Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

The Office of the Campus Rabbi

Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit

No. 110

Parshat "Vayeshev"

Yael Shemesh

Department of Bible

Joseph's Story: A Divine Plan and a Human Drama


"Vayeshev" signals the initial unfolding of the divine plan that was communicated to Abraham: "Know that your children and your children's children will be strangers in a land not theirs and .they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years . . . . (Genesis 15:13-15). The selling of Joseph into bondage in Egypt symbolizes the fate awaiting the entire Jewish people and thus pushes forward the action of the narrative. Joseph's descent into slavery is thus a catalyst for the implementation of God's decree.

However, this divine decree serves only as the backdrop to the story and does not burst out into center stage. Throughout Joseph's story, no mention is made of the fact that all of the events occurring in that story emanate from God's will and decision. (In contrast, see, for example, the clarifying comment on II Samuel xvii:14: "God ordered that the good advice of Ahitofel be contravened so that God .might bring ruin upon Absalom".) [1] The events in Joseph's story are depicted as essential elements in a human drama - for example, the difficult interpersonal relationships in Jacob's home: the powerful emotional mix of love, jealousy, hatred and pride. The Bible does not conceal from us the human weaknesses of its heroes and heroines, and thus it serves as a neverending source of moral teachings for all generations.

Love as a disruptive factor

There are two roots to the family tragedy that transpires in this story: first, Jacob's excessive love for Joseph and his favoritism towards Joseph in contrast with his other sons ("Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved any of his other sons", Gen. 37:3). Jacob makes the mistake of giving external and public expression to his feelings ("he made him a multi-colored robe", ibid.), thereby arousing the jealousy of the other sons.

Jacob's special treatment of Joseph apparently stems from the fact that Joseph is the firstborn of Jacob's late, beloved wife Rachel. [2] The physical resemblance between mother and son, a fact that is emphasized in the Biblical text through the use of identical terms of description ("Rachel was shapely and handsome," Gen. xxix:17; "Joseph was shapely and handsome, " Gen. xxxix:6), serves to deepen Jacob's love for Joseph. Just as he preferred Rachel to her sister Leah, Jacob prefers Joseph to his other sons, thereby causing jealousy among the brothers. According to Rabbi Eliezer Ben Azaria, there is an important lesson to be learned from this story: "We must never favor one child over all the others. When Jacob made a multi-colored robe for Joseph, the result was that Joseph's brother hated him" (Genesis Rabba, ch. 84, section 8).

Jealousy burns with the intensity of the flames of hell

The way Joseph's brothers treat him can teach us how much pain jealousy can cause. The moment they have the opportunity to pay him back for their father's favoritism, they strip him of the multi-colored robe that had set him apart from them and which had been glaring proof of his favored position among Jacob's sons. They throw him into a pit, remaining totally indifferent to his tears and pleas for mercy (please see Gen. xlii:21), and, after ridding themselves of Joseph, they sit down complacently to break bread together (Gen. xxxvii:23-25).

The text presents us with this last detail, so that we can learn the extent of their crudeness and heartlessness in carrying out such a horrible deed. Another example of such behavior is provided by Jehu, who calmly partakes of his meal, after the eunuchs obey his command and throw Queen Jezebel out the palace window to the ground below (II Kings ix:30-34). A third example is provided by King Ahasuerus, who sits down to drink with Haman, after the two have agreed to kill every single Jew in the kingdom (Esther iii:15) In sharp contrast, Darius fasts after having been forced to cast Daniel into the lions' den (Daniel vi:19; cf. Sforno's commentary on Gen. xxxvii:25).

Apparently, Judah's suggestion that Joseph be sold into slavery (Gen. xxxvii:27) meets with his brothers' enthusiastic response not only because they wanted to find an effective way of ridding themselves of his presence, but also because they wanted their boastful brother to be humiliated. As Seforno explains, "When Judah says, 'Let us sell him to the Ishmaelites', he is actually telling them, 'Let us pay him back, measure for measure, and let him be a slave; that will be the perfect reward for someone who thought to be our master.'"

Even in their behavior towards their father, the brothers display a strong desire for revenge, and they satisfy this desire in the following manner: whereas the multi-colored robe was a symbol of Jacob's preferential treatment of Joseph, this same robe now serves the brothers as false evidence of Joseph's death.

The brothers seriously miscalculated when they thought the removal of Joseph from the family would end their feelings of jealousy. Jacob continues to express his strong love for Joseph by bitterly mourning his death and by refusing to receive the comfort of any of his sons or daughters. Jacob's permanent state of bereavement undoubtedly cuts deep into the hearts of the brothers: not only do they know that they are responsible for Jacob's pain, but they now soberly realize that Joseph, even when reported dead, still remains the favored son. Although they succeeded in distancing him from both his family and his homeland, they could not remove him from his father's heart and thoughts. Asthe verse states: "Seven times the righteous man falls and gets up" (Proverbs xxiv:16).

Joseph in his father's home (Gen. xxxvii)

Joseph is a classic example of a dynamic, developing personality, in contrast to static, fixed characters, who enter the narrative as fully developed figures. When we initially encounter Joseph, we are not very impressed. Not only is he a "tattletale" in conveying reports to his father on his brothers' activities (that is, on any blemishes in their behavior), but he also displays considerable insensitivity in describing to his brothers his dreams of grandeur, thereby arousing their jealousy and hatred.

Joseph becomes a more sympathetic figure in our eyes when he responds with full commitment to a request from his father (the extent of his commitment is expressed in his declaration, "Here I am!"). His father asks Joseph to make sure that his brothers tending their sheep in Shekhem are alright. Joseph's esteem in our eyes grows as the narrative develops. When he cannot find his brothers in Shekhem, he does not hurry back to his father with the feeling that an honest attempt has been made to meet Jacob's wishes. Instead, Joseph remains determine to carry out his mission and makes the long journey from Shekhem to Dotan (known today as Tel Dotan), despite the fact that he is well aware of his brothers' antagonistic attitude towards him.

Joseph in Egypt (Gen. xxxix)

In Egypt, Joseph's image in our eyes reaches spiritual and moral greatness, and his behavior in Egypt earns him a reputation that has remained a strong element in our tradition and which is expressed in the title, "Joseph the righteous". It is from the darkness of his bondage and from the depths of an Egyptian prison that Joseph begins to emerge into the arena of fame and power. The period of his imprisonment is described in parallel terms to the period of his residence in Potiphar's home:

Potiphar's home (vv. 1-6) Prison (vv. 2--23)

"God protected Joseph" (2) "God protected Joseph" (21)

"he was successful in all his "God ensured success in

endeavors" (2) everything Joseph

did" (23)

"he [= Potiphar] was pleased with "God ensured that the warden

Joseph" (4) of the prison would be pleased with him [=Joseph]" (21)

"he [= Potiphar] entrusted Joseph with "he [= the warden] entrusted

all that belonged to him (4) Joseph with all of the

prisoners" (22)

"he [= Potiphar] trusted him [= Joseph] "the warden of the prison trusted

completely" (6) him [= Joseph] completely" (23)

Potiphar's (vv. 1-6)                Prison (vv. 2--23)                           

"God protected Joseph" (2)          "God protected Joseph" (21)                  

he was successful in all his        "God ensured success in                      
endeavors" (2)                      everything Joseph did" (23)                  

he [= Potiphar] was pleased with    "God ensured that the warden                 
Joseph" (4)                         of the prison would be                       
pleased with him [=Joseph]" (21)                                                 

"he [= Potiphar] entrusted Joseph   "the warden of the prison trusted            
with                                him [= Joseph]                               
all  that belonged to him (4)       completely" (23)                             

"he [= Potiphar] trusted him [=     "the warden of the prison trusted            
Joseph]                             him [= Joseph]                               
completely" (6)                     completely" (23)                             

The closely parallel terms used in these two sections teaches us that, at all times and in every situation, God protected Joseph. The success Joseph experiences in his endeavors and the good relations he creates with everyone he encounters create a totally different picture from the one that emerges through the depiction of his childhood and youth. His material success and popularity become integrally linked with his personality.

Joseph and Potiphar's wife

The story of Joseph and Potiphar's wife demonstrates various facets of Joseph's character: his faithfulness to God, his loyalty to his master and his gentleness, as demonstrated in the way he acts towards the woman who is trying to seduce him. Joseph does not point out to Potiphar's wife the wrongness of her ways, but rather informs her that any positive response on his part to her advances would be a sin on his part alone. [3] As he explains to her, the sin would be twofold: a sin against his master, who trusts him completely, and a sin against God - "I would be sinning against God" (Gen. xxxix:9). [4]

In the opening and closing portions of ch. xxxix, the narrative voice establishes a central fact about Joseph: "God protected Joseph". Joseph's success in all his endeavors is evidence of this fact. His determination in withstanding the seduction attempts of Potiphar's wife serves both as a justification for God's protection and as evidence of Joseph's sincere loyalty to God.

At first glance, it seems as if Joseph pays a heavy price for his refusal to surrender to the advances of Potiphar's wife; just as he was thrown into a pit by a brothers in the past, he is now sent to an Egyptian prison. However, it ultimately becomes clear that all of these setbacks are really steps on the way to Joseph's future success. His being cast into the pit by his brothers brings about his transfer to Egypt, while his being sent to prison by his Egyptian master and his activities in prison bring about the discovery of a new element in Joseph's character: the "master of dreams" as he was tauntingly called by his angry brothers (xxxvii:19) becomes, with the help of God, the interpreter of dreams. Joseph's role as interpreter of dreams paves the way for his rise to power and glory in Pharaoh's court, while this rise to fame sets the stage for the journey of Jacob's entire family to Egypt from the Land of Canaan during the famine predicted by Joseph. In Joseph's story, we observe the narrative's characters, whose actions are driven by powerful emotions: the love of a father, pride, jealousy, hatred, lust, and - in sharp contrast - faithfulness to God and the fear of sin. These actions, which appear to have been freely decided upon by the individual, lead to the unfolding of the divine plan, which was conveyed to Abraham: "Know that your children and your children's children will be strangers in an alien land . . . ."


[1] In the Torah portion of "Vayigash", Joseph will point out to his brothers the twin causes (one revealed and human, the other concealed and divine) behind the events in his story (Gen. xlv:4-8): although they consciously sold him into bondage, they were unconsciously serving as messengers of God.

[2] Biblical law recognizes the fact that a man's feelings towards his children can be influenced by his feelings towards their mothers. Thus, for example, a man may be tempted to prefer the son of the wife he loves over his firstborn, who is also the son of the wife he hates (see Deuteronomy xxi:15-17).

[3] A comparison between Joseph's story and the Egyptian story, "A Tale of Two Brothers", which was composed in the 13th century B.C.E., helps us to understand the uniqueness of Joseph. In the Egyptian story, two brothers live in the same area. The wife of the elder brother tries to seduce the younger brother, and, when he refuses her advances, she accuses him of having tried to seduce her. On hearing her accusation, the husband pursues his younger brother and wants to kill him. A large lake, which is miraculously created to separate the two brothers, enables the younger brother to explain what really happened. The older brother returns to his home and kills his unfaithful wife. The Egyptian story can be found in English translation in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament,.ed. by J.B. Prtchard, Princeton 1955, pp. 23-25. It is important to note that, in the Egyptian story, the younger brother, on hearing the seduction proposal of his brother's wife, becomes "angry as the tiger of the south" and criticizes her sharply: "What is this abomination that you have talked about with me?" Furthermore, in describing the chain of events to his brother, the younger brother does not hesitate to use a vulgar term of derision in order to describe her.

In contrast, Joseph makes no reference to the abomination created through the behavior of his master's wife, but instead speaks only of the "terrible evil" he would introduce into the world were he to accept her offer.

[4] In contrast, the younger brother in "A Tale of Two Brothers" (see the previous note above) explains that his refusal to accept the seduction offer of his brother's wife stems solely from his loyalty to his brother. The religious motive for not surrendering to the advances is completely absent from his explanation.

Translated by Mark Elliott Shapiro