After reading Everett Fox’s excellent introduction from “The Five Books of Moses”, this time on Joseph, I can’t help but regret how quickly our lectionary must move, as we consider only two excerpts in two weeks – betrayal and reconciliation. O well, we can still read the whole account for ourselves.
THE STORIES ABOUT THE LAST PATRIARCH FORM A COHERENT WHOLE, LEADING SOME to dub it a “novella.” It stands well on its own, although it has been consciously and artfully woven together into both the Yaakov cycle and the entire book.
Initially the tale is one of family emotions, and it is in fact extreme emotions which give it a distinctive flavor. All the major characters are painfully expressive of their feelings, from the doting father to the spoiled son, from the malicious brothers to the lustful wife of Potifar, from the nostalgic adult Yosef (Joseph) to the grief-stricken old Yaakov (Jacob). It is only through the subconscious medium of dreams, in three sets, that we are made to realize that a higher plan is at work which will supersede the destructive force of these emotions.
For this is a story of how “ill” -with all its connotations of fate, evil, and disaster is changed to good. Despite the constant threat of death to Yosef, to the Egyptians, and to Binyamin (Benjamin), the hidden, optimistic thrust of the story is “life,” a word that appears in various guises throughout. Even “face,” the key word of the Yaakov cycle which often meant something negative, is here given a kinder meaning, as the resolution to Yaakov’s life.
A major subtheme of the plot is the struggle for power between Re’uven (Ruben) and Yehuda (Judah).
Its resolution has implications that are as much tribal as personal, for the tribe of Yehuda later became the historical force in ancient Israel as the seat of the monarchy.
Although many details of the narrative confirm Egyptian practices, those practices actually
reflect an Egypt considerably later than the period of the Patriarchs (Redford). Of interest also is the prominence of the number five in the story, a detail that is unexplained but that gives some unity to the various sections of text.
In many ways the Yosef material repeats elements in the Yaakov traditions. A long list could be compiled, but let us at least mention here sibling hatred, exile of the hero, foreign names, love and hate, dreams, and deception-even so detailed as to duplicate the use of a goat-kid. But its focusing on a classic rags-to-riches plot, with the addition of a moralistic theme, make the Yosef story a distinctive and always popular tale, accessible in a way that the more difficult stories of the first three parts of Genesis are not.
The Five Books of Moses: A New English Translation with Commentary and Notes
(New York: Schocken Books, 1995).