A Hidden Master Plot

By Menorah Rotenberg

Published December 19, 2003, issue of December 19, 2003.
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Jacob’s return to Canaan inaugurates the beginning of the Joseph story, which reprises many of the repetitive motifs of the Genesis saga. Almost immediately, for example, the motif of casting out — this time of Joseph — is highlighted. But the story of Joseph also bears a resemblance to the Akedah, the Binding of Isaac, even though the Akedah is a singular moment when God demanded the sacrifice of Abraham’s “beloved” son Isaac (Genesis 22:2).

Joseph, like Isaac, is also a beloved son: “And Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than all his children… and he made him an ornamented tunic… And his brothers hated him and could not speak peaceably [shalom] to him” (37:3-4). In rereading this week’s portion I began to wonder where this new tale of extravagant love would lead us, noting that in the last tale such love led to the Akedah.

We need to consider the impact of a foundational myth such as the Akedah. Clearly it partakes of the unthinkable. But once the unthinkable is acted on, it exerts a powerful pull through the generations. It shapes our imagination. It is surprising, then, considering its powerful mystique and the vast literature it has generated, that we seem to find no trace of sacrificial recurrences in the Genesis text itself.

With this in mind, in rereading this week’s portion I was indeed struck by the many textual allusions to the language used in describing the Binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). Jacob tells Joseph he will send him to his brothers (who hate him on account of his tunic and, later, his dreams; Genesis 37:3-11) to see whether they are pasturing peaceably (shalom) in Shechem (Genesis 37:14). Even if Joseph’s narcissism had blinded him to his brothers’ hatred for him, and even if he hadn’t grasped the exasperated irony of Jacob’s precipitous send-off, he would have recalled that Shechem reeks with the butchery and violence associated with the rape of Dinah (Genesis 34). Joseph agrees to seek out his brothers and, in a striking parallel, he uses the terminology of the Akedah, echoing his great-grandfather Abraham’s words: “I am ready” (hineini, 37:13). He then goes out to seek his brothers, foolhardily wearing his tunic, which enables them to “see him from afar” (37:18), just as earlier Abraham saw “the place from afar” (22:4).

The brothers plot to kill Joseph, but Reuben, the eldest, hoping to avoid bloodshed, suggests that they throw Joseph into a pit. Before doing so, they strip off the hated tunic. As Avivah Zornberg notes, it is a violent stripping (va-yaphshitu, 37:23), a term used for preparing the burnt sacrifice (v’hiphshit, Leviticus 1:6), usually translated as “flay.” And so with Joseph we are primed to be horrified. Reuben’s entreaty — “do not lay a hand on him” (37:22) — reminds us immediately of the angel’s urgent charge to Abraham, “do not lay a hand upon the boy” (22:12). Then, fortuitously, “Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw and behold [hiney]… a ram was caught in the thicket… and he offered him up for a burnt offering [v’yaleyhu l’olah] instead of his son” (22:13). In our story, Joseph is languishing in a pit (37:24). His brothers “lifted up their eyes and saw, and behold [hiney], a caravan of Ishmaelites [37:24]… and there passed by Midianite merchantmen and they drew him up [v’yaluhu] from the pit and sold Joseph” (37:28).

What can we make of these sacrificial allusions? Have the Akedah’s mistrustful, hateful, deceitful, intergenerational subterranean whisperings and sacrificial imagery been gathering momentum? Will they now finally push for enactment?

Joseph has never had to prove himself. Does he hope to prove his mettle in accepting this commission, believing that the God who protected his ancestors (15:1, 28:15) would do so for him? His blind narcissism had almost aborted his mission before it began. Later, the text will tell us repeatedly that God was watching out for Joseph (39:2, 5, 23), and that he credits God with helping him to forget the suffering he endured in his parental home (41:51). Finally, Joseph forgives his brothers because he believes they acted as God’s instruments for the greater good (48:4-8). Joseph has sacralized his pain, enabling him to endure it.

And so, once again, the beloved son was nearly sacrificed but saved by God to play a redemptive role. While the Akedah may not have been consciously revisited, it may nevertheless be the hidden master plot directing the narrative of the Joseph cycle. It may direct the Ishmael cycle as well, but that is for another Torah portion.

Menorah Rotenberg is a psychotherapist in Teaneck, N.J. Her article, “A Portrait of Rebecca: The Devolution of a Matriarch into a Patriarch,” was published in Conservative Judaism’s Winter 2002 issue.






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