We all celebrate history’s wunderkind. Childhood genius mesmerizes us. The achievements of Mozart are a fine example of how the child prodigy leaves us in awe. The Austrian boy composed his first piece of music in 1761 at age five. By the time he was 12 years old, the young Mozart had composed ten symphonies and performed for European royalty. In his short life, he created some of the world’s greatest music.
The biblical Joseph was, like Mozart, a child prodigy. But the fate he met was much different from that of the celebrated composer. Jacob’s son was skilled at interpreting dreams and he did so at a young age – not five, but at seventeen. Joseph’s audience was not a mesmerized royal court. His brothers were his audience. And Joseph’s dream interpretations rightly infuriated them. They perceived Joseph’s skill at interpreting dreams as a threat, not as a God-given gift.
Jacob’s family was dysfunctional. The root of this turmoil was years in the making. Jacob, fleeing a vengeful Esau for stealing the latter’s birthright blessing – an act rooted in matriarch Rebekah overcoming Isaac’s love of his elder, hunter son – found the love of his life in his ancestral home in “the land of the Easterners.” Jacob’s yearning for Rachel was foiled by her father Laban. Jacob began to really know the meaning of the word suffering. Laban’s subterfuge led to Jacob’s marriage to daughter Leah and she was fruitful and multiplied.
Rachel was barren. Rachel pleaded with Jacob “Give me children or I shall die.” Jacob responded that he was not God and could not open her womb. But eventually, Rachel and Jacob produced two children, Joseph and Benjamin. Repeating his father’s mistake of loving one child, “the child of his old age” to the detriment of the others, Jacob favored Joseph and spoiled him rotten.
It is not clear what his relationship was with the sons of Leah and the handmaidens provided by the sisters. Their role was primarily economic – pasturing their father’s flock, his wealth. They hated Joseph.
Joseph’s early dreams, in which he foretold his domination over his brothers, are agrarian. In the first dream, in a field where all the brothers were binding sheaves, Joseph said “suddenly my sheaf stood up and remained upright; then your sheaves gathered around and bowed low to my sheaf.”
The brothers, in anger, asked their younger brother: “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” Then in his second dream he told his brothers: “Look, I have had another dream: and this time the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
This time he told the dream to Jacob, as well. His father was upset. He began to realize that his special love for his son was beginning to backfire. The brothers, this time, did not respond to their brother’s arrogance. Perhaps Joseph was simply exhibiting the behavior of a favored son. He certainly did not give credit to God for giving him the power to interpret dreams.
Eventually, the brothers want to murder Joseph but, instead, finally sell him into slavery. This comes as no surprise to the reader of the Torah. As a teenager, Joseph insults his brothers, lording over them in his dreamscape without achieving anything significant that would bolster his claim in the waking world. His father’s deep love for him – a reflection of Jacob’s love for Rachel who had died giving birth to Benjamin – was all Joseph had that could prove his superiority over his older brothers.
IN FACT, Joseph was young and arrogant and did not even acknowledge the source of his genius. He had no achievements at 17 except to wear his “ornamented tunic” that his father made for him. It was an empty status symbol that the brothers eventually bloodied and presented to a crushed Jacob, who believed that his son was torn apart by wild beasts.
Joseph’s traumatic and violent encounter with his brothers –and his later imprisonment in Egypt on trumped-up charges of attempted rape – erode his egotism. As an imprisoned Hebrew among the majority Egyptians, he realizes that his skill in interpreting dreams is powered by God.
After a decade in prison, Joseph is approached by Pharaoh’s chief cup-bearer and the king’s chief baker. They are disturbed by dreams they had on the same night. These dreams are far more complex to interpret than the dreams the young Joseph told his brothers. Furthermore, they are not his personal dreams of glory. In his hands is the defining of the destiny of two powerful men in the House of Pharaoh. This is an evolution of Joseph as a man of faith and as an interpreter of dreams.
While he pleads with the royal cup-bearer to remember his prediction that he would be brought back to power as a servant of Pharaoh–the chief baker is executed as prophesied by Joseph–the surviving official forgets Joseph and his awesome talent and the Hebrew, now approaching the age of 30, languishes in prison.
Finally, truly establishing Joseph as a man of glory, power, and Divine genius, is the most complex dream interpretation in his life. Two years after Joseph’s prison interpretations, Pharaoh dreams he is standing by the Nile, when seven “handsome and sturdy” cows are eaten up by seven “ugly gaunt” cows. The king awoke and fell back to sleep and dreamed a second time: “Seven ears of grain, solid and healthy, grew on a single stalk. But close behind them sprouted seven ears, thin and scorched by the east wind. And the thin ears swallowed up the seven solid and full ears.”
Pharaoh, agitated by his nighttime visions, sent the next morning for his kingdom’s magicians and wise men. None understood the dreams’ meaning. It was then that the royal cup-bearer realized his injustice in forgetting to release Joseph from imprisonment. The “Hebrew youth” interpreted the royal officials’ dreams and “as he interpreted for us, so it came to pass. I was restored to my post, and the other was impaled.”
Pharaoh called for Joseph to be released and cleaned up. The son of Jacob appeared in the royal court. The Hebrew youth was about to make interpretations that would impact a kingdom of millions – and the fate of his brothers and the people of Israel. No longer was he the 17-year-old braggart. The fierce obstacles he faced molded him into a visionary whose acts would save Egypt.
Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams as foretelling seven years of bounty in Egypt, followed by seven years of famine. But of greater interest is that the son of Jacob, unlike in his early years, proclaimed he was speaking in the name of God. “God has revealed to Pharaoh,” stated Joseph, “what He is about to do.” Embedded in Joseph’s interpretation of Pharaoh’s dreams is that “the matter has been determined by God, and God will soon carry it out.” The Egyptians heed Joseph and acknowledge the One God’s power.
As viceroy, appointed by Pharaoh, Joseph is in charge of managing Egypt and the severe situation. This eventually leads to a showdown between “Zaphenath-paneah” (the Egyptian name Pharaoh gave to Joseph –meaning either “God speaks; He lives” or “the creator/sustainer of life”) and his brothers, sent by Jacob to search out food as deadly famine hits Canaan.
Joseph’s brothers don’t recognize him but he sure remembers them. “Recalling the dreams that he had dreamed about them” – the young Joseph did not realize in his youth that this was a prophecy – Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies. The narrative continues in a complex series of events that lead to a reunion of Jacob’s sons. Even Jacob leaves Canaan to live in Goshen.
The young Joseph is helpless. Joseph the man is a formidable force in Egypt and his family. But he did not understand the meaning of life at 17 and the meaning of suffering and being forgotten. That would only come with difficult challenges. The teenage prodigy made his real mark as an adult.
Genius at a young age is rare. But there will always be Mozart and others like him. Joseph was a child prodigy but he lived in a world where he was favored as a boy by his father and he knew it – and his brothers knew it. In his case, that blunted his genius. Ultimately, he would realize that there was little joy in belittling his brothers and he went on to greatness, without them but with God. Joseph’s evolution dominates the second half of the Book of Genesis. His rise to power is a remarkable story of faith, suffering, and emerging greatness.
The writer is rabbi of Congregation Anshei Sholom in West Palm Beach, Florida. All translations of Genesis are from the Etz Hayim Chumash (2011 ed.).