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Then Joseph could not restrain himself before all those who stood by him; and he cried, "Cause every man to go out from me!" And there stood no man with him while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren. And he wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard. And Joseph said unto his brethren, "I am Joseph. Doth my father yet live?" And his brethren could not answer him, for they were troubled at his presence (Genesis 45:1 - 3 KJV)

Nahmanides phrases the question eloquently:

"How is it that Joseph, after living many years in Egypt, having attained a high and influential position in the house of an important Egyptian official, did not send his father even one message to inform him (that he was alive) and comfort him? Egypt is only six days' travel from Hebron, and respect for his father would have justified even a year's journey! (Commenting on Gen. 42:9)?"

So...why didn't Joseph ever try to contact his father?

EDIT:

Some of my own thoughts on this question, to offer a concrete direction for inquiry.

In Genesis 13, Abraham separates from his nephew Lot. At that moment, Lot is excluded from the covenantal relationship that God forges with Abraham and his offspring. In Genesis 25, Abraham rejects the children of his concubines, including Ishmael, and excludes them from the covenantal relationship which he bequeaths to Isaac. Genesis 27 - Isaac's son Esau is excluded from the covenant in a dramatic tale which includes Jacob stealing a blessing from his blind father. Jacob's earlier stealing of the birthright in chapter 25 suggests that the siblings understood they were in competition - one of the two might not be included in the Abrahamic covenant. This familial tension may be useful in trying to understand the hatred that Joseph's brothers harbored toward Joseph and their desire to kill him:

Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colors. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him and could not speak peaceably unto him. And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brethren; and they hated him yet the more (Genesis 37:3-5 KJV).

How does the lack of communication between Joseph in Egypt and his father play into this larger family dynamic? How does the unfolding of the Joseph story play with and twist assumptions held by Joseph, his brothers and the reader as the story progresses?

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Is there any way to answer this question apart from speculation? –  Bruce Alderman Dec 16 '11 at 15:04
    
@BruceAlderman, I think so: vbm-torah.org/parsha/10miketz.htm (but this only offers a partial answer). Thematically, I think this issue is very deep. –  Amichai Dec 16 '11 at 15:13
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Questions of whether this is on-topic should be directed to the meta question. –  Richard Dec 16 '11 at 17:02
    
Added some more content. Please let me know this hurts or helps the question. –  Amichai Dec 16 '11 at 19:03
    
Related: judaism.stackexchange.com/q/4574/472 –  Gone Quiet Dec 18 '11 at 3:31
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4 Answers

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Genesis, in many ways, is the story of the Abrahamic Covenant being fulfilled:

The Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.”—Genesis 12:1-3 (NJPS)

The drama from the individual stories arises mostly from the conflict between this promise and a variety of threats to its fulfillment. Central to the movement of the story from one generation to the next is the question of which member of Abraham's family will be the inheritor of this covenant. We see several stories of close calls when some more powerful man threatens to father children with the wives of a patriarch. In fact, the first occurs immediately following the establishment of the covenant in Genesis 12:10-20 when Abraham and Sarai go down to Egypt because of a famine and pharaoh nearly takes her as a wife.

Meanwhile, each Patriarch has his own set of problems producing a legitimate heir. Abraham produces Ishmael and Issac, but only Issac is chosen. Issac produces Esau and Jacob, but only Jacob is chosen. Jacob intensifies the problem by producing 12 sons. Normally, the inheritance would pass to the oldest, but Jacob has no loyalty to that law and has clearly signaled his favor to Joseph. What's more, Joseph receives two dreams that indicate God favors him too. The second involved not only Joseph's brothers, but his parents as well:

He dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers, saying, “Look, I have had another dream: And this time, the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.” And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind.—Genesis 37:9-11 (NJPS)

Now we know the bigger story of jealousy, revenge and despair, but from Joseph's perspective, it must have been bewildering. Might not his father have changed his mind about giving his property and rights to an arrogant teenager who can't keep from boasting? Perhaps God intended to put Joseph through the trial his grandfather endured—being placed on the altar of blood sacrifice only to be rescued by an angel at the last moment? Whatever else might be true, Joseph had to assume the blessing and promise would pass to one of his brothers rather than to him.

For the next 13 or so years, Joseph was not able to move where he pleased but was held as a slave and a prisoner. But the situation changed after he was able to interpret Pharaoh's dreams:

Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I am Pharaoh; yet without you, no one shall lift up hand or foot in all the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh then gave Joseph the name Zaphenath-paneah; and he gave him for a wife Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On. Thus Joseph emerged in charge of the land of Egypt.—Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt.—Leaving Pharaoh’s presence, Joseph traveled through all the land of Egypt.—Genesis 41:44-46 (NJPS)

Two point in relation to the question:

  1. Joseph had considerable freedom within the land of Egypt, but he seems to have exchanged his Hebrew identity with an Egyptian one. He was given and Egyptian name, family, and position. Contacting his father at this point, might have raised questions about his loyalty. More so, since his new position would have required him to be exceptionally busy.

  2. Joseph could not know anything of the drama back home. As far as he was concerned, his father might have disowned him or established one of the other brothers as favorite. Maybe the sons killed their father too? Perhaps God fulfilled the dreams when Joseph became vizier of the land.

At any rate, when his brothers show up, Joseph has lived in Egypt more than half his life and while he recognizes them, they don't know him. He has become an Egyptian. (Even his burial would be an Egyptian one.) The tension in chapters 42-44 turns on Joseph not knowing if he can trust his brothers. Joseph seems especially concerned about his mother's son, Benjamin. The tension is released in one of the climaxes of the Bible:

Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone withdraw from me!” So there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still well?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dumfounded were they on account of him.

Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they came forward, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt.—Genesis 45:1-8 (NJPS)

Similarly, after Jacob died:

His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result—the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.—Genesis 50:18-21 (NJPS)

While there's an issue of Joseph recalling the story in light of his current status (and an even bigger issue of Moses reinterpreting the story as well), we can see that Joseph saw the time apart from his family and homeland as a provision from God. Better than anyone, Joseph can see how the fate of God's promise to Abraham was achieved by God's grace and not by Joseph's efforts. In turn, Joseph can be gracious to his brothers who tried to destroy him.

Summary

Joseph could not know his status with Jacob and the other 11 brothers when he finally was given the freedom to contact his birth family. Simultaneously, he received an Egyptian identity. Reading between the lines, he neither expected nor desired to see them again. But when he discovered the Lord had used him to fulfill the covenant with his great-grandfather, Joseph was able to see the bigger picture and forgive his bothers.

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Some thoughts:

  • Joseph was 17 when he was sold into Egypt (or perhaps a few years older at most)
  • He was 30 when he left prison and entered Pharoah's service
  • Therefore many years had passed before Joseph would have had opportunity to seek his family
  • Jacob was already old when Joseph was born (indeed Joseph seems to be surprised his father is still alive when he finds out)
  • Joseph was human and sinful (though much changed since his selfish boastful proud youth)—it is a good principle to see God as the hero of each story rather than the human 'heroes'. For example you'd have to contort the Bible horribly to make Jacob look good
  • Although Joseph longed for his fathers house up until his promotion in Egypt, his new life and family eased that longing
  • The next 9 years were probably incredibly busy—as father and as 'prime minister', and in a time of intense preparation for the famine
  • It would be a very human thing if his love for his father and home, anyway tempered by his horror at his treatment by his brothers, lay dormant for those years until he came face to face with his brothers again
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and all this reminds me that I need to visit my Dad even though I think I am too busy –  Jack Douglas Dec 17 '11 at 13:45
    
+1. Excellent observations all around. –  Jon Ericson Dec 19 '11 at 12:16
    
One more observation: As wandering bedouins, actually tracking down where the family was currently grazing their sheep may have been much easier said than done. –  Affable Geek Mar 11 at 19:52
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For one thing, Joseph had been in Egypt for a long time, find himself in many different scenarios before finding himself in the one where he was very powerful (servant in Potiphar's house, in prison, etc.).

Plus, he was "dead" to his family. His brothers sold him into slavery. So perhaps...

A) He was angry and frustrated at his family, and in his heart chose to forget or block them from his mind to avoid dealing with feelings that he had about what they had done to him. And although his father didn't do these things to him, perhaps if he did have such feelings toward his brothers, he may have blocked out thinking of his father as well since feelings for his dad could be so closely tied to feelings about his brothers.

B) The whirlwind experiences of all of his Egyptian life up until he gaining great power and influence had removed any such hope of ever contacting his family again, and it simply wasn't in his mind when he did have power.

C) Joseph was obviously a faithful man. We see that his experiences proved him to be a faithful servant, thus why he got promoted by Pharaoh to oversee so much of the kingdom of Egypt. Perhaps his integrity and character as a faithful servant prevented him from acting on the urge to use his power and influence for any type of self-serving purposes - included such a noble one as contacting his own father.

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  1. He was already a teller of dreams. Joseph in his young age had a dream that his brothers and his father Jacob bow would before him. For this reason also Joseph waited for his God to fulfill his dreams.

  2. This also shows the patience of Joseph both in good times and in bad.

  3. It was also God's will.

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I tried to fix up the various grammar and formatting problems in this answer. If I lost any of your meaning, please re-edit the question and then write a comment including @Jon so that I can review it. However, we are looking for more complete answers with reasons backing up any assertions. So this might be better as a comment. –  Jon Ericson May 21 '12 at 16:34
    
What do you mean by #3? (Thanks @JonEricson, looks much better.) –  Kazark May 21 '12 at 20:02
    
It is likely that if Jopspeh had shown up in Hebron that the brothers never would have submitted to him except by force. Hebron was not under his jurisdiction. And if a famine came, knowing that he ruled Egypt, may have rather starved than fulfill the prophecy. God humbled them, while Joseph, like David after him, foreshadowed Jesus, "not consider[ing] godhood something to be grasped" and waited for God to establish him. –  Bob Jones Jun 1 '12 at 20:30
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