The Joseph story is amongst the most well-known in the Hebrew Bible. A mini novella, occupying the last four parashiyyot of the Torah –Va-yeishev, Mikkeitz, Va-yiggash and Va-y’chi (Genesis 3:1-50:26) – at its heart is the problematic relationship between Joseph and his ten older brothers, Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Issaschar and Zebulun (Va-yeitzei, Genesis 29:31-30:20).
The vexed relationship between brothers is one of the central themes of B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, from the story of the first brothers, Cain and Abel, which relates Cain’s murder of his younger brother (Gen. 4:1-15), through the separation of Isaac and Ishmael (Gen. 21), Jacob’s devious deception of his older twin, Esau in the next generation (Gen. 25:19-34 and 27:1-28:8) and, finally, Joseph’s brothers’ revenge against their father, Jacob’s favourite son (Gen. 37:12-36).
By contrast, the story behind the Festival of Chanukkah, the narrative of Mattathias, priest of Mod’in, and his five sons, Yochanan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan, related in the Books of the Maccabees (I and II) is one of family harmony. The brothers led a rebellion against Antiochus IV and his suppression of Jewish life and practice, and shared the victory of recapturing the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE together, despite the fact that Judah, the middle son, and not the eldest, Yochanan, became the leader.
As it happens, after the Assyrian Greek occupation was finally defeated in 140 CE and the priestly Hasmonean family assumed the reins of political power, corruption soon reigned, too, and the family was beset by conflict and infighting – which helps to explain why the rabbis decided not to include the books of the Maccabees in the biblical canon. But that’s another story! The point I’m making is that the familiar Chanukkah tale is a straightforward story of alpha male heroism, in which Judah the Maccabee – the ‘hammer’ – and his freedom-fighting brothers won the day.
The Joseph narrative is more complex, and if we read it carefully, should leave us asking questions about masculinity – questions that first surface in the presentation of Jacob and Esau. We read at the beginning of their story that while Esau was a ‘cunning hunter, a man of the field’, Jacob was: ‘a simple man [ish tam] – a ‘smooth man’ in every sense of that word – dwelling in tents’ – that is, alongside his mother. (Gen. 25:27). In the Joseph story, rather than presenting brothers as polar opposites, the reader discovers a brother set apart from his brothers in a way that confounds our gender expectations.
Joseph’s distinctiveness begins with the beautiful coat he received as a gift from his father: k’tonet passim, a ‘coat’ that reached to the ‘palms’. Interestingly, Joseph’s coat signalled more than his special status in Jacob’s affections. K’tonet passim is also the dress of a princess. In the Second Book of Samuel, we read that when Tamar, the daughter of King David was assaulted by her half-brother, Amnon (13:18): ‘She was wearing a k’tonet passim, for virgin princesses were dressed thus in olden times.’
So, Joseph was dressed like a royal virgin princess. And his ‘princess’ garment also provided a visual representation of Joseph’s unique qualities. Joseph wasn’t simply a shepherd like his brothers, he was a dreamer, and Joseph’s dreams revealed his exceptional calling as the one apart. It’s hardly surprising that Joseph’s older brothers took the opportunity to wreak their revenge on him. If it hadn’t been for the actions of the eldest brother, Reuben, they would have killed him. As it was, Judah came up with a plan of selling Joseph to a travelling caravan of Ishmaelites – or Midianites, the Torah seems to include two versions of the tale – who took him down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, a courtier and chief steward of Pharaoh (Gen. 37:25-36).
Joseph was different. The incident with Potiphar’s wife provides another way of understanding that difference (Gen. 39:6-20). On the one hand, the tale at this point simply conveys the vulnerability of Joseph the ‘Hebrew slave’ in the house of his Egyptian master – and mistress. And so, the reader understands why Joseph ran away, when she kept pleading with him on successive occasions to ‘lie’ with her. On the other hand, this story within a story opens by saying how ‘beautiful’ Joseph was – literally, ‘beautiful’: Va-y’hi Yosef y’feih to’ar vifeih mareh – Now, Joseph was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance (Gen. 39:6).
At first glance, the reference to Joseph’s ‘beauty’ simply acts as a preamble, explaining why ‘his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph’ (39:7). But this phrase is more than a statement about Joseph; it links him directly with his mother, Rachel: … v’rachel hay’tah y’fat to’ar vifat mareh ‘… and Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance’ – which explains why Jacob fell in love with her (Gen. 29:17).
Hebrew is an entirely gendered language. So, the verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with Rachel are in the ‘feminine’ gender and those associated with Joseph are in the ‘masculine’ gender. But the gender difference only serves to underline the similarity between the two verses. And in the particular context of the Joseph narrative, the presentation of Joseph as the beautiful favourite son of the beautiful favourite wife only serves to further separate Joseph from his brothers.
As Jacob’s sons are finally reunited (Gen. 45), the Joseph story has a conventional happy ending that serves to normalise and integrate him. But Joseph’s unconventional appearance remains to challenge our assumptions. Ultimately, beautiful Joseph survived by assuming another incarnation: dressed as an Egyptian overlord, his brothers failed to recognise him each time they met with him; finally, Joseph had to reveal his identity to them (Gen. 45:1).
Utterly different from his brothers, Joseph wore many guises, transcending a simplistic understanding of gender. As Liberal Judaism leads the Jewish world in acknowledging the rights of LGBTQI+ people, the Joseph story reminds us of the importance of bringing our new understandings about gender and sexuality to our reading of the Torah.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah