Genesis 37:1 - 40:23  Notes Lesson 9
Torah Portion  Vayaeishev


Today we begin with this portion the final four portions of Genesis, with a focus on Joseph as we close out the life of Jacob/Israel. 

We have seen all elements of family life, including emotions and sibling rivalry, both worthy and unworthy behavior, immaturity and selfishness contrasted with powerful instances of loving kindness and great maturity. 

We have seen God's presence. We have seen life. We have seen growth. 

As several of you have said in past sessions, this is "real life" in the "real world." And, so, we read, we pay attention, and we learn from God's direction to us in living in the real world how we can live truer to God's expectations of us. 

Yet, as we move into the tale of Joseph, we will see virtually infrequent explicit mention of God and God's role in the narrative, which seems instead essentially personal and human. Keep attuned to evidence of divine direction, however. We'll look for it and always be keen to when and how it appears.  

The literary quality of this story is absolutely first rate. So, put on your literary analysis hats. Seeing, touching, and relishing the literary gems is a big part of the experience!

 I. Read 37:1. Questions right away: Settled? 

We've been hoping Jacob would finally be, and deserve to be, after that monumental journey. 

But is he now? 

(Or is being "settled" instead mean a resolution of crucial issues, a transformation, a maturation, a readiness, yes, indeed an advance, a coming more in sync with God's expectations and covenant. BUT being "settled" doesn't mean being free of challenges or lingering consequences from past actions and events. Settled, maybe, but never fully tranquil.)

 II. Read 37:2-11. 

A. Is it ok to "report" on one's siblings to one's father? Do these reports appear to you to be disinterested, loving, or objectively geared to the well being of all?

B. Is it ok for the father to love one child better than others? If yes, could this at least have not-so-good consequences? 

C. Look at the dreams. What do they mean? What do they tell us about Joseph? Could they be true? Even, if so, should they be told to the brothers? Even, if so, could there be consequences?

(Joseph is divinely inspired with truth. He will one day dominate and save to the benefit of others who will be subservient in important ways. This will be due to the gift of skills and capacity that are latent and need to be and will be developed (perhaps in a way like they must in all of us).  

Yet, he neither yet senses God's presence nor seems equipped in how to handle his gift in a Godly way with others. Seems a bit like...maybe his father as a young man? His vanity, tale-bearing, and disrespect may evoke jealousy and hostility in the brothers, which will wreak consequences for him and indeed for them. 

Plus, look at Jacob, preferring one child (as did his father), but especially one who was spoiled, just as he was. Yet, once again, the child he prefers IS the child through whom God expects the covenant and its people to survive.)

D. Look especially at the second dream and Jacob's reaction in 11. 

Why did Jacob "keep this matter in mind?" 

(Was it because he thought it might foretell the future, especially as a doubled dream? Or did it have the feel of blasphemy to it?  Or was it more precisely that he thought it meant that his leadership as the father and perhaps as the conveyor of the covenant were being threatened? Or something else, perhaps more positive?)

III. Read 37:18-35. 

A. Questions and Answers (perhaps discuss one at a time, if there's time, all to get an idea of how entirely far off track this family has gone. This is brutal and awful. 

1. Who's complicit in the conspiracy to kill Joseph? Their "anti-dreamer" hatred, jealousy, desire to get rid of, even kill, "put in the pit," hide, blame on an animal ways. What can be said about this? Where does this come from? Where does this go? What must be its consequence?

2. Do any of the brothers get merit in this sad story?

3. What's the feel of them sitting "down to a meal" when Joseph is now in the pit?

4. Recall now Jacob's use of misappropriated clothes and goat's blood in the deception with his mother of Isaac? It comes around here, right?

5. What's the feel of the sons' deception of their father?  How can they truly "seek to comfort" him?

(1. All. Brutal. Inhuman. Almost Nazi-like. It has the feel of the sort of hatred that seeks hard to destroy and bring down the lofty, the visionary, the other, the one who is separate yet encroaches.  Maybe the consequence that this foretells is their going down to Egypt and perhaps ultimate enslavement?

2. Reuben - maybe, with some conscience to resist actually killing Joseph, but without courage and feckless. Judah - maybe, just less wicked, saving to make money, but saving, to be sure. 

As imperfect as each of these two brothers may be, however, is the politics/psychology of resisting the mob such, that either of these approaches may have been the most effective way to prevent the others from killing Joseph?

 3. Cruel. Insensitive. 

 4. It comes around. 

 5. Deception crops up again. Their comforting efforts surely can't be genuine.)

 IV. Chapter 38 - Judah and Tamar

We're not going to spend time with this unusual story. There are many fine literary elements in this chapter and very interesting Biblical threads running through this apparent diversion. But we can't stop for long here. 

I do, however, want to make a few points. For one, this is yet another example of the principle in the Bible that there are consequences, usually of a similar sort, to our actions. Further, even the most admirable figures in the Bible have unworthy aspects of their lives, especially in youth. The issue for them, and indeed for us in our own lives, is whether they can grow from insensitivity and callousness to caring and kindness. 

Judah was oblivious to the pain caused a father  by the prospect of his own son's death. Here Judah experiences the pain of a son's death. Judah is impervious to the feelings and indeed much of the reality in the lives of those with whom he's intimate, especially in a lack of feeling of duty and even meanness toward others in his family. 

Yet, here he experiences loss, desperation, weakness, failure, succumbs, is fooled, seeks to punish an innocent, and in this darkness and pain  may begin his own transformational process. He recognizes one more righteous than he and accepts blame, showing a budding understanding of the core virtues, which are necessary to be right in God's eyes.  

Let's pay close attention to the life journey and arc of decisions and actions of Judah as this broader story plays out. And let's recall that the child of his union with Tamar, Perez, is an ancestor of David and, thus, part of the genealogy of Jesus.  The evolution of family and the progression of the line are crucial, as we see time and again, in the narrative of Genesis. 

And, finally, before we leave this episode, let's mention and encourage for further study the life and ways of Tamar herself. Many strengths and much value from a person who's not in the line and not in the focus. The Bible does this, and it impresses. Many points of comparison with Ruth. 

V. Read 39:1-6. 

A. What jumps out at us here?

(Joseph has been going down, down into the pit, down to Egypt. Yet, God is with him. God supports us when we're down and makes us "successful." And people of God feel God's presence, even when down. 

B. Some suggest that Joseph's coming down to Egypt was part of God's plan. How could that be so? 

(Consequences for his behavior? Ultimately to save the family after the famine? To lead to enslavement as punishment for past wrongdoing, perhaps by the brothers, etc.? To create the conditions for the ultimate and fuller redemption and revelation by God?)

 C. How is it that God is now with Joseph? 

(Was this all God-driven? Or, filling in the blanks, do you think Joseph sought and helped bring about God's presence? 

D. What do we think is meant by successful? 

(Innate gifts of intelligence and skill brought to fruition by God's support?)

 VI. Read 39:16-23

A. We said we'd pay attention when God appears in the Joseph episodes. So, what's this about?

(We see again God's presence and support as Joseph is wrongfully accused and goes "down" again,  in prison. This is a recurrent theme. And, by the way, as we discussed earlier, it's a "rare appearance" by God in the narrative. So, it's even more important to see it. God is with Joseph, extends kindness to him, even disposes the jailer to him, and makes what he does successful even, perhaps especially, when he's down.)

B. Again, fill in the blanks: do you see literary devices that suggest a relationship of all that befalls Joseph to his less-than-worthy  adolescence and then his growth? 

(These things happen in both stories, first by Joseph and then to Joseph: the use of garments to stand above OR to bring down or fabricate a bringing down; and telling tales on others to bring trouble. 

One sees moments as the story evolves of evidence of Joseph's emerging disciplining himself in the use of power; relying on God; learning to deal with loss of power and punishment, perhaps even patience and humility and right action with others) 

VII. Chapter 40

A. Who recalls and can give us a brief account of the dreams of the cup bearer and baker?

1. What's with Joseph's response to their inability to get a reading on the meaning of their dreams: "Are not solutions from God?"

(Isn't this the principal difference in Joseph's response here to dreams and when he was young? Here he  acknowledges God and puts God at the center of how he sees it and understand it and report it! This is suggestive of transformation and growth, no?)

2. Is this classic dream interpretation? Or is it more that certain reflections or anticipations are susceptible to being understood by God-sensitive persons? What is it exactly that Joseph can do, what is he empowered to do? 

(Is it a God-given vision, guidance to see in the words the truth, the meaning, with knowledge to understand these men, their motives, their goodness/badness, and their destiny? One view is that dreams are several degrees off from prophecy, but they can convey truths in this lesser way.)

3. Read 40:13. Does your translation say "pardon"? The literal is "lift up your head." 

Read 19. The literal is "raise the head." 

So, we have this idea of lifting the head meaning several things: restoring one's dignity and position, calling to account or bringing to justice, even through actual beheading, and, it seems to me, a capacity in the person who uses the words (Joseph) to be a keen observer of how and when the head is "lifted." This represents yet further growth, for this trait seemed absolutely alien to him at the beginning of the story. 

B. Read 40:23. 

1. As to the cupbearer's success in being restored to his position and yet not remembering Joseph (and what he did for him), indeed forgetting him, what do you draw from this? 

 2. Why the two separate points about not remembering AND forgetting? And what's the significance of not remembering and indeed forgetting to fulfill a promised duty? 

(Why do we tend to minimize our commitments when we're in the free and clear, especially as to the difficult work of bringing justice to bear for one who is in a weak position that means little to our advantage?)


Let's keep in mind (indeed remember) the Hebrew word, zakhar, which means remember, bring to  mind, invoke, preserve, extol, celebrate. This story is much about these verbs, is it not? 

Moral memory, so to speak, is a duty that is emphasized as a quality to be learned, to be disciplined, and to be practiced. It certainly is something that is being learned by Joseph who has come down to Egypt and learns and begins to use moral memory as part of being able to rise up. 

 How this development of moral memory happens, how it turns into moral decisions and even moral strength both for Joseph and his brothers - these are the pillars of the plot that is just ahead. Come back Sunday for the next episode!

Torah Portion  Vayaeishev      Genesis 37:1 - 40:23 

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