One mystical idea that interests me is that our experience in the material world resonates with a higher truth attached to the same moment in time. As readers of this blog know, it is my custom to follow the readings from the first five books of the Old Testament and prophetic writings assigned in the Hebrew calendar to each week. Right now (and every winter) for a period of several weeks, we follow the story of Joseph in Genesis.
Though there are many dimensions to Joseph’s tale (a family story, a story of talent rising above obstacles, a story of forgiveness), to me, one of its most powerful uses is as a periodic table of power. Follow me as I count the elements:
Young Joseph’s power derives from a particular form of influence, nepotism; he is his father Jacob’s favorite. When his dreams foretell that his brothers will bow down to him, they retaliate by selling him to passing traders, spinning for their father the cover-story that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts. Thus Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams backfires, plunging him into utter powerlessness.
Joseph is purchased by Pharaoh’s chief steward, who is so impressed with the slave’s talents, he makes Joseph head of his household. But Joseph loses his post by holding fast to his principles: he refuses to sleep with his master’s wife, who then uses her superior position to obtain revenge by denouncing him for attempted rape. In prison, Joseph’s managerial abilities are again recognized and rewarded; he is given power over all prisoners. Once again, he interprets dreams, this time for illustrious fellow inmates, Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and baker.
Later, when Pharaoh is troubled by dreams his own magicians cannot interpret, the cupbearer, back in the king’s good graces, remembers Joseph’s skill. Joseph is released from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. He does this so well, he is installed as vizier, with absolute authority to see Egypt through the seven years of famine Pharaoh’s dreams predicted. When famine spreads to Joseph’s homeland Canaan, his brothers journey to Egypt to procure food. They stand trembling before the mighty grand vizier whom they do not recognize as their brother and victim. Joseph exercises his power both to trouble and to feed them, at last revealing his identity, forgiving their crime on the grounds that it had been ordained to bring about his present power to rescue them.
Throughout the remaining years of the famine, Joseph dispenses favors to his family while enriching Pharaoh, buying up all the land, goods and laborers of Egypt in exchange for food he has stockpiled. While this keeps people from starving, it also has a pernicious effect. Joseph takes advantage of Egypt’s misfortune to turn its citizens from free landholders into sharecroppers, greatly pleasing his boss. It is his pleasure to be united with his family and eventually, brought to the pinnacle of power, to bury his father in Canaan attended by the entire Egyptian court. He dies content at the ripe old age of 110, having seen his great-grandchildren born.
And then, says the first chapter of Exodus, “a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” The power and wealth Joseph had consolidated for Pharaoh is turned against his people the Israelites, who are subjected to the cruel oppressions of enslavement and infanticide. Four hundred years pass before Moses commits class suicide, aligning himself with the Israelites against the Pharaoh who adopted him. He oversees the miracles, wonders, and heroics that lead to the exodus from Egypt, the Jews’ defining narrative, the culminating experience of the Bible that makes liberation from enslavement the central metaphor of the entire Jewish tradition.
Why does this parable of power unfold in the darkest part of each winter? How does it resonate for us now? I’m sure the answer is different at each moment in history, but currently, it seems a salutary lesson in how — while most of our citizenry is preoccupied with shopping and eggnog and visiting the folks — the wheeling and dealing of the Bush administration is setting in place the appointments and policies that will ensure, as in Pharaoh’s time, that the wealth of the nation belongs to the king and his friends.
The meaning of power keeps unfolding over time. Even what seems disastrous in one moment may turn out to be preparation for a glorious triumph to come (without enslavement, the narrative of liberation does not exist). I’d like to be sure that Bush’s egregious excesses in surrounding himself with brown-nosing sycophants who worship him like Pharaoh will soon lead to a downfall befitting his hubris. But we’ll just have to wait and see.
While future meanings can never be known with certainty, awareness can help. The one piece that seems always to be missing from current policy deliberations is remembering that all decisions reverberate and connect with innumerable others. If Joseph asked himself whether it would hurt his people in the long run to become serfs to Pharaoh, there is no record of it. Evidently, Bush isn’t asking it either. But we can ask, over and over again, until even Pharaoh hears.