The parallels between Joseph and Yeshua Messiah are impossible to ignore, yet often the subtlety is missed. At once, the theological implications are clearly evident. and yet at the end, what we really have before us is a story of a relationship between a father and his son, and a brother with his brothers. It is heart-wrenching and at the same time almost inevitable in its tragedy.
Near the beginning of the parsha, the drama is staged:
“Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.” (Gen.37:2)
Why is it necessary to mention that Joseph was “still a youth”, when we already know that he is “seventeen years of age”? Further, who is he giving a bad report about to his father, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah or the other brothers, or all of them together?
Rashi explains to us that the reason for the added comment about being “still a youth” is based upon the idea that he acted like one. Meaning, he did not display mature behavior. So the text is hinting fairly deliberately at a factor that certainly increased tensions between the older brothers and the younger sibling. How was he immature? It’s important to understand this from the vantage point of the older brothers, and not from ours. To them, he showed up when he wasn’t supposed to, and opened his mouth when they felt he should be silent.
We also learn from the sages that Joseph frequently “hung out” with the sons of the “secondary wives”. He did this because he felt more at home with them, apparently. (Midrash Tanchuma 7)
According to the midrashim, Joseph’s bad report was of the older brothers, the sons of Leah. It seems that there was a sort of pecking order among the family, with the sons of Leah holding privilege and greater status than the sons of the handmaidens. Fair? Hardly. Inevitable? Probably.
Joseph identified with and spent time with the “second-class” of the family, and proclaimed the evil deeds of the older brothers to his father. As a result, they could not speak to him in peace.
“His brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers; and so they hated him and could not speak in peace to him.” (Gen.37:4)
Yeshua also seemed to find a home among the Jews who were considered “second-class citizens”…
“…and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Yeshua and his disciples…” (Mk.2:15)
…and also, in like manner as Joseph, brought an evil report of the older, more respected sons of Leah to his father:
“…Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the platter; but inside of you, you are full of robbery and wickedness.” (Lk.11:39)
According to the sages, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah were treated by the sons of Leah as slaves. They were denigrated by them. They were not treated as equals in the family, and were even dismissed from the presence of the other brothers when it came time to study or discuss matters of importance. Joseph, however, did not understand this, or endorse it, and found pleasure in spending time with the “outcasts“. The older brothers were guilty of wickedness, according to the sages, and Joseph told his father about it.
“When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why is he eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?'” (Mk.2:16)
It is perhaps because of how the sons of Leah perceived the sons of the handmaidens, which caused them to judge Joseph’s behavior unfavorably. He didn’t do things the way a favored son should do things. He didn’t treat the Samaritans with disdain. He didn’t utter profanities under his breath at the Romans. He just told the truth. As a result, the stage was set for betrayal.
Joseph obviously didn’t “play along” with the established political protocol.. More troubling, however, was surely the fact that Joseph had been given the tunic of authority by the father. Apart from this salient fact, Joseph may have been simply dismissed as a precocious youth, but the coat….
What really, ultimately, is at stake in this story is the affection and approval of the father, and not the person of Joseph at all. The person of Joseph becomes emblematic of a deep-seeded problem within the family unit itself; a condition which the coat of authority reveals in true “technicolor”.
The fact that Joseph is friendly to the sons of the handmaidens, (the tax collectors of the day), and the fact that he is proclaimed by the father to have special status, by virtue of the tunic, escalates their reaction from that of dismissal to that of fury, and from disdain to kidnapping and attempted murder.
Then, of course, there were the dreams. The prophecies.
This is why they “could not speak to him in peace.” It is why they react to Joseph’s dream by exclaiming,
“…Are you actually going to reign over us?” (Gen.37:8)
Now, we come to it.
- He doesn’t act like one of us. Instead, he gives a bad report of us to the father
- He treats the lowly like equals, upsetting our political balance
- He claims authority that we are not prepared or willing to acknowledge
- He sees the future and it doesn’t look favorable for us
There are really only two reactions to these factors: fear or faith.
Faith: That God knows what He’s doing and has good intentions for us, so we can be thankful for Joseph and what he represents. (Jer.29:11)
Fear: The presence of Joseph means that we don’t measure up and have been judged unworthy, and only death would be better for us (Rom.2:5). Therefore, let’s balance the scales by killing him.
But there is a shrewder, more utilitarian option. One which not only rids them of the problem but also maintains the political status quo of the family. Rather than killing him, they can sell him off and dispose of him through the hands of others.
This dirty deed is both suggested and ultimately executed by the man in charge of the family (in a practical sense), who is Judah, who adjudicates the dilemma. This Judah, the man who at this point in time is leading a successful yet duplicitous manner of life, having “gone down” and started a family outside the land of promise. A man who has chosen the allure of riches and followed its path. This man, in classic utilitarian fashion, makes the logical choice: Let’s rid ourselves of this problem, but let’s do it in a way that preserves things the way they are, protects what little we think we have. This reminds us of a particular teaching of the Master:
“Whoever seeks to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk.17:33)
This may be compared with Judah’s solution:
“Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” (Gen.37:26-27)
This sounds familiar:
“…Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.” (Jn.11:49-50)
And in addition:
“Judas…felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver…saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” (Matt.27:3-4)
A morbid parallel can now be drawn between the behavior and attitude of the chief priests and elders towards Judas, and the attitude and behavior of the brothers at the time of the betrayal of Joseph. When Judas repents and seeks to restore the money, they show no interest whatsoever. This is because they had become corrupt, and no longer cared about representing God to the people, but only in protecting their own status.
In like manner, we see the brothers of Joseph not caring about the suffering and betrayal of their younger brother and instead engaging in a feast while he is being condemned to die in the pit.
“…They took him and threw him into the pit…Then they sat down to eat a meal.” (Gen.37:24-25)
We will not see the end of the story of Joseph and his brothers in this parsha. But in spite of the depressing picture we see here, we should remember that in the end, Judah does repent before his brother Joseph, and he does so on behalf of all of the brothers, and a glorious and emotionally charged reunion results.
The repentance of Judah before Joseph in the court of Pharaoh represents a monumentally important messianic picture for us, but it also speaks of the shadow of guilt which carries through our lives as we reflect mournfully over choices we made which we wish were different.
Like Judah, we were different people back then. Not as wise, nor as spiritually mature or even aware. We reach a place, eventually, in which we can do no more but tearfully look up and plead for mercies upon the past, and hope for the future. In that desperate moment, a crises moment before our creator, we can take comfort for our souls in the words of Joseph towards his brothers:
“And he said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now do not be grieved or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life….God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant in the earth, and to keep you alive by a great deliverance.” (Gen.45:4,7)