This week I am having a good time rewriting a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of the snake in the Garden of Eden. I also made some Thanksgiving dishes, and looked over this week’s Torah portion, Vayeishev, the beginning of the story about Joseph and his brothers. This essay on Vayeishev comes from the first draft of my book on Genesis.
Joseph’s ten older brothers are guilty of throwing him into an empty cistern with the intention to kill him, then selling him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt. Their behavior is clearly immoral.
What is less blatant is the unethical behavior of Joseph and his father, Jacob.
Joseph’s unethical behavior
These are the histories of Jacob: Joseph, at age 17, was tending the flock with his brothers, and he was a na-ar with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s women. And Joseph brought dibatam to their father. And Israel loved Joseph most out of all his sons, because he was a son of his old age, and he made him a fancy tunic. (Genesis 37:1-3)
na-ar (נַעַר) = boy, young single man, assistant, servant.
dibatam (דִּבָּתָם) = slander about them, slander of theirs, their bad reputation. (dibat, דִּבַּת = slander of, bad reputation of + suffix -am, ָם = third person masculine plural.)
Joseph is “a son of his old age”,1 but that is not the only reason Jacob (also called Israel) loves him the most. Joseph is Rachel’s older son, and the Torah says Jacob loves Rachel more than his other three women, Leah, Bilhah, and Zilpah. When he meets Esau at the Yabok River, Jacob places Rachel and Joseph last, the farthest from harm. After Rachel dies, Joseph is the person he loves most in the world.
In what way is Joseph a na-ar? At age 17, his role might be to assist some of his adult brothers in the family business. Joseph is a na-ar with the four sons of Jacob’s concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.
Perhaps Jacob divided his sons into two groups in charge of different flocks because Leah’s older sons destroyed Shekhem, and he does not trust them to be a good influence on Joseph, his favorite. (Probably Leah’s last three children, who are about the same age as Joseph, are assisting her four adult sons.)
Or perhaps Joseph chose to go out with the sons of the concubines because they are conscious of the inferior status of their mothers, and therefore defer to him.2
Besides being an assistant, Joseph acts like a juvenile (another meaning of na-ar) when he brings dibatam to Jacob. He might be slandering his brothers. Or he might be reporting that his brothers are slandering him. If he were a young child there would be nothing wrong with running to his father and saying the equivalent of “Daddy, Daddy, they said mean words about me!” But at age 17, Joseph should be mature enough to fight his own battles, especially if they are battles of words; later in the story he turns out to be exceptionally intelligent.
The word dibatam refers to any words that harm another person’s reputation, whether they are the truth or slander. Whether Joseph is lying about his brothers or merely reporting all of their actual bad deeds, he is lowering their reputations. There is no indication in the Torah that he does this to achieve any higher good.
Then he antagonizes his brothers even more by telling them one of his dreams.
And Joseph dreamed a dream, and he told it to his brothers, and it added to their hatred of him even more. (Genesis 37:5)
In this first dream, the brothers are binding sheaves, and all of their sheaves bow down to his sheaf. The brothers conclude that their younger brother wants to rule over them like a king.
Joseph’s behavior is ethically unsavory. He harms four of his brothers by making them look bad, and all ten of his older brothers by flaunting his dream of dominance, which makes them feel inferior.
What subverts Joseph’s ability to make better moral choices?
He knows, at least subconsciously, that he has done nothing to earn the status of Jacob’s favorite son; his father dotes on him merely because Rachel was his mother. Since Rachel’s death, Jacob has probably become even more attached to her older son.
Joseph cannot prove that he deserves his father’s esteem, but at least he can prove that the four sons of Jacob’s concubines deserve less esteem than he does by bringing his father bad reports, true or false.
Why does Joseph tell his brothers his dream? Is he too egocentric to realize that it will upset them? Or does he want to upset them, at least subconsciously?
Nobody sees Joseph as an individual; he is only Jacob’s favorite son. Since his mother’s death he has needed attention as a human being, not as a symbol. Even negative attention is better than none. So he makes another poor moral choice, telling his brothers that according to the predictive world of dreams, they are going to be subservient to him.
Jacob’s unethical behavior
Their father, Jacob, foolishly shows his favoritism when he gives Joseph a fancy tunic. Like Cain, who reacts to God’s unfair favoritism by attacking his brother Abel rather than God, Joseph’s older brothers react to their father’s unfair favoritism by attacking their brother rather than Jacob.
At first their attacks are only verbal: they never speak a peaceful word to him.3 Then Joseph tells them two of his dreams.
In Joseph’s second dream the sun, the moon, and eleven stars bow down to him.
And he told it to his father and to his brothers, and his father rebuked him, and said to him: “What is this dream that you dreamed? Will we actually come, I and your mother and your brothers, to bow down to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter. (Genesis 37:10-11)
Jacob interprets the sun and moon as representing himself and Rachel (deceased), and the eleven stars as Joseph’s eleven brothers (including little Benjamin, Rachel’s youngest). It is not clear whether Jacob rebukes his favorite son for the content of the dream, or for telling it to his family. He observes that the dream makes Joseph’s brothers jealous, but he does not seem to be aware that he contributed to their jealousy by giving only Joseph an upper-class tunic.
Then Jacob’s ten older sons take the family’s flocks to Shekhem. Jacob gives Joseph instructions that might be straightforward—or might imply he does not trust his other sons, and he wants Joseph to continue acting as a tattletale.
And he said to him: “Go, please, see about the well-being of your brothers and the well-being of the flock, and return word to me.” (Genesis 37:14)
Jacob knows that his older sons resent Joseph, but it does not occur to him that they hate Joseph so much they would consider murdering him.
Why does Jacob listen to Joseph’s bad reports about his brothers?
Subconsciously he may realize that his partiality for Joseph is based only on his love for the boy’s mother. (The Torah does not mention Joseph’s good looks or intelligence at this point.) If Jacob knew that Joseph actually was superior to his brothers, he would have less reason to feel guilty for his preferential treatment. So when Joseph gives him bad reports about at least four of his brothers, Jacob is happy to believe him.
Why does he send Joseph on a journey of several days4 to check up on his older brothers?
Perhaps he is merely worried that his older sons are up to no good. Or perhaps Joseph’s second dream has alerted his father that his favorite son is either narcissistic or dangerously naive. Traveling alone to Shekhem might teach Joseph more independence and give him time to reflect. He might even encounter God, as Jacob did when he traveled alone to Charan.
Those are charitable explanations. But it is also possible that Jacob is simply in the habit of soliciting more evidence that his bias toward Joseph is justified. The collusion between the father and his favorite son would make them seem closer, and that would reinforce Jacob’s bad habit of asking Joseph to inform on his brothers.
Jacob is too narcissistic to realize that his own behavior is lowering Joseph’s moral standards. When he dispatches Joseph to Shekhem to check up on his brothers, he is too narcissistic to realize that he is jeopardizing his favorite son’s life.
When Joseph finally catches up with his brothers,
They said, each man to his brother: “Hey! Here comes the master of dreams! And now let’s go murder him, and let’s throw him into one of these pits, and we can say a wicked beast ate him. Then we’ll see what happens to his dreams!” (Genesis 37:19-20)
They do not murder Joseph, but they do sell him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.
Small unethical deeds can have big consequences.
- Commentators disagree on Jacob’s age when his son Joseph is born. When Jacob leaves for Charan we know he is over 40 (Genesis 26:34); Nachmanides (13th-century rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, a.k.a. Ramban) wrote that he is 84. (Like some other fabulously aged heroes of Genesis, Jacob has no problem with sex and physical labor after 80.) Joseph is born 14 years after Jacob arrives in Charan (Genesis 29:14, 19-20, 27, 30; Genesis 30:25). Although Leah’s youngest sons, Issachar and Zebulun, are born in the same year or two as Joseph, only Joseph is called the “son of his old age”. Nachmanides explained that when Jacob was well over 100, he must have picked Joseph to be the son who took care of his physical needs in old age.
- Samson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Bereshis, p. 706.
- Genesis 37:4.
- Jacob believes his ten oldest sons are pasturing the flocks in Shekhem, which is about 50 miles (80 km) from his home in Hebron. When Joseph arrives at Shekhem he learns that his brothers have gone on to Dotan, so his journey is even longer.