Joseph’s Little Secret
A Pharaoh that didn’t know Joseph would have been like a president that had never heard of John F. Kennedy. Joseph was a former governor that saved Egypt from economic collapse and bridged social divides. His legacy would not have been easily forgotten.
Some Bible scholars suggest that this passage conveys outright contempt rather than benign ignorance. That explains why some translations render the phrase “did not know Joseph” as “to whom Joseph meant nothing” (CEB). It’s more likely that Joseph’s legacy was intentionally erased from Egypt’s political memory once enough powerful people found out about his secret: that Joseph was not a true Egyptian, but a Hebrew.
Some scholars suggest that “Hebrew” was not originally an ethnic marker. “Hebrew” was a catch-all term for the margin-dwellers of the ancient Near East. It was something like a class distinction that pointed to the junk drawer of that ancient society. The nomads, vagrants, farmers, migrants, shepherds, crooks, refugees, rebels, mercenaries — they were “Hebrew.”
Egypt on the other hand was the epitome of high society. The name alone was synonymous with prosperity, influence, might, and learning. Egypt was the place that other nations sent their young elite to be groomed for promising careers in international diplomacy.
The Egyptians were anything but Hebrew, and they wanted to keep it that way. To even associate with Hebrews was taboo (Genesis 46:33). Hebrews were the ‘niggers’ of Egyptian society.
A Hebrew’s Hebrew
Joseph was the youngest son of nomadic Canaanite shepherds, brought to Egypt as a slave (sold by his own family), then falsely imprisoned on rape charges. He was a Hebrew’s hebrew. Yet, by the favor of God, he miraculously rose to the top of Egyptian society, becoming second-in-command to Pharaoh.
Years later, a famine hit the land of Canaan that brought Joseph’s family down to Egypt for relief. He spoke with the ruling Pharaoh, who allowed his family to move to a little slice of Egypt called Goshen. He predicted his family would be sent there. Hebrews were apparently sent there often.
Goshen was like a refugee camp, where Hebrews could escape the hardships of their homeland, but also remain in their place: that is, the margins of society. It was the Bible’s first ghetto.
Up to that time, Joseph had been putting on a convincing performance as an Egyptian (even fooling his family when they eventually saw him again). Now that his family was in town, people in the capital were finding out about his Hebrew roots.
An Unprecedented Time
Learning that Joseph was a Hebrew seems to have challenged the prejudices that existed among the Egyptian elite during his time. Pharaoh offered government jobs to any of Joseph’s brothers that were capable. Pharaoh bowed before Joseph’s father Jacob to receive a Hebrew blessing. When Jacob died, the Egyptians mourned for him and embalmed him. Egyptian officials accompanied Joseph back to Canaan to bury his father in the land that was home to his great-grandfather Abraham.
It was a beautiful, unprecedented period of Egyptian-Hebrew relations, all because of Joseph; but it was not enough to turn that ancient kingdom into a post-caste-society. Joseph may have been an exceptional Hebrew, but that was not enough to keep his family out of the ghetto.
His legacy couldn’t have easily been forgotten, but with the passage of time, his ties to the Hebrews became more important than his contributions to Egyptian society.
Just Another N*gger
There arose a king in Egypt that longed for the glory days when Hebrews knew their place, and he had a plan to remind them of it, but that plan could never be successful so long as people knew the story of the Hebrew prince of Egypt.
To keep a people oppressed, it is helpful to convince the wider population that such people don’t contribute much to society. One way to accomplish that is to erase the history of the oppressed: their great leaders, their contributions to society, and especially any history where they lived in harmony with those who are now more privileged. The people must believe (must be trained to believe) that the margin dwellers are worthless, beneath ‘us’ (whoever ‘we’ are), and that things have always been this way.
It is more likely that the history of shepherds blessing Pharaohs, and Hebrews being embalmed like Egyptian kings, and a Hebrew that saved Egypt from poverty was suppressed. There was a new king on the throne, and to him, Joseph was just another ‘nigger’ from a ‘nigger’ family.
This part of the Exodus story is a reminder of the importance of memory, not the royal memory of the state, but people's history. The royal memory will always or downplay the atrocities of the state and the glory of the oppressed. Americans are provoked to fear migrants trying to cross their southern border, but do they remember how what used to be Mexico became Texas? Many Americans chastise black Americans for 'living in the past' when we talk about the legacy of slavery, but do they remember the systems of racial oppression that have evolved from 1865 to date? No. They feel no obligation to remember that which we can never forget.
The next entry in this series will go live Wednesday, June 22, 2018
- On the etymology of the word “Hebrew”: See, Miller, J. Maxwell, and John H. Hayes. “Epigraphy and Archaeology.” A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 37, 113–17.
- On the organized suppression/distortion of American history: How Dixie’s History Got White Washed
- On the history of the Black American Ghetto: Historian Says ‘Don’t Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos