Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23)

GENESIS 37:1-11

In the northern kingdom of Israel during the monarchy, they told the story of Joseph. Their version of the story emphasized the greatness of Joseph. But another version was current in the southern kingdom of Judah, emphasizing the transformation of Judah as a man, as a patriarch who gained wisdom through mistakes and a path to redemption. The two versions of the story (from the E source, north, and J source, south) form the Joseph story we now know and love.

It’s a different kind of story than what we’ve seen so far in Genesis, less episodic and more unified. In the beginning, the reader knows Joseph’s dreams are about what will happen and that they are accurate. We also know he was unwise in sharing them. His transformation will be one of maturing and growing wisdom, not so much a moral journey but an experiential one. This is in contrast to Judah, whose journey will be from the moral low of the Tamar episode to the triumphant redemption of a willingness to lay down his life for Benjamin (see below, credit to Drake Dunaway).

Dreams are Joseph’s power. And the hand of God is implicit, not explicit in the story. Unlike Jacob, Joseph does not hear God speak or even see God in his dreams. Nonetheless he credits God with his ability to see and interpret. This is how Israel and Judah came to experience God, not in Abrahamic theophanies, but in silence and faith.

The Joseph conflict begins (1-4), Joseph’s dreams (5-11).

Genesis 37-50 is a different kind of narrative than the earlier parts of the book. To be sure, the typical Genesis section marker (“these are the generations of”) is present in 37:2, but afterward, the usual tropes of Genesis fade away and an extended tale ensues. Although the saga focuses on Joseph as the centerpiece, the character Judah figures prominently (credit to Drake Dunaway, personal conversation on Genesis as a literary text). Given that the patriarchal narrative are a sort of etiology (origin story) for the later situation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, it makes sense that the story focuses on Joseph (northern kingdom) and Judah (southern kingdom).

The Joseph saga is less episodic and more continuous in its narrative style than the Jacob cycle. In terms of sources, much work has been done to show that the Joseph saga is a combined narrative of parts from two main sources, J and E (J being a writer from the southern kingdom of Judah and E being from Shiloh in the northern kingdom of Israel). Various repetitions and inconsistencies can be seen and relate to the fact that two versions of a famous story of an Israelite ancestor have been combined into one. If anything, the existence of two once-independent but now joined stories, and the likely identification of J and E as the sources, makes the Joseph story more likely (not less) to be based on a kernel of historical truth.

As for 37:1-11, the conflict of the story is brilliantly introduced in a few verses. Joseph was a father’s most-loved among many sons. Joseph gave a bad report on his brothers. They hated him.

The plot thickens as we read of Joseph’s dreams, vivid in detailed imagery and absolutely prescient in foretelling the future the reader knows will surely happen. Nonetheless, it was not wise of Joseph to share these dreams with others. Even his own father berated him for the arrogance with which he related to them the destiny he saw for himself in the dream. The author is, of course, setting up the later part of the story in which Joseph’s unique ability as a seer and interpreter of dreams is the mechanism by which he becomes powerful in Egypt.

The overall meaning of the Joseph saga is not only about Joseph’s rise to power and the relationship of the brothers, but J and E (as well as the Torah’s final editor) saw in this story an ideal understanding of the relationship Israel (the covenant people) could and should have with the nations (imparting the blessing promised to Abraham). God’s role in Joseph’s story has changed from the divine method in the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He appears no more. He speaks no more. Joseph’s experience of God is more like ours, the norm for human dealings with the divine, which is silence.

GENESIS 37:12-22

The evil impulse is a trickster and we are easily beguiled. Again and again we let emotion stand as the basis for our actions, reacting hastily from a feeling such as anger, jealousy, irritation, shame, fright, or hurt.

The battle in Reuben’s soul over his brothers plan is something we can imagine as readers. We’ve let ourselves give in before to the gang impulse, to the crowd’s evil intent. And like Reuben we’ve felt that immediate feeling of regret, wanting to put on the brakes, a desire to stop before the evil deed is done and we know we will carry guilt for the rest of our lives.

Sometimes, though they seem elementary, the words of Proverbs 1 are what we need to hear. “If they say, ‘Come … let us ambush the innocent …’ my child, do not walk in the way with them.” Reuben will very much regret his part in this and that he did not do more. “Did I not tell you not to sin against the boy?” he will say later to his brothers, “Now there comes a reckoning for his blood!” (Gen 49:22).

His regret will be so deep, he will say to his father, “Kill my two sons if I do not bring him [Benjamin] back to you” (Gen 49:37).

Life is full of regrets. Wisdom is acting from something deeper than an emotional impulse. But it takes time and experience to learn that lesson and apply it.

Joseph sent to check on his brothers in Shechem (12-14), a man points Joseph to Dothan (15-17), the brothers plot to kill Joseph (18-20), Reuben saves Joseph’s life (21-22).

Sarna (JPS Commentary) suggests that this incident takes place not long after the Dinah incident of ch. 34, since Joseph and Dinah are of similar age (30:21-24) and Joseph is now seventeen (37:2). Jacob is perhaps worried about the brothers getting involved in more trouble in Shechem. Joseph either does not know that his brothers despise him or he naively thinks he is safe.

The arrival in Shechem (a five day journey from Hebron) and further journey to Dothan (thirteen more miles northwest) reveals Joseph as obedient and persistent in his duties. By contrast, the brothers are quick to resort to evil.

Reuben tries to save Joseph but has little mastery over his brothers so that he can only partially save him. He later is contrite about his inability to save Joseph (42:22) and offers his two sons’ lives as a promise that he will not fail to protect Benjamin’s life (42:37). The pit they plan to throw Joseph into is a cistern, a reservoir dug into the rock to hold runoff water. Reuben plans to rescue Joseph from the cistern and return him to Jacob, but that plan will go awry.

GENESIS 37:23-36

Before there was an Exodus, there was an Eisodus. In every mess we want to get out of (exodus) there was a process that brought us into it (eisodus). In some cases we are innocent victims of an external process (as Joseph was). In others, our own actions have unintended consequences that bring us into peril (as the sons of Jacob were responsible for Joseph’s enslavement, so the Israelites ended up in slavery).

What brought Israel into slavery in Egypt was the jealousy of the sons of Jacob when they allowed their brother to be sold into slavery. The irony of destiny is undeniable.

The pattern is simple. In our poverty of soul and smallness we create the situation from which we will eventually need a rescue. In his wealth of spirit and greatness God affects the rescue when the time is right.

The brothers, at least two them, wanted to stop the evil thing from happening. But sometimes when we begin to walk down that road, it comes faster than we imagined. Consequences drop on us like great stones from above. The finality of the ruin we create is staggering at times. Once Joseph is gone, the brothers can only come up with a ruse to deceive their grieving father.

This will become the defining sin of their lives. The sadness of it will make Jacob’s elder days a long sadness. The brothers themselves will not be able to escape the consequences of their actions. They have brought about the Eisodos, the getting into slavery. Their jealousy has consequences they never could have foreseen.

But the way out, Exodus, is already encoded into the events in ways the brothers could never understand. Yes, they put Joseph in a pit and he was sold by some passing nomads. But the final buyer in Egypt was a member of the royal administration. The seeds of a larger deliverance were already planted. When the unbearable sadness of life presses upon us, we need to try and remember, God will deliver his children from all the messes we create.

The brothers remove Joseph’s robe (23), they cast Joseph in a pit and eat a meal (24-25a), Judah suggests selling Joseph to some passing Ishmaelites (25b-27), passing Midianites sell Joseph to some Ishmaelites (28), Reuben finds Joseph missing and reports it to the brothers (29-30), the brothers deceive Jacob into thinking Joseph is dead (31-35), Medanites (Midianites?) sell Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt (36).

This part of the Joseph story shows the most signs of being a composite account, the result of bringing two versions of the Joseph story together into one unified whole. A few of there details are not harmonized completely. Who tried to save Joseph, Reuben or Judah? Who sold Joseph to whom, Midianites to some passing Ishmaelites or Midianites to Egyptians? In the story as we have it, Judah sees a caravan of Ishmaelites and suggests to his brothers, “Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites.” But then in vs. 28, some Midianite traders beat the brothers to the punch when they find Joseph in the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan. However, in vs. 36, somehow the Midianites still have Joseph and they sell him in Egypt.

Medieval Jewish commentators worked out some methods for harmonizing the story. One way, for example, is to assume that Midianites and Ishmaelites are the same group of people. Another way is to assume extra steps in the story, such as such as Midianites selling Joseph to Ishmaelites, who then sold him back to some other Midianites, who then sold him in Egypt.

See below for another analysis of the story and its origins which finds two sources that have been combined. The details of the two versions are slightly different, with one giving a northern kingdom of Israel perspective and the other a southern kingdom of Judah account.

Regardless of how we deal with the details, the main points of the story are clear. Jacob’s sons are deceivers who outdo their father in trickery. Joseph’s entry into Egypt as a slave, however it happened exactly, will end up prefiguring the enslavement of the Hebrews by Pharaoh. Some refer to Joseph’s entry into Egypt as the Eisodus (migration in) which sets up the later Exodus (migration out). The emotional complexity of the story can be seen in that both Reuben and Judah, though apparently seeming indifferent, try to save Joseph’s life. These unspoken feelings will come up again later in the story in interactions between Reuben and the brothers (42:22), Reuben and Jacob (42:37), and Judah and Joseph (44:32-34). Jacob’s grief over what he thinks is his the dead son of his favorite wife will become an emotional theme involving Benjamin in the later parts of this story. The Joseph story is detailed and powerful on the level of story and also as a prefiguring of the covenant and history.

THE TWO-VERSION THEORY: See Joel Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch, for a detailed explanation. One version can be found by separating out 37:19-20, 23, 25b-27, 28b, 31-35 (thought to be from an ancient Judean source, J) and the other is in 37:18, 21-22, 24-25a, 28a, 29-30, 36 (thought to be from an ancient northern Israelite source, E). It is helpful to use a computer Bible to cut and paste and view the two theorized stories separately. Separating vs. 28 is crucial to this theory. The first part, 28a, (“Then Midianite traders passed by and they drew Joseph up out of the pit”) goes with the E story in which Midianites removed Joseph and sold him without the brother’s knowledge. Vs. 28b (“… and sold him to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver; and they brought Joseph to Egypt”) continues the thought in vs. 27 (“and the brothers listened to him …”) in the J story, where the brothers sold Joseph to Ishmaelites. In the E story, it is Reuben who tries to save Joseph (by suggesting they throw him alive in a pit) and in the J story, it is Judah (by suggesting they sell Joseph). The best evidence for the two version theory is that Genesis 37:28 shows Midianites selling Joseph to passing Ishmaelites while 37:36 shows Midianites selling Joseph to Potiphar in Egypt. This discrepancy is difficult to explain away.

GENESIS 38:1-30

A daughter-in-law masquerades as a prostitute. The father-in-law, the very patriarch whose name attaches to the people of Judah, the ancestor of David and Messiah, is at that time the sort of man who takes what he wants and follows his base nature. Children’s Bibles will probably need to omit this story.

Judah is going to have Tamar put to death, when he finds out that she has become pregnant. He is her sons widow. In the public eye, she has disgraced Judah’s family by becoming pregnant. Theoretically she is waiting for Judah to give his son, Shelah, to her in marriage.

But Tamar sends some objects via messenger to Judah and says הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה haker-na lemi hachōtemet vehapetilim vehamatteh, “Please recognize these for me: the signet ring, the cord, and the staff.” Tamar had deceived Judah in the guise of a prostitute. But the objects she took as a pledge that Judah would return and pay her with a goat now prove to Judah her innocence.

The brothers, had deceived their father, and an object and a goat played a role in that deception as well. Judah has been instrumental in urging his brothers to sell Joseph as a slave rather than kill him. But when Joseph is taken away, before the brothers even had a chance to act, Judah participates with the rest in deceiving their father, Jacob. The multi-colored robe of Joseph, they brought it to Jacob dipped in goat’s blood. הַכֶּר־נָא הַכְּתֹנֶת haker-na hakōtenet, “Please recognize the robe,” they said to Jacob (37:32). The words are almost identical to Tamar’s when she shows Judah the signet ring, cord, and staff.

Judah, a deceiver like his father before him, has been deceived. But here, as he stands in a position to lie and have Tamar killed, he sees the objects proving what happened and he stops the deception. He ends the cycle for himself. צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי tzedaqah mimmeni, he says, “She is more righteous than I.”

A world of grief happens in the orbit of Jacob’s family. But Judah, for one, puts an end to it, at least for himself, and begins a path of setting things to right. The later parts of the Joseph story will show more of Judah’s development. Faced with a choice, to keep deceiving or put a stop to it, he decides.

Judah’s Canaanite marriage and his sons (1-5), Tamar and Judah’s sons (6-11), Tamar deceives Judah (12-26), birth of Perez and Zerah (27-30).

This tale of Judah and Tamar interrupts and heightens the suspense of the Joseph novella. Sarna observes parallels between the two tales: both involve a deception, a kid from the flock, the production of evidence, temptation to sex, and issues between brothers.

The tale also develops a snapshot of the character of Judah, whose story is an important thread within the Joseph saga. He is the character who will actually learn the most from all of these tragic events. The transformation of Judah from scheming bad boy to repentant son is also an important point to later tribal history. Joseph will become the primary tribe (Ephraim) of the northern kingdom and Judah of the southern. These juxtaposed stories reveal the origins of kingdoms and fulfill the “kings will come from your loins” promise to Jacob in 35:11.

The story begins in irony. What set Jacob apart from Esau in the first place is that Esau took local Canaanite wives, whereas Jacob was sent off to Paddan-aram to find a wife from among the Abrahamic clan. Yet Judah is acting like Esau. Can this really be the father of the southern kingdom of Judah?

Judah’s sons are thoroughly self-centered and without any sign of decency. God takes their lives as punishment for their deeds.

Tamar is a clever woman whose only goal in the story is a noble one: to bring a child into the world as a result of all these men who have possessed her. Having been robbed of this one good thing repeatedly, Tamar takes matters into her own hands and exploits her father-in-law’s base nature. Judah, of course, falls for it, revealing the shallowness of his soul.

But the lesson Tamar teaches his does begin to awaken something better in Judah. צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי tzedaqah mimmeni, he says, “She is more righteous than I.” He realizes how he has wronged Tamar and does not wrong her again afterward. Perhaps this spark in Judah’s soul is the beginning of that transformation we see by the end of the story.

GENESIS 39:1-6

Would we consider ourselves fortunate or cursed if we were to trade places in life with Joseph? Taken away by slave traders, he was removed from his father’s house and everything he knew. But once in the new place, everything he did succeeded and others could see he was some sort of divinely favored person. He was chosen for some sort of greatness wrapped in a giant bundle of pain and loss.

How should we take the descriptions of God’s role in his life? וַיְהִי יְהוָה אֶת־יוֹסֵף vayehi Adonai ‘et-Yōsef, “Adonai was with Joseph.” וַיְהִי אִישׁ מַצְלִיחַ vayehi ish matzliyach, “He was a successful man.” וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר־הוּא עֹשֶׂה יְהוָה מַצְלִיחַ בְּיָדוֹ vekōl asher-hu ōseh Adonai matzliyach beyadō, “All that was doing, Adonai made it succeed in his hands.”

The descriptions sound wonderful. But the reality is, these things are happening to him in Egypt, in the place of his banishment and separation. He received a very bad lot in life, but succeeded wonderfully within it.

And the cycle of loss is not yet over for Joseph. He will lose even more freedom and come to feel utterly alone, abandoned, waiting a long time for help from heaven.

Being chosen for some greatness does not necessarily feel like a wonderful thing. Many who belong to the category of the chosen would say to God, “Would you mind choosing someone else?”

Joseph had the fortune (misfortune) of being made a living example of the covenant promise. God will bless the children of Abraham. He will bless those who bless the children of Abraham. Though the children of Abraham go into exile, God will be with them there. In time, he will bring them out.

One thing we can learn from Joseph’s life is that our circumstances in life do not reflect simple formulas about blessing and curse. A blessing can look and feel like a curse. A curse can look and feel like a blessing. The end and meaning of everything is something we must believe in while we wait the long wait and experience tribulation and loss, confusion and heartache, perplexity and hope. God will bring about good for us. Not yet.

In bondage the Lord is with Joseph (1-2), divine and human favor falls on Joseph (3-6).

The Joseph saga resumes after the Judah and Tamar incident. No notice of divine favor on Judah played into his story at all. Judah and Joseph are contrasted in a number of ways. Judah has been an oppressor while Joseph has become one oppressed. Judah sees the error of his ways and seemingly grows from it. Joseph is the innocent sufferer, wrongly punished for the misdeeds of others.

Joseph’s journey and bondage in Egypt prefigures Israel’s coming bondage. The Abrahamic promise brings favor to Joseph as it will to Israelites in later times. Divine favor on Joseph brings blessing to his gentile master, a recurring picture of the mutual blessing theme of Genesis 12:3 and other parts of the Abrahamic promise.

The strange note in vs. 6 has drawn several interpretations. וְלֹא־יָדַע אִתּוֹ מְאוּמָה כִּי אִם־הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר־הוּא אוֹכֵל velō-yada’ ‘ittō me’umah ki im-halechem asher-hu ‘ōcheil, “And he [Potiphar] was concerned about nothing concerning him [Joseph] except the food he ate.” What does it mean that Potiphar was concerned about which food Joseph ate? Some see this as a euphemism for Potiphar’s wife based on Proverbs 30:20 (Sarna). Others suggest this is about Egyptians not dining with foreigners based on Genesis 43:32.

GENESIS 39:7-23

This is stage two of Joseph’s descent into a living hell so he can become a model of divine rescue and blessing. Few of us would say we’d like to trade places. Isn’t the formula supposed to be, “God blesses the righteous?” It definitely looks like God is cursing Joseph.

“I am counted among those who go down to the pit,” says the Innocent Sufferer in Psalm 88, “like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.” The Bible explores the feeling of abandonment, hopelessness. It does not exonerate God from the pains we experience, but lays the charge directly at his feet: “You have put me in the depths of the pit!”

However, another set of texts alludes to the fact that people in pits and prison cells have felt the presence of God with them. About Joseph our story says וַיְהִי יְהוָה אֶת־יוֹסֵף vayehi Adonai et-Yosef, “But God was with Joseph.” Similarly, when Judah was exiled in Babylon, God said, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you . . . when you walk through fire you shall not be burned” (Isa 43:2).

From verses like these, the rabbis made a midrash (a theme for a sermon, in this case an uplifting one). In Sifrei (an ancient collection of rabbinic teaching about the book of Numbers), the rabbis said, “Come and see how beloved Israel is before God; for wherever they went into exile, the Shekhinah [Divine Presence] went with them.” The rabbis use 1 Samuel 2:27 (“did I reveal myself in Egypt?”) and Isaiah 43:14 (“for your sake I send to Babylon”) as proof-texts that where Israel was exiled, God was present. Vs 14 says “I will send to Babylon,” but it does not say whom he will send. The plain meaning is likely Cyrus (see 44:28; 45:1), but the lack of a direct object lends itself to the rabbis’ homily: God sends his Presence (Shekhinah) to Babylon.

It must be scenes like Joseph’s rise from prison, Israel’s exodus from Egypt, Judah’s return from Babylon, the Psalmists’ recovery from suffering, and the sayings about God being with his people that led Paul (in the New Testament) to a wide-ranging conclusion: “God works all things for God for those who love him” (Rom 8:28).

Potiphar’s wife tries to seduce Joseph (7-10), Potiphar’s wife falsely accuses Joseph (11-19), Joseph has divine and human favor in prison (20-23).

The second descent of Joseph into bondage is as dramatic as the first. He has moved from favorite son to slave and then from favorite slave to prisoner.

But the ascent of Joseph is equally dramatic: from slave to favorite and then from prisoner to favorite. With every tragedy, Joseph finds that divine favor lifts him up. No place is beyond the reach of God’s providence.

Just so, the covenant promises will follow Israel in all exiles and wanderings. Some interpreters have suggested that the Joseph story might have become especially appreciated during the exile in Babylon and after. The faithful in Israel, those who clung to the teachings of Isaiah and the community of disciples who came from Isaiah, could have looked to the Joseph story with hope. Vs. 21 assures Israel that “Hashem was with Joseph” even in prison and that, vs. 23, Joseph could succeed through wisdom and righteousness. The most dramatic declines can be reversed and God is with those who trust in him even in depressing circumstances.

GENESIS 40:1-23

Dreams. Destiny. The unknown. Life with an invisible and silent God is a mystery. We want answers, to know the future, to have security and a guarantee.

A baker and a cupbearer were imprisoned, suspected of acts against the king. Both had highly symbolic dreams. Joseph boldly announces that God shows him the meaning of dreams. Those who told and retold this story about Joseph had in mind two of the institutions of Israelite religion that would characterize it for long ages to come. One of those institutions was and is wisdom, the movement of insight and instruction about living life according to the patterns of good and evil God has build into this present world. The other institution is prophecy, the extremely rare occurrence in which God grants direct knowledge to human beings.

Joseph shows wisdom and prophecy to the baker and cupbearer. One is elevated and another is doomed. It all happens just as Joseph says. But no one credits Joseph for a long time for his insight, for the prophetic knowledge God gives him. He remains imprisoned, ignored, for a long time.

Israel has given wisdom literature and prophecy to all the families of the earth. For the most part, people have forgotten the source, Israel, and show little or no gratitude for the people through whom this knowledge has come. But like Joseph, who was eventually remembered, and elevated out of prison, someday the world will see Israel in a new light. Wisdom and prophecy will be vindicated. Messiah will come with wisdom and understanding, and strike the earth with the rod of his mouth.

Meanwhile, we have wisdom and prophecy to live by. We may not receive direct insight from God as Joseph did. But, to paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, some people at certain times did receive from God and it has been passed down to us. Our dreams and destiny are described therein.

The baker and cupbearer join Joseph in prison (1-4), dreams and Joseph’s ability to divinely interpret (5-8), Joseph interprets the cupbearer’s dream (9-15), Joseph interprets the baker’s dream (16-19), it happens as Joseph said (20-22), the cupbearer does not remember Joseph (23).

This part of the narrative gets at the heart of two mysteries in Israel’s life with God. What is prophecy? What is wisdom?

The Israelites experienced God at the national shrine, the temple. Adonai was not a visible God, he had no image for the people to see. Instead his presence was inside, in the inner shrine, and the people stood outside. Who was this invisible God? How could people know him, what he wants, how to live for him?

Two of the institutions that people could relate to, sources of information and inspiration about this invisible God, were prophecy and wisdom. Torah came down largely as prophecy from Moses. Other prophets spoke with poetry, condemnation and hope, instruction and indictment. Their words encouraged the righteous to improve the world and denounced the social poisons that were and are bringing the world down. Wisdom was a more open movement, including ideas from outside of Israel. It was about patterns woven into everyday life. Living in harmony with these wisdom principles embedded in God’s world will make for a better life.

The dreams of the cupbearer and baker are like riddles, and riddles are part of the world of biblical wisdom. Joseph is a wisdom sage, able to penetrate the riddles and see the pattern. But Joseph’s abilities go beyond wisdom and he receives insight from God when interpreting dreams, making him also a prophet.

Joseph sees what the riddle means. He receives knowledge from God about the future doom of the baker and elevation for the cupbearer. All of us want to know what the future holds. This episode in the Joseph story assures us that God knows. Fate is not as blind as she appears. God holds the future in his hands and knows our personal destiny, in this life and beyond.

But the Joseph story is also a prefiguring of the relationship between Israel and the nations. Israel, like Joseph, is the source of divine knowledge given to the nations. But Israel, like Joseph, is not remembered by the nations as the source of knowledge and blessing.