Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23)

I had to run and grab a notebook while reading this week’s portion. I didn’t think I’d be able to keep the train of thought if I just read all the way through. It’s one of the reasons I love Genesis — there’s just so much depth. Vayeshev is another jam-packed story. It’s the first part of the story of Yosef (Joseph) and squished in the middle is the story of Yehudah (Judah) and Tamar. This post is fairly long because I just kept finding more and more that I hadn’t considered before!

These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren, being still a lad even with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father. (Gen 37:2)

The key thing to note here is that Joseph was serving with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah — not the sons of Leah. Think about it. If you were the sons of the concubines and your brother, the son of the favorite wife (Rachel), ratted you out — wouldn’t you be pissed and hate him?

It’s interesting that it’s Judah, who is one of Leah’s sons, that is the leader of the pack when it comes to trying to kill Joseph, but it’s Reuven, also a son of Leah who tries to save him.

This passage also made me wonder what the name “Dotan” means. I know there is a nice Israeli guy who reads my blog named Dotan, but it also appears here as the location where Joseph finds his brother (Gen 31:17). I know it’s an ancient city, but my curiosity goes to the deeper meaning. According to my dictionary, the word (דֹתָן) means: religion, faith, belief, gospel; law, rule; decree. That seems very appropriate for the place that Joseph’s fate will be decided.

And they sat down to eat bread; and they lifted up their eyes and looked, and, behold, a caravan of Ishmaelites came from Gilead, with their camels bearing spicery and balm and ladanum, going to carry it down to Egypt. (Gen 37:25)

What caught my attention here is the appearance of the Ishmaelites. Perhaps this was intended as a reminder to Joseph’s brothers about what can happen when you cast out a brother. (i.e. Issac & Ishmael).

And there passed by Midianites, merchantmen; and they drew and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty shekels of silver. And they brought Joseph into Egypt. (Gen 37:28)

I also was surprised to realize that Joseph’s brothers never actually sell him off. I seemed to remember that always being the story. They never get to do it. The Midianites (the ancestors of Moses’ father-in-law) find Joseph first and sell him to the Ishmaelites. I don’t even know how to process that part; Jethro’s ancestors selling Joesph into Egypt – that’s a master’s thesis until itself!

I discovered several new things for myself in the section of the story around Potiphar’s house. Firstly, that Potiphar was the captain of the guard — his home becomes the first level of a descent and rebirth story. Joseph must pass through the guardian’s challenge before he can prove himself worthy. His time in Potiphar’s house transforms him from the silly selfish boy he was into a man of moral values and ethics.

And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. (Gen 39:10)

A text note in my edition of the Torah commented that this phrasing was very unusual, and the specific wording “to be with” was usually in reference to God. That got my head spinning. I started reading the rest of the passage looking at Potiphar’s wife as a goddess figure and that led all over the place. There is one theory that the 10 plagues are actually a war between the Hebrew God and the Egyptian gods. Apparently there is a matching god to each plague. So consider if Potiphar’s wife was a goddess (or a priestess) and Joseph insulted her by NOT “being with her” and that’s why he was thrown into the dungeon.

This is where the story of Joseph clearly seems to become a death and rebirth story. I’m hardly the first to comment on that. It kept bringing to mind the Descent of Inanna. Especially, when Joseph is thrown into the dungeon and then becomes the care taker of that realm.

And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it. (Gen 39:22)

Joseph isn’t just a prisoner — he is the one who is second in command to the “keeper of the prison.” Soon he will be second in command to Pharaoh, but first he must humble himself and work for the king of the underworld. I also found the symbolic appearance and removal of food and drink through the cup bearer and baker very interesting. The cup bearer (butler) who redeems Joseph in the end, also bears the tool that Joseph will use for divination and will play a large role in his testing of his brothers in Genesis 44.

And in process of time Shua’s daughter, the wife of Judah, died; and Judah was comforted, and went up unto his sheep-shearers to Timnah, he and his friend Hirah the Adullamite. Genesis 38:12).

There is so much to be found in the story of Judah and Tamar, but there was one thing that really got my attention this time, and that was sadness about yet another nameless woman. Judah’s wife, the ancestress of King David is only called “the daughter of Shuva.” The insult on it’s own is bad enough, but in the following lines Judah’s friend who goes sheep sheering with him, IS mentioned by name. How can this man be more worthy of being named that that of the mother of Judah’s children. I notice this more and more as I read and study. I especially take note of any woman who has gained the honor of being mentioned by name and adding those like “Bat Shuva” to the list of those who haven’t.

[tags]torah, vayeshev, genesis, parshat, commentary, kohenet, וישב[/tags]

9 Replies to “Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23)”

  1. Carly, this is awesome! Many disconnected thoughts arise from your reflections on these passages (at least for me lol). I first was pondering on the nameless and it reminded me of how in ancient Egypt, the knowing of a name was of primary import; and the absence of name was (in practice) an indication of obliteration. This has nothing to do with Hebrew study obviously but as said, just one of many disconnected thoughts. 🙂 And on the passage about "And it came to pass, as she spoke to Joseph day by day, that he hearkened not unto her, to lie by her, or to be with her. (Gen 39:10)…. In mythos about Joseph and the wife of Potiphar (where she seems to be named as Zuleika which is not in the Torah as you brought up); the stories speak about how the less ranking women could not understand her (Zuleika's) passions. So she orchestrated a gathering (banquet) where she instructed fruit (cited as citron or orange) with knives for peeling. Thus Joseph had to serve the party and upon seeing him, the other women too became enamoured; to the point that in peeling the fruit they "cut their own hands drawing blood". I don't know much about the pseudepigrapha of the Ya Hasher nor of the mentionings in Quran, but I do know about Egypt and one thing that I suspect is that the proper translation for the fruit (if such event did occur in Egypt) would have been as POMEGRANATE (and not citron nor orange); I also believe that the drawing of blood is suggestive also of pomegranate in these stories. PS: You are so awesome, I love how your process inspires tapestries of thought.

  2. Great reveal! I love your exegesis of the vayashev. It's interesting the way you brought the descent of Innana (whom I refer to as Ishtar) in the frame. In the Descent, she is kind of a sympathetic character, but in Gilgamesh, she is Potiphar's wife to the core. I never really looked at the goddess connection as far as she was concerned. Leave it to the Western scholar to get locked up only in the sexual aspect instead of allowing the sexual to be but a part of her motivation. There is a similar scene in Gilgamesh where he spurns Ishtar and she unleashes the "bull of heaven" upon the world. This bull brings drought to the land. This, too, is a story of rebirth, skirting death, and restoring the fraternal bond — as good as those Akkadians could get it.

    Interesting stuff. I just studied the plague – god connections. That's pretty interesting as well. The Yam (Yamim) saga throughout Hebrew scripture is another great look at the way the Hebrew writers captured the power of Hashem in the subduing of the powers of the earth.

    Peace out!

  3. What do you think, please, of Obadiah Shoher's interpretation of the story? (here: ) He takes the text literally to prove that the brothers played a practical joke on Yosef rather than intended to murder him or sell him into slavery. His argument seems fairly strong to me, but I'd like to hear other opinions.

  4. Alex — I haven't had a chance to read this yet — but I will and definitely let you know what I think. Thanks for passing this on!

  5. Okay — I've had a minute to look at his interpretation. I disagree. I think most of the brothers intended to kill him. I also think, from what I saw in the text that the brothers didn't sell him either. I didn't find his argument persuasive enough to change my interpretation.

    But, the great thing about Torah is that there are many interpretations. As I've learned a lot lately, our interpretations often say a lot more about who we are than what the writers intended, too!

  6. Sibyl,

    I'm unfamiliar with the Midrash you are mentioning — but really intrigued. I'll have to look it up and learn more!

    I found that a later passage really reinforced this connection to the goddess imagery. Potiphar is later identified as the "priest of on," and Joseph marries his daughter. I haven't gone back to double check the Hebrew to be sure it's the same spelling as the earlier Potiphar, but it's damn interesting.

  7. Hello Carly.

    I came across this post because Alex left a comment on the blog I oversee that had the same link to a post that he's also left here. I enjoyed very much your reading of this text. I don't think it's at all clear, however, that the Midianites found Joseph and sold him before Joseph's brothers could. It's a possibility, but the referrent of "they" in the phrase "they sold …" seems pretty ambiguous. Taking all the elements of the story into account would seem to indicate Midianites and Ishmaelites are synonymous. Or that, depending on your theological viewpoint, two threads of the story have been woven together.

  8. Jim,

    Hello there! So let me say, it was clear to me in that moment — but I might see something different next time I read that passage.

    In general, I would say that the Torah differentiates between Ishmaelites and Midianites, which is why I thought they were two different groups.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

  9. Hi Carly.

    You are absolutely right. They certainly come from slightly different lines of the family. And I'm not an expert in this. It is interesting to note that in the story of Gideon's victory over the Midianites, they seem to be referred to, alternatively as Ishmaelites. (See Judges 8:24).

    – jim

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