The Joseph Story | Aleph Beta

What Were They Thinking?

The Joseph Story

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

What Were They Thinking?

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Hi everybody, this is Rabbi David Fohrman. I want to welcome you back to this course again. I hope we will have a delightful time together here. We are going to be looking at the story of Joseph and his brothers that occupies really the second half of the Book of Genesis.  It’s the second major saga in the Book of Genesis; the first one being the story of Abraham, the second one, really, the story of Joseph and his brothers. A very painful story, a very tragic story, and I think a very surprising story in many, many kinds of ways.

What I want to do with you just to begin, is just kind of lay out some very basic questions. I often talk about, when you study the Bible, you want to look at questions.  Questions are going to be your window into unlocking deeper layers of meaning in the texts. And there are little questions. “How come the verse uses this language instead of that language?” Then there are big questions, questions that are so powerful that until you really have answers to those questions, so large, that you can’t really say to yourself that you have an understanding of the story or how it fits together; and I think there are a number of such questions in general when you look at the story of Joseph and his brothers. And, basically, I think the large questions, in my mind at least, revolves around really the issues of “What were they thinking?” For every major sort of character in the story, you can really just ask in an astounded kind of way, “What is it that they were thinking? What did they really think was going to happen here?” Well, let’s just go through this story.  You know what happens.

It all starts very nice, you know.  Once upon a time, there are these brothers. Jacob has his family.  He’s got these twelve children. But the twelve children came from two different mothers. Originally Jacob had only wanted to marry Rachel; he had fallen in love with Rachel and wanted to marry her. And yet, his father in law, Lavan tricked him and substituted a veiled Leah under the chupah, under the bridal canopy, for her sister Rachel. Rachel and Leah were sisters. And Jacob was deceived, and in the morning he says “What did you do? How come you deceived me?” And Lavan comes back and says, “Well, we don’t do it that way in our place, giving the younger before the older; and Leah is older and she deserves to come first.” Of course, it’s kind of like a veiled dig that Lavan is giving to Jacob over here.

Of course, Yaakov in his own life had substituted the older for the younger when he had gone to his father for the blessings. Remember, he was the one who deceives his father Isaac about the identity of who he really was. His father wants to bless the older and not bless the younger, and he wants to bless Esav and not bless Jacob and Jacob deceives him and dresses up for the blind Isaac, dresses up as Esav and now Yaakov is deceived in a very similar way. But this time it is the father or father-in-law who deceives son, and this time, it is the father-in-law who dresses up a child as someone they are not, to deceive the unseeing Yaakov.

In any case, you kind of hear the dig in Laban’s words, lo yaaseh chen bimkomanu-latet hatzeirah lifnei habechirah – “We don’t do it that way at our place, to give the younger before the older. Maybe where you come from Jacob they do that, they give younger before older. But over here, the older comes first.”

So here is Yaakov. He has worked for seven long years in this deal to marry Rachel.  He works for another seven years; now he has Rachel and he has Leah. He has these two sisters that he is married to and he has children from them, more children from Leah than from Rachel; ultimately six children from Leah. And then he has a child, Joseph, and ultimately another child, Benjamin, from Rachel. And what happens is he begins to favor those children. He favors Joseph and he gives him this special coat of many colors; not quite clear if it’s a coat of many colors. In Hebrew, its ketonat pasim. Pasim has many kinds of translations. One possible translation is “coat of many colors”, but there are others, so we’ll just call it a special coat for now. He gives him this special coat and eventually the other brothers begin to get jealous and Joseph starts having dreams. The dreams seem to be these dreams of grandeur, these dreams that indicate that others in the family will bow to him, that Joseph will rise to power.

In the first dream, Joseph has this dream that there are these sheaves of wheat. He and his brothers are out in the field, and his sheaves are standing and the bother’s sheaves of wheat are bowing before his sheaves. And when he tells this to the brothers, the brothers are kind of upset about it. But then he has a second dream, and the second dream is about the sun and the moon and the stars; eleven stars, conspicuously the same numbers as Joseph’s brothers, of eleven other brothers other than him, and they are all bowing to Joseph. And finally, Jacob is upset by this havo nevo ani l’imcha v’achreicha lehishtachot lecha artzah – “What’s the meaning of these dreams? Tell me Joseph, are we all going to come down to your knee, me and your mother and your brothers?” And, there is tension in the family. But the real tension is not just between father and son, it’s really between the brothers and each other. As the tension grows, the other brothers hate Joseph. They can’t even speak to him in peace. They are jealous of him.

And finally, Jacob sends Joseph on this mission to go check on his brothers one day, and it’s the final straw. The brothers see him coming, they jump him, they kidnap him, they strip him of this special coat, they put him in a coat and sell him off to Egypt and Joseph’s life is change forever. He’s sold as a slave to Egypt and, as fate would have it, overtime, he rises, rises in power through a fascinating series of events, and then eventually successful interprets the dreams of Pharaoh. Then Pharaoh elevates him. He is in charge of everyone and then he is in charge of all the wheat and there are these years of famine in Egypt. Famine strikes the world and lo and behold the brothers come down to Egypt looking for food. Who do they meet? Joseph.

Joseph recognizes them. Joseph is the one who is in charge of dispersing food to everyone at this time, the other brothers do not recognize Joseph and Joseph plays with them and sort of make their lives very, very difficult. He doesn’t reveal himself. He is angry towards them. He is upset towards them and plays these long series of practical jokes, “Bring me your other brother. Until you show me this other brother you left behind I don’t believe you. You’re spies.” And eventually he reveals himself to his brothers and the brothers reunite. This is just a very quick thumbnail sketch, sort of summary, of the story. So, I would encourage you to go back and just read through the stories. We will be reading through the story bit by bit more carefully.

But just as we begin to read the story, it seems to me a few questions jump out at you and I just want to call attention to them here and just put them on the table. Basically, the questions are, “What was everybody thinking?”

Let’s start with the brothers. It’s not such a nice thing to do to take your brother and strip him of this clothes and throw him in a pit and sell him as a slave. That’s really mean. That’s really not such a nice thing to do. How are we supposed to understand that? What were they thinking? Did they justify that to themselves? Was it just a blind act of jealousy? Did they have some rationale for it? And even if they justified it, even if they hated their brother so much to do such a thing, but still, what about their father? Didn’t they love their father, Jacob? How did they think he was going to react to all of this? They ruined his life, taking his most favorite child and if they didn’t love their brother enough, what about their father? How do we understand what it was that the brothers were doing and what it was that they were thinking? So question number one is, what were the brothers thinking when they were doing all this?

Question number two: Joseph. As Joseph is in Egypt and he sees the brothers, he really torments them. Their family is starving and instead of revealing himself, he goes and he plays with them and sends them back and more than that, he never even reveals himself to his father. Once he rises to grandeur, he is in second in charge to the King, what about sending a post card back to dad, you know, "Wishing you were here. The weather is beautiful in Egypt. One day come to visit me." Just show some love to his father and much as his father loved him. Even if he didn’t care so much about his brothers, even if he is going to torment them. What about his father? We are not the first one to ask this question. The Ramban asked this question. Nachmanides, the famous medieval commentator. These are serious questions. “What were the brothers thinking? What was Joseph thinking?

What was Jacob thinking? Why did Jacob, after all of these tensions in the family, choose to send Joseph that day, immediately after he became aware of just how jealous the other brothers were? After Joseph has the second dream, just after that second dream, he just happens to send him off to check on how their brothers were doing in Shechem. It’s a dangerous kind of mission. You’re sending him alone and unguarded, a long way from home just when you know the tension has broken into the open. You know how much it is that the other brothers hate him.

Maybe in hindsight, it’s twenty-twenty. We know now what happened to Joseph. But it seems like he was naïve. Was he benighted? Did he not realize that this was a potentially dangerous mission? Why was he doing that? And I think, part of the temptation we have is to look at Jacob and maybe think, “Oh he is such a naïve guy. He didn’t know what was going on with his family; if only Jacob had known, if only Jacob had been a little bit more aware, maybe this terrible stuff would not have happened.” So is that view of Jacob as the naïve father, unaware of just how deep the tensions run in his family, is that a justified kind of vision of Jacob?

Finally, the fourth major persona so to speak in the story, not persons but persona, is God. What does God think of all of this? Do we have any clue? God doesn’t react. It’s not like these lightning bolts came from heaven or anything. And of course, generally in the Bible, God doesn’t always react. People do their thing, and we find out in more subtle ways what that divine approach to it all was. Here, are there any clues to what God thinks of all this? What does God think of the brother’s rationale, if there is one, for putting Joseph in the pit? What does God think of what Joseph is doing, what Jacob is doing? Does this pass by without notice? Does God have better things to do? Is he distracted by something going on, like drama in the galaxy or something like that? Are these major issues? They are major enough to take up the entire second half of the Book of Genesis. What is the divine approach? Do we have any clues from the text itself to try to understand how it is that God is seeing it?

So I want to kind of frame things with that, “What were they thinking?” “What were the brothers thinking?” “What was Joseph thinking?” “What was Jacob thinking?” “What was God thinking?” It’s very difficult to go back three thousand years and try to piece together theories on this, but I do think that we get some clues in the text. I think that if we look carefully as the story develops in Chapter 37, the text goes out of its way to give us very significant clues about all of these things and I want to begin to unearth them with you. And I want to challenge you to read through Chapter 37, be attentive for clues; do you see any clues as to what they were thinking? Let’s start with Jacob. Was he really benighted? Was he really naïve? Do we have any clues from the text that would indicate “yes”, that would indicated “no”? See what you think, let’s come back and compare notes.

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