Election and Service: What Joseph Learned

Rabbi Shai Held

Parashat VaYeishev

Being singled out by God is an enormous privilege, but it also comes with heavy responsibilities.

Already as a teenager, Joseph earns the enmity of his brothers. In their eyes, he is guilty of at least three crimes. First, Genesis tells us, he “brought bad reports of them to their father” (Genesis 37:2). It is not clear whether Joseph’s reports were true or false, but the Hebrew word used to describe them, dibah, elsewhere suggests a false and malicious report.1 In light of this, Bible scholar Gordon Wenham contends that “it seems likely that Joseph misrepresented his brothers to his father, his father believed him, and his brothers hated him for his lies.” But even if Joseph’s accounts were accurate, Wenham adds, they “would doubtless have enraged his brothers, especially since their father had never held them in high regard.”2

Second, Joseph shares his dreams about his entire family bowing down before him (37:5-9). When Joseph recounts his first dream, the brothers respond with a pair of angry rhetorical questions: “Do you mean to reign over us? Do you mean to rule over us?” (37:9). Remarkably, despite having incurred their wrath over his first dream, Joseph insists on sharing his second one as well (37:10). The Torah thus subtly informs us that the young Joseph seems oblivious of, and indifferent to, other people’s feelings.

Nor is that all. Jacob favors Joseph, and as a sign of their special bond, Jacob makes him an ornamented tunic (37:3).3 When his brothers attack him, “they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing” (37:23). Wenham notes that “this unexpected expansiveness slows down the narrative for a moment and focuses on the piece of clothing that was the mark of his father’s affection and the occasion of his brothers’ hatred.”4 But one question is as crucial as it is easy to miss—and herein lies Joseph’s third offense: Why does Joseph, sent by his father to see how his brothers are faring, insist on wearing the tunic, the potent symbol of their hatred of him (37:3-4), when he goes out to see them? Bible scholar Joel Kaminsky writes that “it seems quite improbable that Joseph is wearing the [ornamented tunic] because it is cold out when he shows up to check on his brothers in Dothan in the middle of the day (37:17-23). It is much more likely,” Kaminsky suggests, “that Joseph, like many a child who has been given a toy that his siblings have not received, is flaunting his favored status in front of his brothers for his own ego gratification.” Thus, even if the brothers’ actions against Joseph are “clearly unjustifiable,” their hatred of him seems “readily understandable.”5 As Terence Fretheim notes, “no individual in this story emerges innocent... Joseph, though certainly the primary victim, furnishes fuel for his own troubles.”6

Joseph is not just Jacob’s favorite; he is also God’s, “as demonstrated by his beauty, his clear leadership qualities, his ability to have prophetic dreams, as well as his wisdom to interpret other people’s dreams and to dispense good advice.”7 But at first, he uses his gifts only for his own glory. A midrash wonders why, after the Torah has already told us that Joseph was seventeen years old, it adds the seemingly superfluous observation that he was a lad (37:2), and answers that “he behaved like a boy, penciling his eyes, curling his hair, and lifting his heel” (Genesis Rabbah 84:7). The teenaged Joseph is spoiled and self-enamored.

Two chapters after his brothers sell him into slavery, we hear of Joseph’s remarkable ascent in the house of Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s courtiers. “When the master saw that the Lord was with [Joseph] and that the Lord lent success to everything he undertook, he took a liking to Joseph” and eventually placed him in charge of his whole household and everything he had (39:2-6). Potiphar’s wife, too, will soon take a liking to Joseph and attempt to seduce him, but before she engages him, the text stops to note that “Joseph was well built and handsome” (39:6). Why tell us this now, rather than when Joseph was first introduced? Hewing to what seems to be the plain sense (peshat) of the text, Nahmanides (Ramban, 1194-c.1270) and R. David Kimhi (Radak, 1160-1235) suggest that this bit of information is simply a necessary prelude to what transpires between Joseph and Potiphar’s wife: He is attractive and she is drawn to him (Comments to Genesis 39:6). But Rashi (1040-1105), following (some of) the talmudic Sages, sees a hint of something sinister in the timing of the Torah’s observations about Joseph’s appearance: “As soon as Joseph found himself in the position of ruler, he began eating and drinking and curling his hair. Said the Blessed Holy One: ‘Your father is mourning and you are curling your hair?! I will incite the bear [i.e. Potiphar’s wife—S.H.] against you!’” (Comments to Genesis 39:6).8

Enticed by power and privilege, Joseph loses his way. The Torah tells us that one day Joseph “came into the house to do his work” while there was no one else at home (39:11). One talmudic Sage comments simply that the text means what it says: Joseph went into Potiphar’s house to take care of his responsibilities. But another is skeptical: Why, knowing the intentions of Potiphar’s wife, would Joseph nevertheless allow himself to be alone with her?9 What the text means, he concludes, is that Joseph “went to satisfy his desires” (Babylonian Talmud Sotah 36b).10

If the latter interpretation is correct, then it is only at the last moment that Joseph regains his bearings and pulls away from his seductress (39:12).11

How did Joseph lose his way? The verses describing Joseph’s relationship with Potiphar emphasize repeatedly that Joseph’s extraordinary success is made possible only by God’s blessing. So blessed is Joseph that even an Egyptian courtier can see that God is with him (39:2, 3, 5). Yet it is the narrator and the courtier who invoke God and sense what really underlies Joseph’s success; Joseph, tellingly, makes no mention of God at all. The reader is thus left to wonder whether Joseph “assume[s that] he attained this position on his own and that his charisma was for no greater purpose than to live a comfortable life.”12

But Joseph undergoes a profound transformation. Over time—and perhaps as a result of his great suffering—he realizes that “his gifts come from God and are given to him so that be can be of use to others.”13 When Pharaoh’s two servants are distraught as a result of their dreams, Joseph responds: “Surely God can interpret! Tell me [your dreams]” (40:8). When Pharaoh needs a similar service performed, he tells Joseph that he has heard “that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning.” But Joseph is careful to correct him, declaring, “Not I! God will see to Pharaoh’s welfare” (41:15-16). Again and again, as Kaminsky notes, Joseph mentions God in Pharaoh’s presence (41:16, 25, 28, 32),14 as if to make sure that Pharaoh—and, perhaps he himself—remembers that God is the source of his talents and abilities.

This transformation reaches a climax when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. They are afraid, but he reassures them: “Do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me hither; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you” (45:5).15 Now, after all these years, Joseph has come to understand that God singled him out not so that his brothers would bow down to him but so that he could protect and care for them. Kaminsky writes: “The story of Joseph and his brothers affirms that God does indeed mysteriously favor some over others. Yet it also proclaims to both the elect and the non-elect that the divine favor bestowed in election is not to be used for self-aggrandizement. Rather, election reaches its fruition in a humble yet exalted divine service which benefits the elect and the non-elect alike.”16 

Joseph grows to the point of understanding that divine election is not an invitation to egotism and self-adoration. The Haftarah for parashat VaYeishev makes clear, however, that Israel as a whole finds this a hard lesson to learn.17 Faced with the people’s smug self-satisfaction, the prophet Amos proclaims in God’s name: “You alone have I singled out of all the families of the earth.” One can imagine Amos’ hearers nodding complacently, perhaps expecting to hear words of affirmation from their divine patron, but Amos upends their assumptions, thundering: “Therefore I will call you to account for all your iniquities” (Amos 3:2). Amos’ “therefore” no doubt jolts his listeners. The people may assume that as God’s elect they are immune to punishment and entitled to a bounty of privileges. But God is no patron; on the contrary, with “great privilege” comes “great condemnation”: “Israel’s great privilege of election by God and of relationship to him through the covenant... exposes them to judgment rather than exempting them from it.”18

“The Joseph story strongly emphasizes the connection between election and service, stressing that election carries with it a duty to help others.”19 What is true of divine election is true of divine gifts more generally: God’s beneficence is intended, at least in part, to enable us to be beneficent ourselves; God gives so that we, too, may become givers.20 To know our own gifts and abilities is not arrogance; it is self-awareness. Arrogance is the illusion that we are the sole authors of our talents and that they are therefore our exclusive possession. Spiritual maturity, in contrast, is the understanding that we do not own our gifts. When we acknowledge how much has been done for us rather than achieved by us, we, like Joseph, grow ready to serve.

1 Numbers 13:32 and 14:36-37. In those two instances, JPS renders dibah as “calumny.”

2 Gordon J, Wenham, Genesis 16-50 (1994), p. 350. Based on Proverbs 10:18, Bruce Waltke suggests that dibah means “news slanted to damage the victim.” Bruce K. Waltke with Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (2001), p. 499.

3 Others suggest: a robe with long sleeves and skirts. The common rendering, “a coat of many colors,” is based on the Septuagint and the Vulgate.

4 Wenham, Genesis 16-50, p. 354.

5 Joel S. Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election: Favoritism and the Joseph Story,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 31:2 (Summer 2004), pp. 135-152; passage cited is on p. 138. As will be obvious from following the notes, this essay owes a great deal to Kaminsky’s rich study. 6 Terence E. Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 1 (1994), p. 601.

7 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 137. All of Jacob’s sons are God’s elect, but Joseph, it seems, is the elect among the elect. Cf. Kaminsky, p. 137, n6.

8 Rashi seems to combine aspects of Tanhuma VaYeishev 8 and Genesis Rabbah 87:4. Midrash scholar James Kugel suggests that some Rabbinic interpretations take 39:6b to be saying not that “Joseph was well-built and handsome” but that he “became well-built and handsome”; the Hebrew vayehi can yield either. The implication, of course, is that Joseph was preoccupied with his looks and spent a great deal of time and energy “primping.” James Kugel, “The Case Against Joseph,” in Tzvi Abusch, et. al., Lingering Over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran (1990), pp. 272-287; passage cited is on p. 278.

9 As often, the Rabbinic reading relies on a real textual problem. Kugel contends that the Rabbinic presentation of Joseph as at least somewhat complicit in the situation that develops between him and Potiphar’s wife is “subtly rooted in the biblical text, or texts, themselves.” Kugel, “The Case Against Joseph,” p. 272. And Kaminsky suggests similarly that “even the biblical text leaves one wondering whether Joseph, who is in charge of Potiphar’s house (Genesis 39:4), knew that no servants were in the house on the day Potiphar’s wife accosted [him].” Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 139.

10 Cf. also the statement of R. Yohanan, ad loc, Rashi cites both; but cf. the comments of Radak and R. Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1164), who find no hint of anything untoward in Joseph’s behavior.

11 Note also the shalshelet, the long cantillation mark over the word “vayema’en”—but he refused [her advances] (39:8). The mark, itself an interpretation, may suggest Joseph’s ambivalence and uncertainty, a push-pull going on inside of him. Cf. Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 139.

12 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 139.

13 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 139-140.

14 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 140.

15 Another fascinating dimension of the text is the role of subtle but ever-present divine providence in the Joseph story. Part of what enables Joseph to reconcile with his brothers is the realization that, badly as they behaved, their actions were used by God to preserve life.

16 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 152.

17 I am not suggesting that this conceptual link is the reason Amos 2:6-3:8 was chosen as the Haftarah for this parashah. The connection between the Torah reading and Haftarah is the fact that the prophet condemns Israel for selling “for silver those whose cause was just” (Amos 2:6), which calls to mind Joseph’s brothers’ sale of him “for twenty pieces of silver” (Genesis 37:28); and the fact that the prophet castigates Israel because “father and son go to the same girl” (Amos 2:7), which calls to mind Judah’s sexual encounter with his sons’ wife (Genesis 38). The association between Amos’ words and Joseph story is so strong—and evidently so ancient—that in the non-canonical Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs (which likely reached its final form in the 2nd century CE), Zebulun says that he and his brothers bought shoes for themselves and their families with the money they received for Joseph (3:2). This very odd statement makes sense when we recall Amos’ words denouncing Israel for “selling the needy for a pair of shoes” (Amos 2:6, the opening verse of the Haftarah). Cf. also Targum Yonatan as well as Midrash Eileh Ezkerah, in Adolf Jellinek, ed., Beit HaMidrash, vol. 2, p, 64. And cf. the discussion in Michael Fishbane, Haftarot (2002), pp. 61-67, esp. 66-67.

18 David Allan Hubbard, Joel and Amos: An Introduction and Commentary (1989), p. 147. Note: Amos seeks to clarify and purify Israel’s shallow and self-serving understanding of chosenness; nowhere does he suggest abandoning it.

19 Kaminsky, “Reclaiming a Theology of Election,” p. 140. It should be emphasized that being called to serve does not exhaust the meaning of election in the Torah. As Walter Moberly writes, “Even if [divine] love brings with it a call to serve, that service is a corollary to being loved, not the core of being loved.” Speaking of the election of Israel as a whole, Moberly argues that “the Israelites are loved for themselves, prior to any impact for good they may have on others." R.W.L. Moberly, Old Testament Theology: Reading the Hebrew Bible as Christian Scripture (2013), p. 48. Needless to say, this does not undermine the centrality of service in a biblical understanding of covenant; it merely introduces nuance and complexity to the discussion.

20 Cf. what I have written in “No Leftovers: The Meaning of the Thanksgiving Offering,” Parashat Tzav 5774, available here.