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This week's parsha includes Genesis chapters 37 through 40, the first part of the Joseph cycle.

We begin by seeing how Jacob, whose own parents showed such obvious and destructive favoritism between their children, continues the tradition, making Joseph his favorite and showing this in various ways. Joseph adds to the problem by telling dreams in which he pictures himself ruling over his brothers and even his parents. So when he goes out to find them to report to their father, they see him coming and plan first to kill him and then at Judah's intervention selling him to a passing caravan heading to Egypt.

At this point the parsha moves to the story of Judah and Tamar, and the eventual birth of their twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Tamar had been married to Judah's oldest son who died without children, and then to his second son, who refused to have a Levirite child (who would be considered his brother's child). Judah doen't give his third son to her when he is old enough to wed, and Tamar takes matters into her own hands and tricks Judah into having sex with her, thinking her a prostitute. In the end, he acknowledges his wrong to her, and claims the children as his own.

Then we are back in Egypt where Joseph is now a slave of Potiphar, and the story of his time there as he is given more and more responsibility as time passes. Eventually, Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph, who refuses her advances. She then accuses Joseph of trying to seduce her, and Potiphar sends him to prison. He rises in prison as well. The parsha closes with Joseph interpreting the dreams of Pharaoh's baker and wine-steward, which interpretations come to pass.

The story so far provides for future events. First, the move of the Israelites to Egypt is made possible by Joseph being enslaved there. Second, the importance of the tribes of Joseph's sons and of Judah is presaged in this parsha, and the relationships between the men and the tribes. And, Judah and Tamar's son Perez becomes the ancestor of King David and the Davidic line, including the Messiah.

There is a symmetry to this parsha which makes it unusual, and unconsciously satisfying to us. We begin with two dreams, and Joseph put by his brothers into a pit, from which they sell him to the traders. Then comes the story of Tamar. The story of Joseph in slavery begins with the events leading to his time in prison - and the same Hebrew word is used for pit and prison, making the connection clearer. Therefore, there is a form which in music would be A (2 dreams), B (the pit), C (Judah and Tamar), B (the prison/pit) and A (the 2 dreams he interprets).

But today I want to focus on the difference between appearances and reality, between the outer and inner person as illustrated in this parsha.

Clothing is mentioned frequently here, which is unusual this far in Torah. Other than Jacob dressing to impersonate Esau, I can't think of an instance of clothing having any importance thus far. And that is telling, since clothing in this parsha is also used to deceive. First there is the special coat that Jacob gives to Joseph to show him favor. After Joseph has been sold to the traders, the brothers take this, stain it with animal blood and show it to Jacob as evidence that Joseph has been killed by wild beasts.

The next example is in the Tamar story. Tamar is back in her father's house, and realizes that Judah's youngest son is old enough to marry, and has not become her husband, she dresses as a prostitute, and Judah is so far deceived as to have sex with her. Ironically, when Judah sends the kid he promised in payment, his friend is told that no prostitute has been there, which happens to be true. It seems only Judah was deceived.

Then, when Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph, she rips off his shirt as he is leaving, and shows the shirt to Potiphar to show how she fought him off, using it to get her revenge on Joseph.

So what do we make of this? Appearances cannot be trusted, for one thing. Clothes do not make the man - clothing can be put on and taken off for many purposes, not the least of which is deceit. Clothing separated from the wearer tells nothing for certain. And a person can assume any clothing to assume a false role. Yet we continue to make assumptions about people based on how they look. The greatest deception comes later in the story, when Joseph's brothers are dazzled by the robes of the grand vizier and cannot see their brother underneath.

But real, deep change can happen. Throughout this parsha, Joseph is always seen to be special, and both in Potiphar's household and in prison, he earns for himself positions of responsibility based on his merits. When the baker and wine-steward are released and Joseph's interpretations prove true, he is expecting to be released as well. But the steward forgot him. When he realizes that he will not be freed, I think he begins an inner transformation, and perhaps learns humility.

Shabbat Shalom!

Originally posted to ramara on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 11:55 AM PST.

Also republished by Elders of Zion and Street Prophets .

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank You - N/T (6+ / 0-)

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 12:17:35 PM PST

  •  Fascinating telling. (5+ / 0-)


    A child of five would understand this. Send someone to fetch a child of five. -- Groucho Marx

    by Pluto on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 12:24:35 PM PST

  •  Books and covers, people and their clothes, words (6+ / 0-)

    and deeds, and the republican's (among other's) apparent belief that if they cover their eyes no one can see them. Knowing the difference between these things is why we keep reading the ancient stories. Knowledge is situational, Wisdom transcends the moment.

    Biz hundert un tsvantsik.

    Just getting a handle on the knobs and dials.... Hey, don't touch that!

    by Old Lefty on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 01:54:24 PM PST

  •  Another fascinating parsha (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, SchuyH, remembrance

    Thanks for this insightful commentary.

    I've always been intrigued by the sale to the Ishmaelites.  If they were really descendants of Ishmael, they were Joseph's cousins.  Did they know him?  The writers probably thought not; the writer probably thought Ishmaelites as simply a tribal group, and not the common descendants of Abraham.  We know that the caravan paid 20 shekels for the boy, but we are not told how much Potiphar paid when Joseph was "flipped".  

    Could the Ishmaelites have intended to protect the boy by taking him to Egypt, away from his murderous brothers?  Placement with Potiphar was a soft landing for a slave.

    Meanwhile, God is busy slaying Judah's kids.

    •  God only slew Onan (4+ / 0-)

      as if that weren't enough.

      I do think that Judah, in suggesting the sale, was trying to save Joseph. There is midrash that when the brothers went to Egypt for food, they intended to find out what had happened to Joseph if they could. This comes from some of the dialog between them and Joseph when they are brought to the palace.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 03:44:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Er also was wicked (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        and slain.  But unlike Onan's onanism, we aren't told the nature of Er's sin.

        •  Responding to myself is weak (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          ramara, SchuyH

          but still . . . .

          Did some further looking on the death of Er.  There is rabinnical comment that he committed the same sin as Onan (Rashi's view), but some say for a different reason.  Er didn't want to impregnate Tamar because then she would lose her beauty.  So much for the pregnancy glow in ancient times. And, of course, the slaying of both wicked brothers prefigures the death of Aaron's sons.

          Some commentators believe that Er and Onan's death was motivated by legends to explain lost tribal groups.

          Also, we have another set of twins (Jacob's grandsons) screwing around with who gets the birthright, as Perez yanks his brother back in the womb to come out first.

          •  Er is one of those mysteries (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            The only things we know about him are that he married Tamar and died because he was wicked.

            I don't think it could have been Onan's sin, since the real wickedness of Onan was selfishness, not wanting to give his dead brother an heir. Of course, he was also depriving the world of the necessary son from Judah's line. The rabbis see Tamar's act as a true commitment to Judah's family and its continuation. I'm not so sure of that either, but she was living in a real limbo before the seduction, unable to marry anyone else, and with no social standing whatever.

            Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

            by ramara on Sun Dec 09, 2012 at 07:05:26 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  An ancient version of an agunah (2+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:
              SchuyH, ramara

              Orthodox women whose husbands get a civil divorce, or just abandon them, but refuse to provide a get.

              "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

              by Navy Vet Terp on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 04:48:17 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

    •  And the Ishmaelites (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SchuyH, Navy Vet Terp

      in one place were called the Midianites.  One of those times there were probably several oral versions of the tale, I suppose.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 07:18:17 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Quite fascinating -- I particularly enjoyed (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, SchuyH, Navy Vet Terp

    your discussion of clothes in these stories! I had read the stories of Joseph many times (Judah and Tamar less so but I knew the gist of it) and had never noticed how clothing is symbolically used in these stories.

    It's interesting, too, that both the stories of Tamar and Joseph contain a wronged person who, by assuming a false identity (Tamar voluntarily, Joseph less so) is able to vindicate themselves and bring about reconciliation with the persons who wronged them. There is also a quite dramatic "reveal" scene in each. Whoever recorded these stories certainly knew how to stage a dramatic scene (and would be a great writer for Hollywood today!)

    I have never heard the term "parsha" before - what exactly does it signify?

    •  It's usually translated (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SchuyH, Navy Vet Terp

      as portion, and is the portion of the Torah read each week.  We read them in order through the liturgical year, and then begin again.  Every week there is an accompanying reading from the prophets which is associated in some way with the Torah reading.

      I used to think there was no connection between the Tamar story and the part of the Joseph story told this week, but every year I find new connections.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Fri Dec 07, 2012 at 08:32:08 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Nicely done! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    ramara, Navy Vet Terp

    And it does hark back interestingly to Jacob putting on Esau's clothing to fool his father, and then being fooled by a misuse of Joseph's clothing -- but I don't think I would ever have thought to connect Judah's cloak to that.

    Happy Chanukah. :)

  •  I decided to try to follow along on this (0+ / 0-)

    exercise just to see how it works. So I sat down and re-read the assigned chapters ( I had read the whole bible about five years ago).

    First of all, I find it fascinating how people can pull patterns out of a story. The diarist sees clothing and disguises as the main sort of hidden theme.

    I see something different, besides the obvious fact that this narrative could be a script for "Days of Our Lives". I see a description of the nature of Yahweh.

    Genesis starts out with the creation stories, one of which is God's (Yahweh) arrogance and obvious moral flaw of favoring not only a whole group of people on the planet, but also specifically Abel over Cain (carnivore over herbivore?) which set violence in motion. Jacob did the same thing.  Then in the midst of a family trying to work out their favoritism issue, Yahweh kills two members of the family, one just because of undescribed "wickedness", and the other because he really doesn't want to have a child with his dead brother's wife. At this point, shouldn't the narrative move to the characters wondering what kind of god they believe in?

    Of course, there is always the anti woman stuff thrown in.. a harlot is to be killed for conceiving, but the man involved in the sex pays no price. He instead gets to decide her fate, and since the kids are his, she gets to live. Again, everyone accepts this without question.

    In the center of all this is Joseph, who is supposedly favored by "the Lord" but experiences just as much angst as all the other characters. He also suffers from being less interesting than them..... except that he has the power of dream interpretation which is really quite a pagan trait.  Of course, the Hebrews borrowed lots of their main themes from paganism, espectially Egyptian.

    Another point. Jacob muses about Sheol when he thinks Joseph is dead. Sheol is often described as a pit. Then there is the pit Joseph gets put in and then prison too. So another running theme for this family is a preoccupation with death.

    OK- I'm ready for part 2.

    •  It's not the harlot (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      SchuyH, Navy Vet Terp

      who gets to be put to death for conceiving. It's the betrothed wife of Judah's son, even though he has not allowed the marriage to take place, who is pregnant with someone else's child. Barbaric as it may seem, it was the custom among many ancient cultures to punish adultery with death. Judah may even have intended to get the man's name so he could be punished as well. Instead, he admits his own fault. Judah has the right of punishment since it is his family that was wronged, not because he is the father of the child.

      These stories are just that - stories from an ancient culture, which not only evolved over thousands of years, but whose conceptions of God also changed over time.

      Your point is interesting about sheol and the pit/prison; I hadn't seen that parallel. I would invite you to write one of these if you could keep a respectful tone. At any rate, I'm pleased you decided to come back.

      Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

      by ramara on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 10:57:12 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Many Jews use a kind of analysis (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        that dates different parts of the Bible based on linguistic evidence. According to this documentary analysis, the first chapter of Genesis was written much later than the rest of the book, probably in the days of the Second Temple (some 400 or 500 years before the Romans destroyed it in 70 AD.

        Many modern Christian scholars also use this method, by the way. The fundamentalist approach to the Bible is not the only, nor even the majority, view.

        Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

        by ramara on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 11:05:35 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I'm not sure what you mean by keeping (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          a "respectful tone".  I try to keep a respectful tone towards people unless they just don't deserve it, but with books?  I don't consider these books deserving of any different type of approach in terms of analysis than any other books.  I thank Thomas Paine for teaching me that.

          Have you ever read "God: A Biography" by Jack Miles? It was quite influencial in my journey to atheism. He kept a respect for the texts all while managing to take the mask off of "God" by viewing "Him" as simply a protagonist in a whole series of stories. It's tough technical reading (he was a Jesuit scholar), but worth it.

          The problem with the fundamentalist approach to the texts is that this view is probably a lot more true to the texts than the liberal view. The god(s) of the Torah and Bible ARE harsh deities, very rigid, judgemental and exclusive. And the cosmic systems they represent-chosen people, salvation- are not really liberal or inclusive systems.

          •  I'm not sure (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:

            I believe in God either - never have been. But I do enjoy engaging with the texts.

            Maybe I mean respectful towards readers who feel differently.

            Anyway, I hope you keep reading.

            Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

            by ramara on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 01:26:18 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

          •  Again, Fishtroller 01 in the Jewish tradition (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            SchuyH, ramara

            You really don't read the Bible without reading the rabbinic gloss.  Through their writings, "the god(s) of the Torah and Bible are NOT harsh deities" at all, just the contrary.  Granted, being persecuted by the Romans affected their outlook.  Judasim really is not based on the Torah and Bible, it is based on the Talmud and the Talmudic construction of the Torah and Bible.  Jews may sit down and read the Bible as a literary exercise, as you did five years ago and as I am now reading the Iliad (talk about weird deities!) but this is not how the Bible is studied in Judaism.

            Anyway, do come back - I'll be doing this week's and I will assign myself the plagues to respond to your comments from last week.

            "We have always known that heedless self-interest was bad morals, now we know that it is bad economics." Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jan. 20, 1937

            by Navy Vet Terp on Mon Dec 10, 2012 at 04:43:43 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  One sure does have to do a lot of (0+ / 0-)

              "gloss"-ing to interpret the actions of Yahweh as not harsh.  

              •  It's how they interpret (1+ / 0-)
                Recommended by:

                the laws, in a much more humane way. The rabbis, after all, were writing 2000 later than the stories, and acted as judges in the Jewish court of the time.

                I also want to say, that I do rather approach the texts as I would any literary analysis. Other writers cite the rabbis more. Each of us has a different approach, which is what makes the series interesting.

                Republicans want to make government small enough to fit in your vagina..

                by ramara on Tue Dec 11, 2012 at 09:13:18 AM PST

                [ Parent ]

          •  Approaches to the texts... (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            SchuyH, ramara

            It seems to me that, if religious,  one can approach the texts as they intersect with one's experiences, both secular and in one's contemporary faith community, and as they relate to what great religious thinkers have written or said and as one's own spirit guides.

            Why should concepts of God not change through time and accumulated human experience?

            I am not a Jew and my knowledge of rabbinic Judiaism is small; however, I have appreciated the commentaries offered at this site.

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