Scene: Heliopolis, 1886 BCE. About 3 o’clock in the morning, in the small study of
Joseph, Vice-Pharaoh to Sesostris III, Minister of Farms, Provisions, and Agriculture, Chief Adviser Plenipotentiary to His Majesty, Pharaoh Sesostris III, most important king of the 12th Dynasty, Intermediate Period of the Middle Kingdom. This is not Joseph’s main office, where he receives the Pharaoh, his advisers, royal courtiers and lickspittles, or foreign ambassadors. It is where he gets his own, most important work, done, and also where he can do his most important thinking, his Inner Sanctum. As a Hebrew, a non-native Egyptian, he is all-too-sensitive to the Native Egyptian suspicion and fear of foreigners, their legendary xenophobia, knowing that in the Egyptian language, the word for “stranger” also implies “barbarian.”
Canaanites are bearded, swarthy savages swathed in stinking woolen robes, as opposed to the clean-shaven, bald-domed, bare-chested Nile-dwellers, who jealously guard their borders against foreign interlopers. Joseph’s enemies are both within and without Pharaoh’s court, and he knows that his every move, both personal and political, is carefully scrutinized by those who would love to see his downfall and return to prison, or, perhaps, execution by impalement, decapitation, or “accidental” poisoning.
The energetic, quick-witted, 34-year-old Hebrew covers up his nervousness by staying one step ahead of his enemies, and working round-the-clock to make the Crown’s interests, his personal interests. As we see him, he has been finishing up some grain orders for Nubia and Sudan. His desk is awash in papyrus scrolls, which he is somehow able to wade through with ease, searching with knowing hands and eyes until he is able to pick out the one he wants. He pauses only to sip at a cup of herbal tea—plain, no honey. He pauses to thoughtfully tap a thin reed pen against his teeth before dipping it into special vegetable-based ink, and filling out the invoice. It is dull work, but Joseph’s particular skill is in the details. He blinks, rubs his eyes, yawns, and stretches. Slowly rising, he watches the moon hanging over the desert.
Joseph: God of my Father Israel, how tired I am! This herbal tea does little to keep a man awake. My dear priest friend, Merenre, has informed me of a special herb which he and his colleagues use on festival occasions when the Great god Horus requires them to stay up all night in meditation; he tells me that it is called “khat.” I wonder whether he could procure some for me—no matter; tomorrow, His Imperial Majesty has given me three hours’ leave to come in later…. I will take full advantage of his mercy. Ra save our Pharaoh!
(He salutes by placing his right hand across his chest and touching his heart, a matter of habit, but also to placate any lurking spies. One cannot be too careful.)
(Enter Joseph’s Wife, Asenat, Daughter of Poti-Phera, Priest of On, NOT Potiphar, as many Jewish Commentaries would have it. She is a glamorous, dignified-looking woman in her late twenties, with polished nails and designer hair, wearing a cotton robe and high-heeled slippers. She trails a sweet scent of powder.)
Asenat (hesitantly): My husband—?
Joseph: Oh! Good evening, my dear.
Asenat: Will you be coming to bed, anytime soon? I cannot really sleep without you. And the rooster crowed just now, at the break of dawn. You won’t be worth a copper coin this morning. Won’t you have to appear in just a few hours, to give The Weekly Economic Report to His Majesty?
Joseph: Thank’ee for taking such trouble about my affairs, My Love, but the Report is not due until day after tomorrow. As for my sleep, the Pharaoh, Horus save him! Has given me a few extra hours’ rest before his Morning Reception of Royal Courtiers & Officers. (whispering) I really shouldn’t be saying this, but, you know—the Old Boy delayed the regular weekly meeting, because he knew I would be working on the Nubian & Sudanese Report all night—it’s very complicated—and he took special interest in my work; wheat shipments now account for a full 40% of Egyptian Gross National Exports! So he delayed the meeting. That’s certainly a feather in my cap.
Asenat: Oh, Darling, how wonderful! Does this mean that I will be able to have the kitchen redone? And we will be able to send little Ephy and Menashy to that special boarding school in Cairo? And that long tulle gown, that I’ve been wanting for so long! Can I buy it, Dear? Oh, what fun it will be—my best friend Montes will be so jealous!
Joseph: Well—yes. Yes, I suppose so, now that I am to get that promotion to Plenipotentiary Extraordinaire. Do you know, Natty—
Asenat (sternly, not joking): Please, Darling—I’ve asked you never to call me that.
Joseph (deflated) : Oh. Yes. Well. Sorry. But, yes, I suppose that money’ll be coming in. And, Asenat, something I wanted to tell you, for a long time—I—
Asenat: Just a second, Darling—I must go find that sample of cloth, that tulle, to show Montes, tomorrow! (She skips out)
Joseph (looking after): I just wanted—just wanted—to say, that I’m sorry that I’ve been so busy, and that I love you, and am sorry that we can’t—we can’t—we can’t (he stutters when he is nervous, or upset, an old habit from childhood)—c-c-c-can’t sp-sp-spend more t-t-t-time togeth-th-th-er….. (He gives up, and falls into his chair, exhausted, closing his eyes, and whispering to himself) I really, really must get ahold of some of that khat, to keep awake, and finish my work—or, at least, a small cup of barley beer, or something stronger. Some mead. (He slowly begins to open and shut the drawers of his desk, rifling through his papers in a futile, frustrated hunt for the small liquor bottle he put there, a few weeks ago) Some—mead. Mead. (His voice rises, as he cannot find it) Mead. Mead! MEAD!
(The door opens again, and Intefa, a young serving maid, barely twenty, with long dark hair and enormous brown eyes, enters, carrying a small tray with a clay mug of beer. Joseph sees her, and relaxes.)
Intefa: I thought, Master, that, given the lateness of the hour, you might wish for a respite from your day’s hard work. Are you about finished? I saw Mistress leaving; she looked very happy.
Joseph: Yes; I told her that—Now, this must be our secret, Intefa….
Intefa (smiling, putting down the tray, and handing the beer to Joseph; he accepts it, gratefully): I have kept all of our secrets, Master….
Joseph: So this is another one—that His Majesty is pleased with my work, and that I stand to gain a large promotion.
Intefa (clapping her hands softly): How wonderful for my Master! You are the smartest man in the world.
Joseph: Stop, you silly girl; how could you know all the men in the world?
Intefa (slyly): It is enough that I know the smartest, Grand Vizier Joseph. I know what I know.
Joseph: Ah, Intefa, you are my rock, and my cool fountain in a desert of suspicion and intrigue.
Intefa: (gliding onto a low stool opposite Joseph, only next to him) I will sit here, opposite you, Master, and you shall hold my hand—my hand, only! No one else will enter; I have locked the door. We will play a little game of my own devising. You may consider me a grain-customer, ready to buy whatever wheat you have to sell. Tell me what is in your heart.
Joseph: Is that the way it will be, Little Intefa? Very well: I will speak. I am soon to send for my brothers, to move from famine-stricken Canaan to our lush, green, rich Egypt.
Intefa (squeezing his hand, touching his cheek): You are worried, Master. Will the Pharaoh allow it?
Joseph: This Pharaoh will. But my God—my Father Israel’s God—will not show me clear prophecy, of what will happen to them in the future. I cannot see clearly! (He points toward the window; she looks puzzled)
Intefa (quietly, but fiercely): Show yourself clearly to me, Master Joseph. Show your love to me.
Joseph: Don’t you see, foolish little girl? I am a God-fearing Hebrew living in your pagan Egypt. I cannot openly give my love to anyone (beginning to cry). No man or woman will ever look upon my love; I will never be able to give it. Only for You, My God; only for You….
Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.