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Approaches to Joseph
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Approaches to Joseph

Vayeshev — Genesis 37:1-40:23

This week’s portion introduces the concluding section of Genesis, the cycle of stories centering on Joseph. The Joseph narrative presents a complex, carefully crafted, and compelling story that has been approached in a variety of ways by classical as well as contemporary commentators.

Trying to choose a single entry point into the story is difficult. One might approach the story in terms of family therapy, tracing what any competent therapist would easily identify as recurring patterns across the generations of the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel. From this perspective, one might especially explore the triangulated dynamics at work between Jacob, Joseph, and Joseph’s brothers and attempt to discern to what degree the sibling rage at Joseph is, perhaps, displaced anger against their father, Jacob. One might note the alliances among the children of each of the four mothers of the 12 tribes, or the peculiarities of birth order and primogeniture.

In other words, one might read the story as one might read, say, an I.B. Singer novel of the generations of an Eastern European Jewish family (example: The Family Moskat), with alliances and dalliances, estrangements and reconciliations, generational distance, and personal-cultural conflicts that multiply endlessly.

An alternative entry point into the Joseph saga might be political. From this perspective, we might explore the story in comparison with its obvious biblical parallel, the story of Esther; they are similar stories of minority-class Israelites caught up in palace politics and trying to survive and adapt within a majority culture that is not particularly predisposed toward them. After all, Egyptians see even sitting at the same table with Israelites as a social catastrophe, and we hardly need review the attitude of the Persian population toward the Jews of Shushan, whom they are only too eager to annihilate in accordance with Haman’s plan. The wiliness, coyness, and exquisite sense of timing displayed by Joseph and by Esther are effective adaptive techniques for maneuvering through an alien culture and making one’s way toward the places of power, where decisions get made.

Yet a third way into the Joseph story might be theological, as this narrative — again, like the story of Esther — is decidedly secular in tone. Unlike the earlier patriarchal narratives, in which God appears in direct conversation (Abraham) or through visions and dreams (Jacob), in the Joseph story we get only retroactive insight, as when years later in Egypt, Joseph tries to reassure his terrified brothers that while they indeed intended harm against him, God intended it for the good — i.e., things worked out according to the plan that only now, in retrospect, we can perceive.

For the many contemporary Jews for whom the proposition of God’s direct intervention in individual human lives is problematic rather than reassuring, the Joseph story offers a biblically validated alternative perspective. For the writer of the Joseph story, people more or less play out their lives in accordance with the choices they make, and only in retrospect may choose to superimpose a coherent narrative overlay on otherwise disparate events.

In Erik Erikson’s eight stages of life described in his classic Childhood and Society, approaching aging involves the challenge to see one’s life not as a random series of meaningless and unconnected events, but rather as having had organicity and meaning that only emerges in hindsight, and with insight.

To put it differently, the “God” of the author of the Joseph story is not a God of covenant, chosenness, and commandment, but rather an elusive yet pervasive presence subtly hinted at, alluded to, glimpsed, and then gone — a God who demands discovery by us rather than a God who is intent on being revealed to us.

These are but three possible entry points into the Joseph narrative: therapeutic, political, and theological. They do not exhaust the options for lenses through which to read the story, however. The staying power of the story of Joseph, from biblical times down to the lyrical treatment of Andrew Lloyd Webber (Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) lies in the richness with which the writers and editors have woven the story. We watch the playing out of threads of narrative only to see them suspended abruptly. We return to those same threads later on, following intervals that are both diversions as well as alternative threads. And we are left with a story with no simple moral, no one obvious message, and no single interpretation. The meaning(s) of the story thus emerge not from the text — but from our relationship to the text.

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