Don Isaac Abravanel (1437-1508) was a preeminent Jewish thinker, scholar, and prolific Biblical
commentator. Chapter 39 chronicles Joseph’s ordeal, a slave sold to Egypt: “And Joseph was brought
down to Egypt…”
“And Joseph was brought down to Egypt. And Potiphar, an officer of
Pharaoh’s, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand
of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither. And God was with
Joseph, and he was successful. And he was in the house of his master
Abravanel’s close read of the next verse reveals much. “And God was with Joseph, and he was
successful. And he was in the house of his master the Egyptian.” In a single verse, Abravanel notes, we
read: “And God was…and he was…and he was…” Surely, the Bible could have written more concisely:
“And God was with Joseph, succeeding in his master’s house” or something to that effect. This begs a
question: What does Scripture convey, with its seeming extra verbiage, when a crisper sentence would
Abravanel insists that the wording was anything but superfluous. Each phrase, he shows, comes to
emphasize a fundamental fact: Divine providence protected and blessed Joseph.
Consider, Abravanel says, what actually transpired with sale of Joseph versus what could have occurred,
had God’s guiding hand been absent.
Sans divine providence, the Ishmaelites who acquired Joseph may have decided to keep him as their
porter, traipsing endless sand dunes. Or, they may have dragged him to far away destinations, say
Timbuktu. Who says that the Ishmaelites couldn’t have sold him to a buyer who engaged in
backbreaking labor, and put Joseph on a chain gang? Perhaps, without divine good fortune, Jacob’s
beloved son could have ended up employed in other degrading jobs – cleaning latrines in a souk?
Really, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture Joseph employed in work far beneath his station, had
the Maker not intervened. But God did intervene, Abravanel makes clear.
And so, Jacob’s favorite son “was brought down to Egypt.” Egypt at that time was a paradigm of
civilization, with creature comforts – no less. Moreover, the Egyptian who purchased Joseph was
“Potiphar, an officer of Pharoah’s…”
Unquestionably, concludes Abravanel, the Creator orchestrated a cushy landing for Joseph, sold
ignominiously as a slave by his brothers. In Egypt, he would excel and flourish, courtesy of God.