Fox Tales – Parashat Vayyeishev: Yaakov & Son

Yaakov and Yosef, whose combined stories occupy half of the book of Genesis, are deeply bound together in their biblical portrayal. The Bible already clues us in to this in its purposeful use of numbers: Yosef lives with his father for seventeen years before he is sold to traders and then into Egyptian slavery (Gen. 37:2), and when the two of them are reunited toward the end of Genesis, Yaakov lives with his son for another seventeen years (47:28). The symmetry, using an unconventional number, cannot be accidental.

In many ways, the lives of the two patriarchs exhibit striking parallels. Each is the product of a parent’s favoritism, with initially disastrous results among their other sons. The prophecy received by the pregnant Rivka leads her to emotionally invest heavily in Yaakov, eventually antagonizing Esav; and when Yaakov himself becomes a parent, he visibly favors his late-life son Yosef, to the chagrin of his other sons.

Notable in the Yosef story are the double sets of dreams–of the young Yosef, of Pharaoh’s imprisoned chief cupbearer and baker, and of the Pharaoh himself. All the dreams prove prophetic: Yosef’s predict that he will be exalted over his brothers, Pharaoh’s servants will experience two opposite fates–the cupbearer will be restored to office, while the baker will be executed–and Egypt, the land of Pharaoh, will experience famine, and find a pathway forward for survival. But we should not forget that dreams play a major role in Yaakov’s life as well. On his way to Aram, his uncle Lavan’s home in the old country, he has his famous dream of a ladder or a stairway filled with ascending and descending angels. God appears to him in a dream in 31:10-13, once again promising to protect him. Yaakov’s wrestling match with a divine opponent in chapter 32 might be read as a dream sequence too. Finally, God encourages Yaakov with “visions of the night” in 46:2-4, as he heads down to Egypt to see his long-lost son, Yosef.

Central to both men’s stories is the theme of fraternal conflict, leavened by jealousy and some very questionable behavior toward their brothers. The text will take its time in resolving these conflicts; both men will have to grow up and accept the punishment of years of exile before all is resolved. This means that in its portrayals of Yaakov and Yosef, the Bible places particular emphasis on the concept of payback. Yaakov, who “deceived” his brother out of his rightful blessing (27:35), and earlier out of his “firstborn-right” (25:29-34) is in turn “deceived” by Lavan (29:5), who switches the beloved Rahel in favor of her “firstborn” sister Le’a on the wedding night. Yaakov spends twenty years away from home before returning to face his brother and bury his father. As for Yosef, he feeds the natural antagonism of his brothers by his dreams and his tattle-tale “words” (37:8). This will be repaid, so to speak, first by his being sold into slavery in Egypt, and then by the false “words” of his Egyptian master Potifar’s wife (three times in 39:17 and 19), which will send him to prison.

These intimate connections between Yaakov and Yosef form a crucial architecture in the stories of Genesis. It is only through father and son, with all of their varied and dramatic adventures, that the people of Israel are formed as a large family, forged in the crucible of both struggle with and protection by God, and finally able to unite through self-awareness and forgiveness.

The continuity that has repeatedly been threatened in Genesis finds its resolution in the final years of both Yaakov and Yosef. It is not a coincidence that both of them die within a chapter of each other at the very end of Genesis, even though these events are not actually chronologically close. Significantly, as the book comes to a close, with these two death scenes, we are assured that the people will come back to the land of their ancestors. Yaakov tells his sons that God will “have you return to the land of your fathers” (48:21), and asks to be buried in the same cave where his father and grandfather lie, in Hevron (49:29-30). The aged Yosef too tells his family that they will return some day, promising them in 50:24, “God will take account, yes, account of you; / he will bring you from this land / to the land about which he swore / to Avraham, to Yitzhak, and to Yaakov.” And he requests them to take his body with them when the time comes for them to leave Egypt (50:25). Thanks to the lives and deaths of this memorable father and son team, the stage is set for Israel’s birth as a nation in the book of Exodus.

About the Author
I'm the Allen M. Glick Professor of Judaic and Biblical Studies at Clark University, Worcester, MA. I've published translations of The Five Books of Moses and The Early Prophets.
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