Va-Yeshev 5766/ December 24, 2005
the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
The Joseph Narrative – A New Theory
Prof. Emeritus Eleazar Touitou
Department of Bible
What happened in Jacob’s household to make the brothers hate their brother Joseph so bitterly? Why did they plan to kill him, and ultimately rid themselves of him for ever, or so they thought, by selling him into slavery? What terrible things had Joseph done to his brothers?
Indeed, Scripture tells us, “Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father” (Gen. 37:2), but the Torah says not a word about any harm coming to his brothers as a result of this tale-bearing. It does not say that Jacob reproved his sons, and in fact, by the plain sense of the text, we cannot establish whether the brothers even knew about this tale-bearing. Be that as it may, they never referred to any such matter. Perhaps the father’s preference for Joseph over the other brothers instigated their hatred, but was that sufficient to justify planning a murder?
Moreover, what did the brothers want of Joseph? They could have complained to their father and asked him not to be so preferential. The only thing Joseph did that could have hurt his brothers was the matter of his dreams; Joseph’s dreams hinted at his desire (initially subconscious) to rule over his brothers. It was to be expected that telling the dreams to his brothers would arouse their contempt, but again we ask whether that was enough to make them contemplate a murder?
The careful reader cannot settle for a superficial reading of these verses. Indeed, the Sages, and following them biblical exegetes throughout the generations, have attempted to uncover through hints in the text the complex of personal relations among the brothers which might at least explain, if not justify, the brothers’ behavior towards Joseph. In this study we shall follow the path laid by our French predecessors, Rashi and his grandson Rashbam.
The Torah introduces the Joseph narrative with the following verses (37:2-4):
This, then, is the
line of Jacob: At seventeen years
of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of
his father’s wives Bilhah and Zilpah.
And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.
Verse 2-3 provide an exposition of the story and must be read very closely. It says in verse 2 that Joseph “tended the flocks with his brothers.” Who were these “brothers”? Were they all of Jacob’s sons, or only some of them; and if only some, then which of them? “And Joseph brought bad reports of them” – of whom? Of all the brothers, or only of the sons of the concubines mentioned in the previous verse?
Most difficult of all is to understand the significance of the statement, “as a helper to the sons of … Bilhah, etc.,” since in the Hebrew there is no verb to connect the subject of the sentence, “a helper” (ve-hu na’ar), with the predicate, “the sons of Bilhah” (et bene bilha). In fact, we must also ask what is meant by the word na’ar in this context, rendered here as “helper,” but the phrase could also be rendered as “and he was a lad”. It could hardly denote his age, for it was already mentioned that Joseph was seventeen years old. So what does it denote?
Verse 3 is also problematic. Joseph is not truly the child of Jacob’s old age, for Benjamin was born after him; and the brothers, as well, viewed Benjamin as the child of his old age, as it is written further on (44:20): “We have an old father, and there is a child of his old age, the youngest.” And further, why did Jacob give bald expression to his preference, making Joseph an ornamented tunic? He surely could have surmised that this act would arouse the brothers’ jealousy?
Rashi holds that “his brothers” actually refers to the sons of Leah, and not of the concubines: “‘Bad reports’ – everything bad that he saw in his brothers, the sons of Leah.” Rashbam holds likewise, basing his ideas on accepted social practice: “‘Tended the flocks with his brothers’ – [these must be] the sons of Leah, since it was proper etiquette to call only them ‘his brothers’, and not the sons of the concubines.” Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Leah, whereas with the sons of the concubines he was a na’ar, as Rashbam explains: “His adolescent pastimes and excitement were with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.” Hence, “‘with his brothers’ – with his brothers he tended the flocks, but in the fun of his youth he was separate from them and accustomed to spending time with the sons of the concubines, not with them.”
Based on these commentaries, we can describe the social structure of Jacob’s household. The social stratification was clear: one on hand there were the sons of the principal wives, Leah and Rachel, and on the other there were the sons of the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. This stratification expressed itself both in work and leisure time. When the sons performed their duties in the shepherding that fell upon the extended family, the sons of the first class wives would separate themselves from the sons of the concubines. Here Joseph viewed himself as obliged to be with the brothers of his own class, the sons of Leah, but in his leisure time, when he had no obligations, he separated himself from the sons of Leah, preferring the company of the sons of the concubines.
A Cut Above the Others
Not only did Jacob, the head of the household, not prevent this class system, rather he even reinforced it, making an ornamented tunic for the first-born son of his beloved wife Rachel, thus showing outright that he viewed Joseph as his chosen son.  What is meant by the phrase, “for he was the child of his old age”? The plain sense, explained by Rashi – “that he was born to him in his old age” – is not a satisfactory explanation, for Benjamin, as we have already mentioned, was the child of his old age. A derash that is close to the simple meaning is also cited by Rashi: “All that he [Jacob] learned from Shem and Eber, he passed on to him.” Jacob nurtured a close spiritual relationship specifically with Joseph and not with the rest of his sons. It is hard to know, at this stage of the narrative, what Jacob had in mind in making this choice. In time, however, it will become clear, as we shall explain shortly.
How did Joseph feel in this situation? It is to be expected that he would be with Leah’s sons during “official” activities, i.e., at work; so what was meant by his distancing himself from them and keeping company with the concubines’ sons during his leisure time? How did Joseph actually express the fact of his being his father’s beloved son, his favorite? How did he explain to himself the special spiritual bond that his father cultivated with him and not with the other brothers?
A Man of the People
Throughout the narrative we see Joseph as a person with a clear proclivity for leadership. In the beginning this inclination is expressed rather childishly: “‘as a lad’ – meaning he did childish things: dressing his hair and touching up his eyes, so that he would be good-looking” (Rashi). In his leisure time Joseph withdrew from Leah’s sons, for they certainly did not accept him as their leader, and befriended the sons of the concubines. They were honored by his closeness to them and had no difficulty in seeing him as their leader, especially considering his care to impress them with his well-groomed external appearance. He also took pains to strengthen his position in his father’s eyes and to lower the standing of Leah’s sons by bringing bad reports about them to Jacob, as Rashbam explains: “‘And Joseph brought bad reports of them’ – saying to his father, look how they spurn the sons of the concubines, but I respect them and am accepted among them.” These deeds aroused the brothers’ hatred, “so that they could not speak a friendly word to him,” but Joseph was not the least bit troubled by this and did not refrain from telling them his dreams, time after time, dreams whose message evoked their outright anger.
Joseph’s haughty behavior, with the support given it by the head of the family, aroused the brother’s hatred and further encouraged it. Perhaps at the outset Joseph’s behavior was no more than a vague, unconscious expression of his desire to rule over the family. Be that as it may, the brothers were not willing to tolerate such a situation, and “hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” Telling them his first dream further fanned their fury, but that time they refrained from expressing their anger outright. A clear turning point came when Jacob responded to being told the dream about the sun, moon, and eleven stars. Jacob’s explanation of Joseph’s dream presents the latter as a threatening figure in the eyes of his brothers. Although it says that Jacob reproved Joseph, nevertheless the brothers apparently sensed that this reproof was not substantial, but that Jacob had “intended it to remove from his sons any jealousy of him” (Rashi), and they felt that “his father kept the matter in mind” (37:11), meaning that “he was waiting to see when it would come to pass” (Rashi).
Between Hate and Jealousy
The turning point becomes evident in the new way the brothers’ relationship towards Joseph is defined. Until now they were described as hating him (the verb s-n-a, to hate, appears three times, in verse 4, 5 and 8), and henceforth, after the second dream is explained, they are described as being jealous of him (verse 10). Thus there is some basis for their fear that Joseph will exert domination over them; their elderly father knows this, as well, and even expectantly awaits this, for, after all, he prefers Joseph over them all and proclaims this openly (witness the ornamented tunic); he chooses him.
What is the nature of this choice? It is well known that one of the central motifs of Genesis is strife between brothers over the status of first-born: Cain was jealous of his brother and killed him; Ishmael “laughed” and thought to himself to take the birthright and get rid of Isaac (see Genesis 21:9 and Rashi on this verse); Esau was Isaac’s first-born, but Jacob fought valiantly to obtain the birthright. Now Jacob sought to make certain that in his own household the birthright would go to Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, and not to Reuben, the first son born to Jacob and Leah. Did Jacob imagine the grave implications that these steps of his would have? Be that as it may, the brothers were terrified by their father’s desire to choose Joseph; they understood that choosing Joseph meant rejecting them (as had happened to Esau) and perhaps even expelling them from the land (as had happened to Ishmael), and they were prepared to do anything in order to foil the plan.
What about Joseph?
Of course he would benefit from the status that his father wished to
give him and acted to bring about its realization, both intentionally (by
befriending the sons of the concubines, and by bringing bad reports about his
brothers, Leah’s sons, to his father), and unintentionally, although in ways
that were consonant with his inner thoughts (dreams).
It is doubtful Joseph imagined the
practical significance of his actions.
The terrible consequences of his struggle for the birthright he would experience
when he arrived in
According to the continuation of the biblical narrative, Joseph is portrayed as a person who often wonders about the significance of various happenings. He did not take advantage of his meteoric rise to success in his Egyptian master’s house and in the court of the king of Egypt in order to assure himself a lofty station in the pagan society; rather, he remained true to his origins and remained a “Hebrew” (39:14) in all these settings. His unique behavior forced his masters to acknowledge that “the Lord was with him and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook” (39:3). On more than one occasion Joseph pondered the source of his success and knew that it was not by virtue of his own might and wisdom that he could elucidate dreams. He stressed to the cupbearer and baker of the king that G-d, not he, interprets dreams (see Gen. 40:8), and in response to Pharaoh saying to him, “Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning” (41:15), he carefully stressed to the king of Egypt, “Not I! G-d will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (41:16). He saw the workings of divine providence in all that befell him, and therefore “the name of Heaven was on his lips” (Rashi on 39:3).
In view of this we may surmise that gradually Joseph developed the sense that he was destined to play an historic role – preventing a rift in Jacob’s household, releasing Jacob’s house from the fate that had plagued Abraham and Isaac’s houses. Joseph arrived at the conclusion that his father’s special love for him and the dreams which he had had in his youth had a prophetic element in them, and that he was obliged to behave in accordance with the interpretation of the prophetic messages given him. Meanwhile he had to wait and see how things would develop.
Why No Mail?
This theory provides a fine explanation for Joseph’s long
silence while in Egypt, for “one wonders how it was that Joseph, who was in
Egypt a long time and became an officer and governor in the house of a minister
and was a great man in Egypt, did not send even one letter to his father to let
him know [he was alive] and to console him?” (Nahmanides 42:9).
Indeed, had Joseph made himself known to
his father prematurely, that would have ripped apart the family.
He knew that when the years of famine
came, his brothers would come to
Apparently the brothers also reconciled themselves to the idea that Rachel and
her sons had higher status in Jacob’s eyes, as follows from
 According to Rashbam, it was the Midianites, not the brothers, who took Joseph out of the pit and sold him to the Ishmaelites. This is not the place to go into further discussion of this interesting question.