Wibble Wednesday: Kids These Days (Genesis 37:1–40:23)

Back onto a proper schedule, with פָּרָשַׁת וישב (“And he lived” portion), moving Jacob into the background as a minor character.

The quick snarky summary: Israel’s children continue to show appalling judgment. Young Joseph is a talebearer and a suck-up, so his brothers decide to sell him to slave traders. Sisters decide to do it for themselves: one of them nearly gets burned at the stake for her independence, and the other deflects blame onto Joseph. But he weathers prison well enough, trading dream interpretations for cigarettes.


In some ways, the Midrash and Aggadah and suchlike exegetical works have taken on a daunting task. They have to take horrible acts like deceiving your father and slaughtering an entire defenseless city and suchlike and come up with side-text explanations for how the people doing these things were really good and noble and decent and righteous and incapable of doing anything seriously wrong. So we get spurious and rather dodgy justifications that the entire town of Shechem was nefariously plotting against Israel and that Esau was really a very very bad man who deserved everything he got and that Jacob never really lied because he punctuated his words in strange ways and, yeah, it’s probably obvious I take this all with a grain of salt.

In this parsha the apologia machine basically breaks down completely. Sibling rivalry has been a pretty constant theme in Genesis thus far, but in previous cases there’s been a clear side that both the story and the rabbinical authorities favor: Abel is the victim of murder, and you vilify Cain to get the story to work; Jacob’s our ancestor, so painting a particularly nefarious portrait of Esau can get us to swallow his story without qualms. Here we run into a bit of a snag, in that all the participants in the story are the ancestors of the people Israel, and as such they are the “good guys” and presumably moral. Jacob’s favoritism is never explained, and in context it seems foolish but basically human: compare to the previous sibling rivalry stories, where one sibling’s simply been favored because the patriarchal authority likes them more. So we can let that bit go. The behavior of almost all the sons leaves a lot to be desired, though. Joseph himself is either a hopeless naïf or a smug little shit: in the first few verses we learn that he’s carrying bad reports of his brothers to their father (and the juxtaposition suggests that these bad reports might serve to enhance his own favor), and that he’s telling everyone about his dreams in which he’s lord over them all. These seem like unwise behaviors, but I can totally see a certain self-satisfied sort being entirely too eager to do them.

A couple notes on those actions of Joseph’s: the language in 37:2 is particularly curious, speaking of Joseph’s associates and targets of his reports as the sons specifically of Bilhah and Zilpah. These are only four of the brothers, and actually a pretty odd group for Joseph to be thrown in with: they’re a cohort significantly older than he is. His nearest siblings would be Leah’s later sons Issachar and Zebulon, and Rachel’s son Benjamin, so I’m not sure why only these four are involved. Maybe, as the sons of lesser wives (I called them concubines, but here they appear to have been elevated in status), they were just easier to push around, so Joseph figured he could tattle on them with impunity? The other thing that strikes me about the talebearing bit is that it leaves out the most obvious part of judging the morality of the act: what it was he actually reported, and whether his reports were true. Either way, nobody’s coming out of this unscathed: either Joseph’s a slanderer if his reports were false or exaggerations, or his brothers are authentically bad people if the reports are true.

Anyways, Jacob then sends Joseph off to check up with the brothers in Shechem. I’m honestly surprised they’d be hanging around there, given how low their stock was with the locals after that annoying act of genocide. Joseph might’ve done well to remember that bit too, since being smugly supercilious to the two guys who killed everyone when they got angry might seem like a bad idea then. In fact, he’d do well to worry, since his brothers pretty much immediately try to kill him. Only Reuben keeps his cool, and devises an actually pretty good plan to get Joseph out of danger. Even though it doesn’t work, he comes out of this story looking pretty good, but that stepmotherfucker’s still on probation.

The other brothers can’t really be excused, though. From a narrative viewpoint I could almost buy them still being good people if they killed Joseph in a fit of passion, but they’re awfully calculating about the whole deal. They sell Joseph for their own benefit, and concoct an elaborate deception for their father to convince them that Joseph died accidentally. Predictably, both the disappearance of Joseph and the brothers’ lies devastate their father. Those aren’t the acts I typically associate with good people, and the exegetical sources seem to skim over this part as quickly as possible because they know they can’t make it work.

So much for Joseph. We come back to him later and will not leave his side until the end of Genesis, but for now, we get the one actual story which belongs to a brother other than Joseph: we learn about Judah and his children. The line of Judah was regarded as pretty important in and after the monarchial times, as the Davidic line and the Messiah were both believed to be of the tribe of Judah. Given the emphasis we’ve seen so far on racial purity, the report in Genesis 38:2 that Judah married a Canaanite is Bad News; everyone we’ve seen who intermingles with the Canaanites is at best second to the line of Israel, and in some cases is the designated villain (intermarrying is the only actual sin of Esau’s we’re made aware of). Sure enough, the issue of such a marriage are narratively assumed to be tainted, and his son Er dies from an unspecified wickedness. At this point we get an interesting look into what might have originally been pre-Judaic Semitic family customs: the brother of a man who dies childless is obligated to marry the widow and give her sons to perpetuate the household (and presumably support her, once they mature). This duty is explicitly mandated in the Torah in Deuteronomy, but the inclusion of it as a natural and necessary act before the giving of the Torah suggests an older origin. Anyways, marrying Tamar puts Onan in a kind of weird spot, shackled to a woman whose sons will emphatically not be regarded as his own. His sin we’re given a pretty good idea of: he didn’t get Tamar pregnant. We’re given just enough grody details to assume that either he’s practicing withdrawal or masturbating in lieu of actually sleeping with his wife (Onan’s name is indelibly linked in the English language with the latter interpretation), and God hits the smite button for him too. Judah’s reaction at this point isn’t terribly unreasonable, since peopel Tamar marries keep dying, although he’s not entirely honest abotu his intentions, waffling on when/if he intends to actually give her his third son, which puts her in a sort of relationship limbo: if she were cut loose she could remarry, presumably, but as long as she’s in an indefinite betrothal she’s not getting any, and, more importantly from a cultural context, is decreasingly likely to receive any sort of social support as a widow with no family or children. This explanation motivates what seems like a nonsensical action, but can be read as a desperate ploy to get children (and possibly further support, if the father acknowledges them). Tamar dresses as a prostitute at the crossroads and Judah, whose wife died a while back, buys her services, leaving some collateral for payment he’ll be sending on later. I’m kind of surprised to learn that sleeping with prostitutes is defended by the Bible, although this is likely an aspect which shifted as households became more nucleated and the acceptable forms of prostitution (such as temple cults) faded out of society.

Anyways, at odds with this fairly low-key acceptance of Judah patronizing a prostitute is a rather extraordinary social reaction to Tamar having been a prostitute. Some of this may come from her peculiar “already claimed” social status: since she’s betrothed to Judah’s son, perhaps sexual relations are adulterous and transgressive in a way which the same acts committed by an unattached widow (or possibly an unmarried woman, although that’s iffier) wouldn’t be. Or maybe I’m reading too much into this and the existence of prostitutes was acceptable (and of course male patronization thereof, ’cause, hey, historically men have been able to get away with that) but the connection of prostitutes to respectable families wasn’t. Decency on Judah’s part might be to let this slide, realizing what a bind he put her in, but, nope, he sentences her to be burnt to death, which sounds awfully barbaric, even as a Bronze Age punishment for adultery. So I don’t feel particularly bad for Judah when Tamar shames him in front of the entire tribunal by showing him his collateral. To his credit, he finally acknowledges that he’s behaved crappily, although he doesn’t actually marry Tamar, which seems like what she’d be angling for. But she escapes the stake and has children, which gets emphasized because these bastards are the line of Judah, which as mentioned previously is of special historical and prophetic significance.

On the subject of that birth, she has twins, and we get a weird little story of confusion over which one is born first (see all my previous nattering about first-born privilege to determine why anyone would care). See, one sticks his hand out, and they mark it, but then the other one pushes past. And I am not a female-type person and am missing the requisite bits of anatomy to be authoritative on this point, but I’m pretty sure Wombs Do Not Work that Way, at least not without serious injury to at least one of the three participants.

But enough about the monarchial line, which won’t be a big deal until at least 2 Samuel: what happens to Joseph? Slavery agrees with him, it seems, as when we return to his side he’s become the head servant of one of the councilors of the Egyptian pharoah. Being a slave sounds like a rough deal, but in honesty, being majordomo of the house of one of the most powerful people in a high-luxury urban center is a pretty cushy gig. It’s definitely a better life than the Egyptian peasantry (most of whom were little more than slaves themselves) had. It might well be a better life than he had back home (since the capital city of one of the more opulent empires of the time presented much greater comfort than sheepfarming nomadism did). So it’s hard to feel too bad for poor ol’ Joseph here.

Comfort is narratively barren, however, so the story demands that Joseph be flung into adversity. Adversity here is represented by his master Potiphar’s wife, who gets to be the Sinful Woman foil to Tamar’s Virtuous Woman. She wants to sleep around too, but unlike Tamar she doesn’t have the social exigencies which made it necessary, so presumably she is bad for having sexual agency. Also, perhaps, for lying about it and accusing Jacob of assault, which seems a bit unnecessary on her part. The best lie is usually a small one, and it’s not like they had sexual harassment laws back then (I believe back then they called a Vice President of Human Resources a “taskmaster”), so she’d probably have been better off cutting her losses and pretending nothing happened. But that wouldn’t really drive the narrative, and Joseph needs to be in prison for his meteoric rise to stardom to really work dramatically.

But even in prison Joseph succeeds: the story simply cannot actually wring pathos out of his plight, no matter what dramatic twists they introduce to degrade him! By the next verse he’s a kind of under-jailer, and quite successful at it. This aspect isn’t really narratively necessary, and I think lessens the impact of the story: it’d be nice to see something actually awful happen to Joseph, so that his freedom later gains impact. We’re not told what he does a underjailer, although oen thing he apparently does is interpret dreams: he correctly divines from the dreams of two prisoners that one will be restored to honor and the other will be executed and eaten by birds. Were I in Joseph’s shoes, I might choose to omit some of the details from that second interpretation out of consideration for the poor man’s feelings, but he didn’t seem to know when to shut up earlier and evidently still hasn’t learned it.

We end the parsha with a little bit of the misery the story’s been unsuccessfully trying to evoke: Joseph wants his sentence overturned, and asked the reinstated prisoner to remember him to Pharoah, but outside of prison he forgets and life goes on while Joseph rots inside. It’s the one part of the story which actually makes it seem like he’s suffering.

But don’t worry. He’ll get out. And then he’ll get revenge. Oh, yes.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

2 Responses to Wibble Wednesday: Kids These Days (Genesis 37:1–40:23)

  1. Lucian says:

    That’s pretty interesting that Judaic interpretations try to whitewash the actions here–in almost all the Christian interpretations of this bit, it’s always assumed that this is just a straightforward story of extreme dysfunction, the take-home messages being ‘there are consequences for behaving like this’ and ‘God works with you anyway’.

  2. Greg Sanders says:

    I’d entirely forgotten the story of Judah and Tamar. Wow.

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