When the ten brothers return to Canaan from Egypt they drop a bombshell. For Jacob who had long thought that Joseph was dead, ravaged by a wild animal, the news was shocking: “Joseph is yet alive and he rules over the Land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:26). Jacob was incredulous. The Torah reports that: “his heart sank because he did not believe them” (ibid.). But what did Jacob refuse to believe? The brothers stated two facts. First, Joseph is still alive. Second, Joseph rules over the land of Egypt. Did Jacob refuse to accept the report that Joseph was still alive or that he was Egypt’s ruler or both? Any of these three are possible, until reading what follows.
According to the Midrash (Genesis Rabbah 94) Jacob had been studying with Joseph before Joseph was sent on his fateful errand and his brothers sold him to caravansaries to take to Egypt as a slave. The topic of their study was the law of the heifer (eglah, in Hebrew) that had its neck broken (cf. Deuteronomy 21:6). (The Midrsah assumes that Jacob was aware of the content of the Torah even before it was given.) Thus, when Jacob saw the wagons (agalot, in Hebrew, and similar to eglot, the plural for heifers) he took it as confirmation that Joseph was alive and remembered what they had studied.
The sight of the wagons revived Jacob’s spirits (Genesis 45:27) resulting in his declaration that Joseph is indeed alive (v. 28). To the second fact, namely, the fact that Joseph rules over Egypt, Jacob gives no comment. Readers can surmise that is because in Jacob’s mind this was no surprise. Jacob had expected great things from this son. His high hopes for Joseph probably contributed to making him the special coat that signaled his pre-eminence. Jacob had long ago concluded that with his character and abilities Joseph was destined to succeed. The fact that he ruled over Egypt was simply a manifestation of what was anticipated.
Parents seem to have an intuitive sense of how their children will turn out. A child’s early development provides clues that a perceptive parent will interpret as a projection of the child’s later adult life. This is not to say that a child’s conduct is inalterably determined by his or her earliest years. Children do learn and people can and do change. But there are some features of a person’s character that emerge in childhood and seem to remain throughout life. Jacob saw something in Joseph that made him realize that Joseph could rise to the highest level of achievement. And he was right.