Joseph as Hamlet: Opening Scene of a Play

I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul, that presently
They have proclaim’d their malefactions;
─the play’s the thing,
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act 2, Scene 2

Necessity forces Jacob to send his sons to Egypt, a place that he himself would prefer to avoid and certainly would never let Benjamin go. It is the land down underneath, a dangerous place, but an unavoidable evil, like the world. God Himself is drawing them down by circumstances out of their control. Here Joseph saw the whole world coming to buy his grain, and by an amazing stroke of divine fortune Joseph himself happened to be there when his brothers arrived. It is said that Joseph “recognized” them, a word that takes us back into the family’s past when Jacob “recognized” Joseph’s coat, and Judah “recognized” his belongings which Tamar had taken for her favors. Moreover, it is of no little importance that Joseph’s brothers did not “recognize” him, as Judah once failed to “recognize” Tamar (Cf. Gen. 42:7 with 37:32, and 38:25f.). Jacob “recognized” his son’s bloody coat and, drawing his own conclusions about what he saw, lived in darkness for twenty years. Judah “recognized” his belongings when Tamar presented them to him as evidence and, drawing the correct conclusions, perceived himself as he really was. How we perceive reality, regardless of the truthfulness of our perceptions, is the reality we live by.

Immediately, by the spontaneous instinct that belongs to the wise, Joseph begins a course of events that will flower into a drama of world renown. The word for “recognize” above also has another nuance to it in the Hebrew, which means “to plot” (42:7). Joseph, upon “recognizing” his brothers, “plotted” against them, treating them harshly as strangers. This also brings us back to the murky past when his brothers saw Joseph from afar and “plotted” to kill him. Joseph sets in motion a drama that will re-enact the past before their eyes, like Hamlet did with the traveling players, who dramatized before the king, his father’s usurper and murderer, the scene of the crime (Act III, Scene II). In Shakespeare’s play, the king hardens all the more, and though he kneels in guilty remorse at the royal chapel, he plots Hamlet’s death in England. Likewise, Joseph had no assurance how his play would pan out.

It is remarkable what all can happen in a single instant. Not only did the plot of a complex play begin, but it is said that Joseph “remembered” his dreams (42:9). In the last post we left Joseph in Egypt’s splendor, not sure as to whether he would become Egyptian, or if he would come to terms with his past. We surmise that when he took his Egyptian wife, he set himself on the path of willful forgetfulness. Surely it would be easier to forget his dreams, push back the pain and disappointments of his family memories, and get on with life. He, like his brothers, was sitting on a spiritual powder keg and was not done with his soul work. Yes, even the enlightened Joseph had a further pace to go in his spiritual development. All the emotion of this revelation suddenly swooped upon Joseph at this moment. That Joseph instinctively controlled this emotion for the sake of a greater cause, shows that he was master of himself.

The fact is that one can never forget one’s encounter with God and His promises. One can push them aside and neglect them out of despair because of life’s circumstances or out of sheer time lapse. But like his brother’s sins, they will never let the soul rest. More often than not, God takes a ridiculously long time to fulfill His promises. At least it seems that way to us time-sensitive humans. Moreover, He comes around knocking at our doors when we least expect it, fulfilling his word in totally unsuspecting ways. We cannot know the form in which His promises will be fulfilled. Prophecy is dark even to the prophets. When Joseph dreamed his youthful dreams, he could never have divined that He would one day be ruler of all Egypt and that his brothers would come and bow before his splendor. But here they were, the ten that plotted against him, on their knees.

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