By Meira Ben-Gad
Vayeshev is the start of a long narrative, stretching over three parashiyot, that we commonly call the Joseph story – though it should more accurately be called the Joseph and Judah story, as Robert Alter pointed out many years ago in his seminal book The Art of Biblical Narrative. Alter masterfully describes the story’s literary artistry: its three-dimensional characters, taut narrative arc, moments of high tension and resolution, and exquisite use of literary devices at both the micro level (alliteration, narrative tempo) and larger structural level (recurring vocabulary and motifs). He also highlights the story’s several overarching themes, both personal-psychological (the development of Joseph and Judah as moral characters) and national-historical: the ultimate emergence of Joseph and Judah as progenitors of the lines that would produce the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.
It’s impossible to do justice to Alter’s analysis in a brief summary, so here I merely point readers to his book. At this stage, let’s take the artistry of the story as a given. Let’s assume that every element of the narrative is there for a reason, whether to sharpen a theme, develop a character, or advance the plot. One small part of the story, however, does not seem to do any of these things. This is the scene where Joseph heads off, at his father’s request, to check up on his brothers, who are pasturing their flock some distance away (Gen. 37: 12–17). Jacob, presumably based on the brothers’ original intentions, tells Joseph he’ll find them in Shechem, but when he reaches Shechem they are gone. Joseph seems lost (the text has him ‘wandering in the field’) until a stranger approaches and offers help. This man then sends Joseph to find his brothers in Dothan.
This episode is confusing. What purpose does it serve in the story? Maimonides suggests the stranger is an angel, based on use of the word ish – man – to mean angel elsewhere in the Bible. But taking the stranger to be an angel doesn’t answer the larger question. Why is this episode here? The narrator could have had Jacob send Joseph directly to wherever his brothers are. This wouldn’t have affected the rest of the story.
In an essay in TheTorah.com, Rabbi Shmuel Klitsner describes a series of linguistic and thematic parallels between Genesis chapters 34–38 and the first book of Samuel, which deals with the beginnings of kingship in Israel. Klitsner points out that our story resembles one in 1 Samuel chapter 9, where the young Saul is sent out, by his father, in search of some lost donkeys. Saul decides to seek help from a ‘Man of God’ – that is, Samuel – and ends up being anointed the first king of Israel.
As Klitsner says, ‘In both stories the young man needs help in finding his destination and is found by unexpected parties who direct him to an unanticipated and fateful encounter.’ In both cases, too, this fateful encounter opens a path to a new chapter in Israelite history. Saul emerges from obscurity to establish the Israelite monarchy. Joseph is launched upon the trajectory that will take the Israelites through the crucible of Egypt to peoplehood.
Might the story in Samuel have influenced the Joseph narrative? Or were the two constructed to play off each other? Either way, Alter and Klitsner’s observations together richly support the idea that holding a literary lens to the Bible can complement both source-critical and traditional approaches.