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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

11. Did Joseph's Actions Cause Israel to be Enslaved by Egypt?

Updated: Apr 8

Actions have consequences.


Parshah Vayigash

TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • Perpetuating the cycle of favoritism

  • How the rabbis create extra scenarios, explanations, and excuses out of thin air

  • The consequences of Jacob’s actions and character flaws

  • Joseph's greed and the creation of serfdom


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Genesis 45:13, 21-22*

“‘Tell [Jacob] my father of all my glory in Egypt and all that you saw’... Joseph gave [his brothers] wagons by Pharaoh’s word, and he gave them provisions for the journey. To each of them he gave changes of clothing; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver and five changes of clothing.”

Despite everything he faced, Joseph was still prone to arrogance, bragging, and favoritism. His father preferred Rebecca and her sons, and now Joseph favored Benjamin.


In a time when families often included many half-siblings from different mothers, this type of partiality would have been particularly damaging. Instead of saying, "I forgive,” and backing up his words with inclusive actions, Joseph sanctimoniously bestowed forgiveness while perpetuating the cycle of preferential treatment towards his full brother. 


There was no reason for the favoritism - Joseph’s brothers had proven they would go to great lengths to protect Benjamin from harm. If this group of brothers were to become a nation, why start the process by sowing disunity through unequal distribution of resources? 


If this group of brothers were to become a nation, why start the process by sowing disunity through unequal distribution of resources?

Genesis 46:15, 26*

“These are the sons of Leah whom she bore to Jacob in Paddan-aram, in addition to Dinah his daughter. All the people - his sons and daughters - numbered thirty-three…All the persons coming with Jacob to Egypt - his own descendants, aside from the wives of Jacob’s sons - sixty-six persons in all.”

Leah contributed as many descendants as the other three wives combined. 


Genesis 46:29*

“[Joseph] appeared before him, fell on his neck, and he wept on his neck excessively.”

The ArtScroll commentary decided this is what actually happened during this verse: “Joseph wept greatly and continuously. Jacob, however, did not fall upon Joseph’s neck, nor did he kiss him, for, as the Sages say, Jacob was reciting the Shema at that moment (Rashi).”*


At some point, watching the rabbis pull this stuff from thin air becomes hilarious. When and where do we see any hints of Joseph reciting the Shema


Genesis 47:8-9*

“Pharaoh said to Jacob, ‘How many are the days of the years of your life?’

Jacob answered Pharaoh, ‘The days of the years of my sojourns have been a hundred and thirty years. Few and bad have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not reached the life spans of my forefathers in the days of their sojourns.’”

I cannot exaggerate the extent to which Jewish theology, famously incapable of agreeing on anything, agrees on Jacob being the best of the Patriarchs and the peak of human potential. I have absolutely no idea how they decided this, but it has morphed into a universally accepted truth. 


Jacob told Pharaoh he experienced more hardships than his forefathers, which is truthful. What meaning can we derive from this? 


Perhaps Jacob’s trials were designed to strengthen his character, and maybe he experienced comparatively more hardship because he had a stronger underlying character. However, Jacob’s ordeals seem more like God allowing Jacob to feel the effects of his actions. We also don’t see any evidence his grief caused him to grow. 


Buzz, excited, showing something to Woody, who looks distraught. Caption: Consequences, Consequences everywhere

First, he weathered 20 years with the thieving Laban, but maybe God was punishing Jacob for conspiring with Laban to purchase Rachel and Leah as his salary. Recalling the story of Eliezer and Rebecca, when Eliezer asked Rebecca’s family for their permission and sought Rebecca’s consent to go to Isaac, it threw Jacob’s coarse demands for Rachel into stark relief. These hardships are the hardships of consequences, not character growth. 


Jacob endured Joseph’s sale and assumed death, and while his brothers sinned when they sold Joseph into slavery, Jacob’s favoritism towards Joseph served as inspiration for the brothers’ envy and their decision. Again, Jacob experienced consequences for the favoritism he felt for Rachel and Joseph. 


I interpret Jacob’s hardships not as proof of his greatness but rather proof God sees the same character defects we do. 


Genesis 47:13-20*

“Now there was no bread in all the earth for the famine was very severe; the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan became weary from hunger. 

Joseph gathered all the money that was to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan through the provisions that they were purchasing, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s palace. And when the money was exhausted from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying, ‘Give us bread; why should we die in your presence? - for the money is gone!’ 

And Joseph said, ‘Bring your livestock and I will provide for you in return for your livestock if the money is gone.’ So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in return for the horses, for the flocks of sheep, for the herds of cattle, and for the donkeys; thus he provided them with bread for all their livestock during that year.

And when that year ended, they came to him in the next year and said to him, ‘We will not withhold from my lord that with the money and flocks of cattle having been exhausted to my lord, nothing is left before my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Acquire us and our land for bread; and we - with our land - will become serfs to Pharaoh; and provide seed so that we may live and not die, and the land will not become desolate.’

Thus Joseph acquired all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field because the famine had overwhelmed them; and the land became Pharaoh’s.”

I struggle to wrap my mind around the horror of this. Jewish and Christian narratives describe Joseph as a successful businessperson and shrewd strategist. 


I’ll let you be the judge of him. 


Egypt could have fed its people for free. During the seven years of plenty preceding the famine, Joseph stored more than enough food for everyone. God arranged for Joseph to hear and interpret the prophetic dream about the years of plenty and subsequent famine for precisely that purpose - so they could prepare! 


Joseph chose to force the Egyptians to give him all their money, livestock, then finally their land and their very bodies, all in exchange for food he should have provided as part of a state’s duty to its people. He created a system of serfdom and coerced everyone into it.


At no point does Pharaoh pressure Joseph into these decisions. Joseph enjoyed absolute autonomy over his management of Egypt. 


The Israelites eventually found themselves enslaved in Egypt. It’s painful but necessary to wonder if Joseph himself created the conditions for his future nation to be oppressed when he used his power to create an oppressive system for the Egyptians. 


It’s painful but necessary to wonder if Joseph himself created the conditions for his future nation to be oppressed when he used his power to create an oppressive system for the Egyptians. 

*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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