© Arlene Goldbard 2004
Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a well; whose branches run over the wall…
The consulting profession has come into its own in the modern age, both as a line of work and the butt of jokes. Nowadays work is often so complex, requiring so much specialized knowledge, that it seems sensible to streamline problem-solving with the occasional employment of qualified advisors — even though the water-cooler crowd defines a consultant as “someone who borrows your watch to tell you what time it is.”
But consulting is by no means an artifact of our times. Its lineage begins before the exodus from Egypt, in the person of Joseph, son of Jacob, the advice-giver whom Pharaoh chose to administer the affairs of his vast domain. In the few chapters of Genesis devoted to his story, Joseph set in place the key features of the consulting profession, shaping the generations that followed.
Like all good consultants, Joseph’s skills at perception and strategy stemmed from childhood necessity. Typically for a consultant, Joseph came from a dysfunctional family. He was the first child of Rachel, his father’s first love and second wife. Both wives were sisters, and both encouraged Jacob to impregnate their maids as well, the four mothers producing thirteen children in all. Jacob loved Joseph “more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3).
Jacob showed Joseph special favor, arousing envy in the boy’s siblings; Joseph fed the flames of jealousy by sharing with his brothers dreams in which they bowed down before him, “and they hated him even more.” (Genesis 37:5) When they had him alone in the wilderness, Joseph’s brothers contemplated murdering him, but at the urgings of Reuben, the eldest, settled for casting him into a pit. While Reuben was away, the other brothers, seeing a chance to profit, fished Joseph out and sold him to passing traders who then re-sold him in Egypt to Potiphar, a captain of Pharaoh’s guard. The brothers contrived to convince their father that Joseph was dead by bloodying the boy’s coat and hinting at wild beasts, so that “Jacob tore his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his loins, and mourned for his son many days” (Genesis 37:34). The hard lessons Joseph learned from his brothers (especially about watching his back and biding his time) sustained him through many ordeals, enabling Joseph to save his family’s lives and achieve a grand tikkun — a healing — of the conflicts that caused his suffering in childhood.
Like all good consultants, Joseph had a keen sense of ethics, taking care not to transgress them. Potiphar, seeing that Joseph was under Divine protection, appointed the Hebrew overseer of his household, “and it came to pass from the time that he had made him overseer in his house, and over all that he had, that the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; and the blessing of the Lord was upon all that he had in the house, and in the field” (Genesis 39:5). But Potiphar’s wife lusted after the handsome Joseph, pressuring him to sleep with her. He refused, citing loyalty to both his master and to God: “There is none greater in this house than I; nor has he kept back any thing from me but you, because you are his wife; how then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:5) Incensed at Joseph’s rejection, Potiphar’s wife concocted a plot, seizing a piece of Joseph’s clothing and telling her husband “the Hebrew servant, whom you have brought to us, came in to me to mock me; and it came to pass, as I lifted up my voice and cried, that he left his garment with me, and fled out” (Genesis 39:17-18). Furious at this purported betrayal, Potiphar had Joseph imprisoned.
Like all good consultants, Joseph honed his abilities through serial challenges, finding advantage where others perceived only trouble. Prison was quite a comedown compared to Potiphar’s household, but Joseph soon endeared himself to the warden, prospering through demonstrations of his formidable management skills. “And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners who were in the prison; and whatever was done there, he was the doer of it” (Genesis 39:22). Eventually, into the ranks of inmates in Joseph’s care came both Pharaoh’s chief butler and his chief baker; both had been imprisoned indefinitely for giving offense to Pharaoh.
Like all good consultants, Joseph took care to speak with everyone, gathering useful information and contacts wherever he went. One morning, when he went in to the butler and baker, Joseph “looked upon them, and, behold, they were sad. And he asked Pharaoh’s officers who were with him in the custody of his lord’s house, saying, ‘Why do you look so sad today?’ And they said to him, ‘We have dreamed a dream, and there is no interpreter of it’” (Genesis 40:6-8). Joseph was glad to oblige. Of the butler’s dream of a three-branched grapevine, Joseph said: “This is the interpretation of it; The three branches are three days; and within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head, and restore you to your place; and you shall deliver Pharaoh’s cup into his hand, after the former manner when you were his butler” (Genesis 40:12-13). Considering his own future, Joseph added a request: “But think on me when it shall be well with you, and show kindness, I beg you, to me, and make mention of me to Pharaoh, and bring me out of this house” (Genesis 40:14).
Like all good consultants, Joseph did not shrink from delivering difficult truths when necessary. To the baker’s dream of three baskets of food eaten by birds, he offered this interpretation: “The three baskets are three days; and within three days shall Pharaoh lift up your head off you, and shall hang you on a tree; and the birds shall eat your flesh off you” (Genesis 40:18-19). Both interpretations came true: the baker lost his head and the butler was restored to his position, but having regained his comfort, he forgot all about Joseph. Two years later, Pharaoh had a pair of disturbing dreams that none of his magicians could interpret. In one, seven gaunt cows ate seven sleekly fat ones and looked no better for it; in the other, seven desiccated ears of grain devoured seven plump ears. Pharaoh’s need for interpretation awakened the chief butler’s memory of the Hebrew prisoner. Hearing his story, Pharaoh sent to the prison for Joseph.
Like all good consultants, Joseph understood the importance of a dazzling first impression (not to mention good grooming), and kept an eye out for future gigs. Joseph “shaved himself, and changed his garment, and came in to Pharaoh” (Genesis 41:14). In Pharaoh’s presence, he displayed appropriate modesty, saying the power to understand dreams is “not in me; God shall give Pharaoh a favorable answer” (Genesis 41:16). He then proceeded to knock Pharoah’s sandals off with an interpretation that included not only the dreams’ meaning, but a bonus of free advice about how Pharaoh ought to respond. “The dream of Pharaoh is one; God has revealed to Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years; and the seven good ears are seven years; the dream is one. And the seven thin and gaunt cows that came up after them are seven years; and the seven empty ears blasted by the east wind shall be seven years of famine” (Genesis 41:25-27). “Now therefore let Pharaoh select a man discreet and wise,” Joseph continued, “and set him over the land of Egypt. Let Pharaoh do this, and let him appoint officers over the land, and take up the fifth part of the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty. And let them gather all the food of those good years that come, and lay up grain under the hand of Pharaoh, and let them keep food in the cities. And that food shall be for store to the land against the seven years of famine, which shall be in the land of Egypt; that the land perish not through the famine” (Genesis 41:33-36).
Like all good consultants, Joseph knew the extent of his own abilities. He did not engage in false modesty, and never made a commitment he couldn’t keep. When Pharaoh, impressed, “said to his servants, ‘Can we find such a one as this is, a man in whom the spirit of God is?’” (Genesis 41:38), Joseph did not shirk. Pharaoh made him second-in-command, saying, “For as much as God has shown you all this, there is none so discreet and wise as you are; you shall be over my house, and according to your word shall all my people be ruled; only in the throne will I be greater than you. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘See, I have set you over all the land of Egypt’” (Genesis 41:39-41). Joseph did all that he had promised, storing up food in the fat years for distribution in the lean ones.
Like all good consultants, Joseph was aware that his authority derived from higher sources, not his own power, and with awareness came unease. He was prey to the same temptations that beset any consultant acting on the authority of higher-ups. Joseph knew that ultimately, his success was a gift from God. That’s why he named his “firstborn Manasseh; ‘For God,’ said he, ‘has made me forget all my toil, and all my father’s house.’ And the name of the second called he Ephraim; ‘For God has caused me to be fruitful in the land of my affliction’” (Genesis 41:51-52). But in Egypt, every day brought reminders that it was Pharaoh’s power he wielded. When famine came, “the people cried to Pharaoh for bread” — not to Joseph — “and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians, ‘Go to Joseph; what he said to you, do’” (Genesis 41:55).
Joseph’s greatest ethical test came when his brothers journeyed from Canaan, where famine was severe and unrelenting, to buy food in Egypt. When “Joseph’s brothers came, and bowed down before him with their faces to the earth” (Genesis 42:6), he pretended not to know them. Instead, he “made himself strange to them, and spoke roughly to them” (Genesis 42:7). He accused them of spying, placed them in custody, and forced them to prove their honesty by surrendering Simeon as a hostage, to be redeemed when they brought their youngest brother, Benjamin — the only other child of Rachel, Joseph’s mother — to Egypt. Whether Joseph acted the part of cruel overlord for strategic reasons, out of desire to set eyes upon his only full brother, or to repay his other brothers’ heartlessness — whether he succumbed to the temptation to exercise the boss’s powers as if they were his own — we can never know. But we do know that he paid for his play-acting in tears because he “he turned himself away from them, and wept” (Genesis 42:24) before resuming the charade.
Like all good consultants, Joseph understood that the deepest lessons are self-taught, and he knew how to bring about such learning. Subjected to the callous whims of Pharaoh’s vizier, Joseph’s brothers suffered, wondering how they had brought such torment upon themselves. Seeking a reason for their punishment, they reckoned up their crimes, their abandonment of Joseph topping the list: “and they said one to another, ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us’” (Genesis 42:21). “And they knew not that Joseph understood them; for he spoke to them by an interpreter” (Genesis 42:23). Despite his brothers’ remorse, Joseph did not relent. In fact, he upped the ante, contriving to replace his brothers’ money in their sacks, so that when they returned to Jacob’s house with both grain and money, “their heart failed them, and they were afraid, saying one to another, ‘What is this that God has done to us’”? (Genesis 42:28). Nevertheless Jacob, having lost both Joseph and Simeon, refused to send Benjamin to Egypt, fearing the loss of a third son. It was not until the family once again faced starvation that Jacob consented to the journey, displaying an aptitude for optimism that hinted at the origins of Joseph’s talents: he told his children to “take of the best fruits in the land in your utensils, and carry down a present to the man, a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds; and take double money in your hand; and the money that was brought again in the mouth of your sacks, carry it again in your hand; perhaps it was an oversight; take also your brother, and arise, go back to the man; and God Almighty give you mercy before the man” (Genesis 43:11-14).
The brothers returned to Egypt full of trepidation, with Benjamin in tow; Joseph prepared a lavish welcome to assuage their fears. When Joseph saw Benjamin, he was overcome: “and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there,” yet he once again “washed his face, and went out, and controlled himself” (Genesis 43:31) in order to contrive another trick, another test, concealing his silver cup in Benjamin’s pack, and sending his steward after the brothers to “discover” it. “Arise,” he ordered the steward, “follow after the men; and when you do overtake them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid evil for good? Is not this it in which my lord drinks, and whereby indeed he divines? You have done evil in so doing.’ And he overtook them, and he spoke to them these same words” (Genesis 44:4-6). Sure of themselves, the brothers denied the theft. When the cup was found in Benjamin’s pack, they were devastated, returning at once to Joseph’s house and prostrating themselves before him. They pleaded for mercy, recounting Jacob’s agony at Joseph’s disappearance, offering themselves to be punished in Benjamin’s stead to spare their father the loss of Rachel’s second son.
Like all good consultants, Joseph knew when to heed his feelings, despite the risks. Hearing his brothers’ anguish, “Joseph could not refrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud; and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard” (Genesis 45:1-2).
Like all good consultants, Joseph could see the big picture. At the revelation of his true identity, Joseph’s brothers were astounded, fearing his punishment. But he understood the greater purpose served by their abandonment, hastening to reassure them, “be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that you sold me here; for God did send me before you to preserve life. For these two years has the famine been in the land; and yet there are five years, when there shall neither be plowing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve you a posterity in the earth, and to save your lives by a great deliverance. So now it was not you who sent me here, but God; and he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:5-8).
Like all good consultants, Joseph understood the value of a win-win solution. As Joseph had served Pharaoh, Pharaoh protected Joseph’s family. “He kissed all his brothers, and wept on them; and after that his brothers talked with him. And the report of it was heard in Pharaoh’s house, saying, ‘Joseph’s brothers have come’; and it pleased Pharaoh well, and his servants. And Pharaoh said to Joseph, ‘Say to your brothers, “Do this; load your beasts, and go to the land of Canaan; and take your father and your households, and come to me; and I will give you the good of the land of Egypt, and you shall eat the fat of the land’” (Genesis 45:15-18).
Like all consultants, Joseph was unable to foresee the ultimate impact of his work. When Joseph’s brothers returned home laden with gifts and told their father his long-lost son was alive — and what’s more, that he ruled over Egypt at Pharaoh’s side — Jacob was shaken, but determined to see his son before he died. As Jacob traveled to Egypt, God spoke to him, saying “I am God, the God of your father; fear not to go down to Egypt; for I will there make of you a great nation; I will go down with you to Egypt; and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph shall put his hand upon your eyes. And Jacob rose up from Beersheba; and the sons of Israel carried Jacob their father, and their little ones, and their wives, in the wagons which Pharaoh had sent to carry him” (Genesis 46:3-5). Jacob and his offspring were given good land for their flocks and herds, and Joseph continued to work for Pharaoh, bartering first the Egyptians’ money, then their animals, and finally their land in exchange for food and seed, until at the famine’s end Pharaoh owned all the wealth of Egypt that had not been set aside for the priestly caste. When Jacob finally died, Joseph buried him in Canaan with Abraham and Sarah, and Jacob’s first wife, Joseph’s aunt Leah, repeating his forgiveness of his brothers: “‘You thought evil against me; but God meant it to good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore do not fear; I will nourish you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:20-21).
But as often happens, security based on the boss’s favor may quickly be withdrawn when a new boss emerges. “The people of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and became exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. And there arose up a new king over Egypt, who knew not Joseph. And he said to his people, ‘Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we; come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it may come to pass, that, when there would be any war, they should join our enemies, and fight against us; and so get them out of the land.’ Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses” (Exodus 1:7-11).
Was it a good thing that Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery? Did it enable him to scale the heights of Egyptian bureaucracy and provide the Israelites with a new home and full bellies?
Maybe so, but look a little further: wasn’t it Joseph’s alliance with Egypt’s boss that led the Israelites to drop their guard, settle in that narrow land, and multiply? And wasn’t that precisely why the new boss made them slaves?
Maybe so, but ultimately, the oppression of enslavement might have been needed to teach the Israelites the true meaning and value of freedom. Perhaps nothing short of the entrenched power of a tyrannical Pharaoh could have produced a Moses, a leader who could simultaneously inhabit two identities, royal prince and child of slaves, who was uniquely able to imagine freedom.
Next time you are tempted to repeat a consultant joke, give this noble profession the respect its founder warrants. Where would we be now if Joseph had jettisoned his principles and said yes to Potiphar’s wife, or donned a mask of false modesty and said no to Pharaoh’s call for an interpreter of dreams?