The Faculty of Jewish Studies
The Office of the Campus Rabbi
Parashat Vayigash 5758-1997
Presentation of Joseph's Brothers to Pharaoh
Dr. Shimon Kuper
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
In this week's reading Joseph informs Pharaoh that his brothers have come to Egypt, and beforehand he even instructs them what to say to Pharaoh. He chooses five brothers to present to Pharaoh. There is some disagreement as to which brothers he selected, but it is clear he intended to present Pharaoh the weakest of them. According to Rashi, "Some of his brethren -- Some of the inferior ones amongst them as to strength -- of those who did not look robust. For should Pharaoh find them to be robust men, he might press them for military service" (47:2).
In a similar vein, the author of the Kli Yakar commentary expresses wonderment on the verse, "The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock, and they have brought with them their flocks and herds and all that is theirs" (46:32). He comments as follows: "Careful attention should be paid to why he felt he had to offer the explanation that they were breeders of livestock; whether or not they were breeders of livestock, they were shepherds all the same." He continues to say that Joseph, trying to keep his brothers far from the center of the country, wanted them to tell Pharaoh they were shepherds, not breeders of livestock, precisely because flocks of sheep were abhorrent to Egypt. When Joseph comes to Pharaoh to tell him that his father and brothers have arrived, he says they have flocks and herds (47:1), but when they appear before Pharaoh they say they only that they are shepherds and wish to live in the land of Goshen (47:3-4).
Understanding the ecological balance of eastern Africa can help us elaborate on the explanations given by Rashi and Kli Yakar. Eastern Africa has a considerable number of nomadic cultures that raise cattle and sheep, as well as many who keep camels and donkeys, insofar as that is possible. A tribe that has sufficient manpower and large herds of cattle and sheep can exploit its poor surroundings and manpower maximally. Where agricultural technology is undeveloped, keeping cattle requires extensive pasture and in certain seasons necessitates wandering quite far in order to find suitable pasture. Sheep and goats, however, do not need extensive land for grazing, but can be raised in places where the vegetation is insufficient for cattle.
A group that has a suitable division between sheep and cattle, and sufficient manpower to look after separate herds in different places, far from each other, can use the environment very efficiently. Sheep and cattle occupy different ecological niches, and do not compete with each other for the same resources. When manpower does not suffice to look after the sheep and cattle in separate herds, the sheep must be grazed according to the needs of the cattle. As a result, a relatively large area of pasture (in comparison to the number of heads of cattle) is needed by such livestock breeders.
Presumably this accurately describes the position of Jacob's sons when they moved to Egypt. They may have had herds of sheep and cattle, but they had a shortage of hands to look after their herds. Therefore they had to look after all their livestock in the same area. This would have led to intense pressure on the pasture in the area, Jacob's clan competing for water and pasture resources with Egyptian livestock owners. Joseph had to manipulate the situation so that he could tell Pharaoh the truth and thereby have him understand his brothers' weakness and the fact that as shepherds they were not competing over the pasture for cattle. Let us examine Chapter 46, verses 32 and 34: "The men are shepherds; they have always been breeders of livestock" (some had sheep and some had cattle). "You shall answer, 'Your servants have been breeders of livestock,' ... so that you may stay in the region of Goshen. For all shepherds are abhorrent to Egyptians." (Pharaoh will send you to Goshen, a place intended for pasturing cattle, and you will have to graze the sheep with the cattle.) In Chapter 47 Joseph reveals to Pharaoh the truth, that his brothers keep sheep and cattle; but they are already in Goshen, a place which is suitable to them. He selects his five weakest brothers, and instructs them, when Pharaoh inquires as to their livelihood, to tell him the truth: they are shepherds. In eastern African societies that have the conditions for raising sheep and cattle, it is the weaker ones who raise the sheep, and the stronger ones who remain with the cattle. This reinforces Rashi's point, that they were "inferior as to strength." Pharaoh understands that this is only part of Jacob's family, and that the other part includes cattle breeders competing for Egypt's resources of water and pasture. Thus Pharaoh notes (47:6), "Let them stay in the region of Goshen. And if you know any capable men among them, put them in charge of my livestock." In other words: I know some of your brothers are strong cattle raisers, and I would like them to take charge of my livestock.
Sheep may have been abhorrent to Egypt for the reason Rashi notes, but sheep are abhorrent to whoever invests the greater part of his energy in cattle because they destroy the pasture of the cattle. Hence, when possible, it is preferable to graze sheep separately.
The weekly Torah portion is distributed with the assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science.