One fourth of the Book of Genesis is dedicated to the story of Joseph. Fascinating, since he was not considered one of the Patriarchs. Indeed, there is no tribe of Joseph as there are for each of his brothers. The tribe of Levi form the Levites who, because of their priestly duties, were not given a portion of the Land of Israel, and thus do not form a territorial tribe. The final two tribes, that of Ephraim and Manasseh, are the sons of Joseph, who got their own tribes, rather than Joseph himself.
So why does the Book of Genesis devote so much text to Joseph? Partially to explain how the Israelites ended up in Egypt, but there is more going on in the story of Joseph than a mere relocation story. Joseph's story is driven by dreams, both his and the dreams of others. God gave him the gift of prophecy through dream interpretation, and in the next four Torah portions, he uses this gift, at first injudiciously, and later more wisely.
Jacob regarded Joseph as a favorite, and this favoritism inspired jealousy in his brothers. Jacob gave him an extravagant brocaded coat (כְּתֹנֶת פַּסִּים in Hebrew). This coat became a focus for his brothers' jealousies. Joseph received prophetic dreams that he would rule over his brothers and even his father when he was seventeen. A wiser youth would have kept these dreams to himself, especially if he were conscious of his brothers' attitudes towards him, but Joseph foolishly told his brothers his dreams in which he dominated them. In one dream, he appeared as a sheaf of wheat (Masons take note) standing straight up, whereas his brothers appeared as sheaves of wheat pointing in a circle around him bowing down to him. In a second dream, his brothers appeared as seven stars, his father the sun and his deceased mother the moon, all bowing down to Joseph. He told this dream to his father and brothers, and it greatly upset them, although his father suspended judgment at the time.
These dreams exacerbated his brothers' ill feelings towards him, and they conspired to murder him. One day, his older brothers were tending sheep when Jacob asked Joseph to check on them. The Talmud tells us that Simeon and Levi, the perpetrators of the massacre at Shechem, were the chief conspirators, intending to murder Joseph and cast his corpse into a pit. Reuben, on the other hand, intervened on Joseph's behalf, insisting that his brothers spare Joseph's life. Instead, Reuben suggests that they cast Joseph alive into a well that was dug, but turned out to be dry.
Wells appear throughout the Book of Genesis as a symbol of mercy in the midst of harshness, or of inheritance in the case of Isaac reclaiming his father's wells. Water in the desert is life in the midst of death, and is a symbol of chesed, or lovingkindness. Thus, a dry well is a symbol of failed chesed, or an attempt at mercy that does not contain true caritas.
Reuben planned to rescue Joseph and return him to their father. As we shall see, this plan does not come into fruition. The brothers strip him of his precious coat, and put him in the dry well. The Talmud says that Simeon threw Joseph into the pit, but Josephus says that Reuben gently lowered Joseph into the pit, as to save him from injury. Soon afterwards, an Arab caravan approached, bringing spices and incenses for trade. Judah decides that, rather than murder Joseph, he can sell Jospeh as a slave to the caravan. He receives twenty pieces of silver for the sale of their brother. Reuben returns to the pit to rescue Joseph and finds him gone, and tears his clothing in his grief. He says to his brothers: "The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?" [Genesis 37: 30].
As a ruse, the brothers slaughter a goat and dip Joseph's coat in the blood. They bring the coat to their father, and tell him: "This have we found: know now whether it be thy son's coat or no." [Genesis 37: 32]. Heartbroken, Jacob assumes that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts, and succumbs to a long period of mourning, tearing his clothing and wearing sackcloth. His grief is pitiful: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him; but he refused to be comforted; and he said, For I will go down into the grave unto my son mourning. Thus his father wept for him." [Genesis 37: 35].
Joseph, meanwhile is taken by the caravan to Egypt, and sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, and a Captain of the Guard.
At this point in the Torah, there is a rather bizarre digression about the duties of Levirate marriage (there is a whole tractate of the Talmud dedicated to the complex rules surrounding this obligation). It is important to remember that these peoples were extremely patriarchal, and their responsibilities to each other were very much dictated by the requirements of patriarchy, in ways that seem very odd to us today. When a woman was widowed, it was the responsibility of her brother-in-law to marry her, thus ensuring her protection.
In the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah will dictate the rules of yibbum in the following way: "If brethren dwell together, and one of them die, and have no child, the wife of the dead shall not marry without unto a stranger: her husband's brother shall go in unto her, and take her to him to wife, and perform the duty of an husband's brother unto her. And it shall be, that the firstborn which she beareth shall succeed in the name of his brother which is dead, that his name be not put out of Israel.". [Deuteronomy 25: 5-6].
While this seems disturbing to a modern sensibility, in the culture of the Ancients, an unmarried woman had no protection in society, especially if she had no sons to look out for her. Defending her from the isolation of widowhood, the brother of her dead husband could marry her, impregnate her, and these children would be legally considered the children of her dead husband. This would restore not only her status, but the posthumous status of her dead husband. Men lived in fear of not producing progeny, and this method could ensure that a man could produce progeny after his death.
Incidentally, a brother could refuse to marry his brother's widow. This refusal is called chalitzah in Jewish law. The Talmud actually prefers chalitzah to yibbum. In a public ceremony, the widow removes the shoe of her brother-in-law, and then spits in his face, and announces to the crowd that this man refuses to take her as a wife, and he confirms this. In the current Orthodox version of chalitzah, the widow spits on the ground, not in her brother-in-law's face, and the witnesses say "May it be the will [of God] that Jewish women be no more subjected to halizah or to yibbum." Thus, in Masonic ritual, the removal of the shoe is referred to as "a testament in Israel".
Judah, the progenitor of the Jewish people, does some pretty disreputable things in this section, and is depicted in a very unflattering manner. In the authorship theory of the Torah, it is believed that two factions of Torah author are in conflict with each other: the clerical faction and the political faction. In this theory, at the time ascribed to when the Torah was written down, the Levites controlled all religious practice and the tribe of Judah controlled the Kingdom of Judah, which was in power. Thus, the Priestly author was skeptical of political power, diminishing Judah, and the Political author was skeptical of clericalism, diminishing Levi.
Judah leaves his brothers and sets off on his own. He marries and has three sons, Er, Onan and Shelah. Er marries Tamar, and because he is wicked, is struck down by God. Judah insists that his son Onan marry Tamar. Judah does not object to marrying Tamar, but he does object to having her children and having them be regarded as Er's children. He marries her, but practices coitus interruptus when having sex with her, ejaculating on the ground instead of inside Tamar. This dereliction of duty offends God, who strikes Onan dead.
In some Christian societies, masturbation is called onanism after this Biblical passage, and because Levirate marriage is not well-understood anymore, it has been misinterpreted that God kills Onan either for using a birth control method, or for masturbating (fairly odd considering the passage). Even some Orthodox Jews regard masturbation as the sin of Onan, and even go so far as to regard nocturnal emissions as sinful. I think that, considering what the Torah says, these extremist interpretations are wildly off the mark. If Levirate marriage is understood, the passage is pretty clear and direct. Onan was killed for refusing to give Tamar children who would be considered Er's children.
As Shelah was still a child, Judah told Tamar to live with her father until Shelah grew to adulthood. Judah worried that Shelah would die like his brothers, and was basically blowing Tamar off. Judah's wife died, and Judah did not marry Tamar and Shelah as he had promised. Tamar disguised herself as a veiled prostitute (זוֹנָה in Hebrew). She is later described as being dressed like a hierodule, or sacred prostitute (קְּדֵשָׁה in Hebrew). This is a strange word, as it is the feminine form of the word sacred. Certain pagan women in ancient Canaan would have sex with worshippers in fertility rites as part of worship. In this tradition, they covered their faces (and thus were anonymous, encouraging any woman who wanted this form of pagan religious devotion to do this without loss of reputation).
Judah offers her a goat for solicitation, and gives her his seal of authority, his cloak and his staff (the symbols of his authority) as a deposit until he can provide her with the goat, and has sex with her, impregnating her. If she were a zonah, or regular prostitute, Judah would be guilty of fornication, but if she were a kedeishah, or sacred prostitute, he would be guilty of blasphemy as well.
Judah tries to provide the goat to the sacred prostitute, and get his deposit back, but nobody is aware of her existence. He is forced to give up and abandon the symbols of his authority. A few months later, Tamar is visibly pregnant, and Judah (not knowing that he is the father) is indignant, and insists that she be burned. The rabbinic commentary is divided as to whether burned meant burned to death, or branded. Upon her arrest, she offered the seal, the cloak and the staff to the men who arrested her, claiming that the owner of these items is the father of her child. Judah is exposed as a fornicator, a promise-breaker and a hypocrite.
Tamar gives birth to twins. One boy, Zerach thrust his arm out of her womb, and the midwife tied a crimson string around his wrist, claiming the boy as the firstborn. But the infant pulled his arm back in, and his brother, Peretz left the womb before him. Peretz was an ancestor of King David.
Joseph thrives as the servant of Potiphar in Egypt. The Torah suggests that the Lord caused Joseph to have success in all his undertakings, and Potiphar realizes that Joseph is blessed by the Lord, and gave him responsibility for the entire household, making him head butler of Potiphar's estate. God blessed Potiphar because of Joseph, making him extremely successful and prosperous. Joseph grew to manhood, and became extremely attractive, and Potiphar's wife became infatuated with Joseph. She demanded that Joseph sleep with her, but he refused, insisting that he had earned the trust of his master. She finally jumped him, grabbing his cloak as Joseph fled without it. Incensed, she told the household that Joseph had tried to rape her, and she gave his cloak as evidence of his assault. Potiphar, trusting his wife, had Joseph thrown in prison.
Joseph befriended the warden of the prison, and pretty soon, the warden put Joseph in charge of the other prisoners. God blesses Joseph, and he ends up running the prison. Later, Pharaoh's wine steward and baker are imprisoned. Midrash suggests that there was a fly in the wine and a pebble in the bread. Another midrash suggests that they had conspired to poison Pharaoh, and a third midrash says that they had attempted to seduce Pharaoh's daughter.
One night, both men had prophetic dreams they could not interpret. The wine steward dreams of a vine with three branches. As he watches, buds form, blossoms bloom, and the branches fill with grapes. Pharaoh's cup appears in his hand and he took the grapes and squeezed them into the cup and handed it to Pharaoh. Joseph interpets the three branches as three days. In three days, the wine steward will be pardoned and restored to his previous position. Joseph tells the wine steward that when this happens, to remember Joseph in prison and to tell Pharaoh that Joseph is innocent and should be freed.
The baker dreams that three baskets of white bread are on his head. In the top basket are Pharaoh's favorite breads, but that birds were eating it out of the basket. Joseph interprets the three baskets as three days, and says that in three days, Pharaoh will hang the baker, and that the birds will pick at his carcass on the gallows. Nice, I know.
Three days later was Pharaoh's birthday, and he released the wine steward and the baker from prison. He restored the wine steward to his former position, but he executed the baker. The wine steward, in his excitement about being freed, forgot all about Joseph, leaving him to languish in prison.
New Torah commentary at My Jewish Learning
10 hours ago