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Joseph and the Politics of Diaspora Judaism, Part 2

by Professor Aaron Koller, PhD
April 22, 2011


Aaron KollerIn the first part of this essay, we saw reasons why Diaspora Jews may not want to look to Joseph as a model of Diaspora Judaism. The issue is, at root, one of identity: he actively tried to shed his Israelite identity and his ties to his family, and embrace his Egyptian identity whole-heartedly.


This is seen in every aspect of his life, from speech, to family, to politics.Despite this, some Second Temple Jews did use Joseph as a model. In particular, the author of the book of Esther in part modeled his heroes on Joseph, as if to say: we can survive in the Diaspora if we act like our forefather Joseph. The plot of his story contains numerous parallels to that of Joseph’s story. Consider the following:

  • A Jew rises to prominence in the foreign court.
  • There is a downturn in the hero’s fortunes.
  • Two courtiers challenge the king and are punished, and through them the hero becomes known to the king.
  • The fortunes of the heroes are reversed through the king’s sleeplessness.
  • The drama ends with a banquet where the invitees do not know the identity of the host.
  • As a result, the heroes rise to even greater, royal power.

In case these parallels were lost on any particularly obtuse readers, the author included a few lines guaranteed to bring the Joseph story to mind. Surely anyone who read

He had him ride in the city square and he called in front of him, “This is what shall be done to the one whose honor the king desires!” (6:11)
would recall what happened to Joseph:

He had him ride in the second chariot he had, and they called in front of him “Abrek!” (41:43).


And the connection between “The king removed his ring which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai” (Esther 8:2) and “Pharaoh removed his ring from his hand and gave it to Joseph,” (41:42), could not be missed. Similarly, “When they continued to talk to him day after day, he refused to listen to them” (Esther 3:4), calls to mind the line from Genesis 39:10, “When she continued to speak to him day after day, he refused to listen to her.”  Esther’s own soliloquy, “How can I endure to see the calamity that is coming to my people? How can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” reminds us of Judah’s lament, “For how can I go back to my father if the lad is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would come upon my father” (Genesis 44:34). There are more allusions, as well.


The author of Esther meant to call Joseph to mind, and, I submit, the point of the allusions is political. Joseph, like Mordecai and Esther, was a Jew in a foreign court. Not only had Joseph not flaunted his Jewish identity, but – like Esther – he had actively hidden it from his own brothers. Some in Pharaoh’s court had tried to use Joseph’s ethnicity to keep him down, belittling him as a “Hebrew kid” (Genesis 41:12), but stripped of his “Hebrewness,” Joseph – now Tsafenath Paneah – manages to rise to great power as an Egyptian. Is this not what Mordecai preached?  Keep your Jewishness to yourself, he told his niece, and you can really go places.


Even better, Joseph had used his deep acculturation to save the Jews. The author of Esther argues that being part of the dominant culture may actually be better for the Jews in the long run than being politically independent. The bureaucracy could be used as a tool to help, but one had to be inside it to use it. Carolyn Sharp writes: “It is Joseph’s Otherness as an Egyptian official that makes him most valuable in the eyes of the Israelites.”  The same could be said of Esther.


Admirable as these arguments may be, they met stiff opposition among other Jews of the same era, who argued that if Joseph was to be the model, he would have to be improved upon to be serviceable. The way to improve on Joseph is to rewrite him, and one author did just that, recasting Joseph as a Jew named Daniel, in the court of the Babylonian and Persian kings.



One particular story (preserved as chapter 2 in the biblical book of Daniel) is the story of Daniel, making a name for himself in the king’s court by interpreting dreams.  Like the story of Joseph, this is the tale of a king who had a dream and sought help from his wise men regarding it. The king’s reaction was described in the same way as Pharaoh’s reaction had been – va-tippā‘ēm rūh9ō “his spirit was troubled” (Genesis 41:8; Daniel 2:1 and 2:3) – and in both cases the professional wise men prove unable to help with the dream. In both stories a royal official informs the king of the Israelite who can do better than the professionals, and both the Israelite is explicitly identified as an exile, a “Hebrew lad” or a “Judean exile.” In both stories the Jewish “lad” claims that God has sent the dream and its interpretation, and that history itself is dictated by God. Both dreams turn out to be symbolic, referring to the future. And in both cases the Israelite interpreter is rewarded with great political power.


Daniel is no mere Joseph, however: he is far superior. This was true first with regard to his interpretive powers: while Joseph merely interpreted the dreams Pharaoh told him about, Daniel had to first divine what the dream was, since Nebuchadnezzar refused to share it.  But, more importantly, the superiority of Daniel is seen in the realm of personal piety.  Joseph had sufficed with the statement, bil‘ādai “it is beyond me” (Genesis 41:16). Daniel, on the other hand, beseeches God for wisdom, and when it is granted, embarks on a long prayer of thanks and praise to God (Daniel 2:18 and 2:20-23). Finally, Daniel launches into a long speech aimed at persuading the king that it is the power of God that he is witnessing:


The secret which the king has asked – neither wise men nor enchanters, neither magicians nor diviners can inform the king about.  But there is a God in heaven, who reveals secrets, and he made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will occur in the future.  As for me, the secret was not revealed to me because of any more wisdom that other living beings, but in order that the interpretation be made known to the king, so that you should know the thoughts of your heart.


Perhaps most importantly, the religious effect that Daniel has on his king far surpasses that which Joseph has on his. Pharaoh acknowledges the power of Joseph’s God, even while minimizing its relevance: “since God (god?) revealed all this to you, there is no one as discerning and wise as you” (emphasis added).  God himself is irrelevant to Pharaoh: the important thing is that he now has a surpassingly wise advisor. Nebuchadnezzar, on the other hand, draws far-reaching religious conclusions from his experience: “It is true,” he tells Daniel, “that your god is the God of gods and the lord of kings, revealer of secrets – since you were able to reveal this secret!” Rather than God being in the service of the wise man, here the wise man is seen to be in the service of God.


Daniel’s character is stubbornly consistent throughout the stories about him. Joseph and Esther, as far as we can tell from the narratives, fully adopt the lifestyle of their hosts – eating the food, dressing the dress, and doing nothing to betray their Jewish identities. Daniel, on the other hand, refuses to eat the food in the Babylonian palace (chapter 1) and insists on praying three times a day – at the window, no less, without any attempt at secrecy – despite the death sentence imposed on anyone who would pray at all (chapter 6).


In sum, the controversial character of Joseph tempted and challenged Diaspora Jews centuries after his own story was written. Was he a model to be followed? How much of an overt Jewish identity could one shed in order to be in a position to utilize power on behalf of the Jews? Esther gives up quite a lot; Daniel, throughout his book, does not give up a single inch. Should the goal of Jewish life in the Diaspora be survival, as exemplified by Joseph and celebrated by Esther? Or should Jews be more ambitious, and attempt to demonstrate the power and beauty of the Jewish religion to others, as practiced by Daniel?


No easy answers to these questions were, or are, available. In the Persian period of Jewish history, nearly 2500 years ago, Jews in the Diaspora searched through their sacred scriptures and histories searching for precedents for their own lives which could provide guidance. When they found suitable models, these could be pressed into service. When they did not, the traditions had to be rewritten in a way that would better serve the goals of the writers. What these writers shared was an insistence on the relevance of the Jewish past for present questions of identity and culture. In this regard, they can well serve as models in our own quests.



For further reading:

An excellent analysis of the diaspora politics of the story of Joseph can be found in Carolyn B. Sharp, Irony and Meaning in the Hebrew Bible (Indiana studies in biblical literature; Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 54-61.  For full discussions of the parallels between Daniel and Joseph, see recently Matthew Rindge, “Jewish Identity under Foreign Rule: Daniel 2 as a Reconfiguration of Genesis 41,” Journal of Biblical Literature 129 (2010), 85-104, and Michael Segal, From Joseph to Daniel: The Literary Development of the Narrative in Daniel 2,” Vetus Testamentum 59 (2009), 123-149.




Aaron Koller is an assistant professor at Yeshiva University. He researches and writes about life in ancient Israel and early Judaism, including intellectual and social history in the biblical and rabbinic periods, and in particular issues of language and linguistics. His doctorate (YU, 2009) was on the topic of archaeology of everyday life in ancient Israel. He also teaches adult education classes at the Drisha Institute and for the Jewish Theological Seminary.


Copyright 2011 Aaron Koller/The New Vilna Review.


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