Light from the Sidra

Vayeishev ('And he settled'...) 23 November 2013. 20 Kislev 5774

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

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

The Jacobsons

Families. They fascinate us. They’re the bedrock of society. Did you ever stop to think about how many television dramas, sitcoms and documentaries are about families: The Brady Bunch, The Waltons, The Partridge Family, The Beverley Hillbillies, The Addams Family, The Simpsons, The Flintstones, The Sopranos, The Osbournes, The Duck Dynasty. And the more dysfunctional the family, the more people tune in to watch ’em.

Imagine the kind of programme Channel 5 could have made if television had been around at the time of Jacob. The Jacobsons would have it all: drama; comedy; tragedy. It would issue a caution of strong violence, swearing, sex, explicit material, disturbing scenes.

The point being that, even though some of Israel’s sages tried to portray the family members as paradigms of purity, when we look at Jacob’s sons, they were a pretty dysfunctional lot. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Genesis 37, where the older brothers plan to literally kill their kid brother. They modify their plans only because they see an opportunity to make some money (little though it is) by selling Joseph to a group of merchants who are more than happy to dabble in a little human trafficking, and then callously break the heart of their father by telling him a wild animal has eaten his favourite child.

Because God was at work behind the scenes in order to bring good, some of the rabbis refer to the sons of Jacob as ‘great and righteous.’ The Midrash Rabbah, commenting on Genesis 39:1 – ‘And Joseph had been brought down to Egypt’ –attempts to excuse the deplorable behaviour of Joseph’s brothers in the following way:

R[abbi] Berekiah said in the name of R[abbi] Judah b[en] Simon: This may be compared to a cow that was resisting being dragged to the abattoir. What did they do? They drew her young one before her, whereupon she followed, albeit unwillingly. In the same way, Jacob should have gone down to Egypt in chains, but that God declared: ‘he is my firstborn son; shall I then bring him down in disgrace! Now, if I inspire Pharaoh [with the intention to bring him down], I will not bring him down with befitting honour. Therefore I will draw his son before him, and so he will follow despite himself.’ (Midrash on Genesis 86:2)

The Midrash also attempts to minimise Judah’s behaviour in the following chapter, where he consorts with his daughter-in-law whom he takes to be a prostitute. When he saw Tamar, says Rabbi Yohanan,

He wished to go on, but the Holy One, blessed be he, made the angel who is in charge of desire appear before him, and he said to him: ‘Whither goest thou, Judah? Whence, then, are kings to arise, whence are redeemers to arise?’ Thereupon, AND HE TURNED UNTO HER—in despite of himself and against his wish. (Ibid. 85:8)

In other words, ‘the Holy One, blessed be he,’ was responsible for forcing Judah into an illicit relationship. What a contrast that interpretation is to that of Jacob the Just, who wrote at the time of the Second Temple:

Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am being tempted by God,’ for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)

The Holy One, blessed be he, used the dysfunctionality of Jacob’s sons to accomplish his purposes just as he uses our evil deed to further his purposes. But that is not a get-out-of-jail- free card for us. We are responsible for our actions and will have to give account to the Creator on the day of justice. It’s bad enough to claim, ‘The devil made me do it;’ but if we claim that God made us do evil we compound our guilt by adding blasphemy to it. We are entirely responsible for the evil we do but if we do good we must give thanks to God for giving us the grace and moral strength to do his will.

But God’s sovereignty over human activity doesn’t end after Joseph has been sold into slavery. In Egypt God was with Joseph, using a seductress, two prisoners and a series of dreams to reveal to Egypt that he is the true God.

It is important to note that Joseph didn’t need to interpret his dreams for his brothers; they instinctively understood that Joseph’s dreams pointed to him as the head of the family. In the biblical records, Jews never need someone else to interpret their dreams for them. But individual Jews always interpret the dreams of Gentiles, as in the cases of Pharaoh and his butler and baker, and later in the book of Daniel (It’s interesting that though he dismissed the possibility divine revelations through dreams, of one of Sigmund Freud’s earliest writings was The Interpretation of Dreams). According to the New Testament, the ‘oracles of God’ – in both the Tanakh and the New Testament – were committed to the Jews in order that they might be ‘a light to the nations.’ In Egypt, hundreds of years before the Torah had been given to Moses and long before even the first book of the Bible had been written, an Israelite was entrusted with revelations from God in order to bring about the salvation not only of Egypt but also the then known world. Joseph in exile, as it were, was foreshadowing Israel’s calling by serving as a light to the Gentiles.

But the events involving Jacob’s family had geographical and historic significance. Through the sin of Joseph’s brothers the ancient world was saved in a time of severe famine but through Judah’s sin the way was prepared for the coming of the Messiah. The New Testament opens with ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron. . . and Jesse the father of David the king.’

That consideration should scupper any idea that Israel must somehow merit the coming of Messiah, for one of the most significant ancestors of the Messiah continued the messianic line through an act of wanton lust.

Eighteen centuries after Joseph, another Judah would betray the Joseph-like Messiah and sell him into the hands of Gentiles to be killed. Jesus the Messiah called himself the light of the world and after his resurrection from the dead he sent out twelve disciples to accomplish what the twelve tribes had failed to do; to spread the light of his truth among all nations.

Since the first century of the Common Era, despite intense persecution at times, the followers of Jesus– both Jewish and Gentile – have taken the knowledge of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all nations. Rabbi Isidore Epstein admits that (as he puts it) ‘when paganism gave place to Christianity. . . Judaism withdrew from the missionary field and was satisfied to leave the task of spreading the religion of humanity to her daughter faiths’ (Judaism p.144).

It took some twenty years before Joseph’s prophetic dreams became a reality but his brothers finally submitted themselves to the one the rest of the world acknowledged as saviour. The day will certainly come when all Israel will recognise that Jesus of Nazareth is not only the son of David but also the son of Joseph.

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