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Theme: The Risks of Power

Leading Question: What does a powerful position do to the person who holds that power?

Genesis tells of one of the most sudden and radical transformations in the Bible. Joseph, in a single day, moves from zero to hero, from forgotten, languishing prisoner to viceroy of Egypt, the most powerful man in the land, in control of the nation’s economy.

Joseph has been asked to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. But he does far more than that. First, he interprets the dreams. Second, he projects the Egyptian economy for the next 14 years. He also diagnoses the problem. The people will starve during the seven years of famine. Next, with a stroke of sheer genius, he solves the problem. Store a fifth of the produce during the years of plenty, and it will be enough to stave off starvation during the lean years. “The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and to all his officials. So, Pharaoh asked them, ‘Can we find anyone like this man, one in whom is the spirit of God?’” (Gen 41:37-38).

At the age of 30, Joseph is the most powerful man in the region, and his administrative competence is total. He travels around the country, arranges for collection of the grain, and ensures that it is stored safely. We also read that Joseph, “removed the population town by town, from one end of Egypt’s border to the other” (Gen 47:21). This was a policy of enforced resettlement that would eventually be used against Joseph’s descendents by the Assyrian kings.

The question is: was Joseph right to do this? Seemingly, he did it of his own accord. He was not asked to do so by Pharaoh.

When the years of plenty were over, Joseph’s position became even more powerful. Everyone turned to him for food. Pharaoh himself commanded the people, “Go to Joseph and do what he tells you.” The result, however, of all these policies is that unprecedented wealth and power were now concentrated in Pharaoh’s hand—power that would eventually be used against the Israelites.

During the time of the famine, the Egyptians come to Joseph and say, “Buy us and our land in exchange for food, and we with our land will be slaves to Pharaoh . . . Thus Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold their field . . . and the land became Pharaoh’s” (Gen 47:19–20).

Twice we encounter the people saying, “we will be slaves to Pharaoh” (Gen 47:19, 25), which will be one of the key phrases in the Exodus account of the Israelites when they are Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt (Exod 5–12).

We tend to assume that the enslavement of the Israelites in Egypt was a consequence of, and punishment for, the brothers selling Joseph as a slave. But Joseph himself turned the Egyptians into a nation of slaves. What is more, he created the highly centralised power that would eventually be used against his people.1Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Joseph and the Risks of Power” ( conversation/mikketz/joseph-and-the-risks-of-power/; retrieved 26 April 2022).

Rabbi Sacks adds other interpreters who argue similarly about Joseph’s policies that would result in the people’s enslavement.

Aaron Wildavsky in his book about Joseph, Assimilation versus Separation, says that Joseph “left the system into which he was elevated less humane than it was by making Pharaoh more powerful than he had been.”2Aaron Wildavsky, Assimilation versus Separation, Transaction, 2002, 143. Leon Kass, in The Beginning of Wisdom, says about Joseph’s decision to make the people pay for food in the years of famine (food that they themselves had handed over during the years of plenty): “Joseph is saving life by making Pharaoh rich and, soon, all-powerful. While we may applaud Joseph’s forethought, we are rightly made uneasy by this man who profits from exercising his god-like power over life and death.”3Leon Kass, The Beginning of Wisdom, Free Press, 2003, 571.

Question: What are the pros and cons of concentrated economic power?

Question: Did Joseph understand what his methods and policies would do to the population of the country?

“Joseph’s sagacity is technical and managerial, not moral and political. He is long on forethought and planning but short on understanding the souls of men.”4Ibid., 633–34.

Nine years after taking the highest position of power after pharaoh, Joseph is forced to confront his past when his brothers return and his long-repressed dreams surface to his memory:

“And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed down to him with their faces to the ground . . .
But Joseph had recognized his brothers, although they did not recognize him.
Joseph remembered the dreams which he had about them . . .”
(Gen 42:6–9)

Joseph’s recognition of his brothers is not just physical. He also recognizes them, because of their bowing to him. The enactment of his dreams comes about in reality. This ‘down and up’ movement of their bodies prostrating themselves and then rising jolts the memory of his early dreams. It is a flashback of the hostile moments with his brothers. Is this still so as he accuses them of being spies in Egypt and finding out about the “undefended [ “naked” in Hebr.] parts of our land” (Gen 6:9)?

The memory of his dreams, forces Joseph to face his past. The continuation of the story underlines the disparity between the self-confident Joseph, now turned elevated statesman, who knows exactly what should be done in order to steer Egypt to safety, and his shattered inner world, in which nothing appears secure or whole.

Considering his traumatic past, Joseph may well be feeling endangered by his brothers’ reappearance in his well-settled life in Egypt. Will they drag him back to the dark and painful experiences of his youth? Will the brothers, by their mere appearance, erase all he has accomplished in his good years in Egypt?

Question: Is there a correlation between power and fear? What is the result when people who seek power are motivated by acquiring control over others?

Rabbi Sacks has summed up the story of Joseph with great insight:

What this entire passage represents is the first intrusion of politics into the life of the family of the covenant. From the beginning of Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy, politics will dominate the narrative. But this is our first introduction to it: Joseph’s appointment to a key position in the Egyptian court. And what it is telling us is the sheer ambiguity of power. On the one hand, you cannot create or sustain a society without it. On the other hand, it almost cries out to be abused. Power is dangerous, even when used with the best of intentions by the best of people. Joseph acted to strengthen the hand of a Pharaoh who had been generous to him, and would be likewise to the rest of his family. He could not have foreseen what that same power might make possible in the hands of a “new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.”

Tradition [that is, Jewish tradition] called Joseph ha-tzaddik, the righteous . . . Even a tzaddik with the best of intentions, when he or she enters politics and assumes airs of authority, can make mistakes.

I believe the great challenge of politics is to keep policies humane and that politicians remain humble, so that power, always so dangerous, is not used for harm. That is an ongoing challenge, and tests even the best.5Sacks, “Joseph and the Risks of Power.”

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