph’s name Secret Solver
And he gave him Osnat daughter of Poti Phera
Priest of On as wife. And Joseph went out over the land of Egypt.
And Joseph was thirty-three when he stood before Pharaoh, king of Egypt,
And Joseph went out from before Pharaoh
And he passed in all the land of Egypt. . . .
To Joseph was delivered a pair of sons
Before the year of hunger came.
And Joseph named the elder Menasheh,
For God made me forget all of my labor
And all of my father’s house.
And the second one’s name he called Ephraim,
For God made me fruitful in the land of my torment.

After outlining a job description for himself and waiting patiently for Pharaoh to offer him the post, Joseph reveals his character when it comes to the naming of names. Pharaoh renames him according to his function as a problem-solver; in naming his own sons, borne by the daughter of a foreign priest, the Joseph who has retained the impermeability that enabled him to move seamlessly from his father’s house, to Potiphar’s house, to prison, and then to all of Egypt pays a price in a refusal of his own history, the willed erasure of his betrayal by his brothers and abandonment by his father’s house. Focusing on what he has gained, he will proceed to strip Egypt of its agricultural assets and create a slave economy without a thought for the pain of the country that has taken him in and showered him with glory.

All of this irresistibly suggests another, different leader down the line:

And it happened that in those days as Moses grew
And he went out to his brothers and looked over their suffering
And he saw an Egyptian man strike a Hebrew man of his brothers
And he turned this way and that and looked about
That no man was there and he struck the Egyptian and hid him in the sand.

Although brought up in Pharaoh’s palace, Moses is still a Hebrew, and he goes out to see how his brothers are doing—as Joseph did while scouting for his father Jacob. The difference is that Moses is the actor and not acted upon, and never loses sight of who he is. Joseph’s brothers throw him in a pit; Moses intercedes for one of his beleaguered brothers, kills an Egyptian and buries him in a pit. As a consequence of this calculated gesture of solidarity with his fellow Israelites, Moses flees his gilded life and Pharaoh’s palace, and is taken in by the family of a Midianite priest who gives him his daughter as wife:

And she bore him a son and he called his name Gershom
For he said, I was a migrant in an alien land.

Where Joseph, accentuating the positive, wipes out the memory of his father’s house, Moses reflects both on his past home in Egypt and his present, migrant base in Midian. Someone who knows himself so well is not easily co-opted.

And Moses was eighty years old
And Aaron eighty-three years old
When they spoke to Pharaoh.

The Torah tells us that Joseph was a young man when he stood before Pharaoh; however impermeable, he was still susceptible of being shaped and influenced. By contrast, Moses was eighty when he “spoke to” Pharaoh; Moses has had his son, and in that son seen the full extent to which he is a fully formed and responsible adult. (The rabbis of the Talmud remark that a man should not be made a judge until he has had sons, so that he may remember the pain of raising children.) Moses comes not to listen to Pharaoh but to speak:

And Moses said, So says the Lord:
Around midnight I am going out into Egypt . . .
And I will pass through the land of Egypt this night
And strike every first-born in the land of Egypt. . . .


Now let’s look at Joseph’s interaction with his brothers as a prefiguring, in miniature, of how the Jews will finally leave Egypt:

And Joseph is ruler over the land,
He’s seller to all the great and good of the land
And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed their faces to the ground before him
And Joseph looked over his brothers
And recognized them but didn’t want to know them.
And he spoke sternly with them and said to them,
Where have you come from? And they said, from the land of Canaan to trade for food. . . .
And Joseph remembered the dreams he’d dreamed to them.

The term the Torah uses for Joseph’s reaction to his brothers—hitnaker—means literally to make oneself a stranger. In modern Hebrew it has connotations of alienation, disenchantment. What’s striking here is that Joseph does feel an emotional reaction, but it is one of repulsion. It is the feeling that Esther experiences when she hears that her uncle Mordekhai is outside the palace in sackcloth and ashes—a feeling of intense embarrassment.

Also notable here, however, is that Joseph remembers a time when, a non-person, he didn’t analyze dreams professionally but recounted his dreams aloud to his brothers. What he remembers when he see them is his youth, and the brother he quite naturally longs to see most is the youngest, Benjamin—borne, like him, by Rachel. And so he blackmails them into bringing Benjamin back with them, and something interesting happens:

And Joseph said to them on the third day,
Do this and live, I am God-fearing. . . .
But your little brother bring to me
And your words will be credible and you won’t die
If you do so. And they said each to his brothers,
But we’re to blame over our brother
That we saw his mortal danger
When he pleaded with us and we didn’t listen.
That’s why this danger has come upon us. . . .
And they didn’t know that Joseph was listening
Because the interpreter had been between them.
But he turned away from them and wept
And returned and spoke to them
And he took from them Simon
And jailed him before their very eyes.

Joseph weeps at the brothers’ unguarded admission of guilt over his presumed death—but, as usual, he stifles his own pain. And then he finally does see Benjamin, whom, since their mother Rachel died in childbirth, he himself may well have been most involved in raising:

And he raised his eyes and looked at Benjamin
His brother, son of his mother,
And he said, Is this your little brother that you told me about?
And he said, May God grace you my son.
But Joseph scurried away because his compassion burned
For his brother and he wanted to cry.
And he came to his chamber and cried there
But he washed his face and went out
And pent himself up and said, Put out bread.

Where Moses impulsively lashes out at the Egyptian, Joseph’s compassion for his one full brother burns fiercely—but again his instinctive reaction is to stifle it and once more to deny himself, weeping in private only to wash his face and resume the game by sending the brothers away with his silver cup hidden in Benjamin’s saddlebag.

In this, Joseph prefigures the dance of release-and-rescinding-of-release that Pharaoh plays out with the Jews and Moses. Strikingly, Judah, who of all the brothers has stepped forward to take responsibility both personally for Benjamin’s life and collectively for the selling of Joseph into slavery, says to him: “You are as Pharaoh to us.” Indeed. But it is only when Jewish leadership is assumed by someone who—like Judah, like Moses—accepts responsibility for all of his brothers that the cycle of pain and violence will finally come to an end. Joseph remembers the God who “made me fruitful in the land of my torment” but till now has declined to remember himself or where he came from. You can’t listen to the world or to yourself if all you want to hear is the good news.

More about: Hebrew Bible, Joseph, The Monthly Portion