Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

by Alan T. Levenson
Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

Joseph: Portraits through the Ages

by Alan T. Levenson


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The complex and dramatic story of Joseph is the most sustained narrative in Genesis. Many call it a literary masterpiece and a story of great depth that can be read on many levels. In a lucid and engaging style, Alan T. Levenson brings the voices of Philo, Josephus, Midrash, and medieval commentators, as well as a wide range of modern scholars, into dialogue about this complex biblical figure.

Levenson explores such questions as: Why did Joseph’s brothers hate him so? What is achieved by Joseph’s ups and downs on the path to extraordinary success? Why didn’t Joseph tell his father he was alive and ruling Egypt? What was Joseph like as a husband and father? Was Joseph just or cruel in testing his brothers’ characters?

Levenson deftly shows how an unbroken chain of interpretive traditions, mainly literary but also artistic, have added to the depth of this fascinating and unique character.



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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780827612921
Publisher: The Jewish Publication Society
Publication date: 09/01/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 304
File size: 991 KB

About the Author

Alan T. Levenson is the Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish History at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author or editor of numerous essays and books, including The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel, and America Transformed an Ancient Text; An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thinkers; and Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism: Defenses of Jews and Judaism in Germany, 1871–1932 (Nebraska, 2013).

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Portraits through the Ages

By Alan T. Levenson


Copyright © 2016 Alan T. Levenson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8276-1292-1



Favored Son, Hated Brother

The conception, birth, and naming of Joseph signals the arrival of a special character. Rachel is described in scripture as an "akarah," properly translated as "barren woman," but more whimsically rendered as "a woman who eventually gives birth to a terrific baby boy." Sarah and Rebecca bore this appellation, and so will many female heroes later in the Bible, including Hannah and Samson's unnamed mother. In this case Rachel suffers years of conflict with her sister and co-wife, Leah; fruitlessly seeks Jacob's intercession through prayer as his father, Isaac, did for Rebecca; and even attempts primitive fertility treatments in the form of mandrake plants (dudaim) purchased from Leah in exchange for Jacob's company at night. Do any of these means employed by Rachel work? No, they do not. Dan and Naphtali, Rachel's two children through Bilhah her handmaid, do not seem to assuage her bitter feelings. After a last burst of child bearing by the fecund Leah, the biblical text turns, matter-of-factly, to what does work:

Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son, and said, "God has taken away [asaf] my disgrace." So she named him Joseph [yosef], which is to say, "May the Lord add [yosef] another son for me." (Gen. 30:22–24)

Rachel produces a boy and, as it were, double-names him. Her first name addresses the removal of shame entailed by producing a male heir; her second name is a request for another son. Unlike name changes, double-naming at birth in the Bible is rare and in this case is fraught with destiny. The Hebrew verbs asaf/yosef, if connected to the newborn child, may be imaginatively rendered as "one who is taken away, and added back with increase," not a bad summary of Joseph's life story. As usual for biblical naming speeches, the text says much about the namer as well as the named. Here, at the birth of her firstborn, Rachel expresses the demanding nature that makes her such a suitable spouse for the similarly characterized Jacob. Rachel's prayer for a second son will be fulfilled with the birth of Benjamin, but it will cost Rachel her life. (We will turn to the death and burial of Rachel much later in this book.) Although she is mentioned in the Joseph story proper for one verse only (Gen. 48:7), it is a most poignant one. Her presence, moreover, hovers over the Joseph narrative as the departed mother of two favored sons and as the absent maternal figure that might have guided Joseph in his formative years.

The birth of Benjamin involves an at-birth renaming. Aware that she is dying, Rachel calls the child Ben-oni (child of my suffering), but Jacob immediately renames him Benjamin, "son of the South" or "son of my right hand." This name suggests strength, as does Jacob's valedictory in Genesis 49 and so do the tales of Benjamin's progeny later in the Bible. But Genesis 37–50 presents Benjamin merely as a cipher for Joseph. Benjamin gets no spoken lines; this biblical technique often highlights that the figure is an object acted on rather than an acting subject. Benjamin's subsequent status as Jacob's favored son, the youngest son, Rachel's son, makes him a perfect surrogate for Joseph. This device allows the biblical narrator to test the brothers' spiritual growth and fraternity on the one hand; the limits of Joseph's forgiveness and fraternal feelings on the other hand. Not only is Benjamin silent in Genesis 37–50; we are never told how Benjamin feels about his situation at home in Canaan or before the vizier Joseph in Egypt. The eighteenth-century painting by Girodet de Roucy-Trioson in which Benjamin recognizes Joseph is a wonderful imaginative leap that underscores the connection of the full brothers.

Commentators through the ages found much to say about Genesis 37, a magnificent model for anyone interested in how to start a story. The first verse contains an element of tension between permanence and impermanence, between tranquility and disturbance. "Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan." Settling and sojourning (or "wanderings," as gorei might be rendered) could be understood as synonyms, but the language here suggests a difference nuance. The rabbis questioned whether Jacob really thought he was entitled to more peace than the peaceful Isaac. As one midrash muses, "When the righteous seek to dwell in peace in this world, Satan comes and opposes them, saying, 'It is not enough for them that so much is prepared in the coming age, they want to live in peace in this world!'" Foreshadowing and reversals stud this chapter from stem to stern: Jacob will not find peace in Canaan; he will not even end his days in Canaan. Joseph will enjoy most-favored-son status from the onset, will end this chapter in a pit (bor), and will then return to his destined state.

Talking About My Generations

Commentators have lavished even more attention on the second verse than the first. Gen. 37:2 reads, "This, then, is the line of [v'eleh toldot] Jacob: At seventeen years of age Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah." The New Jewish Publication Society translation (NJPS) is wonderful: it is used throughout this book. But every translation (and translator) makes choices. In this case NJPS separates the names "Jacob" and "Joseph" by five words, where the original has them in succession, and introduces a paragraph break after "This, then, is the line of Jacob." This successful attempt at clarity on the part of the translators obscures a clear problem for the reader of the Hebrew original (v'eleh toldot Yakov Yosef). The opening constitutes a well-established genealogical formula, "so and so begat so and so," which appears nine other times in Genesis. What ordinarily follows is a listing of the sons in age order. In other words the verse ought to read, "This, then, is the line of Jacob: Reuben." Why does the Bible fail to render the genealogical list and then turn to Joseph's story? This anomaly demands explanation.

One midrash contends that since Jacob's family was saved only as a result of Joseph's being in Egypt, the fates of Jacob and Joseph were inextricably linked. By this logic placing their names consecutively makes narrative sense. Another midrash suggests that the uncanny similarities between the lives of Jacob and Joseph justified the variation from the formula. Here are some of the obvious parallels: Jacob and Joseph were both children of mothers who suffered infertility and difficult pregnancies (Rebecca and Rachel, respectively). They were both threatened by their brothers. They were both exiles. They both experienced alienation from their families and then reunited with them. They both had offspring in a foreign land. Other similarities between father and son enumerated by this midrash have fewer bases in the text, including my students' perennial favorite — that Jacob and Joseph were both born circumcised. The rabbis recoiled from the idea that the patriarchs might have been uncircumcised, yet, unlike with Abraham and Isaac, there is no biblical narration of their circumcisions. Even excluding more far-fetched midrashim, the likening of the fates of Jacob and Joseph has much to commend it.

Much later both Jacob and Joseph announce in the same words, "I am about to die." Although "gather" is a mundane word, it is also the root of Joseph's name, and it is used twice in the Jacob's deathbed scene. Life and death seem also at play in Gen. 45:26, when Jacob's sons tell him that "Joseph is yet alive," preceding the announcement that "the spirit of their father Jacob revived" (Gen. 45:27) and Jacob's declaration that "Joseph my son is yet alive" (Gen. 45:28). Although Judah uses the phrase "nafsho k'shurah nafsho" (his soul is bound up with his soul; Gen. 44:30) to connect Jacob with Benjamin, who is called the son of his old age, Benjamin is often a stand-in for Joseph, and this seems to be the case here. Jacob's soul (nefesh: life breath) is bound up with Joseph's too.

But one may ask if all that "likening" is a sufficiently technical answer to our question: why the variation of the genealogical formula? Rashi endorses the midrashic solution linking and likening the fates of Jacob and Joseph but reads v'eleh toldot less literally than "generations" or "line." Instead Rashi reads this phrase as "this is the story" or "this is the history," another common use of the word toldot in the Bible. It is worth noting here that much rabbinic literature did not have the burden of translating the text — the rabbis assumed the superiority of the Hebrew text over any versions or languages and commented in Hebrew as well. Famously Rashbam rejected his grandfather's solution to the problem contained in this verse (Gen. 37:1). Rashbam considered v'eleh toldot a formula indeed, only one completed in the genealogies of Gen. 46:8–27 and Genesis 49. More globally Rashbam considered the entire Joseph cycle anticipatory background, allowing Moses to declare, "Your ancestors went down to Egypt seventy persons in all" (Deut. 10:22). Rashbam's position may strike readers here as forced, but it expresses Rashbam's principled support of peshat, a mode of reading Bible that struck twelfth-century practitioners as being more precise than the age-old mode of midrash.

The Elder Shall Serve the Younger

If, however, we follow the midrash and Rashi in their likening of Jacob and Joseph in Gen. 37:2, we have a link to the most prominent topic of this opening chapter: the brothers' hatred toward Joseph, enumerated briskly, almost clinically, by the Bible:

v. 2 Joseph is a tattletale: "And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father."

v. 3 Joseph is Jacob's declared, open favorite: "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age."

v. 3b Joseph gets a visible symbol of that favoritism: "and he made him an ornamented tunic." Whether one translates ketonet passim as "technicolor dream coat" à la Andrew Lloyd Webber, or as "ornamented tunic" in the more sober NJPS rendering, this article of clothing offers a physical prompt to hatred.

vv. 5–11 Joseph relates two sets of self-aggrandizing dreams that a prudent teenager, possibly an oxymoron, ought to keep to himself.

These dreams get much more textual space than the other reasons for the brothers' hatred, and so it is no surprise that when Joseph finds his brothers at Dothan they exclaim, a little more aggressively than the NJPS translation has it: "Here comes that dreamer!" In the original one can practically hear the brothers choking on their resentment:

"Hinei ba'al ha-halamot ha-lazeh — bah"

Dreams play such a prominent role in the Joseph narrative that chapter 2 of this volume is devoted to them. For the purposes of unfolding Genesis 37, the reader observes that the dreams serve as the proverbial final straw, cementing the hatred narrated in the opening verses. Additionally the dreams establish Joseph not only as the object of his father's favoritism but as a person of exceptional ability. The young man's self-confidence can be detected in Joseph's first spoken words, "Hear this dream which I have dreamed."

The dreams are central. Yet each of these causes gets weighed in the rabbinic balance. What, for instance, was the nature of the "bad reports"? Were these reports about all the brothers, or exclusively about the sons of the midwives? Midrash imagined a variety of misdeeds, including the eating of limbs from living animals, a dietary practice banned since the time of Noah. Joseph's "shepherding" of the brothers has been read ironically. But other commentators wonder whether or not the brothers actually did anything wrong at all. Nearly everyone in this story practices deception: Jacob, Joseph, the brothers, Mrs. Potiphar, and Tamar. Joseph bears derogatory tales, but the text does not tell us what they are or whether they are true.

What does the description "son of his old age" (ben zekunim) signify? Joseph is not the youngest son; Benjamin had been born two chapters ago. As James Kugel comments, "If anything, Benjamin should have been loved more than any of the older brothers." Rashi, playing on an Aramaic homonym, imagined that father and son looked alike. Just as likely, should one travel down this route, is that Joseph looks like his mother, Rachel, since their physical attractiveness is described in similar language. Perhaps Jacob's favoritism stems partly from this visible reminder of his beloved wife. The preceding verse describes Joseph as both a youth (na'ar) and also as seventeen years old. Kugel points to a tradition that these ancient interpreters equated "old age" and "wisdom," thus "son of his old age" was understood as a comment on Joseph's wisdom, arguably quite limited in Genesis 37, but certainly evident in the remainder of the story. Whatever "son of his old age" means, it is given as the reason that "Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons." This narrative declaration should not be skipped: since we see signs of this favoritism right and left, this verse seems an affirmation of what might be deduced anyway. But the verse highlights the public nature of Jacob's feelings, in turn a further cause of jealousy.

The "ornamented tunic," magnificently imagined by Thomas Mann to be Rachel's tunic, is a visible reminder to the brothers of Joseph's status. Items of clothing often play an important role in biblical stories. The narrator further implies that Joseph handled this item of clothing indiscreetly, for it is clear that he appeared in Dothan before his brothers wearing that ketonet passim (Gen. 37:23), and that the brothers used this bloodied coat in Gen. 37:31–33 to deceive Jacob about Joseph's fate. Once again Mann seems spot-on when he imagines the brethren shredding the coat in anger. Many commentators stress the poetic justice of Jacob being fooled by a garment as he fooled his own father, Isaac, into giving him the blessing intended for Esau's many years earlier. I would add that the brethren display passive-aggressive behavior here by asking Jacob to examine with his own eyes this garment, just as he had allowed Joseph to wear this sign of favoritism in plain sight of his brothers (Gen. 37:23). What ketonet passim actually means is open to doubt. The term appears again only in 2 Samuel 13, at the rape of Tamar by her half brother Amnon. In that chapter the ketonet passim signifies a costly or royal garment, and this is the meaning ascribed to the cloak by Speiser. The text emphasizes sight and sound: directly after receiving the ketonet passim, the brothers see that Joseph is Jacob's favorite, and as a consequence, the text tells us, the brothers could not speak a peaceful word to him.

How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

These causes for sibling hatred in Genesis 37 seem more than adequate. But as the great German Jewish literary scholar Erich Auerbach (1892–1957) noted, the Bible is "fraught with background." How true this is in the case of Joseph! Long before Genesis 37 the brothers already have ample reason to despise Jacob's favorite. Readers who rush to censor the violence perpetrated on Joseph by his elder brothers, without question a terrible deed, should recall the suffering of Leah as the unloved wife and consider what effect this had on her and her sons, for Jacob's partiality toward Joseph stretches back before his birth, to his preference for Rachel over Leah, made explicit in the Bible (Gen. 29:18, 29:30). Evidence for this paternal favoritism continues when the birth of Joseph prompts Jacob to return to his homeland, although the Hebrew (ka'asher), translated in NJPS as "after," leaves the degree of causality uncertain:

Va'yehi ka'asher yalda rachel yosef, ...

After Rachel had Joseph, Jacob spoke to Laban. He said, "Send me on my way. I want to go back to my own home and country." (Gen. 30:25)


Excerpted from Joseph by Alan T. Levenson. Copyright © 2016 Alan T. Levenson. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1. Joseph: Favored Son, Hated Brother,
2. Joseph the Dreamer,
3. Tamar, a Difficult Hero,
4. Potiphar's Wife Vilified and Redeemed,
5. Joseph from Rags to Riches,
6. Testing, Dreaming, Punishing,
7. Judah in Joseph,
8. The Return of Rachel,
9. Adopting Ephraim and Manasseh,
10. Jacob's Valedictory,
11. The Deaths and Burials of Jacob and Joseph,
12. Portraying Egypt in Joseph,
Selected Bibliography,

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