Vayechi: When Jacob Bows

The prophecy

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 shchh, שׁחה = bow down deeply in humility, do homage.)

lehishtachot (לְהִשְׁתַּחֲוֺת) = to bow down. (Also from the root sh-ch-h.)

Joseph’s Second Dream, by Owen Jones, 1865

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.

Jacob on his Deathbed, woodcut, 1539

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!

  1. Genesis 34:6-24.
  2. Genesis 28:20-22.
  3. 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.
  4. Genesis 28:16-19, 33:19-20, 35:6, 35:13-14, 46:1.
  5. Genesis 47:7-10.
  6. 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
  7. 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.
  8. Both quotations are from

Vayechi: First Versus Favorite

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539

Jacob dies at age 147 in Vayechi (“and he lived”), the final Torah portion in the book of Genesis. Next week Jews begin the book of Exodus in the annual cycle of Torah readings.

As for me, I am still working on my book about moral mistakes in Genesis. Recent research on moral psychology has made me eager to add new explanations for why many of the characters in Genesis keep acting shady.

Meanwhile, here is an essay from my first draft about how Jacob challenges the rules of his society regarding the firstborn son.

Primogeniture and Favoritism

            In ancient Mesopotamian towns including Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur,1 a man’s firstborn son was obligated to: “Carry on the father’s name (patronym); Manage the family estate;  Provide for minors in the family; Provide a dowry for unmarried sisters; Pay for his parents’ burial and mourning ceremonies and maintain their grave afterwards.”2

In return, the firstborn would receive a double portion of the father’s inheritance, while his brothers and half-brothers received a single portion each.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1865

The Torah indicates that the firstborn had similar duties and rights among the ancient Israelites. When Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons in Vayechi, he entreats God:

“Bless the young men!

And may they be called by my name,

And the names of my fathers, Abraham and Isaac.” (Genesis 48:16)

In the Torah a son carries his father’s name when he is called “Isaac ben Abraham” or “Jacob ben Isaac”; ben means “son of”. Here, Jacob assumes the right to carry the name of his own father, Isaac. And he gives that right to the family of Joseph, his favorite son and the oldest son of his favorite wife, not to the family of Reuben, his actual firstborn son.

The firstborn son serves as the family’s priest in the Torah (until this duty is given to the Levites in Numbers 3:5-13). And as in Mesopotamia, a man’s estate was divided into shares equal to the number of his sons plus one, and his firstborn son inherited two shares.

A law in the book of Deuteronomy decrees that a man can assign the extra duties and extra inheritance only to his firstborn son, not to his favorite son.

If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other hated, and they have [both] borne him sons, the loved one and the hated one, and the [man’s] bekhor is the son of the hated one: on the day of bequeathing what he owns to his sons … he must recognize the bekhor, the son of the hated one, giving to him two shares out of all that is found to belong to him, because he [the man’s actual firstborn] is the first of his virility. The law of the bekhorah applies to him. (Deuteronomy 21:15-17)

bekhor (בְּכוֹר) = firstborn son.

bekhorah (בְּכֺרה) = rank and rights as firstborn. (From the same root as bekhor.)

This law is intended to protect the firstborn from losing his rights.


From birth to death, Jacob maneuvers to circumvent the rule of the bekhorah.

He and Esau are twins, but Esau is born first, while Jacob emerges holding onto his brother’s heel, as if he does not want to be left behind. Nevertheless, Esau ranks as firstborn.3 When the twins are young men, Jacob covets the role and rank of the firstborn. One day Esau comes home famished and asks Jacob for some of the stew he is cooking.

Esau Sells his Birthright, by Rembrandt

And Jacob said: “Sell today your bekhorah to me.” And Esau said: “Hey, I am going to die, so why this [bother about] my bekhorah?” And Jacob said: “Swear to me today.” And [Esau] swore to him and he sold his bekhorah to Jacob. Then Jacob give Esau bread and lentil stew … (Genesis 25:31-34)

Thus Jacob cheats his twin out of his rights. But by the time their father dies (at age 180), both brothers are already wealthy from their own efforts. Both Jacob and Esau bury Isaac.4 They have no sisters to marry off, and each brother takes care of his own children. The only firstborn right that Jacob inherits is God’s promise to give Canaan to his descendants. God made the same promise to Abraham, to his younger son Isaac, and finally to Isaac’s younger son Jacob.5


Despite his wealth and God’s promise, Jacob does not forget his resentment about the bekhorah. In fact, he challenges the rule during his two deathbed scenes in the portion Vayechi.

In the first deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim.

“And now, your two sons who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, they shall be mine; Efrayim and Menasheh shall be mine like Reuben and Simeon.” (Genesis 48:5)

In effect, the adoption gives Joseph the double inheritance of the firstborn.  Instead of getting one share, as Joseph, he will get two shares, in the name of his two sons.

Then Israel said to Joseph: “Hey, I am dying, but God will be with you [all] and return you to the land of your fathers. And I myself give to you one shekhem over your brothers, which I took from the hand of the Emorites with my sword and my bow.” (Genesis 48:21-22)

shekhem (שְׁכֶם) = shoulders; an Amorite town about 30 miles (50 km) north of Jerusalem, where Jacob bought a plot of land in Genesis 33:18-19.

The campsite that Jacob bought near the town of Shekhem could not be of any interest to Joseph, the viceroy of all Egypt. But the author of the story knew that by 900 B.C.E. the two kingdoms of Israel would consist of the territories of twelve tribes. Three tribes (Judah, Benjamin, and Simeon) would occupy the southern Kingdom of Judah, while nine tribes (Efrayim, Menasheh, Reuben, Gad, Dan, Issachar, Zebulun, Asher, and Naphtali) would own territories in the northern Kingdom of Israel.

So what Jacob is really bequeathing to Joseph is a future double portion of the lands of the Israelite tribes in Canaan, lands they do not even begin to conquer until the book of Joshua.  When Joseph is on his own deathbed at the end of the book of Genesis, he asks to be embalmed and buried in Canaan when the Israelites return there someday.6 Joshua buries Joseph at Shekhem.7 By 900 B.C.E., Shekhem is an important city-state in the territory of Efrayim.


Jacob Blesses his Twelve Sons, by Pieter Tanje, 1791

Jacob’s second deathbed scene consists of prophesies about his twelve sons and the tribes that will descend from them.  In his first prophesy he explicitly demotes his oldest son, Reuben.

“Reuben, you are my firstborn,

            My might and the first of my virility,

            Prevailing in rank

            And prevailing in strength.

Reckless like water, you will no longer prevail,

            Because you mounted your father’s couch.

            That was when you profaned my bed.

            He mounted it!”  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Here Jacob’s reason for stripping Reuben of his firstborn rights is Reuben’s incest with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s two concubines.8

The first book of Chronicles explains:

… Reuben, the firstborn of Israel—for he was the firstborn, but when he profaned his father’s couch, his firstborn-right was given to the sons of Joseph son of Israel, and he is not pedigreed as the firstborn, because Judah was more powerful as a leader than his brothers, and the firstborn-right [went] to Joseph— …  (1 Chronicles 5:1-3)

In other words, although Reuben was the first of Jacob’s sons to be born, he does not get either the duty to lead his brothers nor the right to inherit an extra share of their father’s property. Judah is the leader, and Joseph gets the double inheritance.

Sleeping with one’s father’s concubine amounted to a challenge to the father’s authority over the household.9 Yet for decades Jacob and Reuben behaved as if it had never happened. There is no indication in the Torah that Jacob ever punished Reuben or Bilhah, that Reuben ever apologized, or that Jacob ever forgave him.

For decades Reuben retains his position as the firstborn. Although his fractious brothers do not treat him as their leader, Reuben can still expect a larger inheritance when their father dies.

But at the end of Jacob’s life, all he wants is a pretext for  giving the firstborn’s extra inheritance to Joseph, his favorite son. He is not interested in either justice or mercy where Reuben is concerned.

Jacob could use Reuben’s long-ago attempt at usurpation through incest to disinherit his firstborn son altogether. But he does not.  He takes away Reuben’s birthright, but still leaves him one portion of the inheritance, like any of his other sons except Joseph.  In a way, this counts as unspoken and partial forgiveness.

Yet Jacob remains guilty of playing favorites, from the day he gives a fancy tunic only to Joseph, to the day he gives Joseph the double share. He also violates a social institution by depriving Reuben of the role and property he expected to inherit, leaving him in an embarrassing position.

On his deathbed, Jacob remains too self-absorbed to achieve a higher ethical resolution.

  1. The Mesopotamian towns of Mari, Nuzi, and Nippur were all extant during the Akkadian period, the 24th to 22nd centuries B.C.E., and continued as population centers in subsequent empires. Mari was a Semetic town later occupied by the Amorites, with whom the Israelites traded.
  2. Kristine Henrickson Garroway, “Does the Birthright Law Apply to Reuben? What about Ishmael?”,
  3. Genesis 25:24-26.
  4. Genesis 35:28-29.
  5. Genesis 35:12.
  6. Genesis 50:24-26.
  7. Joshua 24:32.
  8. Genesis 35:22.
  9. 2 Samuel 16:20-22.


Vayikra & Vayechi: Kidneys and Faces

After a delay while I wrote a dialogue for Passover and addressed some family issues, I am back at work on my book on Genesis this week, considering the moral ramifications of Joseph’s version of pardoning his ten older brothers.

Joseph’s brothers make two attempts to get Joseph to forgive them for their shameful misdeed when he was seventeen and they sold him as a slave bound for Egypt.  The second attempt happens in the last Torah portion of the book of Genesis, Vayechi.

Since their first attempt failed (see my recent post Testifying to Divine Providence )1 they try a ploy that they hope will be more persuasive; they pretend that before their father, Jacob, died, he left the following message for Joseph:

“Please sa, please, the rebellion of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you.  And now sa, please, the rebellion of the servants of the god of your father.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up! pardon! forgive!  (From the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא= lifted, raised, pardoned.)

Are they asking Joseph, who is now Pharaoh’s viceroy, to pardon them, or to forgive them?  In English, pardoning means excusing someone who committed an error or offense from some of the usual practical consequences.  A United States president can pardon someone who was convicted of a crime, commuting that person’s sentence, without having to list any extenuating circumstances.  And the president’s feelings about the offender are irrelevant.

Forgiving, on the other hand, means letting go of one’s resentment against the person who committed an error or offense.

Biblical Hebrew, however, makes no distinction between pardoning and forgiving; it only distinguishes who is doing it.  Soleach (סֺלֵחַ) means “forgiving” or “pardoning”, but it is only used in the Hebrew Bible when God is forgiving or pardoning one or more human beings.

Nosei (נֺשֵׂא) has several meanings, including pardoning, and it is something either God or a human can do.  When God or a human is pardoning someone in the Hebrew Bible, the text says either nosei their head, nosei their face, or just nosei.  The reader has to figure out from context whether it is a reference to forgiving/pardoning, or to one of the other meanings of nosei (such as taking a census for nosei their head, bestowing favor for nosei their face, or lifting and carrying an object for nosei by itself).

After Jacob dies, Joseph’s older brothers worry that Joseph might decide to take revenge on them after all.  They are still carrying guilt in their kidneys.

This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, discusses burning the kidneys of an animal slaughtered on the altar.  Elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, human kidneys are the seat of the conscience or moral sense.  (See my post on the subject by clicking here: Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  For example, Psalm 16 recognizes the kidneys as the source of a guilty conscience.

          I bless God, who has advised me;

                        Even  the nights my kidneys chastised me.  (Psalm 16:7)

When your kidneys chastise you for wronging another human being, you long for your victim to lift your face in forgiveness.

  1. Genesis 45:4-8.

Vayechi & 1 Kings: Deathbed Prophecies

There are two kinds of people whom the Hebrew Bible identifies with the word navi (נָבִיא) = prophet. These two types, I wrote in a post five years ago, are: “those who go into an altered state in order to experience God, and those who hear God whether they want to or not.”

You can click here to read that post: Haftarat Ki Tissa—1 Kings: Ecstatic versus Rational Prophets.

Elijah and Ahab at Mt. Carmel, Zurich Bible, 1531

The haftarah reading for this week is a story in the first book of Kings about the prophet Elijah staging a contest between himself and the prophets of Baal to find out whose god is the real one.  Elijah’s God wins by sending down fire to ignite the waterlogged sacrifice Elijah sets out on his altar.  The priests of Baal get no such miracle, even though they work themselves into an ecstatic frenzy.

Most of the bible’s rational prophets, from Moses to Elijah to Zechariah, have an initial experience of God, and then keep on hearing from God for the rest of their lives—because God keeps on wanting them to communicate to the general population.

Abraham, in the book of Genesis, also has a number of rational conversations with God, including personal blessings, directives, and one prediction: that his descendants will be enslaved in a foreign land for 400 years, then go free with great wealth.1  But unlike later prophets, Abraham does not share this prediction with anyone else.

His son Isaac and his grandson Jacob also hear God giving them personal blessings.2  Jacob also receives divine information about what will happen in the future—but not until he is on his deathbed.

I noticed this week, as I approach the end of the book I am writing on moral psychology in Genesis, that Jacob delivers prophecies in two of his three deathbed scenes.  In his first deathbed scene, Jacob makes Joseph swear to bury him in the family plot in Canaan.  In his second deathbed scene, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, Menasheh and Efrayim, by:

  1. declaring that they are now his (and will therefor get shares of his inheritance),
  2. symbolically hugging them to his knees, and
  3. giving them a formal blessing, with his hands resting on their heads.

Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, by Owen Jones, 1869

His right hand is supposed to go on the head of the firstborn (Menasheh), but Jacob crosses his arms so that his right hand will be on Efrayim’s head.  This bothers Joseph.

And Joseph said to his father: “Not thus, my father, because this one is the firstborn! Put your right hand on his head.”  But his father refused to, and he said: “I know, my son, I know.  He, too, will become a people, and he, too, will be great.  However, his younger brother will be greater than he, and his descendants will be abundant enough to fill nations.”  And he blessed them that day, saying: “By you [the people of] Israel will give blessings, saying: God will make you like Efrayim and Menasheh.”  And he put Efrayim before Menasheh. (Genesis 48:18-20)

The author of Genesis knows that centuries later, the tribe of Efrayim would have more people than the tribe of Menasheh, and produce the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel.  But how does Jacob know this?  Because God has given him the gift of prophecy.

In his third deathbed scene, Jacob assembles his twelve sons for the purpose of telling them “what you will encounter in the afterward of the days”.  (See my blog post Vayeilekh: The End of Days.)  First Jacob brings up his son Reuben’s past crime of incest with his father’s concubine Bilhah, and says he will no longer take precedence as the firstborn.4  This seems to be a personal consequence for Reuben, but later in the bible the tribe of Reuben is sidelined as Efrayim becomes the dominant tribe of the northern kingdom.

Jacob then gives prophecies about what will happen in the distant future to the eponymous tribes of his remaining eleven sons. Some of Jacob’s prophetic poems include predictions that come true later in the bible; for example, the tribe of Judah does provide the kings of the southern Israelite kingdom, and the tribes of Shimon and Levi do not own territories of their own.  Other prophecies apparently refer to stories that have been lost, and still mystify commentators.

When I read about how God drives some of the prophets to do their ordained work whether they wanted to or not, I think God is kind to Jacob by giving him prophecies to utter only at the end of his life.

  1. Genesis 15:13-16.  I am not counting God’s statement that Sarah would conceive (Genesis 17:16 and 18:10), since it counts as either a personal blessing or a performative utterance (God being the opener of wombs).
  2. Isaac in Gen 26:2-4 and 26:24, Jacob in a dream in Gen 28:11-16 and directly in Gen 35:9-13.
  3. Genesis 48:14.
  4. Genesis 49:3-4.

Vayechi: Serial Sobber, Part 2

Joseph Dwells in Egypt,
by James J.J. Tissot

What kind of person is Joseph in the book of Genesis/Bereishit?  Does he forgive his ten older brothers for selling him as a slave, or does he fail to notice that they need to be pardoned?1  Does he set up his elaborate charade to test them, or to punish them?2  Why, once he has been elevated from prison slave to viceroy of Egypt, does he fail to let his father know he is alive and well?3

These questions are open to interpretation.  But one thing is clear: Joseph is often moved to tears.  He sobs eight times in the book of Genesis, more than any other character in the Torah.

When an adult sobs, it is often an emotional release triggered by some change in the sobber’s perception of circumstances.  Not every adult reacts with tears, but those who do can understand Joseph, who has to work to restrain himself in moments of high emotion.

I discussed the first five times Joseph breaks down and cries in my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.  He sobs once when he overhears his older brothers privately acknowledge their guilt for selling him, and realizes they have changed.   He sobs a second time when he first sees his little brother Benjamin after 21 years.  And he sobs three times after Judah, the leader of the ten older brothers, proves his character is completely transformed: once right after Judah speaks, once when he embraces Benjamin, and again when he embraces his older brothers.

But his tears are not exhausted.  Joseph sobs three more times in the last Torah portion of Genesis, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Sixth sob

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones

After he has revealed his identity and wept upon the necks of all his brothers, Joseph invites them to move to Egypt along with their father, Jacob (also called Israel), and their whole extended family.  They arrive in Goshen, the area of the Nile delta that Joseph picked out for them, and Josephs rides his chariot there to greet his father.

And [Joseph] fell upon his neck, vayeivek upon his neck again and again.  And Israel said to Joseph: “This time I may die, after I have seen your face, that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

vayeivek (וַיֵּבְךְ) = and he sobbed, and he wept audibly.  (From the root verb bakahבָּכָּה, wept, shed tears.)

In last week’s Torah portion, when Joseph falls on Benjamin’s neck and weeps, Benjamin reciprocates.  Joseph is probably sobbing with joy over being reunited with his innocent younger brother, now that he can be himself instead of pretending to be an Egyptian.  Benjamin is probably sobbing with relief that the threatening Egyptian viceroy has turned into a long-lost brother who wishes him well.4

Joseph weeps on the necks of his other brothers because he finally accepts them as brothers rather than enemies.  They have passed his tests and proven they have become better men; and Joseph has reinterpreted their original crime as a necessary step toward a happy ending in Egypt.  His older brothers, however, do not weep along with Joseph; they are still too anxious.  But they are able to speak to him face to face.5

In this week’s portion, when Joseph weeps on the neck of his father, what change causes his emotional release?  In my post Vayeishev: What Drove Them Crazy, I argue that for years Joseph resented his father for making his ten older brothers hate him.

Jacob Blesses Joseph and Gives him the Coat, by Owen Jones

When he was an adolescent, Jacob not only showed blatant favoritism by giving Joseph alone a fancy new coat, but also regularly asked the boy to check up on his older brothers and report back.  The last time Jacob sent Joseph out to inform on his brothers, they threw him in a pit, discussed killing him, and sold him into slavery.  Joseph named his second son Menashe because he wanted to forget his whole family in Canaan, including his difficult father.6  So for 21 years he sent no message to Jacob, even after he was elevated to the position of viceroy.

Does Joseph discard his resentment now because the sight of his father reminds him of the good times in his childhood before things went south?  Or do his feelings suddenly change when he sees that his father, whom he used to obey as a dependent, is now merely the superannuated elder of a starving Canaanite family?  Joseph is the one in charge now, and he can enjoy being magnanimous to a father who is now dependent on him.  Maybe he weeps on Jacob’s neck with joy and relief that the tables have turned.

Jacob, on the other hand, stands there dry-eyed, even though he mourned over Joseph’s apparent death for 21 years.  I believe that seeing Joseph alive and well (not to mention rich and powerful) is a happy occasion for Jacob, but he is emotionally worn out.  He has no tears left.  Instead of feeling rejuvenated, Jacob declares that he can now die in peace.

At age 39, Joseph has the energy to sob with relief at the reversal in his relationship with his father.  His father, at age 130, is too exhausted to sob any more.

Seventh sob

Jacob lives for another 17 years.  Shortly before his death he includes Joseph’s first two sons in his inheritance; speaks to each of his own twelve sons; and requests burial in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan, next to his first wife (Leah), his parents, and his grandparents.

And Jacob finished giving orders to his sons, and he gathered up his feet into the bed, and he was gathered to his people.  Then Joseph fell on his father’s face, vayeivek upon him, and he kissed him.  (Genesis 49:33-50:1)

For the last seventeen years Joseph has been taking care of the old man, secure in his role as the provider rather than the vulnerable dependent.  This makes it easy for him to feel love toward Jacob and cry at his death.  He also knows that his own life will change now that he is no longer responsible for his father.

Jacob is Buried, by Owen Jones

And he may feel some lingering guilt over his earlier period of neglect.  The Torah says Joseph has his father embalmed according to the complete 40-day process.  The mourning period for Jacob lasts for 70 days—40 days during the embalming plus the traditional Israelite mourning period of 30 days.7

Next Joseph asks the pharaoh’s permission to bury Jacob in the cave of Machpelah in Canaan.  Pharaoh consents, and all twelve brothers accompany Jacob’s body to the burial place, along with an honor guard of Egyptian soldiers.

Why does Joseph arrange such a big display over Jacob’s death?  Maybe he sobbed when his father died because he suddenly realized it was too late to apologize or compensate Jacob for letting him suffer for so many years over the supposed death of his favorite son.

Final sob

All twelve brothers return to Egypt after Jacob’s burial.  Then the ten oldest ones worry that maybe Joseph refrained from taking revenge on them only because their father’s presence.  They send messengers to Joseph with instructions to tell him:

“Please pardon, please, the transgression of your brothers and their guilt, because they did evil to you.  And now pardon, please, the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.”  Vayeivek, Joseph, when they spoke to him.  (Genesis 50:17-18)

Joseph breaks into tears because he feels as if he took God’s point of view considering their crime, but now he learns that they still think of him as a potential avenger.  He probably feels hurt that they do not trust him.

And his brothers also went and fell down in front of him and said: “Here we are, your slaves.”    Then Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for am I instead of God?  And you, who designed evil against me; God redesigned it for good, in order to keep alive a large number of people to this day.”  (Genesis 50:19-20)

Then he goes a step farther than he had seventeen years before.

“So now don’t be afraid.  I will feed you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them and he spoke to their hearts.  (Genesis 50:21)

Even without explicit forgiveness, even though he insists on his role as benefactor, Joseph manages to reassure his brothers that they are safe in his hands.  But the they still do not weep.


A change that moves one person to tears may leave the other one dry-eyed.  Even when two people are both sobbing, they may have different reasons for their tears.

May we all be blessed with awareness and acceptance of the differences between ourselves and the people we are connected with.  If we cry, may we be blessed with tears of relief, and even joy.  And if tears do not come, may we find comfort when relationships change.

  1. See my posts Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving? and Vayeishev & Mikeitz: A Narcissist in the Pit and Vayiggash: Near a Narcissist.
  2. See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.
  3. See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.
  4. See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Serial Sobber, Part 1.
  5. At the beginning of the Joseph story, when Joseph is 17, the Torah says:  And his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, and they hated him, and they were not able to speak to him in peace. (Genesis 34:4)  Now they can.
  6. Genesis 41:51.
  7. The Torah adds that the Egyptians wept with Joseph for 70 days (Genesis 50:3). Some traditional commentary claims that the Egyptians were honoring Jacob because the famine ended when he arrived in Egypt, only two years after it began instead of the seven years God had originally planned.  Yet the Torah describes Joseph impoverishing the Egyptians during the famine in three stages, each lasting at least a year.  So I think the Egyptians mourn for Jacob because Joseph, the viceroy, orders them to do it.


Vayechi: Three Tribes Repudiated

Jacob/Yaakov delivers his last words to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“And he lived”).

Jacob on his Deathbed,
1539 woodcut

And Jacob called his sons and he said: “Gather, and I will tell you what will happen to you in future times.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 49:1)

Jacob, also called Israel, then launches into a long poem about the fate of the twelve tribes named after his twelve sons.1  This poem resembles the poems in the books of prophets transmitting God’s warnings and plans from the divine point of view.  Jacob pauses once to cry out: “I wait for your deliverance, God!”2  This interruption only makes the rest of his poem sound more like a direct divine prophecy.

When Jacob finishes his poem, the Torah says:

All these were the twelve tribes of Israel, and this is what their father spoke to them.  Vayevarekh them, each with what was kevirkhato he blessed them.    (Genesis 49:28)

vayevarekh (וַיְבָרֶךְ) = and he blessed.  (A form of the verb beirakh, בֵּרַךְ = bless; bestow or wish on someone the achievement of something desirable.  In the Torah, the achievement is most often prosperity, success in battle, or fertility.)

kevirkhato (כְּבִרְכָתוֹ) = according to his own blessing.  (From the same root as beirakh.)

Immediately after this sentence about blessings Jacob gives instructions for his burial, draws his feet into the bed, and dies without mentioning any of his sons’ names again.3  So the prophecies about the twelve eponymous tribes must also be the blessings.

Except for the first three sons, this is a reasonable interpretation.  Jacob blesses his fourth son (or his tribe), Judah/Yehudah, with future kingship, success in battle, and fertile vineyards.4  Zebulun, he says, will succeed in shipping, and Issachar in farming.5  He compares Dan to a snake, but at least he declares the tribe will remain part of the land of Israel.6  Gad and Benjamin/Binyamin will be successful in raiding, Asher will be wealthy, and Naftali beautiful.7  Jacob blesses Joseph/Yoseif with overall success and prosperity.8

Yet Jacob’s first three sons appear to get curses instead of blessings.

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

Reuven, my first-born are you,

my vigor and the first fruit of my potency,

Exceedingly noble,

       exceedingly fierce!

Heedless as water, you will no longer exceed,

       for you mounted your father’s bed.

That was when you desecrated it.  My couch he mounted!  (Genesis 49:3-4)

Jacob refers to a specific incident in Genesis.  After the death of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel, Reuven has intercourse with Bilhah, Rachel’s servant and Jacob’s concubine.9  Reuven may  hope to become the family’s leader through an ancient custom by which the new ruler assumes his office by having sex with the old ruler’s concubines.10  Although Reuven is the firstborn son, and therefore normally entitled to become the head of the extended family after his father’s death, Jacob is at least 119 years old.  Reuven may decide not to wait.  (Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion at age 147.)

Because of that undisciplined and defiant act, Jacob declares that Reuven is unfit for leadership.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

In the biblical tradition, leadership would then pass to the next oldest son.  But Jacob rules out both his second son, Shimon, and his third son, Levi.

Shimon and Levi are partners;

Weapons of violence are their wares.

Don’t let my soul be brought into their council!

Don’t let my honor be reckoned by their assembly!

by Marc Chagall, stained glass

For in their rage they murder a man,

and in their desire they uproot a wall.11

Accursed be their fury because it is fierce,

and their wrath because it is remorseless!

I will split them up in Jacob,

and I will scatter them in Israel.  (Genesis 49:5-7)

Since Jacob condemns Reuven on the basis of an incident during his lifetime and reported in the bible, the reader expects him to cite another such incident as his reason for criticizing Shimon and Levi.  The closest match is when the two brothers trick the rulers of Shekhem, enter the town as friends, murder the man who raped their sister Dinah, kill all the other men, destroy the town, and carry off the booty.  No doubt some walls fell.  (See my posts Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1 and Part 2.)

Then Jacob said to Shimon and Levi: “You made me shunned, odious among the inhabitants of the land!”  (Genesis 34:30)

On his deathbed, Jacob attributes Shimon and Levi’s violence to the intensity of their anger.  When he says “I will split them up in Jacob” the “I” is God, the “Jacob” is an alternate name for the territory of Israel, and the need to split them up may imply that they are more dangerous when they are together and their fiery natures combine in a conflagration of rage.

Having eliminated Reuven, Shimon, and Levi with his prophetic curses, Jacob announces that the descendants of his fourth son, Judah, will be king over other Israelites.


Looking at Jacob’s deathbed poem from the viewpoint of the history of the twelve tribes in the rest of the Hebrew Bible, only some of the predictions come true.  This is normal for biblical prophecies, which are often warnings of what will happen unless certain people change their ways.  In this case, the prophecy about Judah “comes true”; the second king of a united Israel is David, from the tribe of Judah, and his descendants continue to rule even after the northern kingdom secedes from the southern kingdom of Judah.

12 Tribes according to Joshua

The tribe of Reuven is part of the northern kingdom, but its members live in the land east of the Dead Sea, which is sometimes ruled by the Moabites who also live there.12  The tribe of Shimon occupies an enclave within the southern desert of the Kingdom of Judah, and is “scattered” only in the sense that all desert nomads are scattered.13  The tribe of Levi consists of hereditary priests and other religious functionaries.  In the book of Joshua, the Levites are assigned 48 towns in the territories allotted to the other tribes, including a few in the territory of Shimon.14  So the Levites are indeed scattered, but they are not entirely split apart from the Shimonites.

From the viewpoint of the stories in Genesis, however, Jacob’s deathbed prophecies  assign appropriate consequences for the behavior of Jacob’s first three sons.

Reuven’s attempts to take leadership, both when he beds Bilhah and when he acts regarding Joseph, are undisciplined and poorly thought out.  His eponymous tribe is cursed with never producing a king; but it gets the blessing of being a member tribe of the northern Kingdom of Israel, a.k.a. Samaria.

Since Shimon and Levi are the ringleaders in the disaster at Sheckhem, their tribes are cursed with being too scattered to lead their brother tribes into trouble again.  Yet their scattering is also a blessing; the nomadic tribe of Shimon is protected by Judah, and the Levites become a caste of priests and clerics with authority throughout Israel.

I think Jacob’s first prophecies are indeed blessings.  When people have been bad leaders, it is a blessing for them, as well as for their followers, to have their leadership removed—and for the former leaders to continue to be included in the larger community, like Reuven and Shimon.

by Francisco Coelho, 1675

As for Levi, it is a great blessing when people who are inflamed by intense feelings do wrong, are stripped of leadership, and then change their hearts and apply their passionate natures to positive acts for a good cause.

May we all “bless” leaders with their appropriate fates, as Jacob did.  May we work to remove leadership from those who abuse it.  May we accept all human beings as flawed but precious individuals.  And may we be able to recognize when others have truly changed.

  1. Jacob’s wives name his first eleven sons in Genesis 29:31-30:24; Jacob names his twelfth son Benjamin/Binyamin in Genesis 35:18. The first mention of “twelve tribes’ in the bible is in Genesis 49:28, at the end of Jacob’s poem.  Elsewhere in the Torah there are always twelve tribes, but they are not always identical with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons.  Whenever Shimon or Levi is omitted from the list, then Joseph is replaced by tribes named after his own two sons (adopted by Jacob), Efrayim and Menasheh.
  2. Genesis 49:18.
  3. Genesis 49:29-33.
  4. Genesis 49:8-12.
  5. Genesis 49:13-14.
  6. Genesis 49:16-17.
  7. Genesis 49:19-21, 27.
  8. Genesis 49:22-26. (Jacob’s references to God as “Shaddai” and blessings from “the heavens above” echo Isaac’s blessing of Jacob in Genesis 27:28 and 28:3.)
  9. Genesis 35:22.
  10. Absalom slept with King David’s concubines for that purpose in 2 Samuel 16:21-22.
  11. Another legitimate translation of the third couplet is some version of:

For in their rage they murder a man,

              and in their desire they cripple an ox.

How can the last two words be translated as either “uproot a wall” or “cripple an ox”?  In the Masoretic text the phrase is עִקְּרוּ שׁוֹרIkru (עִקְּרוּ) = uproot, cripple.  Shor (שׁוֹר) = bull, ox, steer.  The Masoretic text is based on earlier scrolls that did not use vowel pointing.  Although translations generally assume the Masoretes assigned the correct vowels to the words in the bible, Robert Alter makes a case that in Genesis 49:6 a better reading of the final word is shur (שׁוּר) = wall.  (Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 284.)

  1. Numbers 32:1-32, Joshua 2:1-7, 1 Chronicles 5:18-22.
  2. Joshua 19:1-9.
  3. Joshua 21:4.

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving?

Salachtikha; I forgive you.

Joseph never says that.  But then, no form of the verb salach, סָלַח (forgave) appears in the book of Genesis/Bereishit.  When the word shows up elsewhere in the Bible, it is always God, not a human being, who forgives.

Joseph in Prison,
by James Tissot

However, Joseph does know about pardoning, which men in command can do.  In the Torah portion Vayeishev he interprets the dreams of two of his fellow inmates in an Egyptian prison.  He tells one, the pharaoh’s chief cupbearer:

“In another three days the pharaoh yissa your head and he will restore you to your position and you will put the pharaoh’s cup on his palm…”  (Genesis/Bereishit 40:13)

yissa (יִשָׂא) = he will lift. To lift up someone’s head is an idiom meaning “to pardon”.  (A form of the root verb nasa, נָשָׂא = lifted, raised high, carried.)

Joseph then interprets the chief baker’s dream:

“In another three days the pharaoh yissa your head off you, and he will impale you on a pole and the birds will eat your flesh off you.”  And it was the third day, the birthday of the pharaoh, and he made a banquet for all of his servants.  Vayissa the head of the chief cupbearer and the head of the chief baker from among his servants.  And he restored the chief cupbearer to bearing cups, and he put the pharaoh’s cup on his palm.  But the chief baker he impaled…  (Genesis 40:19-22)

vayissa (וַיִּשָּׁא) = and he lifted.  (From the root verb nasa.)

The pharaoh lifts up the cupbearer’s head, pardoning him; but he lifts off the baker’s head, executing him.

Two years later, Joseph is brought up from prison to interpret two dreams of the pharaoh, and by the end of their conversation the pharaoh has made Joseph the viceroy of Egypt.1

Joseph wants to forget his family back in Canaan, especially his ten older brothers, who hated him so much they were not able to speak to him in peace2, and his father, who was responsible both for creating the discord among his sons and for sending Joseph out alone to find and report back on his brothers.  (See my post Mikeitz: Forgetting a Father.)  The brothers seized him, threw him in a pit, then sold him as a slave to a caravan bound for Egypt.

When he sees his brothers again, Joseph is 37 years old and the viceroy of Egypt.  He now has the power to execute his brothers or to pardon them.

He decides to test them first.  He overhears them express remorse over how they treated their younger brother Joseph.  Then the brothers undergo a series of tests, and Joseph concludes that they have changed.  (See my post Mikeitz & Vayiggash: Testing.)  The tests are mysterious to Joseph’s brothers because they do not recognize him; they assume their younger brother died as a slave, and the viceroy is an Egyptian.

The conditions are ripe for forgiveness; Joseph’s older brothers have expressed remorse, and he can now trust them not to harm him or his younger brother Benjamin.  But does Joseph ever forgive—or at least pardon—his brothers?  Does he forgive his father for putting him in danger?

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his brothers?

Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers after they refuse to leave Egypt without Benjamin, the youngest of Jacob’s sons and the only one with the same mother as Joseph.

And Joseph said to his brothers: “I am Joseph.  Is my father really still alive!”  But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were aghast before his face.  (Genesis/Bereishit 45:3)

His brothers are too stunned, and perhaps terrified, to answer.  The man who has absolute power over them is the man whom they once sold into slavery.

Meanwhile, Joseph realizes that events had to unfold this way, or his whole extended family would have starved to death during the famine.  His brothers’ crime was necessary to get Joseph to Egypt, where God inspired him to interpret the pharaoh’s dreams and he became the viceroy in charge of the only food supply in the region.

“And now, don’t worry, and don’t be angry with yourselves that you sold me here, because God sent me ahead of you to preserve life.  For this pair of years the famine has been in the land, and for another five years there will be no plowing nor harvest.  So God sent me ahead of you to set up food for you in the land and to keep you alive as a large group of survivors.” (Genesis/Bereishit 45:5-7)

By telling his older brothers not to worry or be angry with themselves over their crime, Joseph is telling them that the concept of guilt does not apply in their case.  They are not responsible for their bad deed; God made them do it.

So now, you did not send me here, but God!  And He has set me up as a father-figure to the pharaoh, and as the master of all his household, and as the ruler of all the land of Egypt.  (Genesis/Berishit 45:8)

Now, Joseph thinks, he can be a hero and save everyone—his brothers, his father, and the whole extended family.

“Hurry and go up to my father and say to him: Thus said your son Joseph:  God placed me as master of all Egypt.  Come down to me, don’t stand still.  And you shall dwell in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and the children of your children, and your flocks and your herds and everything that is yours.  And I will provide for you there …” (Genesis 45:9-11)

Although Joseph starts off attributing everything to God, he ends up promising that he, Joseph, will be a father-figure to his own family, as well as to the pharaoh.  He is in charge.3  And he wants his actual father, Jacob, to be impressed by his long-lost son’s power.

“And you must tell my father about all my honor in Egypt, and all that you have seen.  And you must hurry and bring my father down here.”  (Genesis 45:13)

Joseph Embraces Benjamin,
by Owen Jones, 1869

Having reduced his brothers to mere dependents, Joseph embraces Benjamin and weeps.  Benjamin hugs him back, also weeping.

Then he kissed all his brothers and he wept upon them, and after that his brothers spoke to him.  (Genesis 45:15)

Maybe now his older brothers can “speak to him in peace” because they no longer hate him.  Or maybe their hatred has been replaced by fear.  Benjamin, who was six years old and at home when the older brothers sold Joseph, can embrace his long-lost brother.  But the ten older men merely speak; they neither cry, nor kiss Joseph, nor embrace him.

By denying that his brothers made a choice to sell him into slavery, Joseph shows that he does not respect them as adult human beings who are responsible for their own actions.  Personally, I would rather admit a crime and apologize for it, than be silenced because my victim insists I had no freedom of choice.

As far as Joseph is concerned, he has absolved his older brothers of guilt and reconciled with him.  But his brothers do not see it that way.  Joseph’s speech allays their fear of retribution for a while, but it does not resolve their guilt.

Vayiggash: Does Joseph forgive his father?

Joseph sends his brothers back to Canaan with gifts, and his whole extended family moves to Egypt to live under Joseph’s protection.

Joseph and Jacob Reunited,
by Owen Jones 1869

Joseph hitched up his chariot and went up to Goshen to meet Israel [a.k.a. Jacob], his father.  And he [Joseph] appeared to him, and he fell upon his neck, and he wept upon his neck a while.  Then Israel said to Joseph: “I can die now, after seeing your face, [knowing] that you are still alive.”  (Genesis 46:29-30)

Like many parents, Jacob does not know that he failed his son, so he does not apologize.  Joseph could bring up what his father did 22 years before, and hope for an apology.  (See my post Miketiz: Forgetting a Father.)  Instead he treats Jacob the same way he treated the innocent Benjamin.  There is no apology and no forgiveness; both father and son act as if their relationship is just fine.

This may be pragmatism on Joseph’s part.  After all, Joseph has all the authority now, and he knows Jacob is not an insightful person.  Why stir up old trouble?

Or Joseph may be thinking that if his father had not played favorites, then sent him alone into danger, he would never have been sold to the caravan headed for Egypt.  Therefore God must have arranged Jacob’s behavior, too.

Vayechi: Does Joseph forgive his brothers after Jacob’s death?

Jacob dies in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).  Then his ten older sons become afraid that Joseph only restrained himself from executing them so as not to upset Jacob.  In desperation, they invent a deathbed command.

And the brothers of Joseph saw that their father was dead, and they said: “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and he indeed pays us back for all the evil that we rendered to him?”  And they sent an order to Joseph saying: “Your father gave an order before he died, saying: Thus you shall say to Joseph: Please sa, please, the offense of your brothers and their guilt because of the evil they rendered to you. And now sa, please, the offense of the servants of the god of your father.”  And Joseph wept over the words to him.  (Genesis 50:15-17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift!  (A form of the verb nasa.)

This communication proves that Joseph’s brothers did not feel pardoned or forgiven when he first told them that God arranged everything, including their crime.

And they do not feel safe with Joseph.  Why should they?  According to Joseph’s philosophy, anyone might become a puppet in God’s hands, deprived of free will.  In such a universe, no one can be trusted.

On the other hand, if Joseph is wrong and humans do have a measure of free will, they still cannot trust Joseph.

by James Tissot

Then his brothers even went and threw themselves down before him, and they said: “Here we are, your slaves.”  And Joseph said to them: “Don’t be afraid!  Am I instead of God?4 And you, you planned evil for me, but God planned it for good, in order to bring about this time of keeping many people alive.”  (Genesis 50:18-20)

Joseph implies that only God can decide whether to punish the brothers.  He also continues to make God responsible for his brothers’ crime.  And although their false deathbed order explicitly begs Joseph to pardon—sa!—his brothers, he does not do so.  Instead he says:

“And now, don’t be afraid; I, myself, will provide for you and your little ones.”  And he comforted them and he spoke upon their hearts.  (Genesis 50:21)

In the Torah, to speak upon someone’s heart is an idiom for changing that person’s feelings.  (See my post Vayishlach: Change of Heart, Part 1.)  Joseph both comforts his brothers and persuades them that he will continue to be responsible for their well-being.  Even without a pardon, they finally trust Joseph.

Forgiveness or pardon is not the only road to reconciliation.


It’s a tall order, but I try to do better than Joseph.  When people offer me apologies, explicitly or implicitly, I remember Joseph, and I am careful to accept them.  Instead of saying merely, “It’s okay,” I say: “It’s okay, I forgive you.”  I do not want anyone to suffer lingering guilt or uncertainty on my account.

On the other hand, if people wrong me or those I love, and they never admit it nor apologize, I struggle to forgive them.  Sometimes I can reach a working relationship with them, but I never feel safe.  Any reconciliation is incomplete.

May we all be blessed with a greater ability to be responsible for our own actions, to apologize, to forgive, and to change.

  1. Genesis 41:1-41.
  2. Genesis 37:4.
  3. Although Joseph is indeed second only to the pharaoh in power, he is not the absolute ruler he claims to be when he is bragging to his brothers. Later he has to ask the pharaoh for authorization for his family to settle in Goshen (Genesis 46:31-34) and for permission to leave Egypt to bury his father (Genesis 50:4-6).
  4. Jacob protested “Am I instead of God?” when Rachel, his second wife, has not become pregnant and she demands that Jacob give her children (Genesis 30:2, Vayeitzei).

Haftarat Vayechi—1 Kings: Last Words

Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets) in the Jewish tradition. This week’s Torah portion is Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26), and the haftarah is 1 Kings 2:1-12.

Old Man on his Deathbed, by Gustav Klimt
by Gustav Klimt

Sometimes a deathbed scene is silent; the dying person is unable to speak, or cannot even recognize the one waiting and hoping for a goodbye. But sometimes there are last words.These words might express acknowledgement, affection, even appreciation. Or the dying person might complain, give advice, or issue an order.

Giving a deathbed blessing is different from extracting a deathbed promise.

The Hebrew Bible offers two complete deathbed scenes: Jacob’s speeches to his twelve sons in this week’s Torah portion, and David’s final words to his son Solomon in this week’s haftarah.


The Torah portion Vayechi offers three stories of the death of Jacob (also called “Israel”). In the first, Jacob gives an extremely polite order.

Route of Jacob's funeral cortege
Route of Jacob’s funeral cortege

And the time came close for Israel to die, and he summoned his son Joseph, and he said to him: “If, please, I have found favor in your eyes, please place your hand under my thigh and do with me chesed and fidelity: please do not bury me in Egypt. When I lie down with my fathers, then take me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.” And he [Joseph] said: “I myself will do as you have spoken”. And he [Jacob] said: “Swear to me!” And he swore to him. And Israel bowed down at the head of the bed. (Genesis 47:29-31)

chesed (חֶסֶד) = expected kindness; kindness out of loyalty to a family member or treaty partner.

In Egypt, Joseph is the pharaoh’s viceroy, and his father Jacob is only a guest. Although Jacob uses subservient language, he still reminds Joseph that he owes his father loyalty. Then he extracts a deathbed promise from Joseph: to bury him in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah where Jacob’s parents and grandparents are buried.

Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt
Jacob Blessing the Sons of Joseph, by Rembrandt

And it happened after these things, someone said to Joseph: “Hey! Your father is weakening.” So he took his two sons with him, Menasheh and Efrayim. And Jacob was told: “Hey! Your son Joseph has come to you. And Israel mustered his strength and sat up on the bed. (Genesis 48:1-2)

In this second story, Jacob adopts Joseph’s two sons, giving them each a share of his estate. He kisses them, then blesses Joseph and his sons: the ultimate expression of acknowledgement and appreciation.

But Jacob has eleven other sons, and he addresses all twelve sons in a third deathbed story.

And Jacob summoned his sons, and he said: “Gather and I will tell you what will meet you in the end of days.” (Genesis 49:1)

Jacob delivers a long poem with a prophecy about the tribe that will descend from each of his sons. Only one remark is unmistakably about the son himself: a complaint about Reuben.

For when you climbed up on the lying-down place of your father

That was when you profaned it. My couch he climbed!  (Genesis 49:4)

Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut
Jacob on his Deathbed, 1539 woodcut

Jacob still holds a grudge against Reuben for having intercourse with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah some 40 years earlier1. At the conclusion of the poem, a sentence that scholars attribute to a later redactor of the Hebrew Bible credits Jacob with blessing all his sons.

All these are the tribes of Israel, twelve, and this is what their father spoke to them. And he blessed them, each one according to his blessing he blessed them. (Genesis 49:28)

Finally Jacob returns to the subject most on his mind.

Vayetzav them, and he said to them: “I am being gathered to my people. Bury me with my fathers, in the cave … And Jacob finished letzavot with his sons, and he gathered his feet into the bed, and he expired, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:29, 49:33)

Vayetzav (וַיְצַו) = And he commanded, and he ordered. (From the root verb tzivah (צִוָּה) = commanded.)

letzavot  (לְצַוֺּת) = Commanding, giving orders. (Also from the root verb tzivah.)

In his three deathbed speeches, Jacob expresses acknowledgement and appreciation of his twelve sons (and two of his grandsons) by blessing them. He complains about Reuben. He gives prophecies rather than advice. And he repeats his orders about where he must be buried, but he has no other final requests.


And David came close to the time of death, vayetzav his son Solomon, saying: I am going according to the way of all the earth. And you must be strong and you must be an adult. (1 Kings 2:1-2)

David’s first command or order to Solomon sounds more like advice. Now that his young son has become the king of Israel, he must behave like a strong adult.

david-on-deathbedNext come two sentences in a different linguistic style, using synonyms in multiple phrases. Modern scholar Robert Alter has argued that these verses were added later by the editor of Deuteronomy, in order to improve David’s reputation.

And you must guard the custody of God, your god, to walk according to Its ways, to guard Its decrees, Its commandments, and Its rules, and Its admonitions, as written in the Teaching of Moses, so that you shall act with insight in everything that you do and everywhere you turn. So that God will establish Its word that It spoke concerning me, saying: if your descendants guard the way they take before Me faithfully, with all their heart and with all their soul—saying: yours will not be cut off from upon the throne of Israel. (1 Kings 2:3-4)

David reminds Solomon that as king, he must be a guardian of the religion of Israel, and base his own royal decisions on its rules. Then he gives the reason for his pious advice: so that his descendants to rule as kings of Israel forever.

The language of David’s deathbed speech reverts to a simpler style as he remembers the worst part of his life, when his beloved older son Absalom staged a coup and took over Jerusalem. Now he broods about unfinished business from those days.

He tells his son Solomon:

And furthermore, you know what Joab son of Tzeruyah did to me, what he did to two commanders of armies of Israel, to Avneir son of Neir and to Amasa son of Yeter: he killed them and he shed the blood of war beshalom…(1 Kings 2:5)

beshalom  (בְּשָׁלֺם) = in peace, in peacetime.

David became the king of all Israel through a treaty with his opponent’s general, Avneir. Then David’s general, Joab, assassinated Avneir.2

Joab kills Amasa
Joab kills Amasa

About 20 years later, Absalom usurped his father’s throne. David fled with his supporters, including Joab. When David’s army defeated Absalom’s, Joab quickly killed Absalom despite David’s order to the contrary.3 After David was reinstalled as king, he pardoned Absalom’s general, Amasa, but this did not stop Joab from murdering him under the cover of a friendly embrace.4 David did not dare punish Joab for either killing.

And so you must act in accordance with your wisdom, and you must not let his gray hair go down beshalom to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:6)

Even as David criticizes Joab for killing two generals in times of peace, he orders Solomon to kill Joab in peacetimeand make sure he does not die peacefully.

But with the sons of Barzillai of the Gilead, you shall do chesed. And they must eat at your table, because they came close to me when I fled from Absalom, your brother. (1 Kings 2:7)

While Absalom controlled Jerusalem, Barzillai had fed David and his men in exile at Machanayim. When David returned to the capital, he promised to reward Barzillai and provide for his son.5 Now David orders his son Solomon to honor that promise.

Shimi throws stones at David
Shimi throws stones at David

Then he issues a third command. When David fled from Jerusalem, Shimi son of Geira hurled stones and insults at him on the road.6 When he returned in triumph, Shimi apologized for his wrongdoing, accompanied by a thousand Benjaminites who offered to serve King David. David had little choice but to accept the apology and swear not to execute him.7 But David still resents Shimi.

So you must not leave him unpunished, because you are a wise man, and you know what you will do to him and send down his gray hair in blood to Sheol. (1 Kings 2:9)

That is the last thing David says before he dies. Once again, he compliments his son for being wise enough to figure out how to carry out his father’s revenge, but does not trust him to make his own decision.

And David slept with his fathers, and he was buried in the City of David. (1 Kings 2:10)

His acknowledgement of Solomon’s wisdom is overshadowed by his demands that Solomon carry out his orders, including finding pretexts to execute two powerful men. Is David so self-centered that his only concern on his deathbed is making his successor promise to avenge him?  Or is David urging Solomon to get rid of Joab and Shimi before they make Solomon suffer, too?

Either way, David’s death is not peaceful. He expresses appreciation for Solomon’s wisdom only in order to assure him he can carry out his father’s commands.  He complains bitterly about Joab and Shimi. He gives Solomon advice about following his religion, but he also issues commands about killing Joab, rewarding Barzillai, and killing Shimi. His last thoughts are about murder and revenge.

Although Jacob is self-centered earlier in his life, on his deathbed he has a broader view than David.  His only command concerns his own burial. He is affectionate with one of his sons, Joseph, and two grandsons. He blesses them, and gives prophecies and blessings to his other sons, despite his complaint about Reuben. Jacob dies with dignity, passing on more blessings than obligations to the next generation.

I pray that my own last words (many years from now, God willing!) will be only blessings. And in case I am not granted a deathbed scene in which I can speak to those I am leaving, I am resolved to express acknowledgement and appreciation every day, and avoid complaining about people and giving excessive advice. May the Holy One grant me the strength!


1 Genesis 35:22.

2 After the death of King Saul, David took control of Judah and Saul’s son Ish-Boshet took over the Israelite lands to the north. For two years they fought for the kingship of all Israel, until Ish-Boshet’s general, Avneir, persuaded him to let David be the king. Avneir made a treaty with David, but afterward Joab tracked him down and assassinated him. David cursed Joab, but did not dare demote him. (2 Samuel 3:6-34)

Later, King David got Bathsheba pregnant, and used General Joab to get rid of her husband Uriah. (2 Samuel 11:1-21)  After that, the already powerful Joab was ungovernable.

3 2 Samuel 18:5-17.

4 After Joab kills Absalom, David sends a message to Absalom’s general, Amasa. “And to Amasa you shall say: Aren’t you my own bone and flesh? May God do this and more to me if you do not become my army commander for all time instead of Joab! (2 Samuel 19:14) David succeeds in recruiting Amasa as one of his own commanders, but his attempt to replace Joab fails; when they are chasing down a band of rebels, Joab tricks Amasa by reaching to kiss him with one hand and knifing him with the other (2 Samuel 20:8-13).

5  2 Samuel 19:32-39.

6  2 Samuel 16:5-8.

7  2 Samuel 19:17-24.  When David became bedridden and his older son Adoniyah made a bid for the kingship, Shimi joined Solomon’s faction (1 Kings 1:8).

Vayeitzei & Vayechi: No Substitute

by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

Am I tachat God? (Genesis/Bereshit 50:19)

tachat (תַּחַת) = underneath, under the authority of; instead of, a substitute for, in exchange for.

Two people in the Hebrew Bible ask this question. Jacob says it to his favorite wife, Rachel, in the Torah portion Vayeitzei (“and he went”). Almost 60 years later, their son Joseph says it to his brothers in this week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (“and he lived”).

Jacob instead of God

from "Jacob and Rachel" by William Dyce
from “Jacob and Rachel” by William Dyce

Jacob throws the question at Rachel right after she has spoken for the first time in the Torah, more than ten years after Jacob first sees her and kisses her. Their romance is not smooth. Jacob serves her father Lavan for seven years as Rachel’s bride-price, and then on his wedding day, Lavan tricks him and marries him to Rachel’s sister Leah. Jacob’s wedding with Rachel follows a week later, once he commits to working an additional seven years. Leah has four sons before Rachel speaks up.

And Rachel saw that she had not borne children to Jacob, and she was envious of her sister. And she said to Jacob: Give me children!—and if not, I am dead. Then Jacob was angry with Rachel, and he said: Am I tachat God, who withheld from you fruit of the womb? (Genesis 30:1-2)

Rachel’s demand makes Jacob angry for more than one reason. When she says that without children, she is dead, Rachel implies that Jacob’s devotion is not enough to make her life worthwhile. Naturally Jacob’s anger flashes. And it is not his fault that Rachel is infertile. So he demands: Am I tachat God?

He cannot be a substitute for God. Only God can “open the womb” of an infertile woman.

It does not occur to Jacob to pray to God, as his father Isaac prayed for his mother Rebecca to conceive. But his rebuff does lead Rachel to take her own action. She gives her slave-woman, Bilhah, to Jacob as a wife, then adopts Bilhah’s two sons as her own.

Through this human solution, Jacob actually does give Rachel children, tachat—instead of—God.

Joseph instead of God

After Rachel has two adopted sons, God does open her womb, and she gives birth to Joseph. The family continues to be dysfunctional; Joseph’s ten older brothers hate him and sell him as a slave bound for Egypt. When they are reunited twenty years later, Joseph tells them not to worry about their past crime, because God planned it all in order to get him to Egypt and elevate him to viceroy so he could feed everyone during the seven-year famine. The whole clan, including the patriarch Jacob, Joseph’s brothers, and their families, immigrate to Egypt under Joseph’s protection.

But after Jacob dies, we learn that Joseph’s brothers are still worried about retribution. Like Rachel, they “see” a problem.

And Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, and they said: If Joseph bears a grudge against us, then he will certainly pay us back for all the evil that we did to him! (Genesis 50:15)

They assume that their father’s words would carry more weight with Joseph than their own, and they send Joseph what they claim is a deathbed request from Jacob:

Please sa, please, the crime and the offense of your brothers, when they did evil to you; now sa, please, the crime of the servants of your father’s god. (Genesis 50:17)

sa (שָׂא) = lift up. (To lift up a man’s head was to legally pardon him.)

And Joseph sobbed when they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:17)

Unlike Jacob, Joseph is not angry when he asks: Am I tachat God? Instead, his brothers’ clumsy and obsequious request makes him cry. Perhaps he cries because his brothers cannot speak to him directly. Or perhaps he cries in frustration, because he thought everything was settled, and now he has to deal with the issue all over again.

And his brothers also went and flung themselves down in front of him, and they said: Here we are, your slaves. (Genesis 50:17-18)

Nothing has changed in the seventeen years since Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers. His older brothers still feel guilty. Joseph is sobbing again.  His brothers bow down to him again, and offer to be his slaves again. (See my  post Vayiggash: A Serial Sobber.)

joseph_receives_his_brothers_cameoAnd Joseph said to them:  Do not be afraid. For am I tachat God? While you planned evil against me, God planned it for good, in order to accomplish what is today, keeping many people alive. (Genesis 50:19-20)

Joseph said something similar seventeen years before:

And now, do not be worried and do not be angry at yourselves because you sold me here; because God sent me ahead of you for preservation of life. (Genesis 45:5)

Contemporary commentator Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg made the case that the first time Joseph tells his brothers their crime is part of God’s plan, he is suddenly seeing the big picture. His enslavement was a necessary step to reach his present position as the viceroy, enabling him to save his own family and many other people from starvation. Joseph drops his own resentment against his brothers, and he hopes that sharing his vision of big picture will let his brothers drop their guilt.

But years later, when their father dies, Joseph finds out that his brothers still feel guilty. And he still does not realize that what they need is forgiveness, or at least a pardon. (See my  post Vayiggash & Vayechi: Forgiving.) Instead, he once again declares that their evil deed turned out to be part of God’s plan. Joseph continues:

And now, do not be afraid; I myself will sustain you and your little ones. And he comforted them, and he spoke to their hearts. (Genesis 50:21)

Joseph’s brothers are comforted because his promise to sustain them—to keep them alive and well—implies that he no longer hates or resents them. Even though they do not get the relief of explicit forgiveness, they know that at least they do not need to worry about future retribution from their powerful brother.

Targum Onkelos, written around 100 C.E., translated Joseph’s statement “For am I tachat God?” as: “For I am subordinate to God”. In other words, this time tachat means “under” instead of “a substitute for”. In the 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno took this interpretation further by explaining that Joseph considered his brothers God’s agents. It was not his place to judge God’s agents, just as it was not his place to judge God’s plans.

Nevertheless, Joseph acts almost like a substitute for God. As viceroy of Egypt and distributor of food, he decides who will live and who will die.

Two substitutions

When Jacob tells Rachel he is no substitute for God as an opener of wombs, she finds another way he can give her the children she wants.  When Joseph tells his brothers he is no substitute for God as a judge of men, they do not find another way to get the human pardon or forgiveness they want.  They still cannot speak to Joseph directly. But he offers them a substitute for forgiveness: the reassurance that he will not punish them.

Am I tachat God?” is a good question for us to ask ourselves today. Am I trying to do something no human can do? If so, is there another way to achieve a desirable outcome? Or am I acting like God when I should be acting like a human being toward someone? If so, how can I come down off my pedestal and have a true heart-to-heart conversation?

Vayiggash & Vayechi: Old Age and Death

Old age does not begin on a particular birthday. It begins when we foresee the end of our lives, pull back from asserting ourselves in the world, and pass down our teachings, blessings, and gifts to the next generation.

In the book of Genesis/Berieshit, Abraham’s old age begins when he is 137.  After he buries his wife Sarah, he stops traveling and making deals with other clans.  He commissions his steward to journey to Aram to arrange a marriage for his son Isaac.  Once that is done, Abraham takes a new wife and sires six more sons, obviously enjoying his retirement.  His only other activity is to arrange his estate.  He gives gifts to his new sons, then leaves the balance of his estate to Isaac.

Abraham passes down gifts before he dies, at age 175.  But the Torah does not say he blesses anyone.

Abraham breathed his last and he died at a good old age, old and sated; and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)

Isaac’s old age is less pleasant. At age 123, when he wants to give a deathbed blessing, he is blind and cannot get up easily. His wife Rebecca does not trust him to give the right blessing to the right son, so she cooks up a deception that results in both their sons leaving home. Then Isaac lingers on  for another 57 years, presumably still blind and bedridden, while his sons Jacob and Esau have adventures and build up their own clans. Isaac finally dies at age 180.

And Isaac breathed his last, and he died, and he was gathered to his people, old and sated in days; and his sons Esau and Jacob buried him. (Genesis 35:29)

The Torah does not describe Isaac’s death exactly the same way as Abraham’s. While Abraham dies at a good old age, sated with life, Isaac apparently dies feeling that he has spent more than enough time waiting for death.

Isaac’s son Jacob wants to die prematurely. When his older sons bring him the bloody tunic of his beloved son Joseph. Jacob jumps to the conclusion that Joseph is dead, and says:

… I will go down to my son in mourning, to Sheol. (Genesis 37:35)

Jacob sees no reason to go on living without either of the two people he loves the most: his second wife, Rachel, and their older son, Joseph. He is depressed and inconsolable for a long time, but eventually he becomes attached to  Rachel’s younger son, Benjamin, and takes an interest in life again—at least enough so that when the famine comes,he sends his ten older sons to Egypt to buy food. Nine of them return, with the news that the viceroy of Egypt imprisoned Shimon, and they cannot go back to Egypt and liberate him unless they bring Benjamin with them. Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go. He retains control of the family, keeping his remaining sons at home until Judah takes responsibility for Benjamin’s life. Then Jacob tells his sons what to take with them to Egypt and how to approach the viceroy. He is still in charge. But he demonstrates a new maturity when he says:

And may God of Nurture grant you mercy before the man, so he will send you off with your other brother and with Benjamin. And as for myself, when I am bereaved, I am bereaved. (Genesis 43:14)

In this week’s Torah portion, Vayiggash (And he stepped close), the viceroy of Egypt reveals that he is actually Joseph. He sends all eleven of his brothers back to Jacob, along with wagons, donkeys, and provisions, so that the whole clan can move to Egypt.

They went up from Egypt and they came to the land of Canaan, to Jacob, their father. And they told him, saying Joseph was still alive, and that he was ruling over the whole land of Egypt; but his heart was numb, because he did not trust them. Then they spoke to him all the words that Joseph had spoken to them, and he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to give him dignity. Then the spirit of Jacob, their father, revived. So Israel said: How great! Joseph, my son, is still alive! I will go and I will see him before I die. (Genesis 45:25-28)

After Jacob’s spirit revives, the Torah calls him by the name Israel, the name he earned by wrestling with God and man. As Israel, his better self, he is willing to go to a foreign land where he will be a dependent on his son. To see Joseph again, he is willing to give up being the man in charge of his clan. He is willing, at age 130, to embrace old age. He acknowledges his coming death, but he no longer wants to rush into it.

In next week’s Torah portion, Vayechi (And he lived), Jacob/Israel lives for another 17 years in Egypt. He is no longer in charge of his clan, but he is with his beloved Joseph. At the end of his life, Jacob becomes blind, but when he blesses Joseph’s two sons, he knows exactly what he is doing. Then, before he dies, he passes on his insights in the form of a different individual prophecy for each of his twelve sons, followed by twelve individual blessings. He gives instructions for his burial.

Then Jacob finished directing his sons, and he gathered his feet into the mitah, and he breathed his last, and he was gathered to his people. (Genesis 49:33)

mitah = bed of blankets. (from the same root as matteh = staff, branch, tribe)

I think Jacob achieves a good old age, perhaps better than Abraham’s. He does not sire any more children, but he does give teachings and blessings before he dies. The sentence describing his death can be read as saying that he gathered himself into his tribe, before he was gathered by death.

This month I am watching my stepfather face his approaching death, and I feel sad that he cannot enjoy more of the good life he found in his old age.

I am also reflecting on my own old age. I am only 58, but I wonder: Is it time to let go of some of my responsibilities and authority? Is it time to pull back from asserting myself in the world, and focus instead on teaching and giving blessings? Maybe if I walk into the next stage of my life now, my old age will be long and fruitful, like Abraham’s. Maybe I will even become wise in old age, like Jacob.

It is not easy to accept old age and death. But I believe acceptance can lead to contentment.