His Father’s Face


In this week’s reading, it is said that Jacob “loved Joseph more than all his other sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Gen 37:3). This sounds like a mistake: if the phrase “son of his old age” refers to Jacob’s youngest son, that particular title belongs not to Joseph but to his younger brother, Benjamin. (It’s also not a particularly good practice for a parent to favor one child over another; doing so only leads to trouble, as this week’s reading goes on to demonstrate).


Ancient interpreters suggested that we understand this verse in another way—in fact, in two other ways. The first was to read the word used for “old age,” zekunim, as a learned pun: it sounds similar to the Hebrew phrase ziv ikunin, “splendor of face.” (This is especially the case if the “v” of ziv was pronounced—as this letter was through much of biblical times—as a “w”: ziw ikunin is even a bit closer to zekunim.) So, reading Gen 37:3 in keeping with this pun, it seems to be saying that Jacob loved Joseph more than his other sons because Joseph’s face was similar to his own, that is, Joseph was the son who looked most like Jacob.


But this didn’t really speak very well of Jacob—he must have been a vain old fool to prefer Joseph for such a trivial reason. Hence the second interpretation: by a popular interpretation, the word zaken, “old man,” was sometimes read as a shorthand for zeh kanah hokhmah, “this person has acquired wisdom,” since everyone knew that true wisdom usually comes with old age. If so, then the text could be saying that Jacob preferred Joseph because he was the wisest of his sons—and this is indeed how the verse is translated in the Aramaic targum of Onkelos.


If Joseph was indeed Jacob’s wisest son, perhaps that’s why the preceding verse seems suggest that, despite his young age, Joseph was acting as a kind of supervisor of his older brothers. Gen 37:2 says that at the age of seventeen, Joseph was shepherding with his brothers, “yet he was a boy, with the sons of his father’s wives, Bilhah and Zilpah.” Commentators have noted that, while the verse is usually read as saying that Joseph was shepherding with his brothers, it could equally be read as saying that he was “shepherding his brothers”—he was their shepherd, telling them what to do, and they were like his sheep, despite the fact that he was only seventeen. No wonder they disliked him, especially when he reported on their misdeeds to their father!


So far Jacob doesn’t sound like a particularly good father, nor Joseph a particularly wise son. And in fact Joseph did not go down in Jewish tradition as “Joseph the wise,” but rather, “Joseph the righteous.” This title reflects his pious conduct (as reported later in this week’s reading) with his master Potiphar’s wife. Joseph was a handsome young man purchased by Potiphar to be his slave, and after a time, Potiphar’s wife (name otherwise withheld) propositioned him in the crudest way: “Lie with me,” she said. Joseph refused this suggestion time and time again. But one day, she saw her chance to press her case, as it were.


According to an old tradition, that particular day was the Nile Festival, and all the inhabitants of Potiphar’s house had gone down to the Nile to celebrate—except for Potiphar’s wife. She pretended to be ill, knowing that Joseph, as a faithful Hebrew, would not be indulging in the pagan worship at Nile-side: he would enter the house to do his work as usual. This was her chance.


It is noteworthy that the biblical text is quite emphatic in saying that at no point did Joseph ever consider giving in to her demands. The Talmud, however, suggests otherwise: If Joseph went to Potiphar’s house knowing that everyone would be down at the Nile, perhaps it was because he and Potiphar’s wife had agreed to meet that day: “The two of them planned to sin together (Sotah 36b). It was only at the last moment that Joseph had a sudden change of heart: suddenly, he had a fleeting vision of his father’s face and fled outside.


Here’s Jacob’s face again, and this time in a crucial role: it’s what convinces Joseph to flee. But this vision is nowhere mentioned in the biblical account. In fact, when a biblical verse is cited to justify this account, it comes from a much later passage, Gen 49:24, when Jacob, on his deathbed, seeks to bless his son Joseph. Referring to the incident with Potiphar’s wife, Jacob says that Joseph escaped her clutches “At the hand of the Mighty One of Jacob, from there the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel.”


Even today, scholars have difficulty making sense of this verse, but the phrase “the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel” at first looks like a poetic reference to God. To ancient interpreters, however, it seemed possible this phrase differently. The word for the Shepherd, ro‘eh (with an ayin), could easily be confused with ro’eh with an aleph, meaning “he sees” or even “he saw.” If so, then instead of “from there the Shepherd,” this verse could be saying “from there he saw,” that is, Joseph saw something, perhaps indeed in a vision. But what did he see?


The text says that he saw “the Stone of Israel,” and it is true that God is often referred to as Israel’s “Rock.” But one could read this differently as well. The word for “face” used by the Rabbis in recounting this vision is the same word for “face” discussed above in Gen 37:3, ikonin. This is actually a Greek loan-word into Hebrew; it comes from the same Greek word as our word “icon” in English, and both originally designated a stone bust or statue. If so, one could understand the Torah to be saying that Joseph escaped Potiphar’s wife because “from there,” that is, at that point in the story, “he had a vision of the stone (bust) of Israel [Jacob’s other name]” and ran outside.


Shabbat shalom!

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