Hebrew Insights into Parashat Miketz – B’resheet (Genesis): 41 – 44:17
The dungeon scene, which ended last week’s Parasha, shifts almost instantaneously to a palace, and it is there that our present Parasha opens up. A short phrase acts as a bridge, connecting these two very dissimilar pictures, making it clear that the events happening in the palace were not entirely removed from the afore-mentioned dungeon and its occupants.
And so we read: “At the full end – “miketz” - of two years of days” (literal translation)… "Miketz" signifies here the “full end” (to the very last day) of the two years following the fulfillment of the dreams interpreted correctly by Yoseph, for which he was hoping to be rewarded… “Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him" (40:23). "Did not remember, but forgot,” is an emphatic and decisive double statement that ended last week’s Parashat Va’yeshev and seemed to seal off Yoseph's fate. Moving on to the next chapter (and Parasha), we find that it begins where the former left off; that is, with dreams. Moreover, Par’oh’s dreams could not have come before the period allotted by YHVH for Yoseph’s prison experience. Thus, the thread connecting the 'dreamer' of this Parasha (Par’oh) to the interpreter of dreams (himself a renowned dreamer, ref. 37: 5 – 10) in last week’s Parasha begins to unravel. Consequently, that which appears to be the protagonist’s sealed fate takes a sharp and immediate turn, as the times (ref. Ps. 31:15) and events of his life are being directed from above (ref. Prov. 20:24). For whatever reason, it is only when the two years fully expire that change can come about in Yoseph's life circumstances. And as is so often the case, once change sets in, its momentum is very fast indeed (ref. v. 41:14).
In Parashat Miketz we will encounter certain Egyptian names, words and terms. Although in most cases they are not directly related to the Hebrew language, their Hebrew transliterations happen to have clear meanings. Even if these are mere happenstances or coincidences, they are intriguing!
Let us begin with the king of Egypt, Pharaoh, “Par'oh” in Hebrew; a title used for all the kings of that land, and means a "great house" in ancient Egyptian.1. Correspondingly, the Hebrew consonants for this title, p.r.a (pey, resh, ayin), form a word which, according to some linguists means "leader" (Judges 5:2, "for the leading of the leader"; also Deut. 32:42). Others disagree, believing it to mean, "annul, do away with, or unruly," while it also means the “loosening"or “untying of hair" (e.g. Lev. 13:45; Num. 5:18). Pieced together these images create a picture of disorder; perhaps even of an unruly, or unscrupulous ruler, which was true of quite a few of the Pharaohs . In Mishley (Proverbs) 15:32, for example, we read: "He who neglects discipline despises himself," with the verb for "neglect " being “pore'ah.” And in chapter 29 of the same book, in verse 18, it is says: "Where there is no vision, the people are unrestrained ("unrestrained" – “yipara”). The consonants P or F and R (remember, in Hebrew P and F are signified by the same letter), seem to be common in the ancient Egyptian tongue – last week we read about Potiphar - and this week we meet Yoseph's father-in-law whose name is Potiphera (41:45). Later on these consonants will be found in another well-known Hebrew-Egyptian name.
As Par'oh continues to endow Yoseph with honor and material wealth, "he had him ride in his second chariot; and they proclaimed before him: "Bow the knee" - or “av'rech” (41:43). “Av'rech” does contain the word for "knee," “berech,” which, as we have seen before (in Parashat Lech Lecha, Gen. 12 – 17), is also the root for the verb "to bless." Indeed, Yoseph is a great blessing to the people of Egypt. “Av'rech,” however, can also be read as “av-rach,” a "tender father" (ref. Prov. 4:3). In next week's Parasha Yoseph tells his brothers that "Elohim made [him] a father to Pharaoh" (45:8). "Tender" in this case may be pointing to his age (he was 30 at the time, 42:46), while the term "father" denotes a venerated figure, one whose wisdom and counsel are relied upon. Par'oh’s respect for Yoseph is also expressed by the name that he gives him, “Tzafnat Pa'a'ne'ach” (Zaphnath-Paaneah). The root tz.f.n is not new to us; we examined it when we looked at the four directions of the wind (in Parashat Lech Lecha), and found that this root forms the word for "north," but also for that which is “hidden" or "stored up." Thus, the man who was kidnapped from Egypt’s northern neighbor, fits well the description ascribed to "wise men [who] store up knowledge" (Pro. 10:14, italics added)… and also food and provisions.
In chapter 41:51, 52, mention is made of Yoseph's sons, whose names are explained according to their Hebrew meanings. However, these names (also) happen to sound like Egyptian names, which may have been another reason why Yoseph chose them. Let us begin with the name of the youngest, Ephraim, meaning, "multiplicity of fruit" (41:52). The same consonants that we just noted: P/F and R, make up that name. Obviously, Yoseph did not want to stand out as a foreigner in the land of his benefactors, but at the same time also wished to express his faith in the promise of the multiplication of the seed that was given to his ancestors. In the blessing and promise to Ya'acov, in 35:11 (Parashat Va’yishalch), Elohim says: "Be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a company of nations shall come from you," and likewise in the prayer that Ya'acov prays and blesses Ephraim with, in Parashat Va’ye’chi (48:4,19). Thus "fruit" ("pri", of the root p.r.a), is found in this name, and also in the title that Ya’acov, while blessing Yoseph (in Parashat Va’yechi), confers upon him - “ben porat,” that is, "son of fruitfulness" (49:22). Prophetically significant is also the fact that “Ephraim” contains the consonants, e.f.r (alef, fey, resh), forming the word “efer” which means "ashes." Interestingly, the prophet Hoshe’ah (Hosea) describes Yisrael/Ephraim, while in their state of sin, as “smoke from a chimney” (13:3).
Yoseph names his firstborn “Mena'she,” because Elohim had caused him to forget his past, (thereby easing his pain of separation from his family, 41:51), since n.sh.h is the root of a verb which means “to forget.” The “sinew of the thigh” which is not eaten by the sons of Yisrael because of the maiming inflicted upon Ya’acov when he fought the man at P’niel, is called in Hebrew “gid ha’nasheh” (ref. Gen. 32:32). Some rabbis and commentators are of the opinion that this title for the thigh (exclusively connected with the above-mentioned episode) - “nasheh” - is of the same root as “forgetfulness,” because it was meant as a ‘remembering device.’ That is, by not partaking of what is symbolically a “sinew of forgetfulness,” the Israelites were to remember their Elohim, His commandments, and their identity. But try hard as the nation may have done, forgetfulness did set in quickly, resulting in dire consequences. Never the less, in our Parasha it is evident that forgetfulness and remembering are also subject to His sovereignty. Thus, the cupbearer’s forgetfulness and subsequent remembrance are used by YHVH in order to set His plan into motion. Later on, we notice that when Yoseph’s brothers show up and bow down to him, he too has a recollection, and remembers his dreams (42:9).
Back to Menashe… whose name sounds much like "Moshe" (Moses), which in spite of its Hebrew meaning is most likely also of Egyptian origin, as Par’oh’s daughter gave it to the foundling. Thus, Yoseph’s sons names, which although of significant Hebrew meaning, would not have sounded strange in their own surroundings.
The book of Hoshe'ah (Hosea) deals at great length with the people of Ephraim, and with the northern kingdom of Yisrael at large. In 13:12, 13, in a specific address to Ephraim, some of the same words, or roots, which we have just encountered, are repeated. "The iniquity of Ephraim is bound up, his sin is stored up" - "stored up" is “tzfoona” (v. 12); of the same root which is in Yoseph's Egyptian name “Tzafnat.” In verse 13 there is mention of the "opening of the womb," literally "the breaking [forth] of the sons," the word being “mishbar” of the root sh.v/b.r (shin, vet/bet, resh). The word for "grain" and the verb for "supplying food" appear many times in our Parasha; both of them are founded in this very root, which in our story is most likely utilized in the sense of the "breaking" of hunger or famine, like the breaking of a fast. Yoseph, the one supplying provender, is called a “mashbir.” In Psalm 105 16,17 we read about Yoseph and his mission: “Moreover He called for a famine in the land; He destroyed all the provision of bread. He sent a man before them -- Joseph -- who was sold as a slave.” “He destroyed all provision” is rendered in the Hebrew by “shavar” (literally, “broke”) of the root, sh.b.r.
Amos deplores those who do not “grieve for the breaking – or affliction - of Joseph” (6:6), which in Hebrew is “shever Yoseph.” It seems that ‘shever’ accompanies Yoseph’s successes and his failures. Back to Hoshe’ah. In 14:8 we read: “Ephraim [doubly fruitful], 'What have I to do anymore with idols?' I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; Your fruit [“pri”] is found in Me" (italics added).
Last week we saw that Yoseph made YHVH's name known in his foreign environs. He certainly continues to do so when standing before the king (41:16, 25). And like Potiphar before him, Par'oh too acknowledges Yoseph's Elohim. In 41:38, 39 the king says: "Can we find a man like this, in whom is the spirit of Elohim? So Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'Since Elohim has informed you of all this….'"
Par’oh not only acknowledges Yoseph’s Elohim, he also honors Yoseph by having him ride his "second chariot" (ve. 43), or “mirkevet ha'mish'neh.” “Mish'neh” is from the root sh.n.h (shin, noon, hey), the primary meaning of which is "to repeat" or "extra." In 43:12 we read about Ya'acov giving his sons “extra” money to take with them to Egypt, in order to be prepared for any eventuality. Number two, being a repetition of number one, is also seen in 41:32, "Now as for the repeating [“hishanot” - of the same root] of the dream twice…." In Par'oh's dreams there were two seven-year periods. The word for "year" is “shana,” being again of the root sh.n.h, (‘that which repeats itself’ or ‘is repeated’), but its additional meaning is "to change," as seen for example in Malachi 3:6, "For I, YHVH, do not change [shaniti], therefore you, O sons of Israel are not consumed." Thus, although number two is seemingly a repeat of number one, there is always bound to be a change, or a difference the second time round, seen by the dual meaning of this word. Yoseph, for example, who is second only to Par'oh, is certainly very different from ‘number one’!
Part of Yoseph's advice to Par'oh was to "exact a fifth of the produce… in the seven years of abundance" (41: 34). "Exacting a fifth" appears here in verb form, “chimesh.” The number five is cha'mesh (ch.m.sh.- chet, mem, shin) in Hebrew, and the verb which stems from it means "to arm" or "to be armed," such as when “YHVH led the people around… and the sons of Israel went up in martial array [“chamushim”=”armed”] from the land of Egypt" (Ex. 13: 18). In the verse following this one, that is in Sh’mot (Exodus) 13:19, mention is made of Yoseph’s request to have his bones brought to the Land. Was it the memory of how Yoseph ‘armed’ Egypt that inspired Moshe to use this unique term (“martial array” = “chamushim”) in the previous verse? Thus, Yoseph's advise to Par'oh, here in verse 34, could be read as, "let Pharaoh arm the land of Egypt in the seven years of plenty" (italics added). And, having followed Yoseph's wise and Godly counsel, Par'oh certainly does (in a manner of speaking) arm his land.
The figure seven, “sheva,” as pertaining to the two seven-year blocks of time, with their abundance on the one hand, and the lack thereof on the other, is repeated time and again here (ref. 41:29,30,35). Abundance, or "plenty" appear here as “sova,” which we have already noted as meaning "fullness" (as in a full belly), or “satisfaction,” as well as its closeness to the figure seven – sheva. YHVH's precise order within humanity and over nature, as He makes provision for “sova” in the two periods of “sheva,” is evident even in the very words themselves.
When "Ya'acov saw that there was grain [“shever”, referred to above] in Egypt, he said to his sons: 'why are you staring at one another?'" (42:1). Ya'acov's "seeing" and his sons' "staring" - are both of the root "to see", r.a.ah (resh, alef, hey). But whereas Ya'acov is looking around and is aware of the situation, his sons are looking at one another, thereby failing to see the reality about them. This is not the first time that these lads are found busy examining one another, instead of being attentive and productive. Last week we read in 37:4: “And when his brothers saw - “va’yir’ou” - that their father loved him [Yoseph] more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him” (italics added).
Yoseph, on the other hand, sees and recognizes his brothers, although he acts as a stranger toward them (ref. 42:7). “Va'yitna'ker” – “he made himself as a stranger” - since “nochri” is “stranger” and “nechar” is a “foreign land,” with the root being n.ch.r (noon, kaf/chaf, resh). However, it is also this very root that forms “nikar,” which means "seen" or "apparent" (the sounds "k" and "ch" are denoted sometimes by the same letter, in this case the letter kaf/chaf). And thus, “to know” or “recognize” is “haker.” The paradoxical meaning imbedded in this root, which is shared both by words pertaining to recognition and by those which have to do with estrangement, is seen in a very real way in the scene before us. Yoseph’s recognition of his brothers, on the one hand, and his estrangement from them, on the other, is summed up well by these two words (stemming from the same root) – “va'ya'kirem,” - “vayitna'ker.” Thus, seeming opposites are actually two sides of the same coin! This act of estrangement is in fact a tool that Yoseph uses in order to find out more about his brothers – to get to know them - and their present disposition.
The brothers return home, yet it is not long before the provisions come to an end. If they are to go down again to the 'land of plenty,' Ya'acov's sons need to convince their father to send their youngest brother, in accordance with the demand of the ‘Egyptian ruler.’ Yehuda, therefore, pleads with his father: "Send the lad with me… I myself will be surety for him; you may hold me responsible for him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame before you for ever" (43:8,9). Yehuda is willing to “guarantee” his brother, or to become an “era'von.” Last week, in Parashat Va’yeshev, we saw Yehuda as he was learning something about the principle of redemption from his daughter-in-law. At the time, Tamar used a "pledge," also an “era'von,” in order to force her father-in-law into acknowledging his duty. A wiser Yehuda now offers up himself as the pledge or surety, in the process of qualifying for the position of firstborn-redeemer of the family. When in Egypt, Binyamin is accused of having stolen Yoseph's cup. Yehuda immediately takes responsibility, albeit a collective one, for his brother. His words "Elohim has found out the iniquity of your servants" (44:16) lead us to believe that it is not the alleged crime of stealing that he is referring to. Already in 42:21, while meeting Yoseph for the first time, the brothers acknowledge amongst themselves their guilt toward him. But whereas at that time Yoseph kept quiet, here he puts Yehuda on the spot, testing him to the utmost: "Far be it from me to do this. The man in whose possession the cup has been found, he shall be my slave; but as for you, go up in peace to your father" (44:17). With this situation unresolved, and portending the worst, the narrator seals off, leaving us to wonder until the next episode!
But just before closing, let us examine one more term. When Ya'acov acquiesces and commits Binyamin to the mercy of his brothers, he makes his sons take an offering "to the man" (43:11), in spite of the famine and the great want that they themselves are in. That which is translated as "best produce of the land" is “zimrat ha'aretz.” While “ha'aretz” is "the land" or “the earth,” “zimra” stems from the verb “zamor” (z.mr., zayim, mem, resh)," to cut off vine branches,” but in many more instances it is "song" or "music." According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament 2, "the vast majority of occurrences of the verb and its derivatives focus upon praising the Lord; The people of Israel lift their voices and their instruments to praise their God as long as they live” (Ps. 104:33; 146:2). [Several times this praise is tangibly directed toward the "name of the Lord” - the "name," as representing YHVH Himself (Ps. 66:4; 18:49; 135:3)]. What exactly does Ya'acov have in mind when selecting this particular and uncommon choice of words? Do these words reveal something that is perhaps beyond what Ya’acov himself is aware of: the praise that is to be brought to the ‘man’ (ref. John 19:5), who is the vine (John 15:1.5), by the proverbial branches? The verb “zamru” (“sing”) is repeated a number of times in T’hilim (Psalms) 64, and so we read in verse 4: “Kol ha’aretz (the whole earth)… ye’zamru (“will sing praise”) lach (to you),” echoing the term “zimrat ha’aretz,” as coined by our father Ya’acov.
1.The New Brown, Driver, Briggs, Gesenius Lexicon, Francis Brown Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, Mass. 1979.
2. Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, vol. 1, R. Laird Harris ed. Moody Press, Chicago. 1980.