Shaya Cohen -


Know Your Audience!

It is axiomatic that the message needs to be tailored for the audience. Preaching to the choir is not the same as preaching to the great unwashed masses: they deserve different messages, not only because of what they should be told, but also because of what they are able to hear.

Such an approach is widely derided as “spin,” but the derision is misplaced. No message has any value unless the audience is prepared to hear it. So if we have to strategically massage our line of argument and choice of words, then we are not lying. We are just being sensible. But when someone does not consider how the audience will receive his words, then we can be sure that the true audience is either someone else entirely (usually someone in the echo chamber), or the speaker is an idiot.

When Hamlet famously pretends to be mad (Act 3, Scene 1), the entire scene rests on one question: does Hamlet know that Claudius and Polonius are eavesdropping? If Hamlet does not think he is being overheard, then the scene is entirely different, even though the words are the same.

We were challenged this week by considering why Joseph, as Grand Vizier of Egypt, accuses his brothers of being spies. On the face of it, this is an odd accusation. After all, Joseph knows it is not true. The brothers also know it is not true. They can deny the accusation without hesitation, because whatever their other faults, they were not spies.

But of course, spies would have done precisely the same thing: deny the accusation. No real spy would admit being one, so the denial has no meaning.

The answer is found by understanding who is eavesdropping behind the curtain!

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 cries were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace. (Gen 45:1-2)

Pharaoh had informants among Joseph’s staff! Which makes perfectly good sense. There is no reason why the Number One guy would give a Number Two guy vast powers without having some staff whose job it is to keep the Big Boss informed as to anything … odd going on.

So Joseph’s accusation of his brothers being spies was not because either the brothers or Joseph would take it seriously. The condemnation of foreign spies was simply a recognition by Joseph that there was another audience who was paying very close attention: the men who were informing for Pharaoh. By making the accusation, Joseph had the perfect cover story for why he was spending so much time and energy dealing with these ten men out of the millions who were buying grain: these men, who might be spies, represented a potential national security threat, and so handling them could not be delegated. It explained why the great man was spending time interrogating, negotiating with, and then wining and dining these ten foreign men.

This also explains why Joseph could instruct his staff to engage in all manner of strange behavior with the brothers – seemingly-random arrests, engaging in favoritism, sending them out with their money, planting evidence… it all added up, to an Egyptian serving on Joseph’s staff, to the Master engaging in the counter-espionage subterfuge necessary to foil the evil plots of foreign operatives operating on Egyptian soil.

Joseph knew his audience. He knew Pharaoh had people listening in, noticing everything Joseph did. And so the dance with his brothers had the added complexity of managing another audience entirely!

[another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!