Why Was Joseph Flawed?

Joseph, Mordechai and­­­ Daniel have much in common. So much so that the two later accounts, the stories of Mordechai and Daniel, appear to be literary reworkings of aspects of the Joseph tale.

Each of the three ascends from the depths and humiliation of exile to become the ruler of a foreign land. Joseph is elevated to high office because he is the only person in Egypt who could interpret Pharaoh’s mysterious dreams. Daniel similarly; he may have been a mere youth but he did what none of the wise men in Babylon could do, he explained the meaning of the terrifying image that Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream.

Mordechai, like Joseph, was wreathed in royal finery and led in procession through the streets.  Daniel and Mordechai both refused to compromise their religious behaviour. Mordechai would not bow down to Haman; Daniel would not eat the king’s food or wine.

Each played a role in the future destiny of the Jewish people. Had Joseph not gone to Egypt and become viceroy, the Exodus would never have taken place. Had Mordechai and Esther not saved the Jews from the destruction planned by Haman, we would not be here today. And Daniel’s visions prefigured the rebuilding of the Temple and laid the foundations for the doctrine of the messiah, a cornerstone of later Jewish theology.

But despite these and other similarities between the three characters, there is one significant difference in their narratives. Joseph is the only one whose background is disclosed. Daniel and Mordechai both appear on the scene fully fashioned, as members of an exiled community. Whereas Joseph’s life story is spelled out in detail. It is a troubling tale.

For although rabbinic tradition describes him as Joseph the righteous, hatzaddik, when we look at his history he doesn’t seem to be as saintly as we might believe. He tells tales about his brothers when he is young; he tricks and deceives them when he is older. He is good looking, and he knows it, taking advantage of his physical attractiveness to find favour in the eyes of both his gaoler, and of his slave owner Potiphar. His beauty gets him in trouble with Potiphar’s wife. As viceroy of Egypt he institutes a feudal system, taxing the people heavily for the misfortune of suffering a famine. Worst of all, after being sold into captivity he rises to undreamed of power in Egypt yet doesn’t even bother to tell his grieving father that he is still alive.

Unlike Mordechai and Daniel, Joseph doesn’t pay much attention to God. We don’t hear of him praying. Indeed, one of the few times he invokes God is when he names his children. It’s a giveaway for how he really feels: “Joseph named his first-born Manasseh, for God has let me forget my trouble and my father’s house. And the second he called Ephraim, for God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”

In naming his children Joseph celebrates the fact that he has been torn from his family. Unlike Moses, who mourning his exile, names one son Gershom, ‘for I am a stranger in a strange land’ and the other Eliezer ‘for my father’s God was in my aid’.

The stories about Mordechai and Daniel remind us Joseph at his most successful. They do not reflect Joseph’s flaws. But it is Joseph who we call righteous, not Mordechai or Daniel. And not just because Joseph is the son of a patriarch, with a story that is central to biblical history. Joseph is righteous because he is human. Like all of us, he has faults. But it is these faults that led to his life experiences and created the conditions for his success.

Mordechai and Daniel are great stories, but they are not real in the way that Joseph’s is. We learn from Joseph. It is much harder to learn from Mordechai or Daniel.


© 2020 Harry Freedman Books