Light from the Sidra


Genesis 37:1-40:23. Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

Having presented a bare skeleton of the line of Esau, Moses now moves to the really interesting family history, that of the line of Jacob. It’s remarkable that in a history of the beginnings of the Jewish people, the genealogies of one of Israel’s enemies features at all, so it is useful to remind ourselves that, as revealed in the book of Genesis, God’s has been working towards undoing the work of the serpent in Gan Eden and to restore the nations to himself. His purpose is nothing less than tikkun olam, the repairing of creation. Since Adam’s rebellion, the human race has been divided into two lines: the “seed of the serpent” and “the seed of the woman”. Israel is the seed of the woman and from that people will come the one who crushes the head of the serpent.

Nevertheless, even the best men – Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, among others –good though they were, did not crush the serpent’s head. The Bible is remarkably candid about Israel’s patriarchs; it doesn’t attempt to cover their faults. Joseph’s father and mother, his grandfather and his brothers, although they were the chosen people, had something of the serpent in them. However, Joseph, who becomes the major figure in the last 14 chapters of Genesis, is different. In the history of this man, we observe the highest fulfilment of the “seed of the woman” promise to be found in the book of Genesis; in Joseph we see God’s promise to bless the world through the seed of Abraham unfolding.

But, first, why is an account of the patriarch Judah consorting with his daughter-in-law included in this section? The story doesn’t paint a favourable picture of the man who would become the greatest of the patriarchs; the progenitor of King David and the Messiah (more of that when we come to chapter 49). It doesn’t even seem to add anything to the narrative of Joseph, except to set him apart from his brothers as truly righteous.

Genesis 39 is about “seed”. The “seed of the woman” who would conquer the serpent was to come through Abraham’s “seed” but Onan, although he was happy to sleep with his sister-in-law, was not prepared to raise up offspring for his dead brother, lets his “seed” go to waste. His reluctance to impregnate his brother’s wife is rebellion against the purposes of God. So long as he allows her to go childless, he is preventing the birth of the “seed of the woman” and thus allowing the serpent to oppose God.

Joseph is different. The way he behaves sets all his brothers in a bad light. They are characterised by hatred, ill-will, jealousy, deception, lust, and murderous intentions. Their kid brother, whom they hate so much, is head and shoulders above them in terms of personal integrity, truthfulness, self-control and, above all, spirituality. No wonder some of the later rabbis would see the “seed of the woman” as “Mashiach ben Yosef”.

More on that next week.

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