By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that Arnold B. Ehrlich placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning) with the hope that it will stimulate thought. The following are a few of his comments on the biblical portion Mikeitz (Genesis 41:1 to 44:17). The parenthetical statements are mine.
- What does the Bible mean when it states that Pharaoh’s wise men were unable to interpret Pharaoh’s dream in 41:8? This is counter-intuitive. We know that government officials offer opinions about problems, and certainly “wise men” would do so. Ehrlich accepts a revised version of the Midrash’s solution. Pharaoh is the title of the Egyptian ruler. The verse is saying that the wise men gave personal interpretations about himself and his family but could not explain the Pharaoh’s dream (the ruler’s dream) to Pharaoh (the man). The Pharaoh understood that they were wrong because he was concerned about his country and knew his dream must have focused on Egypt. Joseph later understood this as well. (Readers should realize that all the dreams in Scripture should be understood, as Sigmund Freud stated, as reflections of concerns while awake.)
- Ehrlich criticizes people who only examine the Torah to find halakhah, derash, and homiletical lessons. The Torah is also a masterpiece of literature, as we see here and many other places. Its development of stories is superb and suspenseful. In chapter 41, for example, there are three versions of Pharaoh’s dream. The first version is the biblical narrative about two dreams. Then, when Pharaoh speaks to his wise men, the Torah only mentions a dream, in the singular and offers no details. Then, when Pharaoh speaks to Joseph, two dreams are mentioned and new details are added in verses 19 and 21 that are not in the biblical narrative. (The exact same technique is used in chapter 24: the incident of Abraham’s servant seeking a wife for Isaac. Because of the ambiguity and obscurity in the tales, readers are given an opportunity to understand them as they like.)
- (Readers may also want to think about the Bible’s narrative skill in portraying the similarities and differences between Joseph and Pharaoh’s dreams, and what they tell about the dreamers and the events. Similarities: Each dreamt two dreams. Why two? All four dreams seem to focus on the future. But don’t both reflect the past? All four have numbers. Numbers play an important part in biblical events. In Joseph’s dreams, his family is affected; in Pharaoh’s his extended family, his country, is affected. Are these the same? Differences: Joseph’s dreams focus on himself and Pharaoh’s on his country. Joseph’s dreams are one-dimensional: he will be great. Pharaoh’s are two dimensional: there will be good conditions in Egypt followed by bad. Pharaoh’s dreams are warnings. Are Joseph’s dreams also warnings that he should restrain his prideful behavior for if he fails to do so, his brothers will hurt him? Is this why the Torah states that Joseph’s two dreams occurred at different times, and Joseph had an opportunity, that he did not use, to see his brother’s reaction to his dream? Joseph does not seek help in interpreting his dreams; Pharaoh does. Joseph’s dreams cause discord; Pharaoh’s aid his nation. Do Joseph’s dreams help readers understand Pharaoh’s dreams better and vice versa?)
- (The Bible states that Joseph married Asenath who was Egyptian, the daughter of an Egyptian priest, 41:50-52. Should we conclude that unless she converted, and the Bible doesn’t say she did, her children would not be Jewish? Actually, Judaism didn’t exist at that time, neither did later rabbinical law, and the concept of people converting to Judaism is not mentioned in the Bible and did not exist until about 150 BCE when one of the Judean kings forcefully converted Edomites. Many mistakenly think that the Moabite Ruth converted when she joined her mother-in-law Naomi when the latter returned to Judea. She said, “Your God will be my God.” A careful reading of the book Ruth reveals that she was not converting; Scripture does not say she converted, no conversion ceremony is mentioned, and she continued to be called a Moabite after she settled in Judea. When Ruth lived, people thought different gods ruled over different countries and Ruth was simply saying she will go with Naomi to Judea, lodge where she lodges, join with the Judeans, die in Judea, and be buried there. What is more difficult is that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob went to great lengths not to marry outside the family – even Esau recognized the family feelings and married the daughter of his uncle Ishmael – but this concern stopped with Jacob’s children who married Canaanites, Egyptians, and women from other nations. Even Moses married a Midianite and King Solomon married women from many cultures.)
- Why are we told that Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name Zaphenath-paneach in 41:45? Out of respect for Pharaoh and Joseph, the Egyptians called Joseph by his new Egyptian name. When Joseph’s brothers came to him seeking food, they knew him only under his new name and this, together with the two decade separation and Joseph’s royal demeanor, made it difficult for them to identify Joseph.
- Why didn’t Joseph, when he was tormenting his brothers, imprison his eldest’s brother Reuben and choose instead the second oldest Simeon (42:24)? Joseph probably overheard when his brothers planned to kill him that Reuben talked them out of the murder and repaid him by not imprisoning him.
- (Returning to a literary analysis of this story: We mentioned in our last essay that the tale of the sale of Joseph into Egyptian slavery contains a conflation of two different versions. In one Reuben attempts to save Joseph, in the other it is Judah. In one the brothers drew Joseph from the pit in which they threw him and they sold him to Ishmaelites, in the other it is Midianites who took him out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. Now we see both Reuben and Judah and no other brothers taking active parts in this advanced part of the drama. Reuben ties to persuade his father to allow the brothers to take Benjamin to Egypt, but fails. Judah succeeds and later assumes the role of trying to save Benjamin.)
- The order of 43:27 seems backward: “Is you father well (hashalom abikhem), is he alive (haodenu chai)?” Shouldn’t Joseph first ask if Jacob was alive and then if he is well? Joseph didn’t ask two questions, only one, “Is your aged father still in good health?” or “Is everything well with him, is he still alive? The first part being a general statement and the second clarifies with a detail.
- (We have seen time after time where the patriarchs showed favoritism to one child over another improperly. Sarah criticized Abraham for showing love to her handmaid’s son Ishmael. Isaac preferred Esau over Jacob, and his wife Rebecca did the reverse. Jacob loved his wife Rachel and “hated” his wife Leah. He also favored his young son Joseph over his elder brothers and gave him a special coat. It seems that the patriarchs were unable to learn that showing preference is wrong. Now, in 43:34, Joseph, who had suffered greatly because of this behavior, does it again. Remarkably, in front of his brothers, he gives presents to all the brothers, and gives the youngest Benjamin, who he likes, five portions.)
- Why five portions? The Bible prefers to use the numbers 3, 7, 10, and 40. (Rashi suggests that Benjamin received one portion as his brothers and then additional ones from Joseph, his wife, and their two sons.) Erhlich suggests that the Bible is highlighting that the gifts were given during the severe famine when gifts had to be curtailed. The Torah is making us sensitive to this fact by showing that the expected number ten had to be reduced by a half (another sharp narrative element).