This week’s parsha is Vayeshev which means “and he lived.” The parsha begins this way and is talking about Jacob finally returning to the land of Canaan, to the land that his father had stayed. Vayeshev covers Genesis 37:1-40:23 and brings us quickly from a Jacob focused story, to stories that deal with his sons. This week deals with Joseph especially. It might be a pretty familiar story, but it is one that is always worth a second look.
Genesis 37:2 says something really interesting that for me colors the way that this parsha unfolds. It says, “This is the account of Jacob’s family line. Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah, and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.” I would expect that when the story begins “this is the account of Jacob’s family line” that what might follow would be about his oldest son, or about all of his sons. Instead, we are introduced to Joseph who is not Jacob’s oldest son, but is Jacob’s oldest son from his favorite wife Rachel. Favorite is an idea that comes up a lot in these parshot about Joseph and the rest of Jacob’s family. When we are told that Joseph is tending the flocks with his brothers, the text doesn’t list Leah who was Jacob’s first wife at all. We skip the ten sons born to Jacob from other women and go straight to Joseph, Rachel’s eldest son.
Jacob isn’t shy about his favoritism. I would guess that it was something that he talked about, but what we read in this section is that Jacob made an object to symbolize his preference for Joseph. In a time where all clothing was hand made and for the average shepherd family more for practical use than for fashion, Jacob giving Joseph an ornate robe is a big deal. Verse 4 says, ” When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.” Jacob’s preference of Joseph is not helpful to his relationship with his brothers. I am sure that this family had other issues, but we see a direct connection between Jacob’s favoritism, the brother’s feeling passed over, and the brothers hating Joseph. Just like Jacob acted on his favoritism, the brothers act on their hatred. Together they put together a plan that removes Joseph from their family. Not only are they acting against Joseph, they are acting in a way that will cause Jacob great pain and the brothers move forward anyway.
Once the brothers have succeeded in getting rid of “their Joseph problem” Joseph finds favor in Egypt. Genesis 39:2-5 tells us about Joseph and his new boss. “The LORD was with Joseph so that he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the LORD was with him and that the LORD gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in his eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned. From the time he put him in charge of his household and of all that he owned, the LORD blessed the household of the Egyptian because of Joseph. The blessing of the LORD was on everything Potiphar had, both in the house and on the field. ” This sounds pretty good. The LORD is blessing Joseph and he becomes a powerful Egyptian’s favorite trusted servant. But, this is another good news bad news scenario because Joseph also finds favor (through no fault of his own) with his boss’s wife. Oops! This scenario plays out badly, even though Joseph doesn’t act wrongly. So, again Joseph is favored and Joseph is sent away.
In prison this gets repeated. Bad news: he is in prison. Good news: he is a model prisoner and is given responsibility. Good news: he is given an opportunity to help other prisoners. Bad news: he is still in prison. We’ve seen God bless Joseph and we’ve seen Joseph’s circumstances end up being pretty crummy. This parsha ends in a pretty depressing cliff-hanger for Joseph. In prison he helps someone powerful who then gets out of jail. The last verse of this parsha says, “the chief cupbearer, however, did not remember Joseph; he forgot him.” In three chapters Joseph goes from favorite son to forgotten prisoner in a strange land.
Ok, sorry to bum you all out. This isn’t the end of Joseph’s story. I won’t give away how it all turns out for him and his family (you’ll have to tune in for the rest of December), but what I can tell you is that even though Joseph has been dropkicked out of home by his brothers, falsely imprisoned, and forgotten in jail he has not been forgotten by God. I am sure that there were moments where he felt forgotten or abandoned by God. I am sure that there were points where he second guessed his interactions with his brothers and maybe even regretted being favored by Jacob, but God had not abandoned him. And we know that Joseph hadn’t given up on God. He gives credit to God for his success (even as a servant) and he gives credit to God for his ability with dreams (even in jail).
Joseph is a really encouraging story for me and I hope that you will be encouraged in looking at in again this week and in the coming weeks. God was actively involved in what was going on with Joseph even when he couldn’t see it. God was actively involved in the situation working all things for good, even when Joseph’s brothers, and Potiphar’s wife, and the other prisoners in jail only wished him harm. This is true for us too. It isn’t easy to see when we are in the middle of the story, but I hope that this parsha will encourage and remind you to look to God and ask him to teach you to trust Him when you can’t understand your circumstances. God doesn’t leave or forsake his people. That includes Jacob, that includes Joseph, and that includes you.
Shabbat Shalom Camp Gilgal!