The Psychology of Joseph in Two Phrases

Thereholman_burying_the_body_of_joseph are two phrases that explain the psychology of Joseph. The first arrives soon after our introduction to the last hero of Genesis. In the opening story, he is given a coat to express the honor he finds in his father’s eye as the inheritor of the Birchas habechor[1]. The brother despised him because he is, after all, the eleventh born son and even though he’s the firstborn of a wife, he is still the firstborn of a second wife, making any claim on Joseph illegitimate in the eyes of Bnei Leah[2]. Reuben, the firstborn of Leah, made a power play by sleeping with the concubine of his father[3], showing that the four sons of the concubines were not real brothers[4]. This dissolved Reuben’s chance of Birchas habechor[5]. To further complicate matters with his brothers, Joseph is a dreamer, and his brothers hate him all the more for it because the dreams are interpreted to reveal the greatness of Joseph[6].

One fateful day, Jacob asks Joseph to travel and to return with a report on the ten brothers who were in Shechem[7]. When he gets there, his brothers had moved on and a gentleman asks a seemingly innocuous question:

Mah tevakesh?
What do you desire[8]?

This is translated differently than most because the sense being brought is not just a seeking, but a true heartfelt desire. The man asked what his soul desired, and Joseph answered in a most heartbreaking fashion:

Achay anochi mevakesh
I’m looking for my brothers[9].

This is the backstory for the whole Joseph narrative. He is looking for his brothers. Those who have split families, those who are adopted, those who have had their families shattered from CPS involvement [whether justified or not] all suffer the same sad fate as Joseph. Joseph rises to the top of every situation in which he finds himself, be it in his father’s household, Potifar’s household, or the house of Pharaoh]. I all three environs, Joseph finds himself rising to the lone, second-tier leadership. He is never top dog and he is always alone, without his brothers.

After the seven years of plenty and the fist year of drought began, his brothers made a yearly trip [for two years] to purchase food from Joseph, though he was known as Tzaphnath Paaneach[10], which would help conceal his identity from the brothers. In their first dialog, he asked from where they came[11], and the answer indicated an intent to deceive or hide, and Joseph picks up on the bait-and-switch. In response to this, Joseph makes a statement that informs or defines every dialogue and event between the brothers until Joseph is revealed.

By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here[12].

When Joseph asks the question, the brothers say they are there only to buy food, but Joseph wanted to hear a different. He wanted to hear, “Yes, we are spies: we are looking for a long lost brother.” Their guilt is written into the narrative, but they are never able to admit it to Joseph. Joseph always was looking for his brothers, and he wanted them to be looking for him as well.

Achay anochi mevakesh
I’m looking for my brothers[13].

Even at the end of their father’s life, Joseph was still the outsider. After their father was buried in the cave of the field at Machpelah, to the east of Mamre, which Abraham bought with the field from Ephron the Hittite to possess as a burying place[14], the brothers formulated a plan to save their necks:

When Joseph’s brothers saw their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.[15]

For 17 years, the brothers lived in Goshen until the death of Jacob. For 17 years, there was never a reason for the sons of Leah to believe there was a difficulty between them and Joseph, but their guilt still informed their interactions with their younger brother. In response, Joseph wept.

Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them[16].

Joseph ruled Egypt for 80 years. For seventy-one of these years, his brothers and the rest of the extended family lived in Goshen.

In the end, Joseph was still looking for his brothers.

[1] blessing of the firstborn; Genesis 37:3-4

[2] the children of Leah, Jacob’s first wife

[3] Genesis 35:22

[4] The sons of their grandfather Abraham’s concubine and second wife were sent away, making room for the legitimate heir, Isaac. Since the Birchat Avraham [blessing of Abraham] fell upon Isaac, Esau moved from Eretz Canaan [the land of Canaan], giving the land to his brother. Since there is a family prejudice against the sons of concubine, Reuben wrongly assumed the same was true in Jacob’s household.

[5] There is an argument that could be made that the rest of Reuben’s life revolves around the attempt to atone for this grave deed, and much of Reuben’s actions can be seen as spring-boarding from this single event with Bilhah.

[6] Genesis 37:5-11; the dream of the eleven stars indicates Joseph did not view his brothers as being on tiers. Th sons of the concubines as well as Reuben [the one who behaved so badly with a wife of his father], were all equal in Joseph’s eyes.

[7] Genesis 37:12-14

[8] Genesis 37:15

[9] Genesis 37:16 [This is the first of two phrases explaining the psychology of Joseph]

[10] Some sources state Tzaphnath Paaneach is a Hebrew translation of the name that means revealer of secrets [see: the Targum; Rashi; LXX; Josephus 2:6:1]. Others say it is an Egyptian name (see Ibn Ezra; Radak). In Egyptian, Tzaphnath is tza-pa-neth, which means, Neth [god] speaks. Paaneach is pa-anakh, meaning the life, where the ankh is a symbol of life. Therefore, the name can be translated as lord of life or God speaks and [this man] lives.’ [based on a note from

[11] Genesis 42:7

[12] Genesis 42:15 [This is the second of two phrases explaining the psychology of Joseph]

[13] Genesis 37:16

[14] Genesis 50:13

[15] Genesis 50:15-17

[16] Genesis 50:17-21


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