Deception and desire: An overview of Genesis

The messages of the Torah show us how morality trumps all.

Torah scroll 521 (photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
Torah scroll 521
(photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)
Based on a series of lectures by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach.
At the core of the book of Genesis, the themes of desire and deception consistently reappear throughout the events described therein. It is a seemingly never-ending cycle that entangles the lives of even the most righteous of individuals. Unrequited desire usually leads to dire consequences. The deception at times may be justified and at other times is sinful. But the very fact that these two themes interfere in the lives of almost every character in Genesis shows how dangerous they can be, even when used for good intentions. In the events of Joseph’s life, he is confronted with desire and deception, and faces a choice that can cost him his life. Yet he surprises us in the actions he chooses, which powerfully influence the future Israelite nation, the effects of which still reverberate until today.
Upon Jacob’s return to the land of Canaan, after his stay with Laban in the land of Haran, the story shifts its focus away from Jacob and onto his favorite son Joseph. Joseph’s brothers are jealous of their father’s special treatment of him and angry that Joseph tells his father of their wrongdoing. They decide to kidnap and sell Joseph into slavery at the tender age of seventeen to avenge their dishonor.
Joseph is brought to Egypt and is purchased by Potiphar, one of pharaoh’s officers. Potiphar discovers that Joseph is surprisingly honest, diligent and bright for a common slave and puts him in charge of all the affairs of his house. It is here that God tests Joseph with desire and deception, thereby giving him the opportunity to rise above the coarse materialism and temptations of the world and take his place as one of Jewish people’s righteous forefathers.
The immoral culture in which Joseph finds himself immersed is best expressed by his master’s wife, who casts her eye on Joseph and is filled with an insatiable lust for the young man. Yet he refuses her every advance. Then one day, when it is just the two of them in the house, his master’s wife sees the opportunity to fulfill her carnal desires. She grabs his garment and implores him “Lie with me.”
It is with these words that Joseph is filled with a powerful urge to surrender to these temptations and abandon the values with which he was raised. Here he is, a slave boy in a foreign land, with no family or friends, and no civil rights. And he suddenly finds the mistress of the household and one of the most powerful women in Egypt offering herself to him. It must have been powerfully flattering.
Furthermore, he knows that if he does not submit to her, she can create any story she wishes and do whatever else is required to have him punished for his refusal. Joseph also has to consider the fact that, even though his master treats him very well and trusts him completely, Potiphar is still the master and Joseph is still the slave. Joseph is still, by law, just a piece of property. But it is at this moment that Joseph is reminded of the pattern of deception and desire that has caused so much pain to his family, and he must choose whether to follow that path or blaze a new one more fitting for God’s holy nation.
No doubt Joseph reflects on the history of his ancestors.
It started with Adam and Eve. They should have rejoiced with their blessings and not lusted after the one thing they could not have—the forbidden fruit. But the serpent deceives Eve. He excites her forbidden desire, saying to her, “God has made the fruit on the tree of knowledge of good and evil forbidden because He fears that if you consume it you will obtain His powers and become divine.”
His ploy works and she buys into his deception. She then deceives Adam into eating the fruit and, afterward, they try to hide from God because of their sin. Their actions bring corruption into the world, breeding insatiability, longing and insatiable desire. And it is now through cunning and fraudulent means that mankind will attempt to obtain what they want. In this lies the key to human corruption.
The effects of their sin are contagious. Following his parents’ example, Cain, in a jealous fit, strikes down his brother Abel. And, like his parents, he believes he can deceive God. “Where is your brother?” God asks, to which he responds, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Abraham fears that the Egyptians will take away his wife Sarah and murder him and asks her to share in his ploy so that he might live. “Tell them, I beseech you, that I am your brother.” Although he is a righteous man, in this world where envy and corruption govern, he must use deception to survive. Isaac must contrive the same story many years later with Rebecca to save his life from Abimelech, king of the Philistines.
Lot’s daughters believe he is the only man alive after they escape the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. They encourage him to imbibe large quantities of wine and they then have relations with him during his intoxication.
Esau is able to convince his father that he is saintly when, in reality, he is the complete opposite. Isaac cannot see his son’s faults and desires to give him the firstborn blessing. Rebecca turns to deception in order to correct her husband’s blindness – more metaphorical than literal – and give the blessing to its more deserving recipient, Jacob, whom she now ropes into the dupery.
In a world where evil outmaneuvers good, Jacob learns from his adversaries and becomes a master of outwitting the wicked in order to survive. Laban swindles him into marrying the wrong sister but Jacob fights back and uses manipulation to take most of Laban’s wealth and flock. When Jacob concludes that he must leave his father in law, the bible says, “Jacob stole the heart of Laban” by fleeing without telling him. Soon afterward, Rachel thieves her father’s idols and then deceives his search for them by feigning sickness.
Simon and Levi tell the city of Shechem to circumcise themselves in order that they may become one people. They deceive the entire town and, in an act of vengeance for the brutal rape of their sister, kill all the men while they are recovering from their surgery.
Joseph then thinks back to his father Jacob’s mistake of favoring him over his brothers and giving him a special coat, sewing enmity between his children. Jacob’s sons eventually sell Joseph as a slave and deceive their father into believing that Joseph is dead. They bring him the very coat he personally constructed for Joseph, filled with blood, and Jacob concludes that Joseph has been torn limb from limb. This pattern continues even after Joseph is sold. Judah promises Tamar his third son, but does not intend to let them marry. Tamar then disguises herself, and seduces Judah in order to become pregnant and carry a child from the house of Jacob.
When analyzing all of these events, Joseph can see a pattern. The lies and deceit of his uncles Laban and Esau are all for wicked purposes. Lot’s daughters’ intentions are morally ambiguous given the circumstances. But his own ancestors are different.
Abraham and Isaac understandably mislead about their wives to avoid their being murdered. Jacob misleads to his father to prevent his wicked brother from receiving a blessing that he will use for evil. Jacob also manipulates Laban to obtain what is rightfully his. Rachel, Joseph’s mother, beguiles her father Laban by stealing his idols and lying to him about having done so, both to prevent her father from worshipping them and to ensure he does not use them to divine Jacob’s intentions of fleeing.
So far, all these misrepresentations have a somewhat justifiable purpose. But then, Simon and Levi deceive the city of Shechem to take revenge and the brothers lie to their father about selling Joseph as a slave, all because of their jealousy. Judah deceives Tamar about his third son out of convenience and Tamar lies to Judah in order to fulfill her desire to have children with holy lineage.  Joseph sees that all the untruths are creating ever greater moral ambiguity. He understands the obvious fact that God hates falsehood. He contemplates the axiom that Jeremiah will one day prophesize “The Lord God is truth.” He realizes the real strength behind his forefathers that the prophet Micha will proclaim, “He gives truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham.” He’s become convinced of the future Jewish teaching that “the seal of God is truth.” He finally concludes that although trickery may be necessary at times to save life, it is a dangerous endeavor that threatens to consume all goodness and righteousness in its path.
Joseph’s insight is borne from God’s words through Moses. When God gives over his commandments to the future Israelite nation, he asks the leaders and the people themselves to place fences and barriers to ensure they do not transgress His laws. If relations with a married woman are forbidden, one should never be completely secluded with a married woman. If work on the Sabbath is forbidden, one should not even pick up a tool with which work can be done. If one is an alcoholic, one should not even have liquor in the house. Yet there is a single commandment where God himself places the fence before us. In Exodus 23:7, God commands “From a falsehood, you shall keep far away.” He does not command that we should not lie, he instructs us to stay far away from anything close to a lie.
Joseph makes a bold choice that he knows must be done in order to undo this destructive cycle of deception. He draws a line in the sand. Enough deception.  Enough manipulation, even for a righteous end. He will become the idealist, but he will take this idea to a new level. He will risk everything, including his life, in order to hold on to truth.
He will not encroach on that which belongs to someone else. He will not behave as Cain who wanted his brother’s intimacy with God. He will not behave as the Egyptians who craved Abraham’s wife, or as Abimelech who coveted Rebecca. He will not be jealous of another man, as his brother’s were of him. His master’s wife is just that, another man’s wife and he will forego all desire for her. And he will do this even if it means she will savagely retaliate. He realizes that he must take this course of integrity and veracity to its farthest reaches in order to change the destiny of God’s chosen people, who will look to him as their righteous royal ancestor whose life they should emulate.  Joseph is aware of God’s providence watching over him in Egypt, guiding the events of his life and drawing him closer to his true mission on earth. He trusts that God will protect him in his pursuit of uncompromising faithfulness and righteousness. And his rejection of cunning will hopefully reverse the plague of treachery that is ravaging his brothers and his family.
Yet in all this, there is one more story of deception and it is orchestrated by Joseph himself. However, this ruse is very different from every other story of duplicity in the book of Genesis. There is a well known principle in Jewish thought that one of the truest forms of repentance from sin is to be in the same circumstances, with the same strength and the same desires, and yet to avoid repeating the evil deed.
Joseph, now promoted by pharaoh to the position of viceroy over all of Egypt, learns of his brothers’ presence in the land. They do not recognize Joseph, and he interrogates them and treats them very harshly. He knows that Benjamin, his full brother, is the only other son from Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. Joseph can be sure that Jacob treats Benjamin with extra care and concern as a result. Therefore the brothers have all the reason to be envious of Benjamin and desire to be rid of him as they were with Joseph.
So Joseph forces his brothers to travel back to Jacob in Canaan and return with Benjamin. After a series of events, Joseph threatens to take Benjamin and make him his personal slave. Joseph does this to recreate the scenario in which the brothers sold him into slavery. It is in these near identical circumstances that the brothers—after pleading for Benjamin’s return—bravely offer to Joseph that they all become his slaves. They cannot return to their father without Benjamin, and they would rather protect him while in chains than live free without him.
In doing so, their sin is greatly atoned before God.  Joseph’s deceit is unique, in that he faced no threat to his life and had no personal interest or vendetta in concealing his identity and testing his brothers. In fact he wanted nothing more than to reveal himself to them and hug and kiss his estranged siblings. Yet he held back his tears and exerted mastery over his emotions to help his brothers cleanse themselves of the evil they had done. It is, ironically, a selfless story of deceit.
And it is because Joseph chooses, finally, to live for truth that he is rewarded with becoming the great dream interpreter, the man with the power to see the difference between reality and fantasy, to discern dream symbols and separate wheat from chaff, dream prophecy from useless dream imagery.
Joseph had the insight to know that deception and falsehood are the tools of the primordial snake. Even justifiable lies told to save one’s own life should still be repented for. Lying to others can soon turn into lying to ourselves, which leads to a distortion of reality in order to satisfy our desires. When we see falsehood, we must stay far away from it. God is truth and we must love and pursue truth to have any meaningful and lasting relationship with Him.
The writer was the London Times Preacher of the Year 1999 and is the author, most recently, of Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself. In January he will publish Kosher Jesus. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.
This essay is written in memory of Machla Dabakarov, OBM, the mother of a dear friend of Rabbi Shmuley, who passed away earlier this year.