Joseph has two prophetic dreams when is seventeen, according to the Torah portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1-40:23). After the second dream, he tells his brothers:
“Hey, I dreamed a dream again! And hey! The sun and the moon and eleven stars mishtachavim to me!” And he reported [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, lehishtachot to the ground to you?” And his brothers were jealous of him, and his father observed the matter. (Genesis/Bereishit 37:9-11)
mishtachavim (מִשְׁתַּחֲוִים) = were bowing down, were prostrating themselves. (From the root verb sh–ch–h, שׁחה = bow down deeply in humility, do homage.)
lehishtachot (לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת) = to bow down. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)
Joseph’s father, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel), is over 100 years old at this time, and so far the Torah has not mentioned him bowing down to anyone except his brother, Esau.
The previous prostration
That happened in the Torah portion Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43), when the two brothers met again after a twenty-year estrangement. Esau had vowed to kill his brother after Jacob had cheated him out of both his birthright and the blessing he expected from their father. Jacob had fled to his uncle’s house in Charan. When he finally headed home again, after acquiring a large family and his own fortune, he learned that Esau was coming down the road with 400 men to intercept him. Jacob did everything he could think of to prevent disaster: sending his brother generous gifts ahead of time, praying to God, and finally, as Esau came into view with his troop,
He himself went across to face him, vayishtachu to the ground seven times, until he came up to his brother. (Genesis 33:3)
vayishtachu (וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed down, and he prostrated himself. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)
In the Hebrew Bible, prostrations are a way to demonstrate humility and deference to a superior—usually to a king or to God. By bowing down to Esau seven times, Jacob is symbolically renouncing any advantage he tried to get over Esau in his youth, and demonstrating as graphically as possible that he considers Esau his superior. His prostrations are the equivalent of a puppy rolling over and exposing its throat to an older dog.
Inferior to nobody
After Jacob and his family and servants depart from Esau in peace, he does not bow to anyone for over forty years. Why should he? Jacob, jealous of his twin brother’s extra rights as the firstborn, has always been self-conscious about his position in life. After he failed to secure the rights of a firstborn son by fraud, he labored in Charan for twenty years until he had earned them. Now Jacob is a chieftain with twelve sons, many slaves and employees, and a great wealth of livestock. The chieftain of the town of Shekhem treats Jacob as an equal, and when he makes an offer to Jacob he goes out to his camp instead of summoning him to his own residence in town.1
Jacob does not bow down to God, either. He first encounters God in the dream with angels on a stairway, and when he wakes up he treats God as someone to bargain with, vowing to give God a tithe of his wealth if God protects him and brings him safely back home.2 When Jacob worships God, he does so by pouring oil on a stone or burning animal offerings on an altar.3
Jacob and his people settle somewhere near Hebron/Chevron in Canaan.4 After Jacob’s older sons come home from the field without their younger brother and show their father Joseph’s bloody tunic, Jacob thinks his favorite son is dead. He mourns Joseph for 22 years. During that time Joseph is actually living in Egypt, where he rises from slave to viceroy. Finally Joseph sends for his father and his whole extended family in last week’s Torah portion, Vayigash (Genesis 4:18-47:27).
And Joseph harnessed his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father. And he appeared to him, and he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck a long time. Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)
But the prophetic dream Joseph had when he was seventeen is not fulfilled. Jacob’s brothers have already bowed down to him many times, but his father has not.
Jacob does not bow down to Pharaoh, either, when Joseph presents him at court. He greets the king of Egypt with a blessing, and answers Pharaoh’s inquiry about how old he is by saying he is 130, and his life has been hard and short.5 Then Jacob blesses the king again, and leaves.
The prophecy fulfilled
Jacob finally bows down for the second time of his life on his deathbed, in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26).
Then the time approached for Israel [a.k.a. Jacob] to die, and he called for his son, for Joseph, and said to him: “If, na, I find favor in your eyes, place, na, your hand under my thigh and do a loyal and faithful deed for me: don’t, na, bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my forefathers, then bring me up from Egypt and bury me in their burial place!” (Genesis 47:29-30)
na (נָא) = please, pray, I beg you.
Joseph gives his word, but Jacob wants the formal hand gesture of an oath as well.6
And he [Israel/Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. Vayishtachu, Israel, upon head of the bed. (Genesis 47:31)
vayishtachu (וַיֱִשְׁתַּחוּ) = and he bowed. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)
Many classic commentators wrote that Jacob bowed toward the head of his bed, because the presence of God is at the head of the bed of a sick person (and prepositions are ambiguous). But that interpretation implies he was standing up. The Torah has already told us that Jacob is 147, and his death is approaching. I have been at the beside of four people near death, and I believe even Jacob would be too feeble to stand up during his final days.7 Perhaps he is seated on his bed, resting against a cushion, and he manages to bow at the waist.
In that case, he is not bowing toward the head of his bed; he is probably bowing to Joseph. This was the opinion of 12th-century rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, known as Rashbam, who wrote: “ ‘And Israel bowed low’: To Joseph, from the place where he was at [the top of] the bed.”8
Rabbi Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340 C.E.), known as Rabbeinu Bachya, added: “Seeing that Joseph had agreed to honour his father by undertaking to fulfill his wishes, Yaakov in turn prostrated himself before him to show that he respected the position Joseph occupied as effective ruler of the country.”8
Jacob spent the first hundred years of his life struggling to be the one on top, the one in charge. But during his final years in Egypt, he accepts that his son Joseph is his superior. He knows he is dependent on Joseph to carry out his final request, so he uses the language of an inferior, using the subservient phrase “if I find favor in your eyes” and repeating he word na. Then he uses the gesture of a humble inferior, coming as close as he can to a prostration.
This is the moment when Jacob fulfills the prophecy of the dream his son Joseph had when he was seventeen.
After that, Jacob lives long enough to do the equivalent of rewriting his will, adopting Joseph’s two sons as his own so they will receive shares of the inheritance equal to those of Joseph’s brothers. Jacob also delivers his own prophecies to all his sons, predicting what will happen to the tribes that descend from them. Finally he orders all twelve of his sons to bury him with his deceased family members in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.
And Jacob completed commanding his sons, and he drew back his feet in the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)
One prostration to Joseph before he died was enough for Jacob.
“Honor your father and your mother,” says the fifth of the Ten Commandments in the book of Exodus. In my post Yitro, Mishpatim, & Va-etchanan: Relative or Relevant? Part 1, I suggest that parents should also honor their children. But should they show humble submission to them, as Jacob did by bowing to Joseph on his deathbed?
Nobody would advise submission to a callow seventeen-year-old. But what about when the child is middle-aged, and the parent’s ability to deal with the world is declining in old age? If the adult child is competent and kind, then it would be better to humbly submit to that child’s arrangements than to insist on complete autonomy. I hope that is what I will do when I am considerably older—though I do not expect to live to age 147!
- Genesis 34:6-24.
- Genesis 28:20-22.
- Jacob’s journey south from Shekhem ends at the home of his father, Isaac, in Hebron/Chevron (Genesis 35:27). After that, the Torah only says Jacob lives “in the land of Canaan”, without specifying the location. His first stop on the way to Egypt is Beir-sheva, which is south of Chevron.
- Genesis 28:16-19, 33:19-20, 35:6, 35:13-14, 46:1.
- Genesis 47:7-10.
- Biblical Hebrew sometimes uses the word for “thigh”, yareich (יָרֵךְ) as a euphemism for the genitals. According to Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, midrash written between 630 and 1030 C.E., Jacob said: “O my son! Swear to me by the covenant of circumcision that thou wilt take me up to the burial-place of my fathers in the land of Canaan to the Cave of Machpelah.” (translation of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer 39:13 by sefaria.org)
- This is the first of Jacob’s three deathbed scenes. In the second, he has to summon his strength (vayitchaek, וַיִּתחַזֵּק) to sit up in bed.
- Both quotations are from sefaria.org.