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The Brothers Ben Jacob

01/08/2019 03:43:06 PM



The sages and the commentators have struggled through the millennia to explain the conduct of the sons of Jacob as being ultimately righteous, pious and ethical, notwithstanding the literal text of the parshiyot disclosing the narrative of their behaviour. A literal reading of these parshiyot show, to the modern reader, a dysfunctional family of fratricidal siblings, whose animosity cannot be mediated and only reconciled through circumstance. Explaining away the murderous thoughts of the nine brothers against Joseph and Joseph’s toying with his brothers when he is viceroy of Egypt is an exercise in theological gymnastics.


Missing from much of the commentary on these parshiyot is an appreciation of the larger predicament that the sons of Jacob find themselves irrevocably caught up in. The father, Jacob, grandfather, Isaac, and great-grandfather, Abraham, of the ten sons of Jacob are prophets, addressed by G-d, each informed of the covenant which binds G-d and the patriarchs and their progeny to this day. Whereas Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob bore on their shoulders alone their covenential relationship as the only carriers of the covenential relationship, the sons of Jacob carry the covenant together and are the first growth of Jewish people. They face a predicament: What does the covenant look like and how are they to live as a growing covenential population?


Nine of the brothers, other than Joseph, appear to believe that the covenential life is pastoral, herding animals and seeking pastures for the flock. Their lifestyle is ironically non-violent, contemplative and peaceful.


Joseph, on the other hand, appears as elitist, wearing makeup in the tradition of the Egyptian aristocracy and priests. His dreams are literally of a power and leadership.


The other brothers seems to believe that Joseph’s conduct is a negation of the covenant with G-d and that this negation must be stopped. They believe this conduct is contrary to the covenential life. Therefore, they take the route that Pinchas took at the time of Moses and justify themselves as zealots, permitting fratricide and then slavery for Joseph.


Joseph, as Viceroy of Egypt, faces his own covenential dilemma. Knowing the one G-d, how could he bow down to the idols of the Egyptians as expected of any Viceroy? Clearly, he must have refused to do so. This would put him at odds with the Egyptian aristocracy and priesthood. No doubt the Egyptian elites would be threatened by a Viceroy who held not only different beliefs, but was bound to the one G-d who would ultimately judge the Egyptians for their bogus theology. In short, Viceroy Joseph must have had many enemies, staved off by Pharaoh’s confidence in him. Joseph’s hoarding of grain for the years of famine came with a price for the landholding Egyptians who were obligated to cede part of their landholdings to Pharaoh in order to receive grain, strengthening the power of Pharaoh at the expense of the propertied class. The Egyptian elites must have seen Joseph and his monotheism as subversive, someone to eliminate once his patron Pharaoh was gone. This helps to explain why Joseph did not reach out to Jacob over his many years in Egypt. He feared for his father and his brothers that the Egyptians would kill them, given the opportunity, both to strike back at Joseph and to eliminate the covenant and the knowledge of the one true G-d.


No wonder that a new Pharaoh attempted to suppress the spread of a covenant which denied Egyptian pantheon of Gods and Egypt’s entire socio-political structure.

Saturday, May 8, 2021 26 Iyyar 5781