Seeing the Big Picture of Joseph’s Life

Vayiggash By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On Dec 19, 2012 / 5773

Over the past few weeks, we have been immersed in the story of Joseph, from the fateful gift of the striped robe, to his sale to the Ishmaelites and Midianites, to his imprisonment in Egypt, his meteoric rise, and finally the family reunion. Now we are witness to the emotional crescendo of the narrative with Joseph’s revelation to his brothers. He urges his brothers to come forward, and declares,

“I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you . . . God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” (Gen. 45:4–8)

In addition, Joseph urges his brothers to gather the family from Canaan and to come down to Egypt, where they will partake of the bounty of the land. What may we learn from Joseph’s moving revelation and his words to the brothers?

Everett Fox writes,

In revealing his true identity at last, Joseph makes two points: first, that it was all part of God’s plan; and second, that the family must immediately prepare for migration to Egypt. Thus the personal story is intertwined with the national one, and the text therefore gives limited time and space to psychological details. The motif of God’s plan is stressed by the repetition of “God sent me” (verses 5, 7 and 8), while the anticipated bounties of settling in Egypt are brought out by the threefold “good things of Egypt” (verses 18, 20 and 23) and by the repeated exhortation to “come” (verses 18 and 19). (The Five Books of Moses, 212)

Fox is sensitive and masterful in interpreting the personal and national narratives. Joseph’s mature and deep reading of his life’s drama stands at the essence of our story: for it was God, not any human actor, who orchestrated the events that brought him down to Egypt. And more than that, it was not simply the descent of an individual. Now our eyes are opened to the real drama—the descent of a family and ultimately a nation. Egyptian bounty, we know well, will prove quite ephemeral. Those blessings will turn into bitterness as the Israelites become enslaved. Knowing the end that will result in freedom and a return to Israel is hatzi nechama, half comfort. Still, Joseph’s mature reading of his own life, combined with Everett Fox’s insight, allows the reader to stand back and see the big picture—with deeper understanding of its piercing emotion and powerful context.

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