Passover, Vayeishev & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 1

March 24, 2021 at 7:21 pm | Posted in Mikeitz, Passover/Pesach, Vayeishev | 1 Comment

The number four is big in the Passover/Pesach seder.  The Haggadah (the script for the ritual) is punctuated by four cups of wine.  Between the first cup and the second, the youngest person present sings the four questions, we read about four rabbis who stayed up all night, and we answer questions from four kinds of children.

The Four Seder-night Sons, American Haggadah, circa 1920

“The Four Sons” Passover tradition is first reported in the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and might date as early as the second century C.E.1

There are four sons: a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and one who does not know how to ask.  (Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, 13:14)2

The Torah prescribes what a father should say to a son on Pesach four times.3  Three of these instructions are preceded in the Torah by a hypothetical question from a child.  These three questions are similar in the Torah, the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, and the Haggadah:

  1. The “wise child”: “What are the terms and the decrees and the laws which God, our God, has commanded us?”
  2. The “wicked child”: “What does this service mean to you?”
  3. The “simple child”: “What is this?”
  4. The “child who does not know how to ask”.  (This child corresponds to an implied question about why everyone must eat only unleavened bread during the seven-day festival.  Moses gives the answer: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: This is because God did for me when I went free from Egypt.”  (Exodus 13:8))

The three questions may be similar, but the answers in the Haggadah leave out a lot of the information in the Torah, and one answer, to the so-called wicked child, is quite different.3  You can compare the Torah versions and the Haggadah versions in my 2019 post: Pesach: Changing Four Sons.

Every year as Pesach approaches, I enjoy playing with the idea of four kinds of children.  In 2012 I applied the four children model to Aaron’s four sons in this post: Shemini: Aaron’s Four SonsIn 2014 I wrote a post about the four children in terms of the four worlds of kabbalah in this post: Passover: Children of Four Worlds.

This year I am writing my book on morality in Genesis, and thinking about  Jacob’s twelve sons and one daughter.  Only three of his children get speaking roles in the Torah: Reuben, Judah, and Joseph.  Do they correspond to the three children who ask questions in the Haggadah?  What about the fourth child, the silent one?

Reuben: Unwise Son

Reuben, Jacob’s oldest son, is an unwise “wise child”.  I can imagine him asking for all the rules because he wants to do the right thing.  But then he blunders into some stupidity and messes it up.

When Joseph’s ten older brothers see him from a distance and plot to seize him, throw him into a pit, and kill him, Reuben says: “Let us not take his life!”  His brothers ignore him, so he waters down his protest.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw him into that pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t send a hand against him!”—in order to rescue him from their hand and restore him to his father.  (Genesis/Bereishit 37:22)

After Joseph is at the bottom of the pit, the other brothers sit down for a meal, but Reuben wanders away for some reason not recorded in the Torah.  Early commentators invented excuses for Reuben’s absence at the critical moment, but I maintain Reuben is not thinking clearly.  What could be more important than staying near the pit in case his murderous brothers suddenly decide to act?

And they do.  While Reuben is gone, Judah proposes selling Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan headed for Egypt.

And he [Reuben] returned to his brothers, and he said: “The boy is not here!  And I, where can I go?”  (Genesis 37:30)

Reuben intended to do the right thing, but he was not wise enough to carry it out properly.

Twenty-one years later, during the first year of a long famine, the viceroy of Egypt tells the ten brothers that he will not sell them grain again unless they bring their youngest brother down with them.  Back in Canaan the famine continues a second year, and the brothers try to persuade their father to let Benjamin go, even though he has become Jacob’s favorite now that Joseph is gone.  Reuben knows the whole family will starve to death unless his father lets Benjamin go, so he says:

“You may kill my two sons if I do not bring him back to you!  Put him in my hand, and I myself will return him to you.”  (Genesis 42:37)

He sounds ready to make a noble sacrifice.  But why would Jacob want to kill two of his own grandsons?  Once again, Reuben tries to be the wise child who does the right thing, but what he actually does is far from wise.

Judah: Reformed Wicked Son

The “wicked son” in the Haggadah asks, “What does this service mean to you?”  In the Torah it is an innocent question, and the parent merely answers that they are making a Passover offering to God to remember when God smote the Egyptians but passed over their households.  But in the Haggadah and the Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael, the parent accuses this son of separating himself from other Jews by saying “you” instead of “us”.4

Judah, Jacob’s fourth son, starts out as selfish as the Haggadah’s version of the “wicked son”. When Joseph is naked at the bottom of the pit, Judah is the one who says:

“What is the profit if we kill our brother and cover up his blood?”  (Genesis 37:26)

He persuades his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave to a passing caravan instead, and they are paid 20 silver pieces for him.  At this point, Judah is indeed wicked, separating himself from any empathy toward his younger brother Joseph.  Later, he deprives his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of her traditional right to stay in his family by having a child with her deceased husband’s nearest male relative.  Tamar deceives Judah in order to get pregnant by him, and when Judah sentences her to death for adultery, she produces evidence that he is the father of her unborn child.  Judah’s eyes are opened, and he admits he was wrong, saying: “She is more righteous than I am!”  (Genesis 38:26)

After that wake-up call, Judah exhibits the empathy that I believe is implied by the question “What does this service mean to you?”  I think the so-called wicked child is actually interested in the feelings of other people, like Judah later in his life.

When Jacob refuses to let Benjamin go to Egypt so his sons can buy food during the second year of famine, Judah is the one who finally makes him change his mind.

Then Judah said to his father, Israel: “I will bring him.  Send the young man with me, and we will get up and go, and we will live and not die—we and you and our little ones. I myself will be the pledge for him; from my hand you may seek him.  If I do not bring him back to you and produce him before you, I will be guilty to you forever.”  (Genesis 43:8)

Judah’s word is good; when the viceroy of Egypt plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s pack and accuses him of stealing it, Judah volunteers to be the viceroy’s slave instead of his brother.  This act, along with a moving story about Jacob’s love for Benjamin, turns the tide, and the viceroy confesses that he is actually their brother Joseph.  Thanks to Judah’s empathy, the family arrives at a happy ending.

*

Does Joseph, the third of Jacob’s children who has a speaking role in the Torah, correspond in any way to the Haggadah’s “simple son”?  And who is the silent child?  You can find out next week in Passover, Vayeishev, & Mikeitz: Four of Jacob’s Children, Part 2.

  1. The Mekhilta di Rabbi Yishmael collection of commentary on the books of Exodus through Deuteronomy written during the first through fourth centuries CE and by Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, his students, and subsequent commentators.  The four sons in the Mekhilta are alluded to in the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
  2. This quote and all subsequent quotes from the Mekhilta use the translation in sefaria.org/Mekhilta_d’Rabbi_Yishmael.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:20-24 (wise), Exodus 12:27 (wicked), Exodus 13:15 (simple), and Exodus 13:6-8 (silent).
  4. This is outrageous, since in the Torah the wise son’s question is “What are the duties and the decrees and the laws that God, our God, commanded to you?”

Vayikra & Vayechi: Kidneys and Faces

March 18, 2021 at 7:35 pm | Posted in Jeremiah, Psalms/Tehilim, Vayechi, Vayikra | Leave a comment

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

March 3, 2021 at 5:48 pm | Posted in Kings 1, Vayechi | Leave a comment

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.

Testifying to Divine Providence

February 24, 2021 at 10:30 pm | Posted in Psalms/Tehilim, Tetzavveh, Vayiggash | 1 Comment

What can you give God, when God has given abundantly to you?

Burning something is the standard method for expressing gratitude to God in the Torah.  God loves the smell of smoke, whether it comes from animal fat burning on the courtyard altar, or incense burning on the golden altar just inside the Tent of Meeting.  In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzavveh, God tells Moses the ritual for consecrating both the courtyard altar and the new priests, a ritual that includes a lot of fat burning.1  After burning the fat parts of a bull and all of one ram, the priests to be ordained must hold up the fat parts of the “ram of ordination”, along with its right thigh and three kinds of grain products.

Then you shall take them from their hands and you shall turn them into smoke on the altar, on top of the rising offering, for a soothing fragrance before God; it is a fire-offering for God.  (Exodus 29:25)

The end of the Torah portion describes the construction of the incense altar and decrees that the high priest must burn incense on it twice a day.2  Apparently God needs a lot of soothing.

Only a few psalms and the writings of a few prophets indicate that one can also worship God through words.  See my post: Tetzavveh & Psalms 141, 51, and 40: Smoke and Prayer.

Serving God through words also has a precedent in the Joseph story in the book of Genesis.  In the chapter in my book on the portion Vayigash, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and explains that they are not to blame for throwing him into a pit and selling him as a slave all those years ago, because it was all part of God’s plan to bring the whole family down to Egypt during the seven-year famine.3

He intends to reassure his older brothers, but they are not thrilled to hear that they have no free will.  Joseph kisses them and sobs on their necks, but they merely become able to speak to him.4

The author of Psalm 40, like Joseph, expresses his religious attitude by giving verbal testimony about divine providence.5  Unlike Joseph, he later becomes insecure and reminds God:

I did not conceal your righteousness in the middle of my heart;

          I spoke of your reliability and your deliverance.

          I did not conceal from a great assembly your loyal kindness and your fidelity.

You, God, you will not hold back your compassion from me;

          Your loyal kindness and your fidelity will always guard me.  (Psalm 40:11-12)

Faith in divine providence is easy in hindsight, as it was for Joseph.  But when troubles are still threatening you, you need to keep reminding yourself of your belief, like the author of Psalm 40.  And when someone else tells you not to worry about your past crime because it all worked out for the best, you may feel cheated of a chance to make amends, like Joseph’s brothers.

  1. Exodus 29:12-25.
  2. Exodus 30:1-9.
  3. Genesis 45:4-8.
  4. Genesis 45:15.
  5. We can assume the speaker is a man because he is allowed to speak to a “great assembly”, something no woman could do at that place and time.

Vayigash & Terumah: Silver and Slavery

February 18, 2021 at 5:42 pm | Posted in Terumah, Vayiggash | Leave a comment

Egyptian silver bowl, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Silver stands for both magic and money in the Torah.

Shining silver glimmers with beauty and mystery (as long as someone polishes it). In the book of Genesis, the viceroy of Egypt’s cup made of silver, and Joseph claims to use it for divining as well as drinking.1 In the book of Exodus, the Israelites make parts of the portable sanctuary for God out of silver.2

Silver was also used as money in Egypt, Canaan, and the rest of the Ancient Near East. The first example in the Torah is when Abraham purchases the cave of Makhpeilah for 400 shekels of silver.3 At that time, a shekel was a unit of weight, not a coin.4

The first time Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to purchase grain during the seven-year famine, each man brings a bag of silver pieces, probably molded into convenient ingots.  They use their silver to pay for the grain they bring back to Canaan, but the mysterious viceroy (actually Joseph) has their silver secretly returned to their packs, on top of the grain.5 At their first camp on the way north, one of them opens his pack.

And he said to his brothers: “Kaspi!  It’s been returned!  Hey, it’s actually in my pack!”  And their hearts left them and they trembled.  Each man said to his brother: “What is this God has done to us?”  (Genesis 42:28)

kaspi (כַּסְפִּי) = my silver.  (A form of the noun kesef, כֶּסֶף = silver.)

Spooked, the brothers are psychologically primed for further mysteries.  They return to Egypt for more grain the following year, this time bringing their youngest brother, Benjamin, as the viceroy requested. They are afraid they will be accused of stealing back their own payment, so they carefully explain what happened to the viceroy’s steward, who says their God must have done it.6

That night, Joseph has his steward repeat the trick—and this time he also has his own silver cup hidden in the mouth of Benjamin’s bag. He uses the apparent theft of the silver cup as a pretext to arrest all eleven brothers.7 Then he decrees that the rest can go home, but Benjamin must stay in Egypt as his slave.8 At this Judah, the ringleader who talked his brothers into selling Joseph as a slave 22 years before, steps forward and begs the viceroy to let him stay as the slave instead of Benjamin. Joseph now has proof that Judah and his brothers have changed, so he reveals his identity and unites the family.

Joseph brings his own family down to Egypt and promises to support them, but he continues to charge everyone else for the grain he stockpiled before the famine began.

And Joseph collected all the kesef to be found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan through the sale of grain, while they were buying grain.  And Joseph brought the kesef to the house of Pharaoh.  Then the kesef from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan ran out.  So the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying: “Bring us food!  Why should we die in front of you, because the kesef is gone?”  Then Joseph said: “Bring your livestock and I will give [grain] to you for your livestock, if the kesef is gone.” (Genesis 47:14-15)

Now Pharaoh owns all the livestock of Egypt as well as all the silver of Egypt and Canaan. The following year, the Egyptians tell the viceroy that they have nothing left to buy grain with except themselves and their land. So he acquires them as slaves under a system of serfdom. Pharaoh now owns all the land in Egypt except for the allotments of the priests, and all the farmers must give a fifth of their produce to Pharaoh.9

*

This week, as I delve into the ethics of Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians for the book I am writing on Genesis, I am also reading about the call for donations of silver and other precious materials in the current Torah portion, Terumah.  Here is the blog post I wrote on the subject: Terumah: Heavy Metals.

The purpose of the donations is to supply the raw materials to build a portable sanctuary for God. But how do the Israelites, ex-slaves in the wilderness of Sinai, have gold and silver to donate?

When God strikes the Egyptians with the final plague, the death of the firstborn, the Israelite slaves pack up to leave the country.

And the Israelites had done as Moses had spoken and asked the Egyptians for objects of kesef and gold, and garments.  And God had given the people favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, and they let them have what they asked for.  So they plundered Egypt.  (Exodus 12:35-36)

All the Israelites had to do was ask, according to this story, and the Egyptians eagerly handed over their money and everything else made with precious metals.  They were desperate to see the Israelites leave the country so that the God of Israel would finally stop afflicting them with plagues.

*

Silver in the Torah, like money in the world today, does not circulate evenly.  It becomes concentrated in the hands of whoever has the most power.  When Joseph is the viceroy of Egypt he has power over all the stockpiles of grain, so the all the silver in Canaan and Egypt goes into Pharaoh’s coffers, and all the farmers of Egypt are enslaved.  About 400 years later, according to the Torah, the Israelites are enslaved and the Egyptians have silver.  After the Egyptians discover that the God of Israel has the most power, they hand over their wealth so God will leave them alone.  Now the Israelite ex-slaves have gold and silver.

In a moment of panicked insecurity, the Israelites donate some of the jewelry they extorted from the Egyptians to make a golden calf, hoping that then their god will inhabit something they can see.10 Meanwhile, God tells Moses in this week’s Torah portion to have the people make a portable sanctuary for God to inhabit.11 After Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and the Israelites have been punished and redirected, they eagerly donate their plundered silver and gold to make the sanctuary.12

The silver in the sanctuary is taken out of circulation as money. The people donate their silver and other precious materials because they need to believe God is right there with them, inside the beautiful sanctuary they are building.  After all, they need to eat, just like the Egyptians and Canaanites in the book of Genesis who handed over their silver to Pharaoh’s viceroy, who controlled the grain supply. By the portion Terumah in the book of Exodus, the Israelites know that God has the power to give them manna to eat, or withhold it.  They hand over their silver and gold to God.

But this time the precious metals are not just money stored away in some strongman’s coffers.  The people can see the silver hooks holding up the cloth courtyard walls and the silver bands on its posts; the gold hooks holding up the richly colored cloths of the tent-sanctuary walls, the silver sockets securing the cross-pieces in the frame of the tent, and its gold-plated doorposts.13 These touches of shining metal add to the beauty and mystery of the enclosure, elevating the spirits of the Israelites as they worship God.

  1. Genesis 44:2-12.
  2. The walls of the sanctuary proper are cloth hung in wood frames whose sockets are silver (Exodus 26:19-25). The cloth walls of the open courtyard in front of the sanctuary hang from silver hooks, and the posts holding up the framework are banded with silver (Exodus 27:17).
  3. Genesis 23:15-16.
  4. One shekel was 8.4 grams. The oldest coins unearthed in the Israelite and Philistine region date to the late 6th century B.C.E., when the Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians.
  5. Genesis 42:25-28.
  6. Genesis 43:18-23.
  7. Genesis 44:1-9.
  8. Genesis 44:17.
  9. Genesis 47:18-24.
  10. Exodus 32:1-4.
  11. Exodus 25:8.
  12. Exodus 35:21-24.
  13. Exodus 27:17, 26:19-25, 26:36-37.

A Feast and a Famine

February 10, 2021 at 10:19 pm | Posted in Mikeitz | Leave a comment

Sometimes I cannot find any connection between the week’s Torah portion and the story I am analyzing for my book on ethics in Genesis.  Coincidence and synchronicity are lovely, but unreliable.

So here is a link to the first blog post I wrote on this week’s Torah portion in the book of Exodus: Mishpatim: After the Vision, Eat Something.  I have long been fascinated by the brief account of how Moses, Aaron, Nadav, Avihu, and 70 elders climb halfway up Mount Sinai and see God’s feet on a sapphire pavement–and then sit down and eat.

Meanwhile, I am writing about Pharaoh’s two dreams that predict seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and Joseph’s advice on how to keep the Egyptians alive until the famine is over.  Pharaoh not only takes his advice, but makes Joseph the viceroy of Egypt so he can direct the operations.  This scene (Genesis 41:14-46) is unusual in the book of Genesis because both protagonists behave ethically toward one another and for the good of the people of Egypt.

Naturally Joseph is happy to get promoted from prison trusty to ruler of Egypt, but he does not engage in deception or any other unsavory act to make it happen.  He gives God credit for his dream interpretations, comes up with a sound plan through his own quick intelligence, and presents it in a respectful way.  Pharaoh bypasses the existing hierarchy of courtiers and makes the outsider Joseph the viceroy at age 30, giving him the status symbols he will need to be successful in the job.

You never know what human beings will turn out to be capable of doing.

Yitro & Vayeishev: Fathers-in-Law

February 5, 2021 at 2:07 pm | Posted in Vayeishev, Yitro | Leave a comment

Honor your father and your mother, so that your days will be long on the earth that God, your God, is giving you.  (Exodus/Shemot 20:12)

This is the fifth of the Ten Commandments in this week’s Torah portion, Yitro.  You can read my blog post about it here: Yitro: The Heaviness of Honoring Parents.

The portion Yitro also gives us a portrait of an eponymous father-in-law well worth honoring.  Yitro visits his son-in-law Moses in the wilderness around Mount Sinai, where Moses he has led the Israelites and their fellow-travelers.  The two men exchange greetings, with Moses bowing to the ground to honor his father-in-law.1  Yitro, a Midianite priest, rejoices over the good things that Moses’ God has done for Moses’ people, without showing a hint of jealousy.2  Then he makes an animal offering to God, and all the elders of the Israelites join him in the ritual meal.3  Finally, Yitro observes Moses wearing himself out by serving as the only judge for all his people’s disputes, asks him the reason, and then suggests a system for delegating authority.4  He leaves his son-in-law in a better position than when he arrived.

*

As I continue to write my book on morality in Genesis, I am now wrestling with the story of a less admirable father-in-law.  Judah, who once arranged to sell his brother Joseph as a slave,5 has three sons.  He chooses Tamar as a wife for his oldest son, Eir.6  But Eir dies after the wedding.

According to the law of yibum (also called levirate marriage), a woman who is childless when her husband dies must be given a place in the household of the deceased through an arrangement in which the dead husband’s brother or nearest male relative impregnates her, and when she has a son her boy inherits her dead husband’s portion of the family wealth.  Without yibum, the widow has no rights.

Judah dutifully sends his second son in to Tamar’s bed, but he refuses to perform, and shortly dies.  Now Judah has only one son left, young Shelah, and he is afraid that Shelah will also die if he gets near Tamar.

Then Judah said to Tamar, his daughter-in-law: “Return as a widow to your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up.”  (Genesis/Bereishit 38:11)

Tamar waits a long time in limbo, and then finally takes the yibum into her own hands.  When Judah goes to the annual sheep-shearing, he spots someone at a crossroad whom he assumes is a prostitute waiting for a customer.  It is Tamar, dressed like a prostitute and veiled so he does not recognize her.  She asks him to give her his seal, cord, and staff as a pledge until he can pay her.  When Judah sends his friend with the payment, no prostitute can be found.  A few months later, when it becomes obvious that Tamar is pregnant, Judah condemns her to death for prostitution.  After all, she was supposed to remain chaste until he arranged yibum for her again.

At the last minute, Tamar sends Judah his own seal and staff with the message:

“To the man whose these are his I am pregnant.”  And she said: “Recognize, please: whose seal and cord and staff are these?”  (Genesis 38:25)

At that moment Judah changes.  He is the first person in the Torah to admit he was wrong.

And Judah recognized, and he said: “She is more righteous than I.”  (Genesis 38:26)

He becomes an honorable father-in-law, returning Tamar to his household, where she has twin sons.  Judah also becomes an honorable man, who eventually offers himself as a slave to protect his innocent brother Benjamin.7

*

Not all parents-in-law, or all parents, are worthy of being honored.  But we can still treat them with respect, for being fellow humans and for who they might become.  The example of Judah reminds us that human beings can change.

  1. Exodus 18:7.
  2. Exodus 18:9-10.
  3. Exodus 18:12.
  4. Exodus 18:13-26.
  5. Genesis 37:26-27.
  6. Genesis 38:6.
  7. Genesis 44:32-33.

By Hand

January 27, 2021 at 6:39 pm | Posted in Beshallach, Vayeishev | Leave a comment

Hands are powerful.  Hands are personal.

by Theodore Gericault, 1824

Both modern English and biblical Hebrew use the word for “hand” (yad, יָד) in many idioms.  And sometimes an idiom in an English translation of the Hebrew bible was adopted into English just because the “Old Testament” had so many English-speaking readers.

The Israelites leave Egypt “with a high hand” in this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach.  Here is the King James translation:

And the Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he pursued after the children of Israel: and the children of Israel went out with an high hand.  (Exodus 14:8)

In English we say people are “high-handed” when they act as if they have the authority to accomplish something by themselves, without consulting anyone or considering anyone else’s concerns.  When the Israelites march out of Egypt, they feel arrogant for a change.  The pharaoh who oppressed them has begged them to go, they are taking everything Pharaoh wanted them to leave behind, and they have just commandeered  gold and other valuables from their Egyptian neighbors.  They act as if they are invincible–until the Egyptian army catches up with them.

See my 2013 post on the subject here: Beshallach: High Handed.

In English we say “He was caught red-handed,” because a man at a murder scene with blood on his hands is probably the murderer.  The idiom applies to anyone caught committing a violation in front of witnesses or with obvious, incontrovertible evidence.

But if you arrange for someone to die while you are elsewhere and there is no evidence that “your hand was in it”, you might never be implicated.  Biblical Hebrew would phrase that idiom as “your hand was with” the obvious perpetrator.  For example, King David asks a woman with an imaginary story about two sons “Is the hand of Joab with you in all this?” to find out if Joab’s hand is in her ploy to make him change his mind about his son Absalom (2 Samuel 14:19).

This week I am writing the part of my book on Genesis about when Joseph’s brothers sell him as a slave to caravan bound for Egypt.  Initially, most of Joseph’s ten older brothers want to kill him, then throw his body into one of the dry cisterns in the vicinity.  Reuben, the oldest brother, persuades them not to get blood on their own hands.

And Reuben said to them: “Don’t shed blood!  Throw them into this pit that is in the wilderness, but don’t extend a hand (yad) on him,” in order to rescue him from their hand (yad) and return him to his father.  (Genesis 33:22)

In colloquial English Reuben is saying: “Don’t lay a hand on him.”   All the brothers cooperate by seizing Joseph, stripping off his fancy tunic, and throwing him into the cistern alive.  Then Reuben wanders off while the rest of Joseph’s brothers sit down for a meal and Joseph pleads for his life from the bottom of the cistern.  An Ishmaelite caravan headed for Egypt approaches, and one of the brothers, Judah, says:

What profit if we murder our brother and cover up his blood?  Let’s go and sell him to the Ishmaelites, and our hand (yad) won’t be on him; for he is our brother, our flesh.”  (Genesis 33:26-27)

What Judah does not say is that a slave sold in Egypt would probably have a short life-span.

Thus the Torah provides an example of how humans excuse their own behavior when they put someone in harm’s way or incite someone to commit a crime.  If I didn’t do it with my own hands, they think, I’m not really guilty.

In Genesis, Joseph’s brothers realize that they are guilty after all, and that guilt haunts them the rest of their lives.

 

 

Dark Night

January 13, 2021 at 8:58 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The penultimate plague in Egypt, just before the Death of the Firstborn results in the liberation of the Israelite slaves, is darkness.

For three days there is complete, impenetrable darkness, darkness so thick that it can be felt.  “No one could see his brother, and no one could get up from under it, for three days.”  (Exodus 10:23)

This is not only a physical darkness, but a psychological one.  Click here to read my blog post on the subject: Bo: Impenetrable Darkness.

The Egyptians in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, are immobilized by darkness–by their inability to recognize other human beings as their brothers.

Today I have been writing about Jacob’s wrestling match in the dark night before he sees his brother Esau face to face for the first time in 20 years.  Jacob wronged Esau by making him swap his firstborn rights for a bowl of lentil stew, and by tricking their father into giving him Esau’s blessing.  Like other characters in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, Jacob gave the wrong answer to Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s protector?”

Guilt drives Jacob’s behavior for 20 years.  Now he is about to return home to Canaan, and he wants to make amends.  But how can he face Esau?

What will it take for Jacob to forgive himself?  Will he ever emerge from his inner darkness?

By the time I finish writing my book on moral psychology in Genesis, I will have some answers.

Idol Thief

January 6, 2021 at 9:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

My time is up.  I had planned to finish writing my book, Tasting the Fruit: Moral Psychology in Genesis, by the time the cycle of Jewish Torah readings came to the book of Exodus in January.  But I’ve had to do a lot more writing from scratch than I expected.

Today I wrote about how Rachel steals her father’s household idols as she leaves home, sneaking off toward Canaan with her husband (Jacob), her son (Joseph), and her three fellow wives and their children.

Why would Rachel steal the idols?  Because they can be used for divination, and she does not want her father to know where she and her family are.

Idols (physical images of gods) are forbidden in the book of Exodus.  One of the Ten Commandments declares: “You may not make for yourself a statue or any likeness of what is in the heavens above or what is on the earth below or what is in the waters from under the earth.  You may not bow down to them or serve them.”  (Exodus 20:4-5)

15th-13th century BCE storm god from Megiddo, Israel Museum

The books of Isaiah and Psalms make fun of idols, asking why anyone would treat a piece of inert wood, stone, or metal as if it could hear and speak.  But the book of Genesis is a different story.  The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob do not use idols, but Jacob’s father-in-law Lavan does, and his daughter Rachel believes they can speak to him.

The idols Rachel steals are small enough to fit into a camel pack.  They may look like the figurines of gods I saw last year in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, all smaller than my hand.

Idols were standard religious equipment in Egypt during the 19th dynasty (1292–1190 B.C.E.), where Moses was born in this week’s Torah portion, Shemot.  He would have learned about all the gods of Egypt and their representations in painting and sculpture after he was adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter.  When he left Egypt as a young man, he went to live with a priest of Midian, and learned about the gods of the Midianites–probably including the god on Mount Sinai that later became the God of Israel.

Moses first encounters that god, God with a capital “G”, when he sees the  bush on Mount Sinai that burns but is not consumed.  God speaks out of the fire, not from an idol.  Click here to read about it in my post Shemot: Holy Ground.

Today most of us do not hear strange voices in our heads, only the familiar subvocalizations of our own psyches.  Yet many people engage in magical thinking.  I can imagine staring a long time at a bronze figurine, and hearing it speak inside your head.  And if the figurine said something that you did not consciously know, but that turned out to be true, you would stare at it again when you needed insight.

Unless it was gone when you got home, because someone had stolen it.

« Previous PageNext Page »

Powered by WordPress.com.
Entries and comments feeds.