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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

9. The Bible Teaches Us What Not to Do

Updated: Apr 8

These characters teach us what to avoid.


Parshah Vayeishev

TL;DR of the Text

Major Themes

  • The founding family’s significant character flaws

  • Racial purity bias

  • Does God require absolute faith?


*Important attribution note: All quotes listed in this article are credited to the Artscroll Stone Edition Chumash. Here is an Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.


Genesis 37:3*

“Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age.” 

According to the rabbis, Jacob (here referred to as Israel) represents the peak of human potential. Let’s dive deeper into Jacob’s character for a moment. 


meme of man putting on clown makeup. The man is "Jacob, supposed to be the best man who ever lived." First stage of makeup is: Bought his wives from their father without their consent. Second stage: 55 years older than his favorite wife. Third stage: Spoiled his son so much his brothers wanted to kill him
  • His blatant favoritism caused Joseph to struggle with arrogance and indifference towards the rest of Joseph’s brothers. As Rachel’s son, Joseph was Jacob’s favorite due to Jacob’s favoritism towards Rachel. 

  • Speaking of Rachel, Jacob showed inexcusable amounts of favoritism to one of his wives at the expense of another, to the point where even the Bible, which is not exactly known for its sympathetic take on women, went out of its way to show the pain Leah experienced as a result of Jacob’s treatment. 

  • He selected Rachel at such a young age he felt the need to hide his intentions from the men who witnessed their first meeting because they would have found his true intentions inappropriate. These same foreigners are supposed to be the pinnacle of immorality when juxtaposed with Abraham’s progeny. 


Maybe this man truly embodied the best we could hope for from humanity at the time. If we judge Jacob based on the evidence we see, not the lofty pronouncements of his character as asserted by the rabbis, we can easily surpass this moral benchmark. What if God incorporated these characters not to show us examples of the height of human potential, but as examples to learn from and avoid? 


What if God incorporated these characters not to show us examples of the height of human potential, but as examples to learn from and avoid? 

Not that the Patriarchs and Matriarchs didn’t have positive qualities - we observe those, too. Still, their stated good qualities seem mundane compared to their bad ones. Surprisingly, we get far more textual examples of the founding family’s flaws than their virtues. 


I doubt God intends for us to assume the good parts. We’re meant to think critically and understand why God may have done things as He did. We can all be better than these people. It wouldn’t take much. 


We can all be better than these people. It wouldn’t take much. 

Genesis 37: 5-10*

“Joseph dreamt a dream which he told to his brothers, and they hated him even more. He said to them, ‘Hear, if you please, this dream which I dreamt: Behold! - we were binding sheaves in the middle of the field, when, behold! - my sheaf arose and also remained standing; then behold! - your sheaves gathered around and bowed down to my sheaf.’

His brothers said to him, ‘Would you then reign over us? Would you then dominate us?’ And they hated him even more - because of his dreams and because of his talk.

He dreamt another dream, and related it to his brothers. And he said, ‘Look, I dreamt another dream; Behold! The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ 

And he related it to his father and to his brothers; his father scolded him…”

The Sages expend a lot of effort trying to explain this one, but it doesn’t need much elucidation. Joseph’s brothers disliked him to the point of finding it impossible to speak to him normally, and the verses above give a pretty apparent reason. Could you imagine how you’d react if someone came up to you and told you these things? 


Even better, Joseph didn’t need to tell his dreams to anyone for them to come true. He couldn’t help himself. 


Genesis 37:18-21*

“[His brothers] saw [Joseph] from afar; and when he had not yet approached them they conspired against him to kill him. And they said to one another, ‘Look! That dreamer is coming! So now, come and let us kill him, and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then we shall see what will become of his dreams.’” 

Quite the overreaction. Again, these people are supposed to be the archetypes of moral conduct. Religious authorities still advise us to look at their characters as a North Star for our own. And what a North Star it is - they conspired to kill him over a dream! 


Regardless of the tribal ancestors’ other positive qualities, you’d have to have a fundamentally flawed mindset to do this. If we had been discussing a modern person, we would see this behavior as so clearly wrong we wouldn’t even need to talk about it.

“Yes, I am a great leader. However, I intend to murder my brother because he told me of a dream where he ruled over me.” You don’t get to say stuff like that and still be the story’s good guy.


You don’t get to say stuff like that and still be the story’s good guy.

God wanted the sale of Joseph to succeed, and God needed human agents to execute His will. However, humans still bear responsibility for their actions. It is not as if God forced the brothers to have ill intent towards Joseph - if they had acted morally and refused to sell him, God would have figured out another way to get Joseph exiled in Egypt. 


Again, the point of all of this is that we can be better than these people. Let’s bring them down from their pedestals, because their pedestals are limiting the heights of our moral ambition. 


Let’s bring them down from their pedestals, because their pedestals are limiting the heights of our moral ambition.

Genesis 37:35*

“[Jacob] refused to comfort himself, and said: ‘For I will go down to the grave mourning for my son.’”

I empathize with Jacob here, especially considering he didn’t go through with his threat. But again, this person is supposed to be the greatest person who ever lived. Yet he was ready to die, ignoring his duty to his other 11 children. 


Genesis 38:2*

“There Judah saw the daughter of a prominent merchant whose name was Shua; he married her and consorted with her.” 

Let’s take a closer look at the translation notes. 

“Most commentators translate it as merchant, rather than the more common ‘Canaanite’, based on the Talmud, which remarks, ‘Is it possible that Abhraham exhorted Isaac, and Isaac Jacob [not to marry Canaanite women], yet Judah went and married one?” *


Going from “Canaanite” to “merchant” is a large jump. What happens if we take this verse at face value instead of bending over backwards to diminish it? What learnings can we draw from adopting the common translation “Canaanite”? God knows righteousness can come from anywhere, and righteousness, rather than racial purity, determines how God chooses His people.


God knows righteousness can come from anywhere, and righteousness, rather than racial purity, determines how God chooses His people. 

In later verses, we learn about Tamar, who became the mother of Judah’s children and whose union with Judah produced the lineage for the future Jewish Messiah. Concerning Tamar, the commentary to verses 6-10 states: “According to the Midrash, she was the daughter of Noah’s son Shem. As someone who was to play such a significant role in the destiny of Israel, it is inconceivable that she was of Canaanite descent.”*


Oops, their racism is showing. They cite the Midrash as an authoritative proof - if the Midrash says it, it must be true. Rabbis wrote the Midrash (the rabbinical interpretation of the Torah) - rabbis who spent their lives arguing with each other. It’s no more definitively true than any other opinion piece.


Rabbinical commentary on Genesis 38: 14-19*

“Now, at the moment when the seed of David and Messiah could come into being through the marriage of Tamar with a son of Judah, there was uncommon resistance by the Satan, representing evil, so that Er and Onan were enticed to commit sins that went beyond the normal standard of lust.” 

Sure, let’s blame Satan. How about this: it was Er and Onan’s fault? The most Satan could do was… Whisper in their ears? Put suggestions in their heads? People ignore the crazy thoughts in their heads all the time. 


Genesis 38: 24*

“And it was when about three months had passed, that Judah was told, ‘Your daughter-in-law Tamar has committed harlotry, and moreover, she has conceived by harlotry.’

Judah said, ‘Take her out and let her be burned!’”

Unsurprisingly, the rabbis seem to want to blow past a tribal ancestor ordering his daughter-in-law and her unborn child to be burned at the stake for committing an act he had also committed three months prior. 


Genesis 39: 7-11*

“After these things, [Joseph’s] master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and she said, ‘Lie with me.’ But he adamantly refused; he said to his master’s wife, ‘Look - with me here, my master concerns himself about nothing in the house, and whatever he has placed in my custody. There is no one greater in this house than I, and he has denied me nothing but you, since you are his wife; how then can I perpetrate this great evil and have sinned against God!’...

Joseph’s loyalty was commendable, but it’s also such an ordinarily expected demonstration of morality it’s almost insignificant. People don’t get to expect congratulations for not cheating - it’s the baseline! 


Genesis 40:12-15*

“Joseph said to [the Cupbearer], ‘This is its interpretation: The three tendrils are three days. In another three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and will restore you to your post, and you will place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as was the former practice when you were his cupbearer. If only you would think of me with yourself when he benefits you, and you will do me a kindness, if you please, and mention me to Pharaoh, then you would take me out of this building.’”

The consensus believes God added two whole years onto Joseph’s prison sentence because in the last sentence, Joseph showed less than perfect faith when he tried to make his own arrangements to get out of prison. 


Could you imagine if God punished Joseph for two whole years due to a small practical effort to help himself? If we follow this to its logical end, we must conclude God wants us to be helpless, never using our agency, simply passive husks of people waiting for things to happen to us. 


No thanks. 


 

Vayeishev’s central theme is that these much-vaunted characters from the Bible are human, with their share of flaws. Most of the characters featured in this reading display enormous character flaws. 


The only two honorable people in this reading are Reuben and Tamar, and Tamar might even be a Canaanite (the horror!) This chapter becomes much richer if we see this irony as intentional. 


We must reach the point where we collectively decide the Emperor has no clothes. All of these mini emperors strutting around in the Torah? They’re all naked. They have good traits, but their good traits are not so unfathomably good as to be unattainable. Their bad traits are whoppers. 


All of these mini emperors strutting around in the Torah? They’re all naked.

This should give us hope. Despite all of the darkness in the world, humanity has come a long way. 


*Again with the Extremely Clear Citation so I don’t get in trouble: Nosson Scherman, Hersh Goldwurm, Avie Gold, & Meir Zlotowitz. (2015). The Chumash : the Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos. Mesorah Publications, Ltd.

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