Joseph’s two dreams of grandeur at age seventeen in Parashat Vayeshev, in which he symbolically sees his family bow down to him, are traditionally considered by biblical scholars and rabbinic commentators alike as prophetic, foretelling what occurs much later in the text when Joseph’s family actually bow down to him in Egypt. This interpretation directs our attention to the future fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams rather than to any past possible source for them. As the scholar Jean-Marie Husser puts it, “Nothing tells us where Joseph’s dreams come from. Indeed the narrator does not seem to be interested in the question.” (“Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World,” p. 113). But this exclusive focus on the future rather than on the past violates the first rule of trauma analysis, namely to assess the history of the traumatized individual. Joseph’s astonishing dreams do have a direct source in his past, particularly the traumatic encounter with Esau and his 500 armed men, in which his terrified family all bow down to Esau, starting with Jacob, seven times to the ground, followed by the concubines and their children, Leah and her children, and finally Joseph and his mother Rachel. The Joseph saga, then, begins at age seven, not seventeen, and the critical figure in the saga is Esau.
In fact, the impact of this shocking encounter upon Joseph is subtly hinted at in the text, when Joseph reports his dreams to both his brothers and his father, and Jacob scolds him:
This time he told the dream to his father as well as to his brothers, but his father scolded him. “What kind of dream is that?” he asked. “Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow to the ground before you?” (Genesis 37: 10)
Notice that in his rebuke of his son, Jacob misquotes Joseph. Whereas Joseph only said “bow down,” Jacob adds the words “to the ground.” Why does Jacob do so? The answer lies in the chapter relating the encounter with Esau, when Jacob “bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” Joseph’s dream prompts Jacob to remember the troubled encounter with Esau. As the text says, Jacob “kept it in mind.” So Joseph and Jacob are both entangled with Esau. Jacob played Esau to gain the birthright, and Joseph played Esau in his dreams, becoming the person the family bows down to instead of Esau, to erase Esau’s potential power over the family.
Actually, the encounter with Esau was not the only trauma that Joseph experienced as a child. He also endured his family’s frantic flight from Laban, a seven-day trek from Paddan-Aram to the hill country of Gilead. And when Laban finally caught up to them and demanded the return of his household gods, his teraphim, Joseph’s father issued a death sentence on anyone in the family in possession of Laban’s teraphim. Joseph probably knew that his mother kept the teraphim under her saddle, and may have connected this curse with his mother’s dying soon thereafter on the family’s journey to Canaan. Burdened by such traumas in his early life, Joseph dreamed of a way to restore the family’s refuge from its adversaries.
According to one midrash, Joseph was the family’s savior from the day he was born, since Rachel feared that Jacob would divorce her for being barren and she would have to marry Esau. When Rachel became pregnant with Joseph, he rescued her from this fate.
Another midrash says that Joseph also empowered his father Jacob:
As soon as Esau’s adversary [Joseph] was born, Jacob said to Laban: “Send me away, that I may go to my own land, and to my country.” For Rabbi Pinhas said in the name of Rabbi Samuel ben Nahman: “It is a tradition that Esau will fall at the hands of none other than Rachel’s descendants, as it is written, Surely the youngest of the flock shall drag them away (Jeremiah 49:20). And why does he call them the youngest of the flock? Because they were of the youngest of the tribes.” (Midrash Rabbah – Bereishit 73:7)
In a bizarre Midrash, Esau shows up at the burial of Jacob in the ancestral cave in Hebron when Jacob is brought there from Egypt, and Isaac demands to be buried in the cave instead of Jacob, but a grandson of Jacob instantly cuts off Esau’s head with his sword, and the head rolls into the cave landing on Isaac’s chest, returning to the bosom of the family.
And in the prophecy of Obadiah, Esau remains the chief adversary of the Joseph saga:
Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau. The Lord has spoken. People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau, and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and will possess Gilead. (Obadiah 1:18-19)
Well, have I persuaded you that Esau is the hidden key to Joseph’s dreams?