Parsha: Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1 – 40:23)
What Dreams Portend
Vayeshev וַיֵּשֶׁב (“And he dwelt”) Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
This Shabbat’s parasha is entitled Vayeshev, meaning, ‘and he dwelt’. Jacob is again living in Canaan. Our focus turns to Joseph, Rachel’s first-born, who is now 17 years-old. Rachel had been Jacob’s favored wife. Now that she was gone (having died giving birth to Benjamin), it’s no surprise that Jacob lavishes his affections and attention on Joseph their son together. This doesn’t sit well with Joseph’s brothers. We’re told they harbored bitter hatred towards him. The situation is compounded by a bad report Joseph brings to his father about the (apparently) substandard work of his siblings.
And it gets worse. Jacob gives Joseph an extravagant robe. Some Bible versions translate it “a full-length robe” and others “a multi-colored robe”. You may be interested to know that evidence from both manuscripts and archaeology dating to the Patriarchal Period reveals that tribal chiefs in the Ancient Near East wore multi-colored robes as a sign of their rulership. We should probably understand Jacob giving this extraordinary robe to Joseph to mean that Joseph was his choice to be the next leader of the family. This helps explain the resentment of his brothers.
But it gets worse yet. Joseph has two amazing dreams, in which it appears he is to be exalted above his brothers and even his father. He tells them all about it. That probably wasn’t a good idea. Jacob rebuked Joseph, but privately kept the matter in mind, but his brothers were livid. When Joseph is sent once again to check on his brothers, they see him from afar and plot together to kill him. Reuben, wanting to save Joseph’s life, suggests they throw him in a pit instead (figuring on rescuing him later) and the others go along. While eating (probably at some distance, since it’s not very pleasant to eat while someone nearby is screaming for help), the brothers see an Ishmaelite caravan and come up with another idea. Why not sell him as a slave instead? It’s better than murder, and they’ll have a few shekels to show for it. But before they had a chance, some Midianite traders had already found Joseph and they took him and sold him to the Ishmaelite caravan. Reuben returns to the pit and Joseph is gone! The brothers concoct a lie to tell their father: they tear Joseph’s robe (which they had taken from him) and dip it in the blood of an animal they slaughtered for the purpose, and bring it to their father. When Jacob sees the torn and bloodied robe, he is convinced that Joseph is dead. He is devastated! From that day forward, Jacob appears to be a broken man. Meanwhile, Joseph has been taken to Egypt and sold as a slave to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s personal guard. Our hearts grieve for Joseph, whose circumstances, for the moment, seem especially bitter.
At this point the biblical narrative returns our attention to Canaan. Judah has taken a Canaanite wife, who bears him three sons: Er, Onan and Shelah. Judah’s wife dies, leaving him a widower. Some years later, Judah arranges a marriage between Er and a young woman named Tamar. Adonai regarded Er as evil and took his life. Judah directs Onan to fulfill the duty of Levirate marriage and take Tamar as a wife. This is interesting, because the events in this narrative predate the giving of the Torah at Sinai by 400 years, so we know that some of these practices were already in place. Onan, however, refuses to allow Tamar to bear children by him, since they would not be his own but his deceased brother’s and on account of this callous disregard, God takes his life, too. Judah is now faced with the prospect of giving his last son, Shelah, to Tamar, and wonders if Shelah will die, too, so he delays for years. Tamar figures out that this marriage is not going to happen, so she takes matters into her own hands. Disguising herself as a prostitute, she lures Judah into having relations with her. When three months pass, and Tamar is discovered to be pregnant, Judah presumes she has committed adultery and is about to have her put to death, when she reveals that he himself is the father. He admits his own guilt in not having fulfilled his promise to give Tamar to Shelah. He never has relations with her again. She gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.
Why does the Scripture highlight this otherwise distasteful course of events? Because as we will find out in chapter 49 it is Judah who is given preeminence among Jacob’s sons, and through him will trace the lineage of Messiah. And it was not to be through Er, Onan or Shelah that the line continues, but through Perez – Judah’s son by Tamar. It may be scandalous, but God chooses people and circumstances for His own reasons, and to accomplish His own purposes. If you’ve made grievous mistakes in your life, don’t think that God cannot redeem those things and turn your life for good and to His glory!
The narrative cuts back to Joseph, now a slave in Egypt. His work for Potiphar is exemplary. We are told that God was with Joseph, and prospered everything he did. Potiphar recognized something extraordinary in Joseph, and put him in charge of his entire household. At one point, Potiphar’s wife attempts to seduce Joseph and he refuses. He is a godly young man – he is not going to offend the living God. Day after day she persists, to no avail, and finally turns on Joseph, telling Potiphar that Joseph tried to rape her. Potiphar is furious, but rather than putting Joseph to death, instead consigns him to prison. Poor Joseph! Innocent of any wrongdoing, yet betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery and now falsely accused and imprisoned!
But God was with him even in his imprisonment, and gave him favor with the chief jailer. Some time later Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and chief baker are put in prison, and Joseph is given charge over them. One day they look particularly dejected, and Joseph inquires. They relate to him strange dreams they each had the night before. Joseph interprets their dreams: the cupbearer will be restored to office in 3 days, but the baker will be hanged that same day. He beseeched the cupbearer to remember him when it came to pass, and petition Pharaoh for Joseph’s release. Three days later the events come to pass just as Joseph interpreted, the baker hanged and the cupbearer restored to his office. But the chief cupbearer completely forgot about Joseph, and thus he was to languish in prison for another two years!
How would you feel in such circumstances? Abandoned by God? But you would be wrong. God was with Joseph. Those years shaped Joseph’s character for the better. It taught him humility. Hardship can work patience in us and teach us to rely on God in every situation. We should learn from these chapters and from the adversity Joseph suffered not to hastily interpret our immediate circumstances as either proving God’s favor or disfavor. We do not know the end of a matter from the beginning. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rabbi Paul had Joseph in mind when he affirmed that “God causes all things to work together for those who love God” – and Joseph most certainly did. You don’t have to like hardship, but you can still cling to God in the midst of it and be the better for it. If you love God, then know that He is at work in you, desiring to mold your character in preparation for an eternity spent in His glorious presence.
It is on account of Joseph’s humiliation and suffering, though innocent, that led some ancient rabbis to ascribe the title “Ben Yosef” to the Messiah. Messiah, too, would be innocent of any wrong doing. Messiah, too, would be despised by His brothers and betrayed for a sum of money. And just as Joseph’s brothers thought his disappearance would be the end of the story, and were wrong, so Messiah Yeshua’s death was not to be the end of the story. More on that, God willing, next Shabbat, as we follow Joseph’s life.
Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Va’yeishev וַיֵּשֶׁב. Other transliterations: Vayeshev or Vayesheb