The Joseph story offers those aspiring to positions of power a cautionary tale. By objective measures, he certainly succeeded in rising to the highest echelons of Egyptian government:
Genesis 41:55 And when all the land of Egypt felt the hunger, the people cried out to Pharaoh for bread; and Pharaoh said to all the Egyptians: “Go to Joseph; whatever he tells you, you shall do.”
Everyone in Egypt, native and sojourner alike, turned to him during the crisis of famine in the land. He had tremendous power. But he had also forsaken the values with which he was raised for that which was temporary and fleeting.
In his book The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, Dr. Yoram Hazony suggests that ours is a history of shepherd ethics over those of the farmer:
1) Life after Eden begins with the murder of Abel, a shepherd, by his brother Cain, who was a farmer; and this because God accepted the shepherd’s sacrifice but rejected that of the farmer.
2) At the climax of the Abraham story, God commands him to offer up his son Isaac as a burnt offering, but that God then forgoes the sacrifice of the child and accepts instead the sacrifice of a sheep.
3) It is in Pharaoh’s palace that Moses, the greatest leader of the Hebrews, is raised as a child. But instead of accepting Egyptian ways, he flees to the desert and becomes a shepherd like his fathers. It is while herding his flock that Moses is called by God. And when he returns to Egypt to confront Pharaoh and rain plagues down upon the land, he does so with a shepherd’s staff in his hand.
Shepherd ethics, a life of dissent and counter-cultural initiative whose aim is to find the good life for man, is offered by Hazony as as God’s true will in our sacred text.
But Joseph? He falls for the allure of the city and the empire, the pinnacle of farming civilization. Yes, it saved the Israelites when they were in a bad spot. AND it offered them 400 years of servitude. As for Joseph’s legacy? Well, Genesis next week ends with him embalmed in Egypt before a new Pharaoh arises who knew not of his existence. Temporary and fleeting indeed, as his ancestors, as we, are still here.