Parashat VaYeishev – On the Telling of Dreams Genesis 37:1 – 40:23

The story begins when we are reminded that Jacob and his family are not living in the Promised Land but in Canaan. The story of how they get “home,” how they will be forged onto a common nation, will be a long and convoluted one. But this is where it actually begins. This is the real chapter one of the birth of a nation. Everything thus far had been a foreword in this long book of generational continuity and development.

Why did Joseph tell his family about his dream? Remember, he was already on slippery grounds with his brothers. He was seventeen years old, but he served part time as a handmaid to all his father’s wives, not even just his mother. He was a tattle-tale. He may even have elaborated on what he told his father telling bad stories about what his brothers did. After all, he only brought back “malicious” reports, never flattering ones. He may even have been a purveyor of fake news. Yet, he was his father’s favourite, a father with his own long record of dissembling. Look what happened when Isaac favoured Esau. How could Jacob, suffering from a different type of blindness, possibly found a nation when Joseph’s other brothers are excluded from his lineage?

Why does the opening of the story begin, not when Joseph has come out of the closet as a gay man, but after that, when he comes out of the closet to announce not only his ambitions, but that they will be prophetic? What is the dream that he tells them (37:5-9)? When piling up wheat, Joseph’s wheat pile was in the centre while those of his brothers circled around and bowed down to the central pile which remained erect. A prescient dream that at some time in the future, his whole family will bow down before him, that they will be subservient to him. The meaning of the dream is transparent. His brothers, who already did not trust him, resented his position as his father’s favourite. There does not seem to be any possibility of unity among the twelve brothers.

Then, of all things, Joseph tells them a second dream (37:10) that doubles down and reinforces the meaning of the first in case they missed the point. The sun and the moon (father and mother) and 11 stars (his brothers) bow down before him. This time, his father rebuked him for portraying his parents as subservient to him. But Joseph is condescending. He obviously had no diplomatic skills or any sense of discretion at that period in his life. Nor, at the same time, any apparent concern for his own well-being. He is both insensitive to others’ feelings and even his own risk. When he rises to the top in Egypt, he will have learned his lesson.

His father, Jacob, who was renamed Israel, was even more incautious. He had made and presented Joseph with a multi-coloured, heavily embroidered coat or ornamental tunic. Given the costs of dies at the time, this was a very expensive gift for a homebody who was still not doing his share of protecting the flocks even though he was already 17 years old. What does Joseph do then? When sent on another tattle-tale mission by his paranoid father, he wears such an expensive gift to the fields where the sheep are grazing. He struts and he flaunts his expensive coat just when he has been sent on another spying mission by his father upon his brothers.

One is left with a definitive impression that Joseph may be gay, and a self-centred and narcissistic youth as well. There is every reason given for his brothers to collectively turn on him. He tells tales out of turn. He is a dreamer and not a worker. He is not just handsome, but beautiful. He uses his dreams to make grandiose claims. He struts and flaunts himself and, in one rabbinic midrash, he is portrayed as pencilling his eyes, curling his hair and walking as if wearing high heels.

He heads for Shechem in search of his brothers, but is redirected north to Dothan, just 10 km. south of Jenin. Dothan דֹתָן means a decree or a well. It is where sacred commands are issued. This is where the sons of Reuben join Korah in the rebellion against Moses and Aaron (Numbers 16:1). Now, it is where Joseph’s brothers plot to kill him. If they succeed, goodbye to the idea of a united nation, e pluribus unum. However, given what preceded Joseph’s trip, it is no surprise at all that his brothers turn on Joseph and plot his death.

How do they describe him? They mock him as the master of dreams. Instead of killing him and then burying him, they throw him into a pit purportedly to be eaten by wild beasts or to die of thirst. Reuben plotted against his own brothers to save him, first by urging that they not kill or even harm him themselves and then by plotting to return, rescue him and return him to his father. But Reuben is too late. Joseph has already been sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver by his brothers, led by Judah, to a passing caravan of Ishmaelites on route to Egypt. Or, contradicting that tale, he is rescued by Midianites and they sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver. But then the text says that the Midianites were the ones that sold Joseph to Potiphar. In any case, it is of no consequence who actually made the sale. The seam of union has now been completely torn when the brothers sold Joseph into slavery.

Then the cover up when Reuben returns and finds his brother gone. Reuben tears Joseph’s very valuable coat that has conveniently been left behind. Weird! Further, he dips the coat in the blood of a goat (a goat will reappear in the story of Tamar) to make it appear that Joseph was attacked by wild beasts and eaten. He sacrifices the expensive coat which all the brothers detested to make their tale plausible. When that torn and bloodied coat is returned to their father as evidence of Joseph’s demise, a second coat is torn, that of Jacob mourning his apparently lost son. Jacob refuses any consolation. He will weep for his lost son until he dies. Joseph has already won an enormous psychological victory over his brothers.

Is it a surprise that after Joseph is sold into slavery, he ends up running Potiphar’s household as a slave? Potiphar is the Pharaoh’s chief steward. Is it a surprise that Potiphar’s wife will repeatedly try to seduce such an attractive man, the last time when the servants are all out of the house, but also that he will spurn her? He runs off, but leaves his coat behind. Once again, a coat is used as evidence, this time, not of his death, but of his flight, presumably to escape a guilty deed, a purported assault on Potiphar’s wife. Why does everyone seem so obtuse? Why is Joseph so blind to the risks to himself and to his effects on others?  Surely, he had to know that the house was free of servants and that he was being invited to meet with her for a purpose given her past behaviour.

However, before this part of the tale is told of the attempted and failed seduction in Egypt, we are told another tale of seduction. Judah, the leader of the cabal to sell Joseph, goes off to another land, marries a shicksa (a Canaanite) and fathers three children. His oldest son, Er (watcher), marries, Tamar. But before she even becomes pregnant, Er, evidently an evil man, commits suicide. Judah’s second son, Onan (אוֹנָן), also does the same thing, presumably at the behest of God as well. God evidently punished him for, in spite of being a strong and virile man – his name meant strength – he practiced coitus interruptus with Tamar (“spilled his seed”), presumably because he did not want Tamar to have a male heir who could inherit all the wealth of Judah as the oldest son of the first born.

Judah promises to marry Tamar, now a widow, to his third son, Shelah (pause or interlude), when he grows up. Tamar is sent back to live with her parents in the interval. But Judah, perhaps fearing that Tamar is jinxed and that Shelah would die in the same way as his other two sons, does not follow through on his promise. (Later, Jacob’s fear of losing his youngest son, Benjamin, would echo the same fear.)

Tamar, with no heirs, engages in the most outrageous ruse in the whole of the Tanah when Judah has become a widower. She veils herself, dresses as a prostitute, hides her real self, in contrast to Joseph who flaunted himself, and presents herself as a prostitute at Enaim (a crossroads, literally, a place where eyes are opened). She successfully seduces her father-in-law. He evidently does not have the money at the time to pay her and she will not take a goat from his flock as payment. She surreptitiously gets evidence from him of this event, a pledge – his seal, cord, and the staff he carried.  

Judah tried to pay and redeem his pledge, but could not find her. No one even knew of any prostitute in that place. Judah decides to forget about the incident. However, three months later, Judah discovers that Tamar is pregnant. But before he can accost her as a harlot, she privately, as distinct from ostentatiously, sends him his pledge with a note, “Who do these belong to? They are those of the father of the child that I carry.” The items of the pledge become the instruments for God to fulfill His pledge to Jacob as Judah is asked to recognize these identifiers. What a contrast with the earlier occasion when Jacob is asked to recognize the torn and bloodied tunic of his favourite son!

Judah, in contrast to the way he ran away to Canaan after the ostensible death of his brother, owns up to his wrong, both his false accusation and his refusal to arrange for her to be married to Shelah. He takes responsibility and redeems himself. We now have the emergence of ethical responsibility. Tamar is the vehicle by which the tragic trajectory is reversed and Jacob’s role as the progenitor of nation is made possible. Tamar has twins. This time, the order of birth is switched. The first who appears out of her womb is not born first. The hand of the second twin reached out and displaced his twin. Contrast this with the birth of Jacob touching the heel of Esau. The story adumbrates the tale of Judah holding up his hand in Egypt and offering himself as a guarantor for his youngest brother’s safety. “Of my hand, you shall require him.”

What role does this side story have in enlightening us about the meaning of the unsuccessful seduction of Joseph by Potiphar’s wife? In the next section, Joseph becomes an interpreter of the dreams of others. He is the candlestick maker to the butler and the baker who share his place in prison. One receives glorious news of rewards to come; the other receives a death sentence. But the one restored to his position, the butler, forgets about him for some time.

Enough puzzles for one day. To unravel the mysteries and get to the meaning, note the following:

  1. The giving of gifts – Jacob giving the coat to Joseph, Judah giving the gift of his identity to Tamar, Tamar in return giving the greatest gift of all to Judah by enabling him to confront his sin and recognize his guilt, and Joseph giving his interpretive dream skills to two fellow prisoners.
  2. The ruses – the major one covering up the disappearance of Joseph and the seemingly minor one of Tamar seducing her father-in-law.
  3. Dreams piled on top of dreams – Joseph’s two dreams of the sheaves of wheat and of the heavenly bodies, the dreams of the baker and the butler, all four falling against the backdrop of Jacob’s two dreams concerning the process of divine revelation.
  4. Two torn coats – Joseph’s and Jacob’s.

How are the giving of gifts, the two very different ruses, the four different dreams and the two torn coats connected? It’s an Agatha Christie mystery. Let’s start with the giving of gifts. Go back to Abraham. He refuses the gift of a grave for his wife and instead insists on a clear purchase and sale agreement. In contrast, Jacob on his return from his uncle Laban, had sent gifts to Esau to assuage his brother’s twenty-year-old anger. Further, there are God’s gifts – physical beauty, a wily narcissistic personality that far outshines his father’s, Joseph’s interpretive dream skills and his prophetic insight.

What becomes evident is the insight into the giver rather than the significance of the gift. As Rabbi Sachs has written, God, the greatest gift giver of all time, does not live in the gifts – the Temple – that the Israelites gift him, but in the builders. He gives the gift or Torah itself so that we Jews will live in it. As Sachs wrote, God “lives not in structures of stone but in the human heart.”

The gifts tell us what is in Joseph’s heart (fear, hope, generosity and favour). The gift tells us what is in Judah’s heart – a sense of loss of identity and a willingness to give it away easily as his grandfather had show Esau was willing to do. A gift tells you about the giver, not the receiver nor the content of the gift. Do not give so you shall receive, but give so that you will reveal who you are. Giving is an unveiling.

We give gifts to God to communicate who we are and what we are willing to sacrifice. Cain and Abel give the best of what they can do in the physical world – the best animal and the best agricultural product. Which way of life will God favour – animal husbandry or farming the earth? God, as usual, chooses the one that will be the way of life that fades into history as the other, farming, becomes the wave of the future. Jacob chooses to pass his blessings as a material gift to his one son, Joseph. When the latter appears to have died, Jacob believes that his whole heritage has died with him and his mourning has no limit. He is circuitously saved by Tamar who, through her risk and ruse, will restore Jacob to his role ass the progenitor of a nation.

When Joseph is falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of sexual assault, he is in a prison. He is in a dungeon. He is back in the pit where his brothers threw him. But he now gives his gift of dream interpretation to others, to the butler and to the baker, both in the same dungeon for offending their royal master, the Pharaoh. It is an unwelcome gift for the baker who learns that he will be executed in three days while, for the butler, the gift is a welcome one, for he will be restored to his lofty and influential position. That is the gift that gives forward for it will be the butler who eventually, several years later, tells the Pharaoh of Joseph’s gift of dream interpretation that leads to his rescue from prison and eventually becoming the chief vizier of the whole of Egypt.  

What about the ruses that echo the tricks of Joseph’s forefathers, foremost among them all, the way Jacob cheated Esau out of his blessing? Begin with the female ruse, the ruse of Tamar tricking her father-in-law. As my daughter, Rachel Adelman, describes the female ruse, it is the working of a divine end through a female body. The female trickster violates a social norm for a positive outcome. In contrast, Potiphar’s wife has no ability to be a trickster for truth, but in resentment and another cover-up, lies.

In chapter 3 of my daughter’s book, The Female Ruse: Women’s Deception and Divine Sanction in the Hebrew Bible, entitled, “Of Veils, Goats, and Sealing Rings, of Guarantors and Kings: The Story of Judah and Tamar,” this is a story of political power that alludes to Lewis Carrol’s tale of “The Walrus and the Carpenter in Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. (See also my daughter’s essays such as: “Ethical Epiphany in the Story of Judah and Tamar,” in Recognition and Modes of Knowledge: Anagnorisis from Antiquity to Contemporary Theory, ed. Teresa Russo, and “Seduction and Recognition in the Story of Judah and Tamar in the Book of Ruth,” in Nashim 23:87-109, 2012.)

As Tamar looks through the looking glass, she recognizes and reveals who Judah, the forefather of the Jews, is.  Both Judah and Joseph will become the progenitors of kings. Judah owns up to his errors and comes to recognize himself. He will be the forefather of the Davidic line, but only as a product of a form of incest in which he has sex with his own daughter-in-law to give birth to twins, but twins who will have a very different relationship and a very different history that that of Jacob and Esau. Redemption comes through strange routes, in Joseph’s case, through a failed seduction, in Judah’s case, through a successful one. Clever ruses lead to truth revealed, offences uncovered and responsibility assumed.

But the core of the story are the dreams. Jacob had two key dreams, the one of the ladder from earth to heaven and angels climbing up and down, and the dream where he wrestles with ish, a man, an angel or his alter ego. He prevails, but is left wounded in the hip and has a permanent limp. Jacob’s dreams are certainly prophetic, but they also leave him handicapped until he in turn is redeemed by his son Joseph, but in a radically different way than his own favouritism that could never have done the job of creating a united nation from twelve tribes.

How do these themes link up? This is the story of the founding of a nation. A nation requires coherence. Favouritism, distrust and disreputable behaviour will not unite the brothers who will be the fathers of the twelve tribes. Coats and cover-ups have to be torn off and discarded in favour of honesty towards one another and for accountability. Gifts will pay forward if they are true gifts; false ones only create troubles.

Further, our destiny is told through our dreams, not our reasoning. But we often have to be tricked into recognizing their meaning. In the end, after a few more ruses, the unity of the brothers will be restored under the leadership of Joseph and without requiring the favour of the father. And behind it all, behind the restoration of Judah, not Joseph, to being with his brothers, can be found the trickery of Tamar, the passive beauty of grace and favour (hen and hesed), the mother of double naming and very different twins, and the role of seduction and resistance to another dressed in royal robes.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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