Light from the Sidra

Vayishev ('And he lived...'). 4th December 2015. 23rd Kislev 5776.

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

Meet the Jacobsons

Families. They fascinate us. So 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, to name but a few. And the more dysfunctional the family, the more people tune in to watch ’em. If television had been around at the time of Jacob and his sons, The Jacobsons would have had it all: drama; comedy; tragedy. Each episode would have had to post a caution at the beginning: Warning. The following programme contains strong violence, strong language, explicit material, disturbing scenes and material unsuitable for some audiences.

Even though some of Israel’s sages tried to portray the Jacob 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 a little dosh by selling Joseph to a group of merchants who are not averse to dabbling in human trafficking, and then breaking the heart of their father by telling him a wild animal has eaten his favourite child.

Some sages 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. God, say the compilers of the Midrash, was using Joseph as the means to draw Jacob down to Egypt, using the illustration of a cow that is unwilling to be dragged to the abattoir. The slaughterers drag the cow’s calf before her in order to draw the cow, albeit unwillingly, to its doom. In the same way, says the Midrash, Jacob should have gone down to Egypt in chain, but God declared: ‘he is my firstborn son; shall I then bring him down in disgrace! If I inspire Pharaoh to bring Jacob down, it will not be with the honour befitting such a great man. Therefore I will draw his son Joseph before him, and so he will follow in spite of his own wishes.’ (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 mistakenly thinks is a prostitute. According to the Midrash, God made ‘the angel who is in charge of desire’ persuade Judah, against his wishes, to have sex with his daughter-in-law! (Midrash on Genesis 85:8)

In other words, HASHEM forced 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 man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ because God cannot be tempted by evil, and He Himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desire and ensnared. Then when the desire becomes pregnant, it gives birth to sin. And when the sin is full grown, it gives birth to death’ (James 1:13-15)

HASHEM is not the author of moral evil. By grace, he restrains us from evil but he sometimes allows us to follow our chosen course of action, as Psalm 76:10 reveals: ‘Surely the wrath of man shall praise You and the remainder of wrath you will restrain.’

HASHEM permitted the dysfunctionality of Jacob’s sons to accomplish his purposes just as he uses our evil deeds to further his purposes. But that is not a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card. We are responsible for our actions and will give account for them 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 granting us the grace and moral strength to do his will. All through the story of Joseph we see God at work using human sin and weakness – the malice of his brothers, a seductress, an ungrateful prisoner and a series of dreams – to reveal to Egypt that he is the true God.

Dreams and their interpretation also play a central role in the drama of Joseph. However, the dreams in the story of Joseph are not there to encourage the occult practice of the ‘interpretation of dreams’ that is all the rage. The dreams of Joseph, the butler, the baker and Pharaoh were sent by God and their interpretation was God-given. It is worth noting that Joseph’s brothers instinctively understand the significance of Joseph’s dream. In the Bible, Jews never need someone else to interpret their dreams for them. Joseph interpreted the dreams of Gentiles as did Daniel Nebuchadnezzar’s. The New Testament states that 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 foreshadowed Israel’s calling to be a light to the Gentiles.

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. That consideration scuppers the notion 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 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, Jewish and Gentile followers of Jesus have taken the knowledge of the god of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to all nations, as Rabbi Isidore Epstein admits: ‘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 who the ancient world acknowledged as saviour. The day will certainly come when all Israel will recognise that Jesus of Nazareth is not only Messiah son of David but also Messiah son of Joseph.

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