In Parsha Lech Lecha the Torah records some of God’s promises to Abraham; that his descendants would be given a land of their own and that they would prosper, be great in numbers and in repute. There was a third promise. One as ominous as it is enigmatic, that Abraham’s descendants would be forced into exile to seek refuge in a land that was not theirs, and where they would be enslaved and brutalized for four hundred years. Unfortunately, Abraham’s kin has not grown into a vast nation and settlement of the promised lands was not proving a successful venture.
Parsha MiKetz marks the beginning of the end; the fulfillment of God’s third promise to Abraham, that , in the fullness of time, would become emblazoned in the Jewish national consciousness, and commonly referred to as the Egyptian Exile, a necessary precursor to the great Exodus. The Torah describes God’s plan to entice the Israelites to come to Egypt, all of them, and make it easy for them to settle there: to become “strangers in a land not theirs”. And much like the previous narratives, it is structured as a sophisticated drama entwining two separate but related matters: Joseph’s rise to power and his brothers’ flight to Egypt to buy provisions.
The story of Joseph’s ascension from prisoner to ruler is a magical tale directed by the hand of God. Joseph is perhaps the most faithful of Jacob’s sons, recognizing that his fortunes and powers of prognostication are gifts from God; he readily admits to the Pharaoh that he is but an instrument of God, the God of his fathers. Surprisingly, the unnamed Pharaoh does not take umbrage with this insult to own divinity, and he whole heartedly accepted the course of action described by Joseph to avert the disaster foretold. Pharaoh empowered Joseph to lead the campaign to build storage houses and to plan production and regulate consumption, to ensure that when crops were bountiful and large surpluses were available, sufficient foodstuffs were set aside for the years ahead, to be prepared for the lean years that were sure to follow.
Across the eastern desert another narrative is building. The years had not been kind to Jacob who continues to grieve for his favourite wife, Rachel, and his favourite son, Joseph. However circumstances left him with no choice but to send his sons to Egypt to secure foodstuffs. He would not Benjamin join on the journey, clutching on to the last keepsake of those he had lost. The ten brothers followed the road that the Midianite slavers had taken with their captive Joseph, and just happened to be brought before Joseph, who oversaw all sales of food. It is an incredible reversal of fortunes; Joseph who had been helpless against the envy and hatred of his brothers now has their fate firmly in his hands.
Joseph recognized his brothers; they did not recognize him. At this juncture in the story the question remains open: how will Joseph react? Would he seek vengeance and retribution as recompense for his lost years? The Torah records an ambiguous response. Rather, than jailing them, or worse having them killed, Joseph means to embrace them, but first he must find a means to compel them to bring Benjamin before him.
In a series of vignettes built on a dramatic irony, Joseph toyed with his siblings, who were completely unawares that the Egyptian potentate understood every word they spoke amongst themselves. In a very remarkable ruse, Joseph teased his brothers, accusing them of coming to spy on Egypt. Initially he demanded that they all remain in his custody, until their youngest brother, Benjamin, was brought before him. He gave them three days to digest the situation, and returned with a slightly different proposal; one brother would stay with Joseph as a hostage while the others fetched Benjamin. Simon stayed, the others returned home to their anxious father.
The drama of the brother’s return journey was prolonged. Jacob was disturbed by Simon’s captivity, and would not accept Reuben’s assurances that he would safeguard Benjamin. Jacob’s obstinacy is then blunted by the famine’s continued rage, and he had no option but to allow his sons to return to Egypt. Jacob accepted Judah’s pledge to safeguard Benjamin. The brothers returned to Egypt and were welcomed by Joseph with open arms; they were wined and dined in Joseph’s home, and given provisions for their return journey, purposefully to lull them into a sense of security before he closes the trap on them.
Joseph arranged for his personal goblet be secreted in the unsuspecting Benjamin’s pack. After they left, Joseph ordered his guard to give chase, and they easily located the purloined property. Joseph confronted the brothers, took Benjamin as his slave, thus forcing them to return to their father, who likely would not be able to survive another emotional trauma. The Parsha ends in a dramatic cliff-hanger, likely done purposefully by the editors of the Torah to increase the tension of the tale.
Here again is a narrative whose strength lies not in the wisdom it teaches but in the wondrous tale it expounds and the tempo, tension and intrigue it creates. By itself, it is a brilliantly written saga, one that could easily be told from one generation to the next; from father to son, and always be fresh. Importantly it will serve as the basis for an otherwise improbable but and immensely colourful pretext to bring the Israelites to Egypt, a strange land, and thus lay the foundation for the most wondrous narrative of the Torah; Exodus, the movement of the people out of Egypt.