Jacob is settled. His story is over. The story moves on to his sons, the sons of Israel (Jacob’s new name from the Lord, meaning struggles with G~d). The story line of the Bible is about what is on the edge, the new developments. Many chapters were written about Abraham, a man who was moving and changing. Little was written about Isaac, his son who settled the land. Isaac may have been much more productive than Abraham, settling, building, prospering, but the developmental story of the Bible focuses on G~d re-connecting with mankind. And this re-connection is a long process of “building a bridge” between heaven and earth. The everyday events of earth are not the story of the Bible.
Thus the story moves on to the next generation. Jacob repeats the pattern of his father Isaac, having a favorite son. This had caused family grief for Isaac for an entire generation, and here it goes again, causing another generation of grief. Jacob favors his son Joseph, born of his favored wife, and makes this clear to the other children through a special gift, an ornate coat. This favoritism ends up with Joseph sold into slavery in Egypt, and one of the brothers, Judah, leaving the family for many years.
Favoritism can not be totally to blame. There must have been other factors. Four wives. Rivalry between the children. And quite likely a passive role by the father, Jacob, in not taming this raucous group of children. Remember, Jacob’s father, Isaac, had the traumatic experience of almost being sacrificed to G~d by his father, Abraham. So Isaac’s parenting skills may have been lacking. This is reflected in the rivalries between Isaac’s children, Esau and Jacob, with the intrigue and deceit of “purchased birthright” and stolen “blessings.” So Jacob is likely not a model father, and the four competing wives were likely not model mothers. In addition, Joseph’s mother dies in childbirth with his younger brother, Benjamin, so he grows up being mothered by the other wives and nursemaids.
The sons of Israel are a diverse group. They are shepherds, so they are each strong and rugged leaders. They had no tolerance for favorites, not for an arrogant teenager who tells them dreams of being their master, and tells their father about their bad behavior. So when they are far from home, likely up to mischief in the local town (Dothan), and Joseph shows up, they are ready to “kill” him (rough him up a bit, threaten him, and the like.) Throw him in a pit, that will teach that brat a lesson. They would have taken him back out in a few days and sent him home with a threat not to tell dad about their mischief. Then Judah, one of the older brothers, comes up with a plan to get rid of the kid and make a few bucks too, by selling Joseph to a caravan. Stupid plan because they did not think about how their father would react to loosing his favorite son! But stupid does not stop people from acting. The eldest son, Reuben, was supposed to look out for his little brother. He did not have the guts to confront the others, only to try a deception to get Joseph out of trouble. And then he disappears for the day, not keeping his eye on the situation.
There is much more to the story in the second half of the parsha, but I will save it for next year.
Oh, the picture. From NASA “the eye of god”.
Here are some study notes:
Parsha Va-Yeishev 5771.doc
Parsha Va-Yeishev 5771.pdf