Joseph’s Saga (1): The Beloved Son
By Julia Blum April 22, 2021No comments
Readers who have been following this blog for a while would know that I love series. Today, we will begin a new series, commenting on the last part of the book of Genesis – Joseph’s saga. To be honest, I myself am very surprised that I have never written anything on this story on these pages, since this is undoubtedly one of my favorite pieces of Scripture. Anyway, I will begin this series today. Originally, I was planning to write just four or five posts in this series; however, there are so many amazing details and delicious nuances in the story of Joseph – and I really want to share with you all these details and nuances – that I have a feeling we might proceed more slowly than I planned, and will need more articles. We will see – but for now, off we go, and I really hope you will enjoy this new series and will discover some new insights in this well-known story!
“Joseph’s Saga” starts in Genesis 37:1 with a very interesting verse, which should not be missed: “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.” In Hebrew, the contrast between Jacob’s dwelling (וַיֵּ֣שֶׁב) in the Land and the wanderings of his father in the same Land (מְגוּרֵ֣י אָבִ֑יו) is striking and is clearly emphasized: Jacob is already firmly settled in the very land where Abraham was only a guest.
Then, in the next verse of this chapter, we read the sentence, or rather the beginning of the sentence that we have encountered many times before: “This is the history of Jacob” (Ele toledot Yaakov). You probably know that the same beginning occurs many times in the Torah (in fact, twelve times) – and for the very first time, we find it in the second chapter of the book of Genesis, where it opens the second account of creation. Here it forms a peculiar literary bridge, connecting and holding together two accounts of creation: we would not read Genesis 2 without first reading Genesis 1, would we? In this sense, this second verse of Joseph’s saga is also like a bridge connecting the story of Jacob with the story of Joseph: right after these words, the narrative moves to Joseph, but you have to read both parts – Jacob’s and Joseph’s stories – in order to fully understand them.
By the way, we find almost the same beginning in the New Testament. We read in the opening words of the Gospel of Matthew: “The book of the genealogy (of Jesus Christ”). If one knows how many times these words served as a literary bridge in Torah, one would immediately realize that here they also serve as a bridge connecting the New Testament to the Old Testament. In this sense, the words “Old Testament” are actually very misleading: one might think that it is unnecessary to read the Old Testament in order to know and understand the New Testament. However, our bridge shows that they relate to each other in the same way as the two creation stories relate, or as the story of Joseph relates to the story of Jacob: presumably, one would not read the second part without reading the first.
The Beloved Son
As I just mentioned, right after these words, the narrative moves to Joseph. In the same verse, Scripture tells us that “Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brothers”. He was with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah and brought “bad reports of them to his father”. The “bad reports” that Joseph brought to his father, have caused a lot of division in the opinions of Jewish commentators. Were there bad things that indeed needed to be reported, or was Joseph just telling on his brothers? Can we call him talebearer or even a snitch, or was he just a responsible helper, duly informing the father about the problems? Traditional commentators attempt to whitewash Joseph’s behavior by saying that he merely did his job and reported what he saw. On the other hand, we can find a completely different opinion: “Two righteous men were punished on account of the bearing of malevolent reports—Jacob and Joseph. Because Joseph spoke badly of his brothers, he was in prison for 12 years; and because Jacob listened to these reports, the divine spirit departed from him for 22 years. This teaches us that one who speaks negatively of another is punished once, while someone who listens to negative talk about another is twice punished.”
Amazingly, the Bible never tries to embellish the people it describes. The stories of families portrayed here often shock the readers with the details that most families would try very hard to keep private. Parental favoritism is a good example. Today it is considered one of the gravest parental sins, but Torah does not hesitate to tell us that Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved his brothers: “Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age”. We might wonder why Torah does not mention the obvious explanation: that Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s great love. However, if we realize how old Jacob was when Joseph was born, we would understand that indeed, ‘Jacob’s old age’ alone was enough to explain Jacob’s special feelings for Joseph. In order to figure it out, we will need some calculations based on the later events in this story. We read that Jacob was 130 years old when he came to Egypt. How old was Joseph at this time? Torah says that Joseph was 30 years old “when he stood before Pharaoh“ and that there were 5 years of famine left (7 years of abundance had passed) when Joseph called Jacob into Egypt. So, Joseph was about 30+7+(7-5) = 39 years old when Jacob came to Egypt at 130. That means Jacob was about 91 years old when Joseph was born—a “son of his old age” indeed!
Jacob did not hide his favoritism at all: he gave Joseph a very special tunic. In Hebrew, it is called כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים (ketonet passim), and even though translations traditionally render it as “the coat of many colors”, the meaning of these words in Hebrew is not clear at all. Next time, we will discuss in detail this tunic and all the possible ways this ketonet passim might be translated from Hebrew – and, even more importantly, we will find out who else in the Bible was wearing a ketonet passim. We are still in the very first verses of Genesis 37 (we haven’t advanced very far, have we?) – but hopefully next time, we will get to the crime of the brothers and the sale of Joseph. There are many amazing details in this story – so, stay tuned!
 Probably, Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, is meant here.
 Pirkei d’Rabbeinu HaKadosh