Be wary of advising kings

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A torah scroll.
(photo credit:REUTERS)

A plain reading of the Bible would seem to indicate that advising foreign rulers is a good idea. The two most famous examples, Joseph and Mordechai, enjoy a meteoric rise to prominence.

And they seem to deftly manage their respective ruler’s impulsiveness and even use it to their advantage. However, despite their success, the Bible subjects both figures to a subtle but significant critique because of their position.

The first and most obvious example of an adviser to a foreign ruler is Joseph, seemingly a poster child for overcoming adversity. Here we are witness to a boy who rises to the ranks of Pharaoh’s second in command, despite being detested by his own brothers and sold as a slave.

The problem is that the story does not end well: the Israelites become enslaved in Egypt. Indeed, as the 13th century Jewish sage Nahmanides astutely notes, the sale of Joseph cannot be read independently of the subsequent story in Exodus, where the brutal enslavement begins. Taking Nahmanides’ logic a step further, we cannot see Joseph’s role in Egypt and the type of “big government” that came into being under his watch apart from the rest of the narrative.

And so, an astute reader of the Bible will realize that Joseph’s policies, specifically the one in which the state began nationalizing territory (Genesis 47:15-25) enable the oppression that follows.

Given a climate in which Egyptians would not break bread with the Israelites (Genesis 43:32) and in which an entire family moves to Egypt on account of its one highly respected member, what follows is not at all surprising. A powerful government of a nation with underlying feelings of xenophobia is not likely down the line to treat a foreign nation living within its borders all too kindly when the reason the group immigrated in the first place is forgotten (Exodus 1:8). Surely, when an Israelite as clever as Joseph is in power, it should occur to him that the systems he puts in place might backfire – but it does not. And the narrative seems to be the judge of that oversight. In other words, it is far from ironic that unfair policies for non-Jewish kings end up punishing Jews. The Bible is saying that when an adviser promotes unjust policies, the consequences cannot be so easily contained. To cite the incomparable Martin Luther King Jr’s famous refrain, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There is, however, another example of an adviser who is criticized, only this time by fellow Jews. In Mordechai we have a Jew who rises to power mainly because of his association with the future queen, Esther. This is a figure that reaches the upper echelons of power, and yet never loses sight of the people he represents. When he hears that his people are facing annihilation, he cries out in agony (Esther 4:1) and when Esther gets taken to the palace, he asks that she not reveal her identity (2:10) presumably to keep the Jews safe. Mordechai also involves the people of the city in the gathering on behalf of Esther (4:16-17).

However, despite this concern for his people – and the fact that he identifies with them – Mordechai is not completely accepted by his own people: the words in Esther 10:3 can be understood to mean, “he was accepted by most of his brothers.” A few verses earlier, the text speaks about the taxes that Ahasuerus levied upon the people (10:1). It is possible that the distaste for Mordechai is related to this new measure, or from plain jealousy, as Ibn Ezra suggests. However, it is also possible that Mordechai’s brethren found his position compromises the practices associated with his tradition. Perhaps Mordechai feels he has special “permission” to circumvent the observance of Jewish rituals that conflict with his duties.

After all, there may just be no realistic way for Moredechai to maintain his level of observance with the type of responsibilities that come with being an adviser to the king. On a deeper level, the point of the critique in this case is that a Jewish adviser cannot assume to represent a completely unified nation. There are and will be differences among the Jews he represents, which is why he or she will not represent everyone.

Thus, what the Bible shows us in these two figures is that Jews or Israelites who fill that type of role have to worry not only how their policies will eventually impact their own people, but also, more immediately, how they will be seen by some of their own fellow Jews. So, for a current adviser to a non-Jewish ruler, the message is clear: the policies for which you advocate will not only be judged for their immediate effects but their long-term consequences as well, and there will be Jews who will feel that you are doing them a disservice.

The author is a PhD candidate in religious studies at McMaster University.

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