Light from the Sidra

Vayigash ('And he drew near...')

Torah: Genesis 44:18-47:27.Haftarah:Ezekiel 37:15-28

Great expectations

A few weeks ago I saw the new film adaptation of my favourite Dickens’ novel, Great Expectations. One of the benefits of watching the movie or theatre version of a long piece of literature is that you get a kind of bird’s eye view of the book that helps you appreciate the plot when you go back to it. One of the drawbacks of reading two or three chapters of the Bible every week is that we lose the sense of flow of the plot. It’s worth reading the story of Joseph in one sitting to grasp the sweep of the twenty years from his dreams of his brothers’ sheaves bowing down to his, and the sun, moon and stars bowing to him, to the arrival of his family in Egypt.

It takes a master storyteller such as Dickens to skilfully weave together a series of disparate strands into a satisfactory ending to a novel, but in Genesis we see an infinitely greater Intelligence than Dickens at work in the story of Joseph. In the Parasha, Joseph’s dreams literally come true: his brothers bow the knee to him, and his father and wives acknowledge Joseph as their Saviour and Lord.

But we also see an even larger plot unfolding, of which the story of Joseph is just a part. God had promised Abraham that he and his seed after him would bless the nations of the world (Gen. 12:1-3). In the tale of Joseph, the promise to Abraham becomes a reality. Joseph blessed Egypt and the ancient world of the Middle East by saving them from a seven-year famine. It’s quite clear from the story that unless Joseph had been able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s butler and baker and, later, Pharaoh’s two dreams, countless people, including his own family, would have died of starvation.

And when Jacob, the patriarch of a nomadic Semitic clan arrives in Egypt, he blesses the ruler of the greatest and most powerful nation in the world: ‘And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and went out from the presence of Pharaoh’ (Gen. 47:10).

But as the Parasha begins, we see the effect Joseph’s apparent harsh treatment of his brothers is having on them, particularly on Judah. Twenty years earlier, Judah was a dissolute, jealous and heartless, willing to sell his youngest brother Joseph into slavery and almost certain death, regardless of the grief it brought to his father. Judah now offers himself as a slave in the place of Benjamin, now the youngest member of the family, out of concern for the effect the loss of him will have on Jacob.

‘Now Yehuda came closer to [Joseph] and said . . . So now, pray let your servant stay instead of the lad, as servant to my lord, but let the lad go up with his brothers! For how could I go up to my father, when the lad is not with me? Then would I see the ill-fortune that would come upon my father’ (Gen. 44:18,33,34). The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary, and Notes, Everett Fox).

Judah has passed the test, and Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. He sends them back to Canaan with instructions to return with their father. They are saved; Egypt is saved; the world is saved. The loose strands are all brought together neatly like in a cleverly woven novel. Israel will live in Goshen where they will be secure as a people and free from the corrosive effects of Egyptian idolatry.

But this is only a sub-plot in the book of Genesis. And Genesis is only the beginning of a saga of cosmic proportions that to this day has not reached its ultimate end. Genesis prepares the stage for the events of the book of Exodus, revealed to Abraham over a century and a half earlier: ‘And [God] said to Avram: You must know, yes, know that your seed will be sojourners in a land not theirs; they will put them in servitude and afflict them for four hundred years . . .’ (Gen. 15:13. The Five Books of Moses).

The subsequent history of Israel has been chequered and it has often repeated itself. In both biblical and post-biblical history, the Jewish people have rarely lived up to their calling to be a light to the nations. Many Jews are secular humanists and atheists, many follow pagan religions, many are immoral and a disgrace to the nation’s high calling. As they say: Jews are the same as everybody else, only more so! But God called Israel to be different. But just as Judah is turned, God is working out a greater plan to turn the nation around through the Messiah.

As well as a Davidic Messiah, the rabbis believe there will be a suffering Messiah called the Son of Joseph. In actual fact, the Son of David and the Son of Joseph are one and, behind the scenes, a divine plan is unfolding to bring the Jewish people to a place where they acknowledge the Messiah they have rejected but who nevertheless loves them and is able to save them!

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