While over two billion Christians the world over[1] are focusing their attention on a Jewish baby boy called Jesus – Yeshu in Hebrew – who was born over 2000 years ago, I’m going to speak this morning about another famous Jewish boy: Joseph – Yoseph, who, according to biblical chronology, was born more than 1500 years earlier. Interestingly, both names, Yeshu and Yoseph, begin with the letter, Yud; the first consonant of four that form the ineffable and non-pronounceable name of the Eternal: Yud Hei Wav Hei. The name Yeshu, like another related proper name, Y’hoshu’a, is based on the Hebrew root, Yud Shin Ayin, to ‘save’. The name Yoseph comes from the root, Yud Sameich Pei, to ‘add’ – more of that in a moment.

So, this will be my second sermon in a row that focuses on Jewish men.[2] The twins, Esau and Jacob – and now: Joseph.[3] But maybe we should not jump to conclusions about Joseph’s gender. Jacob’s first son with his beloved wife, Rachel – his favourite son – was not only set apart from all his other brothers because of his father’s love for him, he was also very different from them: radically different.

As we read in parashat Va-yeishev, at Genesis chapter 37,[4] which is where the story begins, the beautiful coat Joseph received as a gift from his father, k’tonet passim, a ‘coat’ that reached to the ‘palms’ – thought of in popular versions of the tale as ‘the coat of many colours’ – signalled more than Joseph’s special status in Jacob’s affections. K’tonet passim is also the garment of a princess. In the Second Book of Samuel, chapter 13, verses 18 to 19, when Tamar, the daughter of King David was assaulted by her half-brother, Amnon (:18), we read that: ‘She was wearing a k’tonet passim, for virgin princesses were dressed thus in olden times.’

So, Joseph was dressed like a royal virgin princess. And his ‘princesses’ garment’ also provided a visual representation of Joseph’s unique qualities. Joseph wasn’t simply a shepherd like his brothers, Joseph was a dreamer, and his dreams revealed his exceptional calling: Joseph dreamt that his family were all binding sheaves in the field, when suddenly his sheaf stood up and remained upright, and then their sheaves gathered round and bowed down to his sheaf. Joseph dreamt that the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. Jacob was angry and bewildered by Joseph’s dreams, but that didn’t stop Jacob being oblivious to the feelings of his older sons towards his favourite child – which is why Jacob sent Joseph on an errand to go and see how they were, as they tended the flocks.

It’s hardly surprising that Joseph’s older brothers took the opportunity to wreak their revenge on the princesses’-garment-wearing dreamer. If it hadn’t been for the actions of the eldest brother, Reuben, they would have killed Joseph. As it was, the fourth eldest, Judah came up with a plan of selling Joseph to a travelling caravan of Ishmaelites – or Midianites, the Torah seems to include two versions of the tale[5]– who took Joseph down to Egypt and sold him to Potiphar, a courtier and chief steward of Pharaoh.

At the very end of the Joseph narrative – which functions more like a mini novella within the Torah – when Joseph was reunited with his brothers, Joseph reassured them: ‘Now do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me here; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you.’[6] In this way, Joseph may be seen as a ‘messenger’ of God – a malakh, engaged in doing God’s ‘work’ (m’lakhah). But what happened during Joseph’s time in Egypt also reinforces the message about the dreamer’s unique capacities. Indeed, we read that God brought blessing and prosperity to Potiphar’s household ‘for Joseph’s sake’.[7] However, it was Joseph’s ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams that got Joseph out of prison, after being wrongfully arrested for attempting to sexually assault Potiphar’s wife, and resulted in Joseph becoming Pharaoh’s chief vizier, overseeing the collection of grain during the seven years of plenty in readiness for the seven years of famine to follow.[8]

Joseph was special. But it was the incident with Potiphar’s wife that provides another way of understanding Joseph’s specialness.[9] On the one hand, the tale at this point simply conveys the vulnerability of Joseph the ‘Hebrew slave’ in the house of his Egyptian master – and mistress. And so, the reader understands why Joseph ran away, when she kept pleading with her Joseph on successive occasions to ‘lie’ with her. On the other hand, this story within a story, opens by saying how ‘beautiful’ Joseph was – literally, ‘beautiful’. We read in parashat Va-yeishev, at Genesis chapter 39, verse 6:

Va-y’hi Yosef y’feih to’ar vifeih mareh – Now, Joseph was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance.

At first glance, the reference to Joseph’s ‘beauty’ simply acts as a preamble, explaining why ‘his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph’.[10] But this phrase is more than a statement about Joseph; it links Joseph directly with his mother, Rachel. And so we read in parashat Va-yeitzei, at Genesis chapter 29 that when, as a young man, Jacob took flight from his brother, Esau’s wrath and went to his maternal uncle, Laban, for refuge, he encountered Rachel herding her father’s flock, and promptly fell in love with her. Laban wanted his nephew to marry his older daughter, but Jacob told Laban, boldly, that he would serve him for seven years for his younger daughter. Immediately prior to this offer, the Torah briefly explains, at verse 17, Joseph’s choice:

V’eyney Leah rakot; v’rachel hay’tah y’fat to’ar vifat mareh – While Leah had weak eyes, Rachel was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance.

Hebrew is an entirely gendered language. The only difference between this phrase about Rachel and the later one about Joseph is that the verbs, nouns and adjectives associated with Rachel are in the ‘feminine’ gender and those associated with Joseph are in the ‘masculine’ gender. But the difference in gender only serves to underline the similarity between the two phrases. There is no getting away from it, the Hebrew root, Yud Pei Hei means to be ‘beautiful.’ So, Joseph was ‘beautiful’ as his mother Rachel was ‘beautiful’. Overwhelmingly, the adjective yafeh, ‘beautiful’ is used to describe a woman – although, interestingly, in the Joseph story, the seven healthy looking cows of Pharaoh’s first dream, are also described as ‘beautiful’.[11] Much less frequently yafeh is used of a boy or a young man – for example, of King David’s son, Absalom,[12] and of the young man in the Song of Songs – as described by his female lover/co-author.[13] There is an obvious comparison between young women and young men when it comes to youthful beauty. But the particular context of the Joseph narrative makes Joseph’s beauty, not only a direct reflection of his mother’s beauty – like mother, like son – but also another way of presenting Joseph’s exceptional qualities as a dreamer, who wore a special ‘princesses’ garment’ that set Joseph apart, and was destined to do great things.

Intriguingly, Joseph’s ‘princesses’ garment’, signalling his uniqueness, continues to resonate in the text, even when it is conspicuously absent. In the incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph’s non-compliance was signalled by reference to ‘his garment’ – bigdo.[14] We read in Va-yeishev, Genesis 39, verses 12 to 14:

She caught hold of him by his garment and said, ‘Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. / When she saw that he had left it in her hand and fled outside, / she called out to her servants and said to them, ‘Look, he brought us this Hebrew to play around with us! [l’tzachek banu[15]]He came to lie with me; but I screamed aloud’…

And then at verses 16 to 17:

She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. / Then she told him the same story, saying, ‘The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to play around with me; / but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside.’

We are not told anything about the features of ‘his garment’, but these references remind the reader that Joseph wasn’t always a ‘Hebrew slave’, but rather a favourite son, who once dressed in the robe of a princess. Moreover, the garment ‘left’ in the hand of Potiphar’s wife, serves as a commentary on Joseph’s vulnerability – favoured by God and appreciated by Potiphar, but nevertheless, a slave. I mentioned earlier that the incident begins with a description of Joseph’s beauty, immediately prior to that description, we read at verse 6:

He [Potiphar] left all that he had in Joseph’s hands and, with him there, he paid attention to nothing save the food that he ate. Now Joseph was beautiful of form and beautiful in appearance.

Potiphar left everything in Joseph’s hands. Did he also leave himself in Joseph’s hands? Was he captivated by his beautiful captive? Does that explain why Potiphar accorded Joseph such a special status in his household? Potiphar left everything in Joseph’s hands – except his wife, who, like Joseph, belonged to him. Potiphar’s wife: unnamed, she existed only in relation to her husband, who was also her master. The captive wife exercised the only power that she had: over the servants and slaves, who entered her domain.

So, what do we make of Joseph? The writer Thomas Mann wrote a compelling novel that he called, Joseph and his Brothers.[16] The phrase with its conjunction can be read two ways: Joseph and his brothers – Joseph as one of the brothers, and also as: Joseph – and his brothers. Joseph was not at all like his brothers. Indeed, he was as different from them as was their sister, Dinah. One wonders what Dinah made of the beautiful-dreamer? She, too, had an exceptional status in the family, as the only daughter – and the story about her recounted in parashat Va-yishlach, in Genesis chapter 34 may be read as a cautionary tale to daughters, who haven’t yet understood that unlike their brothers, they are supposed to stay at home: When Dinah took the initiative and ‘went out to see the daughters of the land’, she ended up being raped.[17] Joseph’s destiny was quite different – indeed, the trajectory of Joseph’s experience went in the opposite direction: from victim of his brothers’ jealousy to victor. And yet, like Dinah, Joseph didn’t fit. A lone daughter in search of other daughters, Dinah learned a bitter lesson about the status of daughters in a patriarchal culture. Meanwhile, the only way that Joseph could find a place to be ‘Joseph’ was by becoming a stranger in a strange land.

So far, I have used the standard gender pronouns ‘he’, ‘him’ and ‘his’ when referring to Joseph. Perhaps, it would be more appropriate to adopt the gender neutral pronoun, hir – a conflation of ‘his’ and ‘her’. In one sense, as we read in this week’s parashah, Va-y’chi, Joseph’s story has a conventional happy ending that serves to normalise and integrate ‘him’: the first ‘diaspora’ Jew to make it, Joseph not only got to be Pharaoh’s right-hand-man, ‘he’ was also reunited with ‘his’ family. But at the same time, the happy ending also conveys other messages. So: Joseph, the favourite, gifted child of hir father, dressed in hir princesses’ garment; beautiful Joseph, utterly different from hir shepherding brothers, ultimately survived by becoming an Egyptian and assuming a new identity. Indeed, this new identity was expressed in the way Joseph looked: dressed as an Egyptian overlord, Joseph’s brothers failed to recognise at every encounter the dreamer who had provoked their rage, and so, finally, Joseph had to reveal hir identity to them.[18]

As an Egyptian overlord, Joseph’s transformation was complete. Indeed, Pharaoh gave Joseph a new name, Tzaf’nat Pa’nei’ach, and also ‘gave’ the newly named Tzaf’nat Pa’nei’ach, As’nat, the daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, as a wife.[19] Further, although Joseph made hir brothers promise that they would carry up hir bones, when God brought them up out of the land to the land promised to their ancestors,[20] the Book of Genesis nevertheless closes in this week’s parashah, Va-y’chi, with an image of Joseph’s body being embalmed in the Egyptian manner.[21]

Joseph: the favourite child of Jacob, who dressed hir as a princess. Joseph: stripped of hir princesses’ garment by hir brothers and sold to a wandering caravan of merchants. Joseph: the Hebrew slave; favoured by hir master, Potiphar and undressed by hir mistress, Potiphar’s wife. Joseph: the prisoner in the dungeon; elevated by Pharaoh to be his second-in-command and dressed as an Egyptian overlord. Joseph: husband and father. Joseph wore many guises, transcending a simplistic understanding of ‘who’ ‘Joseph’ was. Joseph: an exception that proves the rule – and yet, also a model and exemplar of another, gender-fluid way of being human; which brings me back to Joseph’s name: Yoseph – based, as I mentioned earlier, on the Hebrew root, Yud Sameich Pei, to ‘add’. As we try to make sense of Joseph, binary gender categories of ‘male’ and ‘female’ just don’t work. Perhaps, what we need to do in order to encompass the complexity of Joseph and acknowledge fully Joseph’s female/male qualities is add an expression and dimension of humanity between male and female. And so, may we learn from the story of the one who was Yoseph to recognise that life transcends our attempts to impose binary gender definitions – and may we also acknowledge all the Yosephs in our midst. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue

Shabbat Va-y’chi – 26th December 2015 – 14th Teivet 5776

  1. According to the Pew Research Centre Poll and Analysis, December 2011 http://www.pewforum.org/2011/12/19/global-christianity-exec/
  2. See: ‘Jacob and Esau and the split Jewish male’ (28th November 2015) https://rabbiellisarah.benjaminbenjamin.co.uk/category/sermons/
  3. This sermon is based on a section of a chapter in my forthcoming book, which has the working title, Beyond Binary Tyranny.
  4. The Joseph story occupies 13 chapters: Genesis 37 & 39-50. Chapter 37 concludes with Joseph being sold by his older brothers to merchants bound for Egypt.
  5. See Gen. 37:25-36.
  6. Va-yiggash, Gen. 45:5.
  7. Va-yeishev, Gen. 39:5.
  8. Mikkeitz, Gen. 41.
  9. Va-yeishev, Gen. 39:7ff.
  10. Gen. 39:7.
  11. Gen. 41:2. Yafeh is also used elsewhere in the Bible – of Olive and Cedar trees (Jeremiah 11:16, Ezra 31:3), of Jerusalem (Psalm 48:3), of a singer (Ezra 33:320, of everything in its due season (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and of various acts (Ecc. 5:17).
  12. 2 Samuel 14:25.
  13. Song of Songs 1:16.
  14. A ‘garment’ – without the suffix: beged.
  15. The Hebrew root of l’tzahekTzadi Chet Kuf – in the intensive active form known as, pi’el, means to ‘play around’. This expression is also used by Sarah of Ishmael ‘playing around’ – m’tzacheik – with his younger half-brother, Isaac – Sarah’s son (Va-yeira – Genesis 21:9). Isaac’s name – Yitzchak – means ‘he shall laugh’, and is a simple active – pa’al – form of the same Hebrew root.
  16. Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers is a four-part novel, first published between 1926 and 1943. It was published in one volume by Penguin Books in 1978.
  17. Gen. 34:1 ff. See my account of Dinah’s story in Chapter 5, ‘Gender Trouble and the Transformation of Judaism’ in Trouble-Making Judaism.
  18. Va-yiggash, Gen. 45:1.
  19. Mikkeitz, Gen. 41:45. Tzaph’nat Panei’ach is Egyptian for ‘God speaks; he lives’, or ‘creator of life’, according to the Jewish Publication Society translation JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh (1999, footnote, d, p.88).
  20. Va-y’chi, Gen. 50:25.
  21. Gen. 50:26.