Half-lives, Half-breath, Hope: Jacob and Joseph

About one quarter of Genesis is devoted to the story of Joseph, dreamer and diviner, the child of Jacob’s old age, the child Jacob favors over all his sons (Gen. 37:3).

His brothers hate him for that. Joseph himself seems to stoke their hatred. At 17, he dreams that he and his brothers are sheaves of grain – and each sheave bows to his. He tells his brothers. In turn, “they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams” (37:8). Joseph dreams again: Now his entire family bows to him, as eleven stars, the sun, and the moon. Even Jacob is shocked: “Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground? So his brothers were wrought up at him and his father kept the matter in mind” (37:10-11).

Sometime soon after, it seems, Jacob sends his favored child to check on his brothers. He is to see how his brothers are doing, how the flocks are faring, and to come back to report to his old father. He goes unaccompanied. Alone.

His brothers see him coming; their rage takes over. They strip him of the special tunic his father had made for him. They throw him in a pit. They debate. Should he die? Should they sell him? Does he, in that dark pit, hear every word? Joseph’s brothers harbor a murderous hatred, but, in the end, they leave Joseph’s life – or death – to slaveholders: “Come,” his elder brother Judah says, “let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves” (37:27). Sold into slavery, carried to a foreign land, does he play back each word in his mind?

At seventeen, Joseph is cast into a dark pit and sold into slavery. He rises to become the right-hand man of Potiphar. He falls again, accused by Potiphar’s wife. He spends at least two years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He rises again, becomes the right-hand man of the chief jailor. At thirty, he becomes Pharaoh’s vizier because he is not only a dreamer, but a dream interpreter. Pharaoh even gives him a new name: Zaphnath-Paaneah, a name which might mean “Egyptian,” though Jewish tradition reads it as “revealer of secrets.” Finally, Joseph is given Asenath, the daughter of Potipherah, priest of On, to be his wife.

In a position of extraordinary power and prestige, his life secure, beloved by the ruler of the most powerful country in the known world, he might, one imagine, send word. He is alive, he is well. But he does nothing. He sends no word to the father who loved him best, the father who coddled him and who relied on him.

Joseph named his first child Manasseh, from a root that means to forget, to make disappear from the memory. Joseph is explicit: I name him Manasseh, he says, because “God had made me forget my hardship and my parental home” (41:52).

The years go by. And by. Joseph is about 39 when his brothers appear in Egypt, hoping to buy food in a time of famine. Two more years will pass before Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, and only after repeated manipulations. He will pin crimes on them, he will hold one brother prisoner and threaten to make another his slave. He is 41 years old when his father, Jacob, finally discovers that his beloved son is still alive.

Jacob, aged and broken, revives. “Enough,” he says. “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die!” (45:28).

We read this story as a quintessential narrative of sibling rivalry, one of so many describing murderous hatred among brothers. Cain kills Abel. Esau wants to kill Jacob. Joseph’s brothers almost murder him.

But if this story was just about sibling rivalry, why does Joseph not let his father, who loved him so, know he is alive?

When he learns that Joseph is alive Jacob’s breath, his ruach, lives in him again (45:27). Believing Joseph dead, Jacob had lived a half-life for twenty-four years.

Surely Joseph knew his father loved him with an abiding, consuming love. How could he let his brothers get in the way of such a love? How could he leave his father half alive for over two decades?

Remember the second dream? His whole family had made obeisance to him. His father was angry, accusatory, he “kept it in mind.” And then, he sent his son to his eleven brothers, brothers who hated him.

Did Joseph believe his father betrayed him to his brothers? Did he decide that a new identity, a new name, a new world could be his only future? Did he think: I will kill the past; everyone in it tried to kill me?

His tears gave him back what he could not kill: hope. Joseph cries, often. First, when he overhears his brothers talking about what they had done to him (Gen 42:24), next, when he sees his younger brother, Benjamin (43:30), and again when he reveals himself to his brothers (45:2). He cries and kisses his brothers after the revelation (45:14-15), and when he finally sees his father again, he weeps on his father’s neck “a good while.” (46:29). Somehow, in all his pain, he could still cry for what he had lost, cry and thus, hope.

In this broken world, where terror and horror surround us every day, perhaps we can hope that our own tears can heal – ourselves and others. May it be so.

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