Joseph's brothers sell him into captivity, in an 1855 painting by Konstantin Flavitsky..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
What can we learn from the Bible? While we may not be able to uncover the most recent scientific discoveries or immediate political predictions, we can certainly gain profound insight into the eternal complexities of human nature.
Yet if we read the texts and their interpretations over and over again, perhaps we can also begin to understand the significance of Jewish history and Jewish peoplehood.
This is especially true for the Genesis narratives we read during these dark winter weeks.
What initially appears to be a long narrative about the mishaps of Jacob’s sons and their jealousies turns into a multigenerational saga of fear, hope, survival, love and longing for home.
From the dramatic Genesis narratives we read in this period – about Joseph, his father, his brothers and his sons – one can learn how jealousy and hate can destroy a family, and at the same time, how despair can become hope and hate can end in reconciliation.
From Abraham to Joseph, the “first families” of Genesis – like all families – certainly know their share of suffering, envy, deceit and love. But no narrative is filled with more hope than the narratives of Joseph and his brothers reconciling with each other (Genesis 44-45).
In his youth, Joseph – the wild dreamer and over-confident little brother – is thrown into a pit and nearly murdered by his brothers.
Sold into slavery and later into jail, it is his capacities to not only dream but to interpret the dreams and aspirations of others that enable him to save himself repeatedly (Gen. 37-41). But the story is not only about his individual survival.
At the climax of the narrative, when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt looking to buy food to bring home to their father and younger brother back in the drought-stricken land of Canaan, Joseph might have had only his own future in mind. But twice, Joseph breaks down and weeps loudly, unable to restrain his emotions, unable to conceal his identity from his brothers. While anger and the desire for revenge might have led him to use his power for the sole purpose of manipulating them in order to save just his beloved brother Benjamin, and then use him to find out if his father was still alive, Joseph is overwhelmed by the possibilities of a narrative of the past and the future, which is much more grand.
Ultimately, he reveals his identity and also reveals again both his familial ties and deep interpretive capacities: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Lest his stance and interpretation of what they did to him not be evident, he declares: “I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here, it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (Gen. 45:3-5).
In so doing, Joseph rebukes his brothers but also brings into the narrative a greater meaning: While the brothers may have acted with evil intent, behind it all is a greater plan, God’s plan. Joseph sees in all the suffering and loneliness and longing he endured the Divine Providence, the hand of God which led him to Egypt and to greatness – so he could then save his family.
Beyond imparting the narrative of a single individual’s struggle and journey, these chapters speak about the capacity of a family to be torn in every way and yet ultimately find each other anew, to reconcile and to heal. The Genesis narratives assure us – with some of the worst role models – that all of our families probably share some of the dysfunctionality of theses first families. But human nature and our own resistance to forgiving and accepting will likely prevent us from insisting on and choreographing reconciliation, the way Joseph did.
But if we must read these narratives over and over again each year, we can see in them not only the stories of individuals but also the unfolding meta-narrative of a people. Joseph’s struggle in the pit, and his survival, rise to power and use of that power to save and protect his family, are not just about that particular family. When all is said and done, it is about the family of the Jewish people as a nation, and that nation’s longing not only for survival but for homeland.
Indeed, the last demand Joseph makes is that his bones not be buried in Egypt but be brought instead to the Land of Israel (Gen. 50 and Ex. 13). From the pits of history we have survived, and from the thrones of power we have responsibility.
Might these complex narratives also implant in us the possibility of reinterpreting our own past and our own suffering? While it’s not entirely clear that Joseph ultimately forgave the brothers who sought to kill him, it is clear that he is less interested in revenge for the past and more interested in what the future might hold.
In his security and maturity, Joseph had bigger dreams. Instead of dwelling on the past and his personal suffering, he was motivated much more by love and concern for their collective future.
We, as individuals, a people and even a nation, are often at such crossroads. Do we dwell on the suffering of the past, or focus on the possibilities of the future? Do we wallow in our immediate narratives, or can we transcend desires for revenge and dream beyond ourselves? Only when we transcend ourselves and our suffering can we be fully engaged with the grander goals of our collective survival. The writer, a rabbi and PhD, is the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s national director of recruitment and admissions, and a President’s Scholar.