After making peace with his brother Esau, this week’s portion opens “Jacob dwelt in the land of his fathers, in the Land of Cannan.” He can finally settle down. Or so we would like to think. The text continues: “This is the genealogy of Jacob: Joseph was 17 years old…” This is not a genealogy. It indicates, like we saw with Isaac, that Jacob is being eclipsed and the narrative is going to shift to his sons.
But first, a word on our tragic hero, Jacob. “Jacob loved Joseph of all his sons” – that same favoritism that Rebecca had shown him – with similar unhappy consequences for child and parent. Like Jacob in his youth, Joseph acts badly to his brothers. He snitches on his siblings, and goads them by telling of dreams of how they all bow down to him. Jacob, consciously oblivious to the growing antagonism among the brothers and even enjoying Joseph’s snitching, sends him on a mission: “see how your brothers are doing and how the flock is and report back to me.” The next thing Jacob sees of Joseph is his striped cloak brought back bloodied by his brothers. Jacob is led to believe Joseph has been eaten by a wild animal “and he refused to be comforted.” Here, again, no character flaw goes unpunished – this time Jacob’s playing favorite among his children turns to grief.
But the grieving Jacob takes a back seat to his sons – especially two of them: Joseph and Judah.
The firstborn son, Reuven, is well-meaning but impotent – as when he urges his brothers not to kill Joseph, so instead they throw him into a pit; when he returns to rescue Joseph, Reuven finds the pit empty – Joseph was sold to merchants headed to Egypt, and the firstborn didn’t even know. With Reuven, the primacy of the firstborn, comes to an end.
Filling the void is Jacob’s fourth son, Judah.
Judah is introduced to us as the one who suggests to his brothers that they sell Joseph rather than kill him, arguing “what have we to gain by killing our brother and hiding his blood?”
After the episode and Jacob grief-stricken, “Judah departed (literally ‘went down’) from his brothers.” The reason is unclear, but Judah sets himself apart.
Then the very odd story of Tamar ensues. Judah marries his first son to a woman called Tamar; the first son is “bad in the eyes of God” and he dies; so, as customary, Tamar marries Judah’s next son, who also angers God (those curious and who have reached majority can read why in the Bible), also dies.
For understandable reasons, Judah is reluctant to marry his youngest son to Tamar. Time passes, and Tamar finds the opportunity to disguise herself as a prostitute to Judah, who avails himself of her services. To make a long story short, she gets pregnant, and, since she is by tradition engaged to Judah’s youngest son, her pregnancy is proof of adultery, and Judah orders her burnt at the stake. Only then Tamar proves to Judah that it was he who was the partner to her adultery. What does Judah do? He declares “she is more righteous than I for I have not given her to Shelah, my son.”
Judah totally exonerates Tamar from blame and places it on himself for holding back his youngest son from marriage. It is an act of great courage, principle and leadership.
Almost fittingly, the firstborn of the twins fathered by Judah that Tamar gives birth to – the child comes out unexpectedly ahead of his brother (deja-vu race-out-of-the womb) – will become the progenitor of King David. From Judah comes the line of kings of Israel. (Judah’s courage and leadership will be on display again later when they go down to Egypt.)
Judah’s courage and leadership is matched by Joseph’s talent – God’s grace is upon Joseph “and whatever he does, God makes him successful.” Even if a foreigner in Egypt, Joseph is a smart, good-looking bachelor. So much so that Joseph too has a run in with his master’s wife, who wants to seduce him. But Joseph honorably refuses and ends up in jail. Yet even in jail his talents are quickly noticed, especially his knack for interpreting dreams, which will bring him to the seat of power in next week’s portion.
If Judah is the prototype Jewish leader, Joseph is the prototype diaspora Jew. Never was there a more talented or more powerful Jew outside the Land of Israel than Joseph.
These two figures come to form the anchors on which the Nation of Israel is built. How they will interact when faced off against each other, we will see as the tale unfolds.