Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy

Why do Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him?  Because they resent their father’s favoritism?  Or because they resent Joseph’s behavior?

An Obnoxious Father

Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, has always played favorites.  He has children with two official wives (Leah and Rachel) and their two female servants (Zilpah and Bilhah), but he loves only Rachel.  After Rachel dies in childbirth, it is no surprise to learn in this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev (“And he settled down”) that he loves Rachel’s son Joseph more than his ten older half-brothers.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives Him the Coat, by Owen Jones, 1869

And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a ketonet passim.  And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him and could not speak in peace.  (Genesis 37:3-4)

ketonet (כְּתֺנֶת) = a long tunic/shirt/loose dress worn by both men and women, either alone or underneath a robe or cloak.  It was belted with a sash, and removed at night.1

passim (פַּסִּים) = ?  Translations include “multicolored” (as in the King James “coat of many colors”), “ornamented”, and “long-sleeved”.

The only other appearance of ketonet passim in the bible is in 2 Samuel 13:18-19, which notes that every unmarried daughter of King David wore one.  Joseph is a shepherd like his brothers, but Jacob gives him a garment fit for a king’s child.

The opening of this week’s Torah portion says Jacob loves Joseph the most because he is a son of Jacob’s old age.  But his love for Joseph’s deceased mother also affects his feelings.  Besides giving Joseph the princely tunic in Vayeishev, Jacob refuses to be comforted when he believes his favorite son has been killed.2  In next week’s portion, Mikeitz, Jacob is not alarmed to learn that the vizier of Egypt has imprisoned Shimon, one of his sons with Leah.  But he refuses to let Benjamin, his second son with Rachel, leave his side and go to Egypt.3

An Obnoxious Youth

Naturally Jacob’s ten older sons resent their father’s favoritism.  But they have another reason to hate Joseph.  When one child in a family is spoiled and the others neglected, the spoiled one can become a narcissist—either because he believes he truly is wonderful, or because he wants to believe it in order to justify all the attention.  This week’s Torah portion does not say directly that Joseph is selfish at age seventeen, but the implication is there, beginning with the word na-ar.

These are the lineages of Jacob: Joseph, seventeen years old, tended the flock along with his brothers, and he was a na-ar … (Genesis/ Bereishit 37:2)

na-ar (נַעַר) = male slave, male assistant, boy, young marriageable man.

Although the Torah promises to give us the lineages4 of Jacob, it does not name any descendants but Joseph, the most important person in Jacob’s life once Rachel is gone.

What does na-ar mean in Joseph’s case?  Joseph is certainly not a slave.  At most he is an assistant to his brothers as he learns the shepherding business.

Kohl used by Egyptian men and women

Bereishit Rabbah 84.7, citing Joseph’s beauty, claims he acts like a vain youth, daubing kohl around his eyes, lifting his heels, and dressing his hair.5  (I assume that Joseph is not tripping through the sheep pastures all dolled up, but saves the show for when they stop at a village.)

Or perhaps he is a na-ar because he is immature for his age.  Right after calling him a na-ar, the Torah says Joseph is a tattletale.

…  and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, women of his father’s, and Joseph reported dibatam ra-ah to their father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:2)

dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = (noun) their slander, their gossip.  (dibah (דִּבָּה) = gossip (usually malicious), slander + tam (תָם) = suffix for the third person masculine plural construct form.)

ra-ah (רָעָה) = (noun) intentional evil, wickedness, disaster.

Many translators rework the final clause into “Joseph brought an ill report of them to their father” or something similar.  This translation fits the context, but it makes the word dibah superfluous.  And although the suffix tam can be interpreted as meaning “of them”, it is usually used as the possessive “their”.

If we translate the clause as “Joseph reported their gossip evil to their father” we account for all the words in the original Hebrew.  Since a noun following another noun often serves as an adjective in biblical Hebrew, a more accurate translation is “Joseph reported their malicious gossip to their father.

What are Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons gossiping about?  And what does Joseph report?  One possibility is that the four young men are slandering Joseph, drawing wicked conclusions about his beauty treatments or the way he wears his fancy tunic.  If Joseph were six years old, like his little brother Benjamin, he might well run home and cry, “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!”  But does he do this at age seventeen?  If so, his father is too blind with devotion to notice his favorite’s immaturity.

Another possibility is that Zilpah and Bilhah’s sons are slandering Leah’s oldest sons, who would be likely to lord it over them because of their superior age, experience, and status.  By reporting this malicious gossip to Jacob, Joseph would make all ten of his older brothers look bad.  Joseph, who proves his intelligence later in the story,6 may even use these bad reports as a pre-emptive strike.  If any brother subsequently tells Jacob about Joseph’s unworthy deeds, Jacob will not be inclined to believe him.

Of course by reporting his brothers’ malicious gossip, Joseph becomes guilty of malicious gossip himself.  But he does not worry about that.  He knows it will not occur to his doting father, and he himself is not yet concerned about ethics.7  Sure enough, later in this week’s Torah portion Jacob sends Joseph on a journey to check up on all his brothers and report back.8

When Joseph catches up with his brothers they throw him into a pit, sell him into slavery, and then convince their father that the boy was killed by wild beasts.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  Thus Jacob suffers for his clueless favoritism.

And Joseph suffers for his own contribution to his brothers’ hatred: his youthful narcissism, which is expressed not only in his malicious reports, but also in his narration of his dreams.

Joseph dreamed a dream and he told his brothers, and it increased their hatred of him.  He said to them: “Listen, please, to this dream that I dreamed.  Hey, we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, and hey, my sheaf stood up and was even standing firm, and hey, your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheath.”  (Genesis 37:5-7)

Joseph Reveals His Dream, by James Tissot

If the brothers were on friendly terms, they would merely tease him about this grandiose dream.  Instead they hate him more—but although Joseph is intelligent, he does not change his behavior.  He tells them a second dream in which his brothers are symbolically bowing down to him.9  This time Jacob also hears the dream, yet he still sends Joseph off to spy on his brothers.


Jacob and Joseph make the same mistake in this week’s Torah portion: they both fail to respect the feelings of others.

And what about Joseph’s older brothers?  Their hatred is understandable; nobody likes being denigrated and treated as insignificant, especially by a parent or younger sibling.  But they could choose a different reaction.

I have had a few young Josephs in my life, narcissists too wrapped up in their own dramas to wonder what I think, to have any interest in me as an individual.  I have imagined how nice it would be if these people were dead, or banished to another country.

Over decades of suffering and reflection, I have realized that when I cannot speak to someone in peace, it is better to run away.  And that when I am blessed enough to hold compassion in my heart and peace on my tongue, it is good to listen—even when I am not heard in return.  When I do the right thing myself, I have peace inside, and I do not have to spend the rest of my life feeling guilty, like Joseph’s brothers.10  It helps to remind myself that the “young Josephs” in my life, however old they are in years, are not being narcissistic on purpose; they are themselves victims of their upbringing.

(I posted an earlier version of this essay in November 2010.)

  1. A ketonet was belted with a sash: see Isaiah 22:21. It was taken off at night: see Song of Songs 5:3.
  2. Genesis 37:34-35.
  3. Genesis 42:38.
  4. Toledot (תּוֹלֵדוֹת).
  5. Bereishit Rabbah, a collection of commentary from 400- 600 C.E., extrapolates from Genesis 39:6, which mentions Joseph’s extraordinary good looks in order to explain why Potifar’s wife repeatedly tries to seduce him.
  6. Joseph demonstrates his intelligence in Egypt both in his implementation of his 14-year plan for preventing famine in Egypt while increasing the power of the government (Genesis 41:33-36, 47:13-26) and in his complicated scheme for testing his brothers before revealing his identity to them (Genesis 42:6-45:3).
  7. Joseph’s first ethical act reported in the Torah is after Potifar, who buys Joseph as a slave, makes him steward over his whole household. Then when Potifar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph, he refuses her.  (Genesis 39:4-12).
  8. Genesis 37:12-14.
  9. Genesis 37:9-11.
  10. Genesis 42:21-22, 50:15-17.


6 thoughts on “Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s