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.