Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Mikeitz: A Concatenation of Coincidences?

Genesis 41:1– 44:17

One of the recurring puzzles in biblical theology concerns the balance between reliance upon divine intervention, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the assumption of personal initiative. As we near the denouement of the saga of Joseph, we have an unprecedented opportunity to gain insight into this conundrum.

Viewed superficially, Joseph's rise to power in Egypt, reported in this week's portion, can be seen as a concatenation of coincidences. A Midianite caravan happens to pass by just as his brothers are contemplating his fate, and the caravan just happens to be headed to Egypt. Once there, Joseph happens to be purchased by Potiphar, whose wife happens to attempt to seduce him, landing him in the royal jail in which the chief butler and baker happen to be incarcerated as well. By chance, the two men have had somewhat opaque dreams, which Joseph happens to interpret correctly. This places him in a position to assist Pharaoh—who happens to have dreamed a similarly opaque sequence of night visions of his own.

But Joseph himself rejects that view, in favor of a candid recognition of divine providence. He spurns Mrs. Potiphar's advances, declaring: "How can I commit this great evil and sin to God?" He outspokenly invites the confidences of the butler and the baker by saying: "Verily, interpretation resides with God." Finally, his lengthy, twelve-verse response to Pharaoh (41:25–36) is sequentially and incrementally punctuated (at verses 25, 28, and 32) with God's name. Even Pharaoh is able to see the hand of providence through the mask of coincidence, declaring (38–39): "Can such a man be found, a man in whom there is the spirit of God? After God has informed you of all this, there is none as wise and sagacious as you."

Once we acknowledge Joseph's proposition that events with the appearance of mere coincidence may be acts of providence in disguise, we can revisit a very early occurrence in the string and see it in a different light. One of the most striking "coincidences" in the story of Joseph is his encounter, in a field outside Shekhem, with "a man" who just happens to know the whereabouts of his brothers (37:15).  Without this initial encounter, Joseph would not, ostensibly, have fallen into his brothers' hands in the first place.

Who was this man?  Rashi (1040–1104), following the Midrash Tanhuma, identifies him with the angel Gabriel, signaling his appreciation of the providential nature of this meeting with Joseph. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089–1164), characteristically adhering more strictly to the self-evident meaning of the text, declares him to have been an ordinary wayfarer, implying a chance encounter. Ramban/Nahmanides (1194–1270), who regularly navigates an exegetical passage through the strait between Rashi and ibn Ezra, offers the most meaningful insight, commenting:

This informs us that providence is truth and human initiative is false, for God arranged a guide for [Joseph] without his knowledge in order for him to fall into [his brothers'] hands. This is what our sages meant when they designated such characters as angels, indicating that the entire episode was not gratuitous and teaching us that 'the counsel of God shall triumph.'

What, then, do we call "a man" who, although surely mortal (ibn Ezra), was acting out of the same immutable divine obligation as an archangel (Rashi)?  Answer: a mal'akh,  a messenger or agent of God's purpose and design. In next week's reading, Joseph reinforces and accentuates this same point in his reunion with his wretched and guilt-ridden brothers, absolving them of the crime of having sold him into slavery and assuring them that not they but God had sent him ahead to Egypt, in order to save their lives and those of their descendants. 

How many people do we encounter in our own lives without recognizing the angelic nature of their interactions with us? If "all the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players," are we ad-libbing our way through life or, unbeknownst to ourselves, acting out parts and reading lines from a designated script? In reviewing the events that led us to where we are today, is there a point when the accumulation of sequential coincidences might give us pause to consider whether they are actually part of a plan?

Moshe Sokolow is professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University.



Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham