Parshat Mikketz: Talking to Non-Jews About God
The story of Joseph is one of those rare narratives in the Tanach in which a Jew comes to play a prominent part in a gentile society (the others are, most notably, the books of Esther and Daniel). In this column, I want to explore one facet of that scenario: How does a Jew speak to a non-Jew about God?
What is particular and what is universal in religious life? In its approach to this question, Judaism is unique. On the one hand, the God of Abraham is, we believe, the God of everyone. We are all — Jew and non-Jew alike — made in God’s image and likeness. On the other, the religion of Abraham is not the religion of everyone. It was born in the specific covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants. We say of God in our prayers that He “chose us from all the peoples.”
How does this work out in practice? When Joseph, son of Jacob, meets Pharaoh, King of Egypt, what concepts do they share, and what remains untranslatable?
The Torah answers this question deftly and subtly. When Joseph is brought from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams, both men refer to God, always using the word Elokim. The word appears seven times in the scene, a significant number in the Bible. The first five are spoken by Joseph: “God will give Pharaoh the answer He desires … God has revealed to Pharaoh what He is about to do … God has shown Pharaoh what He is about to do … The matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon.” (Gen. 41:16-32).
The last two are uttered by Pharaoh himself, after Joseph has interpreted the dreams, stated the problem (seven years of famine), provided the solution (store up grain in the years of plenty), and advised him to appoint a “wise and discerning man” (Gen. 41:33) to oversee the project:
The plan seemed good to Pharaoh and all his officials. So Pharaoh asked them, “Can we find anyone like this man, in whom is the spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has made all this known to you, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. You shall be in charge of my palace.” (Gen. 41:37–39)
This is surprising. The Egypt of the pharaohs was not a monotheistic culture. It was a place of many gods and goddesses — the sun, the Nile, and so on. To be sure, there was a brief period under Ikhnaton (Amenhotep IV), when the official religion was reformed in the direction of monolatry. But this was short-lived, and certainly did not exist at the time of Joseph. The entire Biblical portrayal of Egypt is predicated on their belief in many gods, against whom God “executed judgement” at the time of the plagues. Why then does Joseph take it for granted that Pharaoh will understand his reference to God — an assumption proved correct when Pharaoh twice uses the word himself? What is the significance of the word Elokim?
The Hebrew Bible has two primary ways of referring to God — the four-letter name we allude to as Hashem (“the name” par excellence), and the word Elokim. The sages understood the difference in terms of the distinction between God-as-justice (Elokim) and God-as-mercy (Hashem). However, Judah HaLevi proposed a quite different distinction, based not on ethical attributes but on modes of relationship — a view revived in the 20th century by Martin Buber in his distinction between I-It and I-Thou.
HaLevi’s view was this: the ancients worshiped forces of nature, which they personified as gods. Each was known as El, or Eloah. The word “El” therefore generically means “a force, a power of nature.” The fundamental difference between those cultures and Judaism was that Judaism believed the forces of nature were not independent and autonomous. They represented a single totality, one creative will, the Author of being. The Torah therefore speaks of Elokim in the plural, meaning, “The sum of all forces, the totality of all powers.” In today’s language, we might say that Elokim is God as He is disclosed by science: the Big Bang, the various forces that give the universe its configuration, and the genetic code that shapes life from the simplest bacterium to Homo sapiens.
Hashem is a word of different kind. It is, according to HaLevi, God’s proper name. Just as “the first patriarch” (a generic description) was called Abraham (a name), and “the leader who led the Israelites out of Egypt” (another description) was called Moses, so “the Author of being” (Elokim) has a proper name: Hashem.
The difference between proper names and generic descriptions is fundamental. Things have descriptions, but only people have proper names. When we call someone by name, we are engaged in a fundamental existential encounter. We are relating to them in their uniqueness and ours. We are opening ourselves up to them and inviting them to open themselves to us. We are, in Kant’s famous distinction, regarding them as ends, not means, as centers of value in themselves, not potential tools for the satisfaction of our desires.
The word Hashem represents a revolution in the religious life of humankind. It means that we relate to the totality of being. Elokim is God as we encounter Him in nature. Hashem is God as we encounter Him in personal relationships. Elokim is God as He is found in creation. Hashem is God as He is disclosed in revelation.
Hence the tension in Judaism between the universal and the particular. God as we encounter Him in creation is universal. God as we hear Him in revelation is particular. This is mirrored in the way the Genesis story develops. It begins with characters and events whose significance is that they are universal archetypes: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood, the builders of Babel. Their stories are about the human condition as such: obedience and rebellion, faith and fratricide, hubris and nemesis, technology and violence, the order God makes and the chaos we create. Not until the 12th chapter of Genesis does the Torah turn to the particular, to one family, that of Abraham and Sarah, and the covenant that God enters into with them and their descendants.
This duality is why Genesis speaks of two covenants, the first with Noah and all humanity after the flood, and the second with Abraham and his descendants — later given more detailed shape at Mount Sinai in the days of Moses. The Noahide covenant is universal, with its seven basic moral commands. These are the minimal requirements of humanity as such, the foundations of any decent society. The other is the richly detailed code of 613 commandments that form Israel’s unique constitution as “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6).
So there are the universals of Judaism — creation, humanity as God’s image, and the covenant with Noah. There are also its particularities — revelation, Israel as God’s “firstborn child,” and the covenants with Abraham and the Jewish people at Sinai. The first represents the face of God accessible to all humankind; the second, that special, intimate, and personal relationship He has with the people He holds close, as disclosed in the Torah (revelation) and Jewish history (redemption). The word for the first is Elokim, and for the second Hashem. That is why Joseph is able to assume that Egyptians will understand the idea of Elokim, even though they are wholly unfamiliar with the idea of Hashem.
Judaism was and remains unique in its combination of universalism and particularism. We believe that God is the God of all humanity. He created all. He is accessible to all. He cares for all. He has made a covenant with all.
Yet there is also a relationship with God that is unique to the Jewish people. We alone have placed our national life under His direct sovereignty. And we alone have risked our very existence on a Divine covenant. Today, as we search for a way to avoid a “clash of civilizations,” humanity can learn much from this ancient and still compelling way of understanding the human condition. We are all “the image and likeness” of God. There are universal principles of human dignity. They are expressed in the Noahide covenant, in human wisdom (ĥokhma), and in that aspect of the One God we call Elokim. There is a global covenant of human solidarity.
But each civilization is also unique. We do not presume to judge them, except insofar as they succeed or fail in honoring the basic, universal principles of human dignity and justice. We as Jews rest secure in our relationship with God, the God who has revealed Himself to us in the intimacy and particularity of love, whom we call Hashem.
To be a Jew is to be true to our faith while being a blessing to others regardless of their faith. That is a formula for peace and graciousness in an age badly in need of both.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks is the former chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth. He currently serves as the Ingeborg and Ira Rennert Global Distinguished Professor at New York University.