Joseph and His Brothers
This week’s parashah is Vayeshev. It is primarily devoted to the early stories of Joseph, beginning with Joseph and his brothers and ending with him imprisoned in Egypt. The sidra also includes the story of Judah and Tamar.
Joseph and his brothers is an account of close familial relationship so deeply troubled that they only narrowly avoid murderous violence. The history of the family – the brothers are the sons of four different mothers, only one of whom – Rachel – was truly loved by her husband, is freely visible in the lives of the next generation and their conflicts and tensions. The mothers were of different status– from Rachel to Bilhah and Zilpah – the “handmaids” – and this too plays its part in the fraught relationships of their sons.
The opening verses of the parashah make clear that Joseph – Rachel’s son – has a particularly close relationship with his father – Israel “loved Joseph more than all of his children, because he was the son of his old age and he made him a coat of many colours.” Joseph’s relationship with his brothers is very complex – he is particularly friendly with “the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah” but at the same time be brought unfavourable reports about them to his father.
All of this inevitably led to conflict: “When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all of his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peaceably unto him.” Joseph then tells his brothers about his dreams which clearly imply that all the family will one day bow down to him, and their hatred for him intensifies: “Shall you indeed reign over us or have dominion over us,?” they ask, and a few verses later, hatred has been compounded by jealousy and resentment.
Seven verses later (37:18), the situation has again deteriorated and taken a drastic turn for the worse. The brothers are with their flocks in Shechem and Jacob has asked Joseph to go and spend time with them. Joseph finds them and “they saw him from afar and before he approached they plotted against him to kill him. And they said to one another, ’Behold, the dreamer is coming. Come now, therefore, and let us slay him and cast him into one of the pits and we will say an evil beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’ When Joseph reached them they pulled his coat off and cast him into a pit – and the pit was empty – there was no water in it.”
In a particularly chilling moment the text then records that they “sat down to eat bread”, but fortunately they relent and Judah persuades them to sell their brother to a passing caravan of merchants rather than taking his life.
Before returning to their father they take Joseph’s coat and dip it into the blood of a slaughtered he-goat. When they arrive home they take the bloodstained coat in to their father and they say, “’We found this. Is this your son’s coat or not?’ Jacob recognises the coat and is distraught: he rent his garments and put on sackcloth and mourned for his son for many days.” All his family gather around him but he refuses to be comforted and continues to weep for his son. The brutality of the brothers’ treatment of their father is very striking but it clearly reflects the depth of their own anger and hurt.
Jacob’s own role in the story is often questioned. He loves joseph more than his brothers and Joseph’s special coat makes this very clear for all to see. Jacob seems entirely unaware of the seismic emotions that are gradually overwhelming his family. When he instructs Joseph to go and visit the brothers who are shepherding their flocks, he tells him to go and see the “peace” (shalom) of his brethren and the “peace” of the flocks, which is quite extraordinary, given what is about to happen. Jacob does rebuke Joseph about the dreams, but his comments were very mild and did nothing to assuage the anger of his brothers.
What emerges from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that our perceptions of reality are not always rational and objective. When we are fearful, fragile or have been very hurt by others, especially those to whom we are close, our understanding and judgements came become distorted or overwrought and moral perceptions can be clouded and unclear. When, at the beginning of the human story, Cain murders Abel, Abel posed no objective threat to him and had not spoken a word in anger, but in Cain’s interior world, things were evidently very different.
Objectively, Joseph was a ‘teenager’ whose behaviour was unwise and often immature, but no more than that. However, the brothers found his relationship with their father – and the dreams – very threatening indeed, perhaps as a consequence of the fragility of their own identity in a very fraught and complex family. For Jacob, he was Rachel’s son and the Torah’s apparently disjointed opening: “These are the generations of Jacob … Joseph was seventeen years old …” might well be saying a great deal about how Jacob saw his relationship with him.