Torah Ecology: Miketz (Gen. 41:1 – 44:17) & Vayigash (Gen. 44:18 – 47:27)

The Joseph story is one of the most beautifully structured narratives in the Torah and is a perfect example of structure supporting and communicating meaning.

These two Torah portions, Miketz and Vayigash, are the second half of the narrative chiasm I presented in Vayishlach. The elements of the story in Miketz and Vayigash represent a reversal of the elements of the story in Vayishlach and fulfillment of G-d’s promise. In the course of the narrative chiasm, all the characters experience growth and change, Judah most of all (Thank you Rabbi Tom for pointing this out).

It remains to the last portion in Genesis, Vayehi, for Joseph to reunite and fully reconcile with his whole family, including his father — and it remains for Exodus to complete the process of redemption and return to the Land of Israel. Between the beginning and end of the story, tragedy comes to Jacob and Joseph and the entire family, offering opportunities for character growth on the path to family reunification.   A family drama riddled with deceptions and treachery resolves into honest, caring, mature relationships as individuals recognize their communal responsibility.

We see Judah’s growth up close and personal in the Judah and Tamar story as Tamar reveals to Judah how he chooses his own self-interest over what the law and humanity require him to do. In withholding his remaining son as levir, then judging Tamar negatively in her disguise as a prostitute whom he, Judah, solicits, Judah demonstrates a character flaw that is also in evidence when he says to his brothers after they cast Joseph into a pit,  “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” In other words, he focuses on what benefits will come to him from his actions and in doing so, neglects important obligations.

So now, at this end of the narrative, Judah, still a pragmatist who complains he and his brothers would have been to Egypt and back had they just gone at the first, nonetheless takes responsibility for his brother Benjamin even at great risk to himself.

Joseph’s boyish arrogance gives way to a recognition that he is G-d’s instrument — yet he still heaps gifts on his younger brother, Benjamin, despite the way he, Joseph, suffered when his father did the same for him. Joseph’s gifts to Benjamin, though, provide an opportunity for the other brothers to demonstrate their own growth to maturity since they do not show the jealousy and enmity toward Benjamin that they once showed to Joseph despite the way Joseph favors Benjamin.

A couple of points worth noting which I won’t pursue just now:

  1. Jacob changes little in the course of the story. He favors Joseph, setting him up for the jealousy and enmity his brothers direct toward him. And he foolishly (some say willfully) remains blind to the dangerous situation in which he puts his son when he sends him out into the fields to find his brothers.  Jacob’s blatant favoritism is not diminished when it comes to Benjamin, showing he has learned little from painful experience. Indeed, he takes no personal responsibility but blames his sons for his loss: “Me have you bereaved of my children: Joseph is not, and Simeon is not, and you will take Benjamin away. Upon me are all these things come.” (Gen. 42:36)
  2. Benjamin never speaks in the course of the story. He registers neither alarm when pharaoh’s divining goblet is found in his sack nor appreciation when Joseph singles him out for special treatment. He reacts in only one moment, when Joseph “fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept.” In that moment, the narrator reports, “and Benjamin wept upon his neck.”  After the terrible day on which Joseph is thrown into a pit, Benjamin becomes the locus of family guilt and redemption. He is  his father’s new favorite in the absence of Joseph, and his brothers protect him with their lives.  Through it all, Joseph is silent except for one emotional moment when he and his brother embrace and weep together.
  3. Clothes and money have an important role in the story. Joseph receives a multi-colored coat, inspiring envy among his brothers — who sell him for 20 pieces of silver. His coat, dipped in the blood of a kid, deceives his father Jacob just as Tamar’s clothing deceives Judah. Potiphar’s wife seizes Joseph’s garments and uses them to deceive her husband with regard to Joseph’s “guilt.” Pharaoh gives Joseph garments to announce his authority. Joseph showers his brother, Benjamin, with gifts of clothing — and 30 pieces of silver, pay back with interest for the 20 silver piece sale years before. And silver or money are mentioned 20 times in the course of the accounts of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt (chapters 42-45).


Following are the explicit references to animals in Gen. 41:1-47:27:

  1. Gen. 41:2 -4 …when out of the Nile there came up seven cows, handsome and sturdy, and they grazed in the reed grass. But presently, seven other cows came up from the Nile close behind them, ugly and gaunt, and stood beside the cows on the bank of the Nile; and the ugly gaunt cows ate up the seven handsome sturdy cows…
  2. Gen. 41:17 -21 …In my dream, I was standing on the bank of the Nile, when out of the Nile came up seven sturdy and well-formed cows and grazed in the reed grass. Presently there followed them seven other cows, scrawny, ill-formed, and emaciated — never had I seen their likes for ugliness in all the land of Egypt!  And the seven lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven cows, the sturdy ones; but when they had consumed them, one could not tell that they had consumed them, for they looked just as bad as before…
  3. Gen. 41:26-27 … The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears are seven years; it is the same dream. The seven lean and ugly cows that followed are seven years, as are also the seven empty ears scorched by the east wind; they are seven years of famine.
  4. Gen. 43:16 … When Joseph saw Benjamin with them, he said to his house steward, “Take the men into the house; slaughter and prepare an animal, for the men will dine with me at noon.”
  5. Gen. 43:18 … But the men were frightened at being brought into Joseph’s house. “It must be,” they thought, “because of the money replaced in our bags the first time that we have been brought inside, as a pretext to attack us and seize us as slaves, with our pack animals.”
  6. Gen. 43:24 … Then the man brought the men into Joseph’s house; he gave them water to bathe their feet, and he provided feed for their asses.
  7. Gen. 44:3 … With the first light of morning, the men were sent off with their pack animals.
  8. Gen. 44:27 … (Judah says) Your servant my father said to us, “As you know, my wife bore me two sons. But one is gone from me, and I said: Alas he was torn by a beast! And I have not seen him since.”
  9. Gen. 45:17-18 … And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Say to your brothers, “Do as follows: load up your beasts and go at once to the land of Canaan. Take your father and your households and come to me; I will give you the best of the land of Egypt and you shall live off the fat of the land.
  10. Gen. 45:23 … And to his father, he sent the following: ten he-asses laden with the best things of Egypt, and ten she-asses laden with the grain, bread, and provisions for his father on the journey.*
  11. Gen. 46:6 … and they took along their livestock and the wealth that they had amassed in the land of Canaan.
  12. Gen. 46:32-34 … The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs. So when Pharaoh summons you and asks, “What is your occupation?” you shall answer, “Your servants have been breeders of livestock from the start until now, both we and our fathers” — so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians.
  13. Gen. 47:1 … Then Joseph came and reported to Pharaoh saying, “My father and my brothers, with their flocks and herds and all that is theirs, have come from the land of Canaan and are now in the region of Goshen.”
  14. Gen. 47:3-4 … Pharaoh said to his brothers, “What is your occupation?” They answered Pharaoh, “We your servants are shepherds, as were also our fathers. “We have come,” they told Pharaoh, “to sojourn in this land, for there is no pasture for your servants’ flocks, the famine being severe in the land of Canaan. Pray, then, let your servants stay in the region of Goshen.”
  15. Gen. 47:6 … the land of Egypt is open before you: settle your father and your brothers in the best part of the land; let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock.”
  16. Gen. 47:15-17 … And when the money gave out in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us bread…for the money is gone!” And Joseph said, “Bring your livestock, and I will sell to you against your livestock, if the money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them bread in exchange for the horses, for the stocks of sheep and cattle, and the asses; thus he provided them with bread that year in exchange for all their livestock.
  17. Gen. 47:18 … And when that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, “We cannot hide from my lord that, with all the money and animal stocks consigned to my lord, nothing is left at my lord’s disposal save our persons and our farmland.,, Take us and our land in exchange for bread, and we with our land will be serfs to Pharaoh; provide the seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not become a waste.”

We have 17 passages in which animals are mentioned specifically. In 1-3 in the list above, they are symbolic representations, not living beings. In 4, killing an animal for a feast honors Joseph’s guests and celebrates a relationship, as it will honor G-d and celebrate a relationship in Israelite worship. In 5 and 6, humans and animals are once again on a level playing field with each other: in 5, the men fear they and their pack animals will be confiscated and enslaved; in 6, the men and their pack animals are honored and cared for.  In 7, the men are sent home with their pack animals, returning them to their role as beasts of burden. In 8, the blood of a kid continues a deception. In 9 and 10, the animals are beasts of burden and in 11, a sign of wealth. In 12-15, the animals represent the occupation of Joseph’s family and become the vehicle through which they are able to reside in the richest part of the land and become valuable to Pharaoh by tending livestock. In 16 and 17, the animals represent a step on the way to serfdom for the Egyptians under Joseph’s administration. As serfs, the Egyptians and the animals which were formerly theirs are once again on an equal basis.

Once again, the animals’ story mirrors the overall themes of the story. When Joseph and the Pharaoh honor and care for the visitors from Canaan, they honor and care for the animals. When the brothers fear enslavement, they anticipate it in terms of an affliction they will share with their animals, formerly a sign of their wealth and independence. When Joseph takes the Egyptians’ animals for Pharaoh, it foreshadows their own enslavement when Joseph takes their land and their labor for Pharaoh as well. Despite the Egyptians’ gratitude for this arrangement, the fact is that they, like their animals (now Pharaoh’s), lack independence. Having given up all their assets and consigned themselves to serfdom, they cannot even look forward to a time when they will be able to reestablish independence after the famine ends.

What we don’t know explicitly is the status of Joseph’s family and their animals. Formerly semi-nomadic, they are now settled on choice property in the land of Goshen. Perhaps they are overseers for Pharaoh with all the livestock he now owns (Gen. 47:6), Joseph having taken it from the Egyptians. Pharaoh tells them in Gen. 45:18 they will live off the “fat of the land,” but what fat is there when the famine has already raged in Egypt for two years? (Gen. 45:11). How can Joseph’s family provide for their own food and that of their many animals?

So we will assume Joseph’s family got special treatment as did Pharaoh and his household and the Egyptian priests — but this arrangement, then, explains the full significance of the statement in Exodus 1:8, “Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” It would have been puzzling to someone without a personal debt to Joseph as the earlier Pharaoh had, to see a foreign people supported by the state while the home born Egyptians worked as serfs. The new Pharaoh merely completed a process begun by Joseph in the name of the former Pharaoh, confiscated their wealth (their animals — assuming the land still belonged to the crown) and subjected the Israelites to the same life as his other subjects.

Now the Pharaoh owns everything: all land, all animals, all people, home born and foreign-born. Everything living is enslaved to Pharaoh. The people, including the Israelites, are on a level with the animals, without hope for a future of responsibility or freedom. This is the true cost of giving up everything and letting someone else manage daily bread during the famine, a comment not only on the one who enslaves but also on the one who allows enslavement. Did the Egyptians not understand what they forfeited? Did Joseph not understand the mechanism he put in motion, which soon enough would engulf his own family?

Finally a few words about Gen. 46:32-34 (#12, above). What does it mean that shepherds and those who deal with livestock are תֹּועֵבָה (toevah) to the Egyptians? Our text translates the word as “abhorrent.” For an excellent discussion that offers a richer perspective on what the word might signify, see Religion Dispatches, which offers the following: “The term toevah (and its plural, toevot) occurs 103 times in the Hebrew Bible, and almost always has the connotation of a non-Israelite cultic practice. In the Torah, the primary toevah is avodah zara, foreign forms of worship, and most other toevot flow from it. The Israelites are instructed not to commit toevah because other nations do so.”

The author further emphasizes the point: “…in the overwhelming majority of cases, toevah has nothing to do with ethics, and everything to do with cultic behavior, idolatry, and foreign ritual…

“So, toevah is serious, but it is serious as a particular class of cultic offense: a transgression of national boundary. It is certainly not ‘abomination.’” Things that are toevah for other people are perfectly fine for the Israelites and vice versa.”

This means that one way to understand toevah in the context of Joseph’s sheepherding family in Egypt is that sheepherding is somehow foreign to the Egyptians and therefore abhorrent — yet we know from Pharaoh’s comment about capable men to oversee his own livestock that the Egyptians also have livestock. So what is the problem?

A commentary from offers the following: “Some say that this was because sheep were sacred to Egyptians, and hence, those who raised them for food were considered an abomination (Rashi; see Genesis 43:32). Others say that the Egyptians were vegetarians (Ibn Ezra). If this was after the Hyksos were driven out, it might have been a reaction against the Hyksos, who were ‘shepherd kings’ (Josephus, Contra Apion 1:14). Others say that it was a social taboo (Rashbam).”

Another comment expands on the vegetarian theory: “Vegetarianism was pretty much common among ancient Egyptian cultures, with their diet largely consisting of wheat and barley – something discovered by a French research team who analysed the carbon atoms in mummies that had lived in Egypt between 3500 BC and 600 AD to find out what they ate, Inside Science News Service (ISNS) reported … which probably explains why the ancient Egyptians considered the farming/herding/shepherding of livestock for food an abomination.” This theory suggests Egyptians might have kept livestock for other purposes but didn’t kill them for meat, which rendered killing domesticated animals for meat an alien practice.

Now as it happens, although the Israelites operated according to a different, perhaps more moderate, standard with regard to eating meat, Hebrew scripture also expresses an issue with killing living creatures for food. When the practice is allowed in the aftermath of the flood, it is immediately ringed with a prohibition that applies to all humanity (not to consume blood with the meat) and as specifically Israelite practices unfold, many more prohibitions follow.

If, on the other hand, toevah is a word associated with cultic, not ethical, issues — then we must consider that eating meat is a practice associated with foreign (non-Egyptian) cultic practices more than an ethical statement against killing other living creatures for food.

Two themes emerge from these portions, highlighted by the animal subtext: a descent to slavery that puts human beings on a level with animals and varying ways of working out the relationship between human beings and other animals evidenced in cultic practices.

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