Had Jacob married Rachel as he had intended ― instead of being tricked into marrying Leah ― Joseph would have likely been his first-born son. Although he was Jacob's 11th son, he dominates the narrative of the 12 brothers, and, in his story, we see a great many historical patterns.
To begin with, Joseph has a key position in the family as a result of his being the long-awaited first child of Jacob's favorite wife. His father seems to be showing him a considerable amount of favoritism ― he buys him a special coat ― and this engenders jealousy from his brothers.
However, it would be a mistake to view their behavior simplistically, as typical of a dysfunctional family. While these great people make mistakes, spiritually they are on an incredibly high level. So we have to look deeply at what is really going on here.
Joseph is having dreams and he interprets those dreams. As we learn, he has a special gift for dream interpretation, and his dreams and interpretations are accurate and prophetic. He tells his brothers, for example, that one day they will bow to him (which does indeed happen many years later).
But to his brothers his dreams appear to verge on megalomania. And since they know that they are the family that will build a nation that's supposed to change the world, they probably think he is endangering the whole future of humanity. They know the family history ― that in each generation there was one "bad apple" ― first Ishmael, then Esau. It is possible that they concluded that Joseph must be the bad one in this generation.
They contemplate killing him, but instead they sell him into slavery. They take his fancy coat, smear it with goat's blood and present it to Jacob as if Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
Meanwhile, Joseph is taken by a caravan of Ishmaelites to Egypt, where he becomes a slave in the household of a nobleman named Potiphar.
At this juncture, we have to consider what Egypt was like at this time in history when it was the second of the two great civilizations in existence. (The first was the Mesopotamian civilization which we described earlier.)
Geographically, Egypt is mostly desert except for the Nile River. The Nile is the greatest river in the world, and if it didn't flow through Egypt the country would be just sand. In ancient times only 3% of Egypt was inhabitable, arable land.
A huge desert is a great natural defensive barrier making Egypt totally isolated and virtually impossible to invade. (The Hyksos invaded it once, then the Assyrians, and finally Alexander the Great. But that's only three times in 3,000 years.) Egypt was the longest-surviving civilization in human history which changed very little in three millennia. You think about how little Egypt changed in 3,000 years and how much the modern world has changed in even a few hundred years. It's mind-boggling how stable that society was and to a large extent it's due to its geography.
Although we don't have exact dates for the beginning of the Egyptian civilization, it is believed to have started in the Early Bronze period, over 3000 years ago. It was a very sophisticated culture, considering the feats of engineering that the pyramids represent. The Great Pyramid of Khufu, known as "Cheops," is the largest ever built, 13 acres in area, almost 500 feet high, composed of over 2 million blocks of stone weighing more than 5 million tons; and it was built by people who did not have any iron tools. (It was also the tallest man-made structure in the world for 43 centuries!) Even with all of our modern technology, we would have a hard time duplicating such a feat today. They obviously had tremendously sophisticated stone cutting techniques and engineering knowledge, enabling them to move large blocks of stone. They had pulleys, levers, and a lot of muscle power.
It's estimated that Cheops took 100,000 men and thirty years to build. Why spend so much effort on building a tomb? Because the Egyptians were also spiritually sophisticated. It was a dark spirituality but not to be lightly dismissed. They were preoccupied with death, which is why they perfected mummification, and their holy book was called the Book of the Dead. How's that for a lively read?
They believed that Pharaoh was a living god, he had absolute power, and that Pharaoh's position in the afterlife would affect the prosperity of Egypt. The future of Egypt was dependent on Pharaoh's proper entry into the afterlife. So you had to make a really good tomb for him, and you had to give him the right gifts, and you had to make sure that he got into the afterlife correctly, otherwise things would go badly for everybody. This explains why it was a national project of the entire Egyptian people to create such extra-ordinary tombs for the Pharaohs.
This very sophisticated culture was antithetical to Judaism as is humanly possible, because it practiced idolatry. They worshipped an estimated 2,000 different gods in ancient Egypt. Gods with hippo heads, falcon heads, and crocodile heads. This was a civilization that was idolatrous to the extreme ― very religious and spiritual in its own sense and yet very idolatrous at the same time. They were not primitive or superstitious or stupid; they understood spiritual power and were a very sophisticated people who truly believed in the power of idolatry(1).
This is a crucial point to understand about ancient civilizations. In our modern arrogance we often tend to look at the ancients as less sophisticated or even primitive. We have science and modern technology. What did they have thousands of years ago? Nothing could be further from the truth. Ancient civilization's knowledge of engineering, math, astronomy, medicine etc was often very impressive. Spiritually, the contrast is even more extreme. Jewish tradition and archaeology both show that the ancients were much more spiritually connected than we are to today. Thousands of years ago there was real spiritual power, both idolatrous and pure, that could be tapped into. We today have largely lost this connection. This explains why ancient civilizations put so much effort into religion and religious construction and why the idolatry portrayed in the Bible had such a powerful allure.
Jewish tradition teaches that ancient Egypt, besides being a place of idolatry, was also a place of immorality ― a very licentious place.(2)
So to throw young Joseph into this environment is bad news. Very bad news.
A Slave Rises to the Top
Separated from the monotheistic influence of his family at an early age (He is seventeen when sold as a slave), Joseph has a major disadvantage for a licentious society ― he is very handsome. And his master's wife, Mrs. Potiphar, finds him very attractive.
Besides that, Joseph has a lot going for him ― he is very smart and hardworking and he rises from his position as lowly teenage servant to head of Potiphar's household. This is the classic historic pattern of the Jew in the Diaspora which will be repeated over and over again for thousands of years ― he arrives impoverished in a foreign land, deals with a bad situation, works hard, and very rapidly rises to the top.
Now Potiphar's wife is not happy that Joseph refuses her advances. Eventually, she picks a time when everyone is out of the house attending a national celebration and she tries to rip his clothes off. He runs away. Outraged, she screams rape. Mr. Potiphar comes home, his wife retells the lie to him and Joseph ends up in prison.
So here Joseph, who was the head servant, is on the bottom again. This is the Jew in the Diaspora. They come into a country, they rise, they fall and have to start at the bottom somewhere else. Joseph is now in prison and he rises very quickly to be the head prisoner. This again is the Jew. Even as a prisoner you can't keep a Jew down..
Into prison is thrown Pharaoh's wine steward and Pharaoh's baker. And they have dreams. Now as we know Joseph is the master dream interpreter, and therefore it's not surprising that Joseph interprets these dreams and he tells the wine steward that the Pharaoh is going to reinstate him into his position, and he tells the baker that he's going to lose his head. And that's exactly what happens.
As the wine steward is being released from prison Josephs asks him to put in a good for him Pharaoh so that maybe he'll be released. What happens? The wine steward forgets all about him and Josephs sits in prison for another two years. Even in this little detail there is a pattern for the future: Historically Jews have not been able to count on the non-Jewish world for help. It is the rare Gentile who has come forward the help the Jew in his time of need.(3)
Then the Pharaoh himself has a couple of disturbing dreams. He dreams of seven fat cows coming out of the Nile and being devoured by seven thin cows. And then he has another dream of seven fat sheaves of wheat being devoured by seven thin sheaves of wheat. And he's very disturbed. And believe me, if living-god-on-earth-Pharaoh can't sleep, no one in Egypt sleeps.
The Pharaoh wakes up all his magicians and his soothsayers and his astrologers and none of them can figure out what the dream was about, and then the wine steward says, "I remember, there was this Jewish kid in prison who interprets dreams."
Now this, by the way, is the ultimate Jewish success story. They take Joseph out of prison; they shower him, shave him and bring him before Pharaoh. When he hears the dream, Joseph tells the Pharaoh: "There's going to be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine."
"What should I do?" asks the Pharaoh. And Joseph says, "You'd better stockpile all the grain in Egypt so that when the famine hits you'll have what to eat." Joseph then outlines an entire plan to prepare for the famine. Pharaoh says, "You thought of it, you do it."
And this is how Joseph becomes Viceroy, for all practical purposes the most powerful man in the whole land in terms of infrastructure of Egypt, the most powerful empire at the time. How's that for promotion ― from prisoner to viceroy. And he marries ― Osnat, the daughter of Potiphar. Here too we see important patterns for the future: Throughout history when the Jewish people rise, this rise can be very dramatic. Within this idea we see another pattern: The situation the Jewish people find themselves in, for better or for worse, can change very rapidly. (4)
Before the famine hits he has two children, Menashe and Ephraim. To this day, observant Jews bless their children every Friday night. Girls receive a blessing that they should be like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah ― the great matriarchs of the Bible. One would assume that boys would receive the blessing that they should be like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the great Patriarchs, but instead they are told they should be like Ephraim and Menashe. Why? First, unlike all the previous brothers in the Bible ― Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau and even Joseph and his brothers ― they love each other and there is no jealousy. (The jealousy of Joseph's brothers almost caused his death.) As we travel through Jewish history we will see that one of the great Achilles heels of the Jewish people is sinat chinam ― the causeless hatred of one Jew for another. This hatred is one of the driving forces behind the disunity in the Jewish world until today. It is a flaw that haunts the Jewish people throughout history. Its primary source is rooted in the rivalry and jealousy that constantly plagues the Jewish people. Ephraim and Menashe are the model for the unconditional love essential for Jewish unity and the success of the Jewish people.(5)
There is another extremely important lesson we need to learn from these brothers. Throughout history Jews have been rich and poor, free and enslaved, tolerated and persecuted. History has long since proven that it is much easier to remain Jews when things are bad. It's not the poor persecuted Jews that assimilate, but the comfortable accepted ones. More Jews have probably disappeared through assimilation than through persecution. This remains one of the great challenges of Jewish history ― how to remain Jewish when things are good. Ephraim and Menashe have the inner spiritual strength essential for Jewish continuity. These kids grow up as sons of the Viceroy, they could have been totally assimilated, spoiled, Egyptian brats, yet it's very clear that they grow up completely loyal proto-Jews in an incredibly hostile environment.
Now that Joseph is Viceroy the stage is set for his early dreams to come true, when he saw his brothers bowing before him. And this is indeed what happens next.
1) That fact that these ancient, sophisticated nations were so into idolatry is proof that there was really some kind of power in them. (Which explains the massive effort and expense put into building tombs and temples)Yet one of the most fundamental principles of Judaism is that there is no other power besides God ― Idolatry is an illusion. So where did idolatry get its power from? The answer is God, Himself. The essence of being human is to use free will to make choices and the ultimate choice a person makes is to live with the reality of God. To make this choice meaningful there has to be other "real" options. God put real power into idolatry to enable humanity to exercise its free will in this most-meaningful of decisions. Today the power of idolatry is largely absent ― the reason for this will be explained later.
2) See: Rash ― Numbers 18:3
3) Planted around Israel's national Holocaust (Yad VaShem) memorial in Jerusalem are approximately 6 thousand trees. These trees are known as The Forest of the Righteous Gentiles. The trees were planted in recognition of gentiles who helped Jews during the Holocaust, often at great personal risk. To date Yad VaShem has a compiled a list of approximately 21,000 people listed as "Righteous Among the Nations." As beautiful as this is it is also sad. Hundreds of millions of people lived in Europe during the Holocaust yet only a fraction lifted a finger to offer assistance.
4) See: Sforno on Genesis 41:18. Examples of dramatic and very changes for the worse can be seen in Expulsion edict of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and the Nuremberg Laws in Germany in 1935.
5) It is precisely for this reason that I am a huge advocate for all Jews, religious, secular or anywhere in between, to learn the laws of lashon hara ― correct speech. The pen is mightier than the sword and the damage wrought by slander is incalculable. Correct speech is not just for Jews ― it lies at the foundation of all civil society