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Jacob, Joseph and His Brothers: A New – Challenging – Interpretation

Rabbi Judith Abrams PhD., of Maqom (a school for Adult Talmud Study) shares insights into Torah. Her insights open our eyes and hearts to a new take on familiar story. Her vision offers much to those who are content to rest on assumptions about family patterns. She reminds us that one of the strengths of the biblical narrative is its ability to challenge us to reconsider difficult situations.

[Originally posted on Tzei u’Lmad: A Blog of Continuing Jewish Education]

Rabbi Abrams asks us to consider…

One of the glories of Torah is that it speaks in so many different languages all at once. This includes the story of Joseph. The story of Joseph and his brothers is usually framed, in fact is presented in the Torah text, as a tale of brotherly hostility, however greatly regretted later. But there is another possible interpretation that lies beneath the surface of the story. It’s just one of many possible interpretations, and one that may be uncomfortable to contemplate but which, I think, has textual evidence to support it.

We begin with the striped coat, the kutonet passim. There is only one other person in Tanach who has such a garment: Tamar. We learn that she has such a garment after she is raped by her half-brother Amnon (II Samuel 13:10-19). After this rape, she tears her robe and puts ashes on her head. There (II Samuel 13:18), we learn that only royal virgin daughters wear such garments. Tamar, apparently, feels that she is no longer entitled to wear these robes. It is against this background that we must look into Joseph, his coat, and what became of him and it.

By the time that Jacob gives Joseph his striped coat, his mother, Rachel, has been dead for many years: she died on the way back from Padan Aram, giving birth to Benjamin. Joseph’s story begins (Genesis 37:1) when he is seventeen years old. There, we learn that Israel loved Joseph more than all his other children and gives him a coat; a coat that we later learn should only be worn by royal virgins. The only other person who has such a coat is sexually abused by a relative. Therefore, we could imagine that Joseph is sexually abused by a relative…by that relative who gave him the coat…by his father. When we see Joseph’s story from this starting point, the rest of his story begins to make much more sense.

From this perspective, what the brothers do is heroic, not evil. They see the abuse. One child is singled out, as we see happen in such present-day situations. The brothers decide to help Joseph get away from his abuser by sending him to Egypt (Genesis 37:18-33). The brothers liberate him from his striped garment, the symbol of his shame and abuse, and return it to their father, as if to say, “We know what you did to Joseph and we have stepped in to stop it. We won’t let you abuse any of us again so you can keep this coat.” Jacob is distraught in the extreme, tearing his own clothes and covering his head with ashes (Genesis 37:34-35).

the lower antelope slot canyon near pageThis is odd. When Rachel dies, he buries her by the road, sets up a few stones to mark the spot and then continues on his journey (Genesis 35:17-21). He is not described as mourning her and we are never even informed of the deaths of Leah and the two handmaidens. But Joseph, Jacob mourns dramatically. Is it because he lost his replacement for Rachel or because of his own sense of guilt and shame or, perhaps, both?

Whatever the case, Joseph’s subsequent life is marked by the signs of earlier sexual abuse. He falls prey to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:6-8). Childhood victims of sexual abuse tend to be abused later in life, as well. Joseph displays this tendency. Joseph also has a tendency toward self-aggrandizement, which, in this interpretation, could be a coping mechanism to help him deal with the abuse he has suffered.

Once Joseph is completely secure in his position in Egypt, utterly defended by wealth and position, he does not send word to his family to bring them to Egypt. He does not feel safe. In fact, he betrays his sense that his father is still a threatening presence in his life in the moment that he reveals himself to his brothers. He asks, “Is my father still alive? (Genesis 45:3)” Given the theory we are exploring, the import behind the question becomes clear: he is asking if he is released from his bondage of fear and shame. He is asking if his father is dead so he can finally feel safe. He sends his brothers back home with enough wealth that they need not come back to Egypt for quite some time, if ever.

Even when he finally sees Jacob again, Joseph still does not feel safe. He presents himself with a retinue and with all the trappings of his office (Genesis 46:29). The wording of the meeting is ambiguous. It could be read as Joseph falling on Jacob in tears. Or it could be the other way around. It is easy to imagine that Joseph would inwardly cringe at any contact with his tormenter; no matter how contrite and powerless he might appear. Any survivor of childhood abuse knows that it is only with the death of the abuser that one feels finally, utterly safe from him or her.

Even then, Joseph is careful to keep his father at arm’s length. He has Jacob settle, not with him, but in Goshen (Genesis 47:4). He sees Jacob only at the very end of Jacob’s life (Genesis 48:10-22). Doesn’t this seem odd? Joseph was second only to Pharaoh in power. He could have seen Jacob at any time. But Joseph avoids him assiduously.

What does this reading of Joseph’s story bring us? I offer this interpretation of Joseph’s story not to shame Jacob but to elevate the brothers and to understand what could be motivating Joseph’s actions. In addition, this interpretation can help those who experience sexual abuse or who are recovering from it. I also believe that the tie with Tamar’s story is too deliberate to be ignored. Does it cast our patriarch in a bad light? Yes, but that’s hardly new. Jacob is a profoundly flawed individual who doesn’t seem to respect boundaries at any time in his life. It is not difficult to imagine that he might not respect Joseph’s boundaries, as well. I hope this possible interpretation of Joseph’s story offers comfort to those who may be dealing with family abuse.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Yeah, Julie, my feelings exactly. And while the student of Torah in me – who doesn't see internal coherence throughout Tanakh – would poo-poo this idea based on the connection from one end of Torah to the other, the community rabbi – who hears about all sorts of unbelievable things parents do to children and families to each other – remains open to this. Intense… Bravo to Rabbi Abrams for bringing this idea to light.

  2. M Wasserman says:

    The complexities of celebrating Chanukah!

    From David Brook's NY Times column Friday.
    Chanukah is a Holiday for Adults.

    Generations of Sunday school teachers have turned Hanukkah into the story of unified Jewish bravery against an anti-Semitic Hellenic empire. Settlers in the West Bank tell it as a story of how the Jewish hard-core defeated the corrupt, assimilated Jewish masses. Rabbis later added the lamp miracle to give God at least a bit part in the proceedings.

    But there is no erasing the complex ironies of the events, the way progress, heroism and brutality weave through all sides. The Maccabees heroically preserved the Jewish faith. But there is no honest way to tell their story as a self-congratulatory morality tale. The lesson of Hanukkah is that even the struggles that saved a people are dappled with tragic irony, complexity and unattractive choices.

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