Ibn Ezra

Ibn Ezra: Fathering Pharaoh (Vayigash)

The Torah Text

After tense encounters between Joseph, who appears to be a native-born and powerful Egyptian, and his impoverished brothers seeking food during famine, the moment finally arrives. The moment when Joseph commands the interpreters and all other attendants to leave the room, turns back to his brothers with tears in his eyes, and speaks to them in Hebrew. “I am your brother Joseph, who you sold into Egypt.” (Genesis 45:4).

Lest they worry, he continues, sharing his own perspective of his life story.

“Now do not be distressed or reproach yourself because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and God has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45: 5-8)

Joseph reclaims his narrative. He is no slave. He is an agent of God, protecting his brothers. He has become nothing less than a father to Pharaoh. But what does that phrase, “a father to Pharaoh”, really mean? It can’t be taken literally, obviously.

Ibn Ezra’s Teaching

לאב. טעמו למורה וכן אבי כל תופש

A father. A teacher. Similarly, “he (Yuval) was the father of all who handle the harp and the pipe” (Genesis 4:21).

Reflections for the Path

Ibn Ezra translates father as “teacher.” To father someone is to impart lessons. His proof text for this idea comes from early in the book of Genesis, where the primordial ancestor Yuval is understood to be the first teacher of all musicians to come.

Joseph teaches Pharaoh, according to Ibn Ezra. This is not an obvious relationship just looking at the plain sense of the story. Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, teaching him what they mean, yes. But then Pharaoh delegates the power to act on those interpretation to Joseph. Joseph does not become a tutor. Pharaoh doesn’t actually continue to learn from Joseph, he merely lets Joseph be his surrogate.

The type of learning I do admire in Pharaoh is the ability to be flexible and open to the wisdom of others, even if your actions consist not of personal growth but rather skillful delegation. An eye for enabling others to act for the benefit of all deserves that humble yet vital title of student. Especially when you are the most powerful person in the land.

For more on Abraham ibn Ezra:
1. Read my introduction.
2. Listen to ibn Ezra’s opening prayer poem for his Torah commentary.
3. Explore the five paths, ibn Ezra’s introduction to his Torah commentary.