There Arose a New King Who Knew Not Joseph…

There Arose a New King Who Knew Not Joseph…

What do you mean, “Who knew not Joseph”?  A king didn’t know his own country’s history?  How could it be that a prince who would later become Pharaoh hadn’t been tutored in the annals of the kingdom, which surely included information about the massive contributions made to his country by this immigrant and resident alien?  As Genesis tells the story, Joseph had saved all of Egypt from a disastrous famine, not merely by foreseeing it, but by devising strategies to stockpile food ahead of time and dispense it during the famine, and then putting into place the government infrastructure to carry out this policy. Classic big-government policy; but in this case, nothing less would have allowed Egypt to maintain its position as leader of their area of the world. Joseph’s entire family (a clan then numbering 70) immigrated to the country and settled in Goshen, a district unused by the Egyptians but suited to Jacob and Joseph’s family’s main occupation as livestock breeders.  How could it be that there arose a new king who knew not Joseph?   

Traditional Jewish commentary even questions how this king came to be on the throne.  Shouldn’t there have been a death notice about the old king, if the succession had passed in the ordinary way?  Ibn Ezra (12th c Spain) suggests a radical discontinuity: The new king was not from the same lineage as the old king. (Palace coup? Invasion? Populist uprising?)  Chizkuni (13th c. France) and others suggest that it was actually the same old, same old king, but he started enacting new decrees. 

Old king or new, Rashi (11th c France) points out that he acted as though he knew not Joseph.  Maybe the king knew, and maybe he didn’t want to know, but either way, we were in trouble.

One commentator (Sforno, 16th century Italy) blames the victim.  To paraphrase:  “Sure, Pharaoh knew about Joseph.  But his descendants had so far fallen in the world that nobody connected the current Israelites with their illustrious ancestor, on account of their (unspecified) current behavior.”  The corollary of this unfortunate perspective is what’s called “The Politics of Respectability”: To receive better treatment from the group in power, we of the minority have to behave better according to the customs of the majority.  For the record, it doesn’t work, not to mention being unjust and self-damaging.  See here for a well-written, wise-ass essay defining “respectability politics”: 

There arose a new king who knew not Joseph, and he appealed to the populace with racist and fear-mongering words:  “Look at all these aliens, these foreigners.  They’re everywhere!  They’re taking over!  But we can prevent that if we’re smart enough.”  I’m reading “rise from the ground” as some commentators do, meaning “come to dominate us,” rather than the more common “get up out of the land.”  (See below, Exodus chapter 1 verse 10.)

How could this happen?  One clue lies in verse 6:  Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation.   The living witnesses were gone, “The times they are a-changin’.”  A new generation arose, not just a new king. 

 I remember when President Clinton (sigh) enacted “Don’t ask, don’t tell” I heard a radio commentary which included some research about what changed people’s attitudes about queer folk.  The likeliest predictor of a positive attitude toward gay rights (as we called it then) was knowing a gay man or lesbian.  Or rather, I should say, knowing that you knew one, since so many of us lived relatively closeted lives.  

But gay people pop up in the best (and worst) families; but culture and wealth, not to mention physical characteristics, tend to be passed down the generations within families.  So it’s hard to get to know — really know, as peers and equals and friends — folks from a different culture, socio-economic status, race, or immigrant status, unless you work at it.  And in the absence of personal contact and personal story-telling, all sorts of myths are liable to spring up, including ones that rewrite history.  Bridging the divide between rural Goshen and cosmopolitan Egypt would have required mixing and mingling of people who were quite content to stay separate, and it just didn’t happen.  To the great detriment, not only of the Israelites, but in the end to the detriment of Egypt too, which suffered under plagues that were the consequences of a Pharaoh with a hard heart.  (But that part of the story begins in next Shabbat’s Torah portion.  See Exodus 7:8 and following at

So the new king and his policies were aided and abetted by a stratified society, in which the majority of people only knew their own reality; at best, how “the other half” (or fraction) lived was seen from a distance.   So there was a large segment of the population who were ready to hear Pharaoh’s characterizations of these outsiders, and later to carry out the slow genocide that he decreed  (Exodus 1:22

In the story which begins in this week’s Torah portion, it takes Divine intervention to end the Israelites’ enslavement.  But later Jewish tradition teaches that we are not to rely on miracles.  Instead, we follow the example of the two Hebrew midwives who show up a few verses later (Exodus 1:15-22).  (Presumably, they were Egyptian midwives who attended to births among the Hebrews.  Or did Pharaoh perhaps believe that he could co-opt  two women to act against their own people??

Pharaoh instructed them to kill all the Hebrew baby boys at birth, but the midwives respected God and followed their consciences, using Pharaoh’s very prejudices against him.  When Pharaoh called them on the carpet for disobeying his orders, they replied, “Oh, you know those Hebrew women, they’re savages.  They just pop those babies out before we can get to them.”  Here I give my own translation of the word חיות / chayot in verse 19, variously translated as “vigorous” or “lively.”  “Chayot” means “alive, living” but it also means “wild animal.”  The midwives play on Pharaoh’s assumption that Egyptians are civilized and Hebrews are barely house-broken, and he accepts their assertion without question.   

Direct civil disobedience would probably cost the midwives their jobs in a crucial “helping profession,” if not their lives.  But they find non-violent and non-confrontational ways to subvert “the man,” and they pull it off successfully.  They take a brave and principled stand right in the face of power, using Pharaoh’s own world-view in order to subvert that world-view.   

Unfortunately, Pharaoh then turns to the general public and incites them to murder.  While the midwives alone cannot change public policy and stop the slaughter, they continue to structure their own lives and work in accordance with the highest principles, ones they understand to be godly.  And they are remembered for the good:  “And God dealt well with the midwives…and because the midwives respected God, God established households for them.”  (Exodus 1:20-21

“There arose a new king who knew not Joseph.”  When public policy is made by people who disparage immigrants, incite violence, spread fear and hatred, and make use of the estrangement of segments of the population from each other; people who ignore the past and rewrite the present — the stage is set for all manner of bitterness  (Exodus 1:14).  

We each have an acute responsibility in this time to hold fast to our highest principles and to put them into action in any way we can.  And ideally, doing so without putting ourselves or anyone else into peril.

There is also a crying need to travel beyond the borders of our own community, because knowing the “other” is the most powerful way to avoid “othering” people we don’t know.   Goshen and Thebes need to know each other, not just “about” each other.

If we do these things, there is no guarantee that we will be able to change public policy sufficiently to mitigate harm.  But if we do not do them, things will assuredly be worse.  Let us be remembered for the good!


From this week’s Torah portion Sh’mot — Exodus chapter 1, verses 6-12:


וַיָּ֤מָת יוֹסֵף֙ וְכָל־אֶחָ֔יו וְכֹ֖ל הַדּ֥וֹר הַהֽוּא׃

Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. 


וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל פָּר֧וּ וַֽיִּשְׁרְצ֛וּ וַיִּרְבּ֥וּ וַיַּֽעַצְמ֖וּ בִּמְאֹ֣ד מְאֹ֑ד וַתִּמָּלֵ֥א הָאָ֖רֶץ אֹתָֽם׃

But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. 


וַיָּ֥קָם מֶֽלֶךְ־חָדָ֖שׁ עַל־מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹֽא־יָדַ֖ע אֶת־יוֹסֵֽף׃

A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. 


וַיֹּ֖אמֶר אֶל־עַמּ֑וֹ הִנֵּ֗ה עַ֚ם בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רַ֥ב וְעָצ֖וּם מִמֶּֽנּוּ׃

And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. 


הָ֥בָה נִֽתְחַכְּמָ֖ה ל֑וֹ פֶּן־יִרְבֶּ֗ה וְהָיָ֞ה כִּֽי־תִקְרֶ֤אנָה מִלְחָמָה֙ וְנוֹסַ֤ף גַּם־הוּא֙ עַל־שֹׂ֣נְאֵ֔ינוּ וְנִלְחַם־בָּ֖נוּ וְעָלָ֥ה מִן־הָאָֽרֶץ׃

Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” 


וַיָּשִׂ֤ימוּ עָלָיו֙ שָׂרֵ֣י מִסִּ֔ים לְמַ֥עַן עַנֹּת֖וֹ בְּסִבְלֹתָ֑ם וַיִּ֜בֶן עָרֵ֤י מִסְכְּנוֹת֙ לְפַרְעֹ֔ה אֶת־פִּתֹ֖ם וְאֶת־רַעַמְסֵֽס׃

So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. 


וְכַאֲשֶׁר֙ יְעַנּ֣וּ אֹת֔וֹ כֵּ֥ן יִרְבֶּ֖ה וְכֵ֣ן יִפְרֹ֑ץ וַיָּקֻ֕צוּ מִפְּנֵ֖י בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites.