Joseph and His Brothers
Lewis Dobrin is a Wexner Heritage Alumnus from Montreal. Lewis is a member of the Quebec Bar and Law Society of Upper Canada and since 1991 has been an investor in a family office. Lewis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The story of Joseph and his Brothers is prominent in the biblical narrative because of its length, its beauty and its incredible depth. It initiates the chain of events that ultimately leads Jacob to come down to Egypt. There, as foretold by the covenant God made with Abraham, his offspring will be put into bondage: “Your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs” (15:13). The Israelites are destined in God’s scheme of history to be born as a people in bondage. As such, the story of Joseph and his brothers is, at its heart, providential. But the narrative is suspenseful and told, as it were, by a master storyteller revealing psychological insight and character development of the two principal protagonists, Joseph and Judah. The beauty of the story lies in how providence acts through human agency and the complex interface between these two contrasting forces.
I gained marvelous insight into the Joseph story over a decade ago during my course of study in the Wexner Heritage Program from two very different, but equally masterful, biblical scholars, Reuven Kimelman and Uriel Simone. In this essay, I shall address the question of how one can account for a parent, Jacob, demonstrating such pronounced favoritism towards one child, Joseph.
Kimelman brought his acute attention to detail and intricate knowledge of the text to make connections and parallels that escape even an attentive reader. Kimelman’s thesis is that the life of Joseph is in many ways a replay of the life of Jacob. Both of their mothers had been barren and after ultimately conceiving, suffered difficult pregnancies. Both mothers had two sons. Both sons are objects of favoritism by one parent. Both sons are portrayed in an unfavorable light in their youth and display moral lapses. Both sons suffer hardships and reversals. Both are targets of death threats by a brother or brothers. Both are saved by leaving Canaan. And not to be forgotten, Jacob himself had been a dreamer (not unlike his son Joseph).
Uriel Simone provides an original and seductive hypothesis to explain the favoritism that Jacob bestows upon Joseph. It is, after all, difficult to understand why Jacob seems to make little effort to conceal his favoritism of one son over all the others, exemplified by his gift to Joseph of the coat of many colors. Also baffling is the extent to which Jacob (much like Joseph) appears to be oblivious to the enmity of the brothers notwithstanding that the “(brothers) hated him (Joseph) so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.” (37:4) Not at all attune to the family dynamic, Jacob sends Joseph off to inquire of his brothers’ tending of the flock (Joseph alone being spared from this work), and Joseph departs in search of his brothers wearing the infamous coat.
According to Simone, the key to understanding Jacob’s treatment of Joseph, his beautiful son of his beloved Rachel and child of his old age, is his own unhappy biography. Scripture says of Abraham that he died “a good ripe age, old and contented” (25:8). Isaac is similarly described as dying “in ripe old age” (35:29). Such is not the case with Jacob. Jacob recounts to Pharoah at the end of the narrative that the years of his life “have been few and hard” (47:9).
Jacob was born five minutes after his twin brother Esau. Those fateful five minutes colored his entire life. Jacob, the gentle, home-loving, spiritual shepherd knew to the core of his being that he, rather than Esau, deserved to be the heir to the covenant. But he had to fight for it. Life can be so unfair. Jacob had to defy providence, as it were, to change his birth order in the family. He has to act deviously and dissimulate. Jacob exploits his brother by convincing Esau to sell him his birthright for a bowl of soup and then deceives his aged and blind father by impersonating his brother. Consequently Jacob has to flee his parents’ home and spends twenty difficult years in Laban-land.
It’s understandable for a parent (indeed it’s a human instinct), consciously or unconsciously, to attempt to spare his child his own anguished experience. Jacob, the patriarch, had the insight and vision to know that Joseph, among all his children, was the heir. Jacob was determined to be open about it – no subterfuge or concealment.