[This is part ten in a series of analyses on appearances of ‘name,’ AKA shem in Hebrew, in the weekly Torah portion. Start here.]
After selling Joseph into slavery at the beginning of the previous parasha, the other sons of Jacob experience a reshuffling of the pecking order for the succession of the Abrahamic legacy. Reuben is knocked down from his firstborn status, and brothers #2 and #3 are skipped over for #4 Judah. Judah’s worthiness and own legacy is tested when two of his sons — his extended shem — die prematurely. He then rises to the occasion and successfully establishes his claim to leader, and has more sons with shem attached in the Torah text.
shem, inherited from Abraham, to whom God originally promised to ‘make his name great.’ (Genesis 12:2)
The story continues with Joseph. Though he is Jacob’s second youngest son, he is Rachel’s eldest and that makes him more precious. Joseph seems to be Jacob’s presumptive heir until he is betrayed ny his brothers.
He is carted away to Egypt as a slave but quickly establishes his own name there, rising the ranks of a noble house. The house’s head mistress tries to lay claim to Joseph — body and soul — but he resists. As recompense, she has him thrown in jail.
Even in jail Joseph keeps shining. He makes a reputation for himself, first as a capable manager — similar to his previous role — and then he takes on dream interpreting.
Whereas last week’s parasha featured Joseph dreams, this week’s parasha begins with Pharaoh’s dreams of cows and sheathes. He senses these dreams are of national importance and therefore vital for him to understand, but he fails to find a sufficient explanation among all his wise men. Then Joseph’s name is mentioned by a previous fellow inmate and he is summoned from prison.
Joseph comes and interprets the dreams to Pharaoh’s satisfaction, describing seven good years of prosperity followed by seven much worse years of famine. Joseph then makes logistical and administrative recommendations and advises Pharaoh to appoint a new leadership. Pharaoh and those gathered are so struck by Joseph’s wisdom that they give him the job on the spot.
In no time, Joseph goes from prisoner to second in command of the world’s greatest power. He is clothed in royal garments and paraded about the country.
וַיִּקְרָ֨א פַרְעֹ֣ה שֵׁם־יוֹסֵף֮ צָֽפְנַ֣ת פַּעְנֵ֒חַ֒ וַיִּתֶּן־ל֣וֹ אֶת־אָֽסְנַ֗ת בַּת־פּ֥וֹטִי פֶ֛רַע כֹּהֵ֥ן אֹ֖ן לְאִשָּׁ֑ה וַיֵּצֵ֥א יוֹסֵ֖ף עַל־אֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃
Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah and he gave him for a wife Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On. Thus Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt. (Gen. 41:45)
וּלְיוֹסֵ֤ף יֻלַּד֙ שְׁנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים בְּטֶ֥רֶם תָּב֖וֹא שְׁנַ֣ת הָרָעָ֑ב אֲשֶׁ֤ר יָֽלְדָה־לּוֹ֙ אָֽסְנַ֔ת בַּת־פּ֥וֹטִי פֶ֖רַע כֹּהֵ֥ן אֽוֹן׃ וַיִּקְרָ֥א יוֹסֵ֛ף אֶת־שֵׁ֥ם הַבְּכ֖וֹר מְנַשֶּׁ֑ה כִּֽי־נַשַּׁ֤נִי אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־כׇּל־עֲמָלִ֔י וְאֵ֖ת כׇּל־בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽי׃ וְאֵ֛ת שֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖י קָרָ֣א אֶפְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־הִפְרַ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֖ים בְּאֶ֥רֶץ עׇנְיִֽי׃
Before the years of famine came, Joseph became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. Joseph named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, “God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home.” And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, “God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction.” (Gen. 41:50–52)
Joseph is given a new name in honor of his exalted status and he fathers two sons, each with shem. Patterns we’ve seen before and have come to expect with Abraham’s descendants.
Strange, though, that Pharaoh is the one to bestow shem upon him, shem which is associated with legacy and heritage. Typically a mother and/or father does the naming. Is Pharaoh his new father figure? What of his real father, Jacob, who showed him special affection? Has Egypt become Joseph’s new legacy?
And what of his children’s names: the firstborn named for leaving behind his parents’ home, and the second for prospering elsewhere. This also suggests Joseph is carving a new path for himself, independent of his legacy as the son of a Patriarch. What do we make of this?
What was *Joseph’s perspective* all along? Previously, Jacob had him sent him away from home on a mission to his brothers who obviously hated him. Those brothers stripped him of his father’s special garment — the symbol of Jacob’s favoritism for Joseph — and he is sold into slavery.
Joseph had no way of knowing what to make of his father’s role, then or now. Might he have had a hand in his brothers’ treatment of him, is that why he sent him to them? If not, why hadn’t he tried to find him all these years while Joseph was in Egypt? Jacob had great wealth and prominence and could have surely organized a massive manhunt. So why hadn’t he? Joseph must have been plagued by doubt asking himself these questions.
If we read the story with this perspective, shem’s lone appearances in this parasha make total sense. Indeed, Pharaoh becomes Joseph’s father figure. He clothes him in royal garments — similar to Jacob — and rather than rebuffing Joseph’s dreams of power as Jacob did, Pharaoh materializes those dreams for him, making him his right-hand man over all of Egypt. He gives him a new name in recognition of this new relationship (see Adam re-naming Eve in parashat Bereishit, God renaming Abraham and Sarah, and God renaming Jacob). And Joseph starts a family in the context of this new life.
With this in mind, his hostile behavior toward his brothers later in the parasha makes sense: hostile and conniving, yet emotionally charged. He repays them in kind, imprisons them, then keeps a hostage until they return with his maternal brother Benjamin, his closest connection left to his family who had all but forsaken him.
Joseph concocts a ploy to keep Benjamin with him. The parasha ends with all the brothers stuck in Egypt, pleading with Joseph and subject to his absolute rulership — exactly as they feared when they first heard Joseph’s teenage dreams of power all those years earlier.
Next, their fateful confrontation.