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B'resheet/Genesis 41:14 And Pharaoh sent and he called Yosef ... and he shaved and he changed his garments and he came to Pharaoh.
The whole verse contains six vav-conversive verbs, although only five are shown in our text. This creates what Drazin and Wagner call a "string of staccato sounds" that reflect the urgency that the court is creating to satisfy Pharaoh's command. In spite of the apparent haste, however, there is a lot going on in this text and perhaps more slowly than might at first appear. RabbiHirsch, trying to build Yosef's character, says that, "The court officials wanted to rush him to Pharaoh, but he took his time; first shaved and put on respectable clothes. He did not run , but , 'he went in' to Pharaoh. He was conscious of his own personality and his mission." Pharaoh is all of a dither, concerned about the remarkable dreams that he has had and the inability of his court magicians and sooth-sayers to produce an interpretation. Fearful that when Pharaoh gets agitated, heads may roll, the court clutches at any straw that may calm the situation down and bring Pharaoh back to a more rational state. Yosef is found and fetched from prison and would have been frog-marched straight in to Pharaoh's presence just as he was - a royal "come as you are" party - probably receiving a rather different reception if he hadn't insisted on taking a little more care of his appearance. Let's take a closer look at exactly what Yosef did.
First, Yosef shaved. The verb - the Pi'el prefix 3ms vav-conversive form of the root , "to shave", either head or beard (Davidson) and here used intransitively,1 "to shave oneself" - tells us that Yosef took care of his own shaving and that it was his own initiative. Yosef wanted to shave; the ancient Sages say that this was "out of respect for royalty" (B'resheet Rabbah 89:9). TheRadak comments that "Egyptian men generally shaved their heads and beards for hygienic reasons. Thus, Yosef was shaved. It would have been improper, even insulting, to allow him to appear before Pharaoh unshaven", while the Bechor Schor adds that "prisoners were not shaved during their imprisonment". We can see the verb applying to hair as part of the regulations for the Nazirite vow - "If a person dies suddenly near him, defiling his consecrated hair, he shall shave his head on the day he becomes clean; he shall shave it on the seventh day" (B'Midbar 6:9, NJPS) - and to the beard as part of the narrative following the destruction of the first Temple: "eighty men came from Shechem, Shiloh, and Samaria, their beards shaved, their garments torn, and their bodies gashed, carrying meal offerings and frankincense to present at the House of the L-RD" (Jeremiah 41:5, NJPS).
Yosef then changed his clothes. The verb - the Pi'el prefix 3ms vav-conversive form of the root , to pass by, pass on, pass away; to revive" (Davidson), but in Pi'el "to change, as in a garment" - is only used in the phrase "to change one's garments" and is only found in one other place in the Tanakh: "Thereupon David rose from the ground; he bathed and anointed himself, and he changed his clothes. He went into the House of the L-RD and prostrated himself" (2 Samuel 12:20, NJPS). On both occasions, now and then, it occurred under the protest, or at least the disapproval of those who stood about him. Pharaoh and the court were waiting and the servants were no doubt pressing Yosef to hurry up and stop delaying over what they considered trivialities like clothes. Comparing Yosef to Mordecai - who "tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly, until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth" (Esther 4:1-2, NJPS) - theSforno comments that "it is not fitting to come to the gate of the king's palace wearing sackcloth". Much less, says the Bechor Schor, in prison clothes. Thinking of his multi-coloured2 coat and the cloak he left in the hands of Potiphar's wife, Nahum Sarna points out that "clothing has been a constant factor in Yosef's misfortunes. This change of clothing has symbolic meaning as the process of his liberation now begins."
Now let's turn the picture around and see things from Pharaoh's point of view. What does Pharaoh see and hear? First of all, he has heard a report of almost miraculous dream interpretation, personally and first-hand verified by one of his own most trusted servants, his cup-bearer, who was the subject of a dream that came exactly true. In his panic to have his dream interpreted - after all, he is Pharaoh, he is a god, why can't he interpret his own dream - Pharaoh has been primed to receive Yosef favourably. But as what? All the cup-bearer said was, "a Hebrew youth" (B'resheet 41:12); what is Pharaoh expecting to see? Hillel Millgram explains: "In the Ancient Near East, all men were bearded.3 The one exception was the Egyotians. They, and only they, were clean-shaven; their heads as well as their faces. In shaving his face and head, apparently for the first time, Yosef is transforming himself. Outwardly he is longer a Hebrew; his appearance now will proclaim him to Pharaoh as an Egyptian."4 Yosef has changed his appearance and his identity to match his context. After a number of formative years as Potiphar's chief steward and then a few more in an Egyptian prison for senior staff, he can speak court Egyptian well; with a few simple though dramatic physical changes, he now looks Egyptian. To all intents and purposes, he has become an Egyptian. This is what Pharaoh sees and hears as Yosef comes into his presence. The possible barriers of xenophobia and distrust of non-Egyptians occasioned by the cup-bearer's cautious words, "a Hebrew youth" are swept away; Pharaoh sees what he most wants to see: a well presented, smart and articulate Egyptian who can solve his problems, explain his dream and save his face. What is there not to like in that?
Rav Sha'ul knew the stories of the Yosef cycle well; he had been brought up on the tales of Yosef being sold as a slave in Egypt, Yosef resisting Potiphar's wife, Yosef and the Dreams, Yosef second only to Pharaoh and saving the whole Israelite people in Ya'akov's little family of "seventy people" (Shemot 1:5). To Sha'ul, his readings "treat Scripture as a living voice that speaks to the people of G-d."5 Perhaps Yosef's identity transformation is in the back of his mind when he wrote to the community in Corinth:
For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of G-d but under the law of Messiah, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some. And I do all things for the sake of the gospel, that I may become a fellow partaker of it. (1 Corinthians, 9:20-23, NASB)
Anthony Thistleton points out that each of these groups has 'outsider' status to the other.6 To the free, slaves are 'other'; to Gentiles, Jews are 'other' and so on. Yet without changing his real identity, without ceasing to be a Torah-observant free-born Jew, Sha'ul adopts the identity of each group so that he may share the gospel and new life in Messiah with them. Without losing his education or his unique calling, Sha'ul is prepared on occasion, to abandon Received Pronunciation and speak Estuary English, Cockney or Geordie; whatever is required to communicate effectively with and as one of the in-group.
So how good are we at allowing our external identity to change with our context so that we can share the hope that we have? Is it a matter of putting on our best clothes and strutting our stuff, or is a more subtle blending and flexibility that doesn't compromise our integrity while allowing conversation and life transfer to take place? Are we stand-offish or judgemental in certain settings, looking up or down our noses at people who we think ought to know better? Yosef adopted an external persona that enabled him to occupy the highest position in Egypt, to save the lives of thousands of people - including pagan and idolatrous Egyptian priests - and eventually his own family; yet he stayed faithful to the G-d of Israel his whole life.
1. - That is, without an object.
2. - Or perhaps "long-sleeved"; the Hebrew is obscure.
3. - All real men, that is. Eunuchs were not, so beards were important to tell the difference.
4. - Hillel I. Millgram, The Joseph Paradox, McFarland & Company Inc., 2012, pages 82-82.
5. - Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, Yale University Press, 1989, page 165.
6. - Anthony C. Thistleton, 1 Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical & Pastoral Commentary, Eerdmans, 2006, page 144.
Further Study: Romans 15:1-6; 2 Corinthians 4:5; 1 Peter 3:1
Application: Can you mix and blend wherever G-d calls you, or do you find yourself wincing and holding back from some people and situations? Pray that the L-rd will enable and empower your social skills to spread His gospel to the people He wants to reach.
© Jonathan Allen, 2017
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