Many scholars treat the Joseph story as separate from the rest of Genesis. They talk about the "Joseph novella." This is wrong. It's wrong from the point of view of critical scholarship: The Joseph story is derived from the same two source works as the stories that come before and after it. But, more important, it's wrong because it misses crucial connections between the Joseph story and what precedes it. It is a story of an ironic chain of paybacks in a family.
Jacob appropriates his brother's BIRTHRIGHT and then is tricked in turn by Laban, who gives him Leah as a wife instead of Rachel because, Laban says, "It's not done like that in our place, to give the younger before the FIRSTBORN." (Genesis 29:26) Note that he does not say the "older" (as it is mistranslated in the NJPS) but the FIRSTBORN.
Jacob appropriates his brother's blessing by wearing his brother's CLOTHING and the skins of a GOAT to deceive their father, Isaac. Later, Jacob is deceived by his own sons about what they've done to Joseph when they produce Joseph's CLOTHING (the "coat of many colors") dipped in the blood of a GOAT.
Joseph's brothers sell him for TWENTY pieces of silver. Joseph later has the silver of nine brothers returned to their sacks, and later still he has the silver of eleven of them returned (9 + 11 = 20), thus subtly hinting that a payback is due for what they've done.
Laban is repaid for his deception of Jacob when Rachel steals her father's teraphim (household idols) and hides them by sitting on them, telling her father that she can't stand because "I have the way of women (Genesis 31:35)," meaning that she's menstruating. This is impossible because she's PREGNANT with Benjamin at the time. Later, horribly, she dies in CHILDBIRTH.
Reuben sleeps with his father Jacob's concubine. Following the sexual abuse of their sister Dinah, Simeon and Levi destroy the city of Shechem and reject their father's rebuke for what they've done. On his deathbed, Jacob strips Reuben of his birthright and condemns Simeon and Levi to dispersion, with no tribal territory.
Thus the Joseph account is no novella. It is the conclusion of an exquisitely, intricately constructed story. It culminates in Parashat Va-y'chi: Each deception has been paid back by another, so that a chain of deceptions runs through this family. But it ends when Joseph--who is seemingly entitled to some kind of revenge for what his brothers did to him--forgives his brothers instead. After their father dies, they say to Joseph, "We're your SLAVES," which is the ultimate irony coming from the brothers who once sold him as a SLAVE. But, in one of the most beautiful passages in the Bible, Joseph tells them, "Don't be afraid, because am I in place of God?!" (Genesis 50:19) And the parashah concludes: "And he comforted them, and he spoke on their heart." (Genesis 50:21)
How can these chains of conflict, retaliation, and hurt in a family ever end: only when one member of the family says "Enough" - and forgives.
Questions for Discussion
- How many more instances of deceptions and ironic paybacks can you find in this story?
- Did the chain begin with Jacob? Rebekah? Abraham (when he said Sarah was his sister)? Cain? The snake?
Richard Elliott Friedman is Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of several books, including The Bible with Sources Revealed, Commentary on the Torah, Who Wrote the Bible? and The Hidden Face of God.
In Parashat Va-y'chi, we are witness to the dramatic conclusion of the Book of Genesis. This first of the Five Books of Moses constantly demonstrates God's influence and power. From the creation of the world to the death of the last of the patriarchs and his illustrious son Joseph, we witness God's design of and for this world. In addition, Genesis tells of the beginnings of God's Chosen People and their trials, their wanderings, and their blessings.
This parashah is particularly filled with blessings (and curses) bestowed by one generation on another. The concept of blessing can be interpreted as human beings' activation of our ancient partnership with God's mysterious workings. A blessing is a form of prayer through which we invoke God's power and that of our people's history and memory.
In this parashah, Jacob, the dying parent imparts his testament to and blessings upon the next generations, which include visions of the future. In an unusual gesture, Jacob also adopts Joseph's two sons and declares that they, Ephraim and Manasseh, shall serve as models through whom Israel shall "invoke blessings." (Gen. 48:20) To this day there is a tradition to bless our sons on Shabbat evening with this blessing: "God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh." (Many also bless their daughters with an alternative version of this blessing, invoking the names of the matriarchs.)
Indeed, we should examine for ourselves the potential power of consciously perpetuating this tradition of blessing one another, for when we bless another, we are activating our partnership with God. We are looking beyond our generation and the dailiness of our lives into a future that we have the potential to influence for the better. It is through our identification with our ancestors ("the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" and, as many of us add, "the God of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel") that we often refer to God. It is up to each of us to explore and discover the meaning of the "God of our ancestors" for ourselves.
- When we casually bless someone (when a person sneezes or when we say "God help him!" etc.) what are our deeper, unconscious intentions?
- What is the difference between our consciously and unconsciously blessing someone?
- In the text, when Jacob blesses Ephraim and Manasseh, he is projecting that future generations will be blessed through them and his setting them up as a model. What might we project for the immediate future generations? What about them do we want to sustain and support so that they can continue to be a blessing?
- When we think about future generations, what do we want them to inherit spiritually from us?
For further exploration of the subject of biblical blessings in the Book of Genesis, see Studies in Bereshit by Nehama Leibowitz (Jerusalem; Publishing Dept. of the Jewish Agency, 1976). Refer to the subject index at the end under "Blessing."
Sally G. Klein-Katz, RJE, teaches education at HUC-JIR in Jerusalem and also consults and organizes educational experiences for adults, families, and Jewish educators in Israel.
Va-y’chi, Genesis 47:28–50:26
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 302–316; Revised Edition, pp. 304–322;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 281–304