The opening lines of Exodus reveal the Middle East’s future, which seems destined to be shaped by the future of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world.
In the eighth verse of the first chapter of Exodus, the heartbreaking drama of the Hebrew people is set with a simple line: “A new pharaoh came to power, who did not know Joseph.”
Why is this line so telling? It describes a reversal of fortune which would be echoed throughout Jewish history.
In the initial chapters of the Book of Exodus, the Jews fall into slavery and abuse by the ruling Pharaohs. This offers a stunning contrast with the status of the Jews in Egypt in the narrative immediately preceding Exodus 1.
The previous book, Genesis, had ended with Joseph, son of Rachel and Jacob, saving his clan by bringing them to Egypt to avoid a famine. He could do this because Joseph had gained the trust of the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh ruled over the most powerful empire in the ancient world. Joseph used the personal loyalties of a powerful elite in Egypt to secure provisions and shelter for eleven brothers and their children. Enjoying the special protection of the Egyptian government, the Hebrews flourished and multiplied in numbers.
But there was a problem. As they flourished, they remained distinct from the Egyptians and lived in Goshen, a separate district. Had they assimilated into the Egyptian community, they may have simply produced many descendants without provoking resentment. But eventually the Egyptians who had a special affection for Hebrews died and were replaced by others who “did not know Joseph” – therefore having no personal connection.
The elite that replaced Joseph’s friends came to view the Jews as an annoyance and sought to contain the nuisance by enslaving them. Therein lies the reversal and what I will call the Joseph Cycle: what begins as a lucrative special arrangement sours into a peculiar hostility against Jews, and then persecution.
In their state of slavery, the Jews ultimately suffer and must depend on God to liberate them. In exchange God gives them the Torah and leads them to the holy land to become a sovereign and independent people.
In Exodus, Moses the lawgiver plays a central role. The Ten Commandments are set down in Exodus 20. The basic structure of the law and judges is provided in Exodus 18. The escape from slavery in Egypt sets the stage for the Jewish people to secure three things at once: the elaborate covenant with God, political independence, and the holy scriptures.
The first five books of the Bible, the Torah, are said to have been transcribed by Moses himself and passed to Joshua. The three books following Exodus are Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Leviticus lays down a thorough legal system for the Levites or priestly clan. Numbers provides more laws and recounts the Jews’ long passage through the wilderness, during which all those who grew up as slaves in Egypt die off. Deuteronomy explains how a second iteration of Moses’s law is given to a new generation of Jews, raised in the wilderness, who will have to take the holy land from the pagan tribes living in Canaan.
The Torah cannot be separated from these specific events in time. Christianity is also based on Jesus’ substitution for the blood sacrifices described in Leviticus, so these events lay the foundation for Christian beliefs as well. “Love thy neighbor” comes from Leviticus while “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength,” comes from Deuteronomy. Easter is linked to the Passover, which commemorates the events of Exodus.
For Judaism and Christianity, the sequence of events taking the Jews from Egypt to the holy land go beyond singular incidents in history. They form the template to understand how Jewish and Christian communities interact with nations in the world.
Here the political commonalities of the Jews and Christians end, however. The rise of a “Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” summarizes the central and repeated problem for Jews, which is not a Christian problem. Jesus’ actions sweep away the strict boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. Remember the parable of the Good Samaritan? The Samaritan woman by the well? The Roman centurion and his slave? From the point of Jesus’ ministry forward, Christianity uncoupled faith from an ethnic identity and stressed evangelism to all peoples everywhere. This allowed Christianity to spread quickly and thrive without regard to the demographics of any particular group. In Romans 13 Paul tells Christians to obey civil authorities regardless of whether they are Christian or not (when Paul wrote it, he was telling Christians to obey Roman law which was not Christian at all yet.) Jesus emphasized that his “kingdom” was not counted among the political powers of this world. He did not come to save any nation, but rather, anyone who believed in him.
In a sense Christians get to move on from the problem of Joseph and Pharaoh. The Jews never moved past this main dilemma. Insisting upon the perpetuation of an ethnically exclusive identity as part of their faith, Jews repeatedly find themselves a small community dependent on the favors of larger communities that surround them. To survive, Jews would have to resort to the same political tactic: they would need to curry favor with powerful people in command of large empires, who could marshal the resources to protect them.
Jews would, for example, win the favor of Cyrus, ruler of Persia; Agrippina and Poppaea the mother and wife of Emperor Nero; much of the elite in Spain and Portugal in the late medieval era; the Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary; and today, the leading decision-makers of both American political parties. On November 28, 2023, the House of Representatives voted 412-1 to affirm Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Like the Pharaoh who knew Joseph, these elites had affinities for Jews and were willing to stake their empire’s resources on protecting them, despite the fact that the Jews were a closed club that most of their constituents could never be part of.
Exodus 1:8 recurs. Each time the Jews find a patron state to shield them, the same thing happens. Time passes. Leaders change. The Jews go from being the darlings of an elite to a sore point for masses who look upon them with resentment. Friction arises because of the exclusionary nature of Judaism, which drives ordinary people to accuse them of hijacking other countries’ governments while the volk, the “true” people of the empire who farm, build, and fight the wars; remain impoverished and neglected by leaders who siphon money and influence to help Jews.
The “Joseph Cycle” consists of three stages.
The three stages of Joseph will look familiar to people who have studied Jewish history. In stage 1, the Jewish Joseph figure is a down-on-his-luck wandering victim, who has been mistreated by some bullies but possesses a certain brilliance and charm. In Genesis, Joseph ends up in Egypt because he annoys his brothers, who sell him to his cousins, the Ishmaelites (early Arabs), who then sell him into slavery in Egypt.
In Stage 2 of the Joseph cycle, the Jewish Joseph figure rises quickly to the highest levels of power in a foreign empire, by proving to leaders that he is useful, intelligent, and willing to produce results for a powerful patron. In Genesis, Joseph attracts the attention of the Pharaoh through his ability to interpret dreams. Then Joseph designs a grain storage system that allows the Egyptians to avoid starvation and brings great honor to the Pharaoh. In return, the Pharaoh is incredibly generous and agrees to protect Joseph’s family. In Stage 2, the Jewish people enjoy splendorous benefits as a “favored people.” The imperial elite grants concessions and gifts to the Jews far beyond what other groups receive. The Jews enjoy these favors while still remaining a distinct ethnic group that outsiders cannot join easily. Their prosperity grows but they remain small in number compared to the groups surrounding them.
In Stage 3 of the Joseph Cycle, the Jews are given a rude awakening. Through a succession and change in power, new leaders arise who find Jewish entitlement irritating and who do not feel bound to the promises made by earlier leaders. These unsympathetic parvenus usually face pressure from the middling powers and commoners of the empire, who notice the special status that Jews have received and blame their ruling elites for having indulged Jews at the expense of “their own people.” At the highest levels, power players who may have disliked Jews for a long time no longer feel that they need to hide their disdain. In this reversal phase, all the favors that Jews received in the past now backfire and look like evidence that they have cabaled, manipulated, and tricked people in power to benefit themselves.
Some of the ugliest phases of history have taken place under Stage 3. Consider Agrippina, the empress whom historians have found memorialized on Palestinian coins. Though her husband, Emperor Claudius, was famous for expelling the Jews from Rome, Agrippina used her influence to punish Roman authorities who oppressed Jews in Judea. She favored the Jewish people in a time when their unrest in Palestine posed a serious problem for Rome.
According to most sources she killed Claudius so that her son Nero could become emperor. Nero would eventually kill his mother, but his second wife, Poppaea Sabina, shared Agrippina’s tendency to advocate for the Jews. According to Josephus’s records, Poppea sided with Jewish priests and convinced Nero not to tear down a sacred wall that Agrippa was trying to demolish.
Unfortunately, however, the Jews would eventually face a political situation with Agrippina, Poppaea, and Nero all dead by 68 AD. A general named Vespasian went to Judea to put down one of the many Jewish rebellions taking place. Lacking strong voices to counter Rome’s exasperation with the Jews, the Jewish people tried to resist Roman enforcement but saw 40,000 Jews killed at Jotapata. Vespasian became emperor, hailed as a war hero for having crushed the revolt, while his son Titus brought the final blows to Jerusalem, destroying the temple and causing the Diaspora.
Jewish people who are enjoying Stage 2 of the Joseph Cycle can find themselves in Stage 3 when they least expect it. In York, England, even today a tourist can visit Clifford’s Tower, where all the town’s Jews barricaded themselves to avoid an angry twelfth-century mob that wanted to kill them; a century later King Edward I would issue an edict expelling all Jews from England.
In Paris, France, visitors can go to the Marais, a historic Jewish neighborhood. There a museum preserved a fourteenth-century cemetery of Jews killed by a mob. In the 1300s, Jews were sometimes blamed for outbreaks of the bubonic plague or defamed as having killed small children. By 1394 King Charles IV ordered them all to leave France.
One hundred years after the French expulsion, the “Catholic Monarchs” Ferdinand and Isabel would issue the Alhambra Decree and order the Jews to vacate Spain if they did not want to convert to Christianity and become subject to the Inquisition. Many of her Spanish subjects objected to the number of Jews they perceived in powerful and prestigious positions. Many fled to neighboring Portugal, where King Manuel I expelled them four years later.
In 2016, the city of Venice commemorated the 500th anniversary of the confinement of Jews into the city’s ghetto, which would become the basis for Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and a symbol of anti-Jewish sentiment in Italy.
In so many of these shocking expulsions and attacks, Jewish communities seem to be taken by surprise. In testimonies Holocaust survivors remember being blindsided by a persecution that crystallized rapidly. Jewish communities had gone through a period where they had found not only survival but a degree of flourishing and had favorable dealings with people in power. As a result, they let their guard down and became comfortable, slowly losing sight of the dangerous resentments growing against them.
Societies that expel Jews get “payback” when their empires decline – as all the aforementioned ones did, eventually. Diasporic Jewish communities, which always includes many scholars, get to record their side of history from the metropolis of another empire that has welcomed them. Spain bore the brunt of a “leyenda negra” or “black legend” for centuries. Germany remains burdened with guilt over what the Nazis did to the Jews. Certainly for several decades Israel’s version of twentieth-century history predominated in world news while Arabs lacked access to news platforms and were relegated to two-dimensional stereotypes as punishment for their resistance to the creation of modern Israel. It has never been the case that the Jews were invisible and couldn’t let the record show that they were savagely mistreated by powerful peoples. They tend rather to have the last word.
But there is a problem with the term “antisemitism” as a descriptor of the Joseph Cycle. By creating a separate category called “antisemitism,” and then appearing to endow that type of prejudice with greater evil than any other form of racism, society ends up defining Jewish culture as exceptional. Exceptionalism is good for the Jews in Stage 2 of the Joseph Cycle, when a powerful empire admires the community’s intelligence and pluck and grants them all types of special privileges. But exceptionalism is the poison that tends to make Stage 3 of the Joseph Cycle so deadly. When popular opinion turns against the Jews, the most common complaint is that they “see themselves as better,” “set themselves apart,” “demand special treatment,” and “don’t follow the rules that everyone else has to follow.” I avoid using the term antisemitism because I don’t want to characterize anti-Jewish prejudice as exceptional. To say that prejudice against them is unique is to feed the complaints that people tend to bring against the Jews–namely, that they demand to be seen as different. I think there is a less inflammatory way to explain why the Joseph Cycle repeats itself so often, without normalizing anti-Jewish prejudice and also without making the implausible claim that everyone on earth is possessed by an irrational mental evil, antisemitism, except Jews themselves.
The simplest explanation is simply that Jews struggle to stay true to their faith and survive in a turbulent world full of empires that have much larger populations. The past history of being persecuted weighs heavily on new generations of Jews, who often go to elaborate lengths to make sure “it won’t happen again” by solidifying alliances with powerful people–the very Joseph-ish tactic that actually guarantees that it will happen again.
Jewish friends have often told me that the creation of modern Israel was supposed to end the tragic cycle of Jewish history by giving Jews their own state. Jewish people would not have to depend on favors from larger empires and could therefore avoid the backlash that continually follows periods of special favor. I can respect their interpretation of Zionism in this context but I think their interpretation is fundamentally wrong.
First of all, modern Israel has not made Jews safer. By giving them their own state, the European powers placed a huge target on Israelis’ back, since now this small community of fifteen million people, of whom only half live in Israel, must try to negotiate with groups that dwarf them demographically: over two billion Christians, over one and a half billion Muslims, a global south comprising almost seven billion people.
The creation of modern Israel relied upon the same exceptionalism and sideways diplomacy that doomed ancient Hebrews to the Joseph Cycle. Consider the blatant exceptionalism that characterizes Israel, which many people have fair reason to view as unfair favoritism. Modern Israel could not be formed without demanding all the special treatment of which Jews are constantly accused.
The Holocaust horrified the world, but World War II had a generally massive death toll and Jews were not the first group to experience genocide and severe persecution. It is simply not common practice for large empires to clear out occupants of a prime location to allow another group to move in and set up a homeland. Even the Balfour Declaration of 1917, if you read it carefully, included the stipulation to Lord Rothschild: “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.” This letter from Balfour articulates an expectation based on the British perception of universal standards, but Israel, once formed, ignored that and did things their way. The Palestinians’ rights were not respected at all.
England had to give Israel the holy land and along with it a license to expel 750,000 people who lived there already. Then the United States, claiming to represent freedom and the rule of law during the Cold War, had to prop Israel up in the inevitable aftermath. In the postwar and postcolonial era, countries that engage in such genocidal tactics are confronted, brought before war crimes tribunals, and held to account for the wrongs they committed. Israel should know that since a number of aging Nazis were tracked down and brought to justice by Israel decades after World War II ended.
Israel, however, has been given moral backing and ethical leeway that no other country has received. To this day, major figures such as Chuck Schumer and Ben Shapiro have free reign to regurgitate an utterly misleading history that makes it sound as though all the Palestinians’ suffering is the Arabs’ fault. On university campuses, in publications, and on media platforms, it is routine to hear Israel apologists go unchallenged for absurd or grossly immoral arguments from this Bingo Board:
I cannot think of any other country that is indulged in making such revolting statements about other human beings.
Why do Israel apologists call people Nazis for not wanting innocent Palestinian children to die (see I-1)?
Why do social media platforms enforce a policy that calls it “hate speech” when someone uses the word “genocide” to describe what has happened to Palestinians (see B-2)?
In what other context can a state claim that they are not based on racial exclusion or “apartheid” because they have 20% of their population that is non-Jewish, at the same time that they demand to have a “Jewish state” that can guarantee that percentage can’t go any higher (B-3)?
What other country can sponsor spokesmen and leaders who routinely describe another group of people as savages, filth, animals, and beasts, and not be called racist (N-3)?
Every time the argument appears that the Palestinians “turned down a peace deal” and therefore deserve to be bombed, why does nobody clarify that the “deal” amounted to Israel telling another group of people that they can agree not to ask for their land back in exchange for not being pulverized (G-3)?
I do not believe in theories that Jews control the world, the media, or the banks. At the same time, I cannot think of any other group that is given a pass on demonstrably atrocious war crimes and such sadistic rhetoric.
Perhaps the inevitable ending of the current tragedy is the same ending that has met the Jews since the days of Joseph. Israel had a good stint of exceptional treatment. The country was given countless special indulgences, enjoyed unique sympathies, and profited from countless exemptions. On the most basic level, the Jews got something that countless ethnic groups never got as a gift from powerful empires: they got a country to call their own. Puerto Ricans never got that. Kurds never got that. Over 300 indigenous nations of the Americas never got that. Hawaiians never got that. Tibetans never got that. Basques never got that. Scots don’t have that now. Sicilians don’t have that. Black Americans, in fact, have had to share a country with the descendants of people who enslaved their ancestors. The Jewish community received a precious gift, which shows that on some level God has favored them by moving history with His invisible hand.
But Israel’s exceptional origins did not lead to any kind of moral standards that the rest of the world can recognize. Modern Israel is engaging in indefensible abuses of other groups of people and justifying what they do with indefensible arguments.
For now, a ruling class in the United States and a handful of other countries is still keeping the Jewish community in Stage 2 of the Joseph Cycle. But I do not see how the world can avoid Stage 3. The street protests are mounting. More American Democrats now side with Palestinians than with the Israelis. Many western countries allied to Israel will face mounting outrage from their own voters and will inevitably have to cut ties. All polls indicate that the younger people are, the less they view the Jews through the lens of the German Holocaust and the more they view Israel as a criminal state.
The day is coming. The last Pharaoh that knew Joseph will eventually be gone, and it is frightening to imagine what will happen after that. Many evangelical Christians rally around Israel because they believe foolishly that we are in the end times so there is no Stage 3 to deal with because the world will be gone by the time Israel collapses. I don’t know which Jesus they follow. As for me and my family, to paraphrase Joshua, we serve the Jesus who said he will come as a thief in the night–and therefore anybody who tries to guess the hour or the day is a rebellious fool.
There are countless Jews who do not defend modern Israel. I believe sincerely that they will be okay, as long as they sustain their voice in the public discussion. Pro-Israel fanatics like Ben Shapiro, I fear, will not turn out okay in the end. The backlash that will eventually explode will get ugly. I don’t want to paint a vivid picture because history gives us enough examples to go by.
But I don’t think the ugly end of the current impasse will be remembered as the result of antisemitism. Like the many crises of past history, this is the unfortunate dilemma facing the Jewish people as they struggle to survive as a distinct ethnicity and religion despite having very small populations. Central to Jewish identity is the belief that they are chosen by God. Since I am not Jewish, I do not believe that the people in Israel today are the chosen people, particularly since I reject the notion that they are the equivalent of the tribes that King David ruled over. As a Christian, I believe in the Old Testament but I also believe that the covenant was opened up to anyone who accepts Christ, regardless of their ancestry. The choice to use the term antisemitism makes the dilemma worse, because the word draws attention to the cause of so much contention between Jewish communities and their neighbors–the idea that one group is chosen and therefore more valuable.
Assuming that the world does not end in our lifetimes, our children will live to see the outcome and will get to write the history of modern Israel. I regret having to say that from all appearances, it seems they will have to index this round as a chapter sounding awfully like twenty chapters that came before.
José Vargas Vasco can be contacted at [email protected] .
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