Naomi Graetz

Joseph and His Siblings


The term sibling rivalry was introduced by David Levy in 1941, claiming that for an older sibling, “the aggressive response to the new baby is so typical that it is safe to say it is a common feature of family life.” The competition that typifies sibling rivalry can result in life-long animosity. Part of the reason is because siblings spend more time with each other than they do with their parents and their relationship can be influenced by factors such as parental favoritism, birth order and personality. Parents can be at fault, if they indulge in favoritism. Often a parent is oblivious to the harm done to siblings’ relationship when they favor one child over another. Sibling rivalry can continue into adulthood, and a parent’s death may not necessarily bring siblings closer especially if problematic issues are not resolved. The accumulation of past and present everyday disputes can simmer into long term hostilities and can have a corrosive effect on relationships. The sibling rivalry that took place during childhood and adolescence can be never-ending and continue to haunt the siblings both physically and emotionally.

In biblical stories, a parent can be at fault if s/he believes it is divine will to favor one child over another. “Isaac loved Esau because he had a taste for game; Rebekah loved Jacob” (Genesis 25:28). Rebecca’s was unconditional and pure; Isaac loved Esau because of the food he brought him. This favoritism did not bode well for the brothers.” Jacob behaves in the same way with Joseph:

Now Israel loved Joseph best of all his sons, for he was the child of his old age; and he had made him a ketonet pasim. And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably [a friendly word, they could not even say shalom] to him” (Genesis 37:3-5).

Moreover, Joseph was a snitch!  “At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers…and brought bad reports of them to their father” (vs. 2). Did his father encourage this? Did it make him love him more?

SENDING: The root of sha-lach

Besides the obvious sibling rivalry, there is an interesting use of the root שלח (send) and the play on the sound of שלך (throw). This leit wort appears throughout the story; starting from chapter 37 and continuing through 45 serving as a frame for the entire story of Joseph.

“Israel said to Joseph, “Your brothers are pasturing at Shechem. Come, I will send  וְאֶשְׁלָחֲךָ֣  you to them.” He answered, “I am ready.” And he said to him, “Go and see how your brothers are and how the flocks are faring, and bring me back word.” So he sent וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֙הוּ֙  him from the valley of Hebron and he reached Shechem… Come now, let us kill him and throw him וְנַשְׁלִכֵ֙הוּ֙  into one of the pits; but do not do not send אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ your hand on him”…They had the ornamented tunic sent וַֽיְשַׁלְּח֞וּ  to their father” (vs. 13-32).

It is clear that the father is oblivious about the sibling rivalry when he sends his beloved son into the brothers’ hands and sets in motion the sending—or distancing that will ensue. The brothers distance themselves from their brother—they sent him away and don’t directly bring the bloody tunic to their father, but have it sent to him.

Eight chapters later we see the verb shalach (sending) coming up again

“Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come forward to me.” And when they carne forward, he said, I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt. Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me שְׁלָחַ֥נִי ahead of you. God has sent me וַיִּשְׁלָחֵ֤נִי  ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance. So, it was not you who sent שְׁלַחְתֶּ֤ם  me here, but God; and He has made me a father to Pharaoh, lord of all his household, and ruler over the whole land of Egypt “(Genesis 45:4-8).

Thus, towards the end of the story it appears that Joseph re-writes his history to make it more palatable and says that it was not his brothers who sent him, but that they were God’s agents and it was really God who sent him. And he repeats the leitwort of שלח three times. Note too that on the one hand, Joseph repeats twice that he is Joseph their brother, whom they SOLD (mechartem) but on the other hand he says, that they should not be sad that they sold (mechartem) him.

Me thinks that Joseph doth protest too much in his repetition of the fact that God sent him here, thus absolving the brothers of the responsibility. As we saw, the verb שלח again repeats itself here three times and the word מכר ְtwice. This repetition invites us to engage in a hermeneutics of suspicion: why all this repetition of being sent? To selling? What is being hinted at?  Are we meant to look beneath the surface?


Most traditional interpretations understand that Joseph forgives his brothers. Even a modern commentary such as The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (2008) reflects the traditional interpretations of Chapter 50:

“[Joseph] also assures his brothers that he bears no enmity for past deeds. With the death of their father, the brothers are now a reunited family… the relationship is wholly repaired: The brothers are fully reunited, not only physically, but also emotionally and psychologically….”

The brothers are well aware of the fact that Joseph suffered horrendous abuse from them and have good reason to fear his retaliation after Jacob’s death.  The way he handled their coming and his torturing them with his treatment of Benjamin was a potential foreshadowing of the future for them. For now, not only is he in power to revenge himself on them, he is also a powerful Egyptian overlord. As I pointed out, we have to be suspicious that when Joseph first reveals himself to his brother he says:I am your brother Joseph, he whom you sold into Egypt.  Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me.” I asked was it necessary to repeat that you sold me twice!


If we look closely at the text that concludes the story, it is possible to argue that Joseph does not forgive his brothers.

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So, they sent this message to Joseph, “Before his death your father left this instruction: So shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly.’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, “We are prepared to be your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? הֲתַ֥חַת אֱלֹהִ֖ים אָֽנִי Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result-the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.” Thus, he reassured them, speaking kindly to them ַויְנַחֵ֣ם אוֹתָ֔ם וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לִבָּֽם   (Genesis 50:15-21).

I suggest a counter reading for the traditional approach which presumes that Joseph forgives and argue that Joseph’s forgiveness is not genuine. I base this argument first of all on human nature: It is natural for siblings to carry the hurt they suffered in early life until death. It is impossible to forget and certainly takes a herculean effort to forgive. The brothers know, fear and may even resent the fact they are now to be dependent on the Joseph whom they hated in their youth. Even if he forgives them on the surface, can they trust him to keep his word?  I feel that he does not really forgive them despite all the traditional commentaries that accept his statement at face value.

I have pointed out how repetition should make us stand up and look suspiciously at what is hinted. Joseph repeats the phrase “have no fear” אַל־תִּירָ֑או. There is another repetition of the brothers’ intention to harm Joseph and their harsh treatment of him וְאַתֶּ֕ם חֲשַׁבְתֶּ֥ם עָלַ֖י רָעָ֑ה ” .  All of this makes me wonder why does he have tears when they speak to him. Does he cry because he is reliving his traumatic experience (and not in tears because they are afraid of him, as is traditionally understood)?

TWO PHRASES: Am I instead of God? Ha-tachat Elohim ani/anochi

But besides arguing from human nature, I base my reading on two phrases which warrant serious attention: 1) “Am I instead of God?” (Gen 50:19b) and 2) “He comforted them and spoke to their hearts” (Gen 50: 21b).

1) Am I instead of God? Ha-tachat Elohim ani/anochi

This phrase appeared earlier in Genesis 30:

When Rachel saw that she had borne Jacob no children, she became envious of her sister; and Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die.” Jacob was incensed at Rachel, and said, “Can I take the place of God, הֲתַ֤חַת אֱלֹהִים֙ אָנֹ֔כִי  who has denied you fruit of the womb?” (Genesis 30:1-2).

So, when Joseph supposedly reassures them by saying ha-tachat Elohim ani we are immediately reminded of Jacob who said almost these exact words in anger to Rachel. Is the narrator hinting that Joseph is smoldering, or even incensed, as was Jacob?

2) He comforted them and spoke to their hearts Va-yenachem otam va-yedaber al libam

As to Joseph, should the brothers continue to suspect Joseph who speaks “tenderly” and “comforts” them in Genesis 50:21? Surely, they have every right to continue to suspect him of future reminders of their guilt, in keeping with his payback to them and mental abuse of them in Egypt. Obviously, anyone who knows about sibling relationships would not trust Joseph’s so-called re-assuring words. Yet there are those who maintain that these are indeed reassuring words, and that Joseph’s response shows how long a way he has come from the callow youth who feared them; he forgives them, because it is God who can punish, not him. Thus Joseph has learnt how to comfort, rather than hold a grudge. I disagree with this approach, because the phrase daber al lev is fraught with difficult associations, the immediate one, being the reaction of the man who raped Joseph’s sister:

Now Dinah, the daughter whom Leah had borne to Jacob, went out to visit the daughters of the land. Shechem son of Hamor the Hivite, chief of the country, saw her, and took her and lay with her by force. Being strongly drawn to Dinah daughter of Jacob, and in love with the maiden, he spoke to the maiden tenderly וַיְדַבֵּ֖ר עַל־לֵ֥ב הַֽנַּעֲרָֽ .  So Shechem said to his father Hamor, “Get me this girl as a wife” (Genesis 34: 1-4).

There are other characters throughout the bible who utter this phrase (which I have written about  elsewhere). These are powerful  men who have the ability to provide and withhold nurture and sustenance. They include the pairs of: Eli/Hannah, Boaz/Ruth, God/Israel, Joseph/his brothers, the Levite/his concubine, Shechem/Dinah. The powerful beings who “speak to the heart” of the one beneath them in status have the power to take the good will away. Hence the recipients (Hannah, Ruth, the people of Israel, Joseph’s brothers, the concubine, Dinah, people of Judah) have a good reason to show subservience to the master figure. The brothers are struck dumb after his speech: they do not answer him; they simply listen passively, perhaps in terror of ticking him off. They do not know that it is in his interest to reassure them—after all he is going to ask a big favor of them—to bury his bones in the land of Israel, but they don’t know that at the time and when he “comforts them” and “speaks kindly to them” he holds all the cards.


The case is clear (at least to me). In an earlier blog, I pointed to the “latent femininity” in Joseph and I will use this idea to conclude my article with the following “bullet” points:

  • The sibling rivalry depicted in the bible is usually same sex rivalry: sisters, brothers, but not sisters vs. brothers.
  • Brothers are supposed to protect their sisters’ honor (as Simon and Levi did for Dinah, and Absalom did for Tamar).
  • Sisters are supposed to obey their brothers (or to sublimate their ambitions like Miriam).
  • What if Joseph’s latent femininity is the cause of the brothers’ hatred? They don’t know how to act towards him/her. They are confused. At the very end, he still cries a lot. Has he changed? They are not sure.
  • Will s/he forgive them?
  • Women usually are expected to be forgiving and so s/he surprises them and says what Jacob said, in anger, to his mother Rachel: ha-tachat elohim ani?
  • And then the narrator adds the very pregnant phrase: va-yedaber al lev.
  • Is this to remind us that perhaps, s/he is not being the expected submissive all-forgiving person, but is rubbing in their faces that s/he is the person who is on top now.

Obviously, the traditional reading would like us to think that he actually forgives and forgets, but that’s not how it works with sibling abuse/rivalry. One never forgets, and if one doesn’t forget, it is difficult for a real-life human being to genuinely forgive. I hope I have shown that there are hints in the text that validate this approach, that Joseph will never let them forget what they did to him and that they will have to live with it.

One last point, in this rather long blog (mea culpa)! Rabbinic literature chided Jacob for his excessive mourning. His sons blamed each other for the state they were all in. Judah especially is blamed and flees to Adullam (chapter 38). And if truth be said, in Jacob’s own words, he never got over his image of himself as a bereaved father, even when Joseph was restored to him, hence his words to Pharaoh, “Few and hard have been the years of my life” (Gen 47: 9). Just as Jacob could not vanquish his grief, Joseph never got over himself as the person whose brothers abandoned him, and left him naked to die alone in the pit. It was an impossible task to demand of any human being. Joseph never was able to genuinely comfort himself, despite his brave words about it being God’s will. The damage was just too great.

About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible from a feminist perspective on zoom.
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