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SBL e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Why the Brothers Hate Joseph



APA e-journal

Alan T. Levenson





Why the Brothers Hate Joseph






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Why the Brothers Hate Joseph

A Background Fraught With Favoritism


Why the Brothers Hate Joseph

Jacob and Rachel at the well. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872) 

Introduction: The Strange Genealogy

Genesis 37:2 begins with a strange genealogy.

אֵ֣לֶּה׀ תֹּלְד֣וֹת יַעֲקֹ֗ב יוֹסֵ֞ף בֶּן־שְׁבַֽע־עֶשְׂרֵ֤ה שָׁנָה֙ הָיָ֨ה רֹעֶ֤ה אֶת־אֶחָיו֙ בַּצֹּ֔אן
This is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers.

The mention of Jacob followed by Joseph, rather than the expected listing of the brothers in age-order, beginning with the first-born Reuben, has divided commentators.[1] Rashi finds this listing a logical reflection of the narrative reality that Joseph’s role enabled the line of Jacob to survive,[2] and, midrashically, a reflection of the many affinities between the lives of the father and his favored son.[3]

A number of other commentators suggest that Joseph is the reason Jacob’s family exists, since it was Rachel (Joseph’s mother) whom Jacob really wanted to marry.[4] Whatever the reason for the strange locution, the verse underlines the reality of Joseph’s privileged position in Jacob’s family.

How Do I Hate Thee? Let Me Count the Ways

As the narrator tells us, Jacob loved Joseph more than all his brothers (v.3). Then the narrator tells us that the brothers see this favoritism (embodied by the infamous coat). Did the brothers hear that Joseph had brought bad reports to Jacob? Did they perceive a different tone of address in Jacob? The text does not say (v.2b). What is clear is that as a consequence of their hatred, the brothers could not speak peaceably to him, as the unusual use of dabbero in v. 4bv suggests. Thus, the brothers resent Joseph even before the dreams, which occupy the most textual space in the beginning of this parashah.[5]

The text tells us explicitly at least three times that the brothers hate Joseph:

ד וַיִּרְאוּ אֶחָיו כִּי-אֹתוֹ אָהַב אֲבִיהֶם מִכָּל-אֶחָיו–וַיִּשְׂנְאוּ אֹתוֹ; וְלֹא יָכְלוּ דַּבְּרוֹ לְשָׁלֹם.
4 And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him.
ה וַיַּחֲלֹם יוֹסֵף חֲלוֹם, וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶחָיו; וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד, שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ.
5 Once Joseph had a dream which he told to his brothers; and they hated him even more.
ח …וַיּוֹסִפוּ עוֹד שְׂנֹא אֹתוֹ, עַל-חֲלֹמֹתָיו וְעַל-דְּבָרָיו.
8 …And they hated him even more for his talk about his dreams.

We are further told in v.11 that the brothers are envious of Joseph, a hemistich (half line of verse) that contrasts the brothers’ increasingly blind fury and their father’s ability to keep the matter in mind.[6] Jacob’s cool, measured response serves to highlight the brothers’ emotional state. The brothers’ hatred becomes so extreme that they decide to kill him, [7] but do Joseph’s provocations merit such an extreme response? Being a privileged, preening, grandiose tattle-tale is not admirable, but does it deserve enslavement or death by exposure?[8]

Utilizing Auerbach’s Theory of Layered Background (Hintergründig)

Erich Auerbach 1892 – 1957

Erich Auerbach describes biblical stories as having layered background,[9] in which characters and incidents must be read not only in immediate context, but also with a sense of what has happened before in the narrative. Unlike Homeric epic, Auerbach’s primary counterexample, the biblical episodic and sometimes cryptic style leaves much unstated, so the reader must always be an interpreter, imagining what occurred in the intervening scenes and usually needing to imagine the internal thought-processes of the character which are rarely explicated.

This background is not immediately in evidence to those who start the Joseph story at Gen 37. Three incidents seem especially relevant.

1. Jacob Loves Rachel not Leah

כט:טז וּלְלָבָן שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת: שֵׁם הַגְּדֹלָה לֵאָה, וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה רָחֵל.  כט:יז וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת; וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה. כט:יח וַיֶּאֱהַב יַעֲקֹב אֶת רָחֵל; וַיֹּאמֶר: אֶעֱבָדְךָ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים בְּרָחֵל בִּתְּךָ הַקְּטַנָּה.
17:16 Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 29:17 Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful.29:18 Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”

The text tells us explicitly that Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah. In fact, two later verses (29:31, 33) explicitly refer to Leah as “hated (שנואה).” What the text does not say is how Leah’s sons felt about this. By the time Joseph was born they were surely old enough to register Jacob’s preference – and resent it. In this intimate world, it would have been impossible for Leah’s children not to have known this; this explains Reuben’s presentation of mandrakes to Leah (30:14).[10]

Would the brothers have resented Jacob? Probably. Would they have projected this resentment onto the patriarch’s favorite son, especially once the death of Rachel removed a natural target of hostility? It’s only human.

2. Waiting for the Birth of Joseph

ל:כג וַתַּהַר, וַתֵּלֶד בֵּן; וַתֹּאמֶר, אָסַף אֱלֹהִים אֶת חֶרְפָּתִי.  ל:כד וַתִּקְרָא אֶת שְׁמוֹ יוֹסֵף, לֵאמֹר:  יֹסֵף יְהוָה לִי, בֵּן אַחֵר.  ל:כהוַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת יוֹסֵף; וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב, אֶל לָבָן, שַׁלְּחֵנִי וְאֵלְכָה, אֶל מְקוֹמִי וּלְאַרְצִי…
30:23 She (Rachel) conceived and bore a son, and said, “God has taken away my disgrace.” 30:24 So she named him Joseph, which is to say, “May Yhwh add another son for me.” 30:25 After Rachel had borne Joseph, Jacob said to Laban, “Give me leave to go back to my own homeland…”

Naming speeches in the Bible have long received careful attention.[11] Following Umberto Cassuto, Ilana Pardes has analyzed the names of Leah’s sons and concluded that these naming speeches say more about the namer than the named.[12] In Joseph’s case, however, both parties are characterized.

Rachel’s speech deploys two verbs in tension with each other. Rachel first declares that God has “removed her reproach,” an action of subtraction, and then continues by naming the boy Joseph and then proclaiming, “may God add to me another son,” an action of addition. The naming tells us a lot about Rachel – first, how she suffered through her infertility (cf. 30:1) and second, how much she is like her striving husband.[13]Rachel might have been content with one son (Hannah is), Rachel is not. The second half of the naming speech contains a terrible irony – God will add Benjamin, but it will cost Rachel her life.

Biblical double-naming is rare; in this case, however, I believe it is an invitation to consider Joseph’s fate too.[14] If ever a biblical character could be described as someone who was first “taken away” (asaf) and then “added back with increase” (yasaf), that person would be Joseph, who was first removed from the family, and later served as the vehicle for that family’s ability to avoid starvation through the abundance he himself had engineered.

With respect to the brothers’ relationship, I believe the transitional clause that follows the naming-speech is equally consequential.  The Hebrew reads וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה רָחֵל אֶת-יוֹסֵף,   and it is usually rendered as “when Rachel had borne Joseph,” but, as already noted by Rashi,[15] the word ka’asher here seems more causal than coincidental. The juxtaposition of Joseph’s birth and Jacob’s request to return to Canaan cannot be disputed. What the brothers felt about this remains unsaid,[16] but once again, the special focus on Joseph cannot be gainsaid.[17]

3. Separating Joseph and Rachel

לג:א וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה עֵשָׂו בָּא, וְעִמּוֹ, אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת אִישׁ; וַיַּחַץ אֶת-הַיְלָדִים, עַל לֵאָה וְעַל רָחֵל, וְעַל, שְׁתֵּי הַשְּׁפָחוֹת.  לג:ב וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת הַשְּׁפָחוֹת וְאֶת יַלְדֵיהֶן, רִאשֹׁנָה; וְאֶת לֵאָה וִילָדֶיהָ אַחֲרֹנִים, וְאֶת רָחֵל וְאֶת-יוֹסֵף אַחֲרֹנִים
33:1 Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. He divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two maids, 33:2 putting the maids and their children first, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last.

As Jacob/Israel prepares to meet Esau after so many years, he is filled with fear, justifiably so. Years ago, the reader heard the depth of Esau’s internal dialogue, “Let but the mourning period of my father come, and I will kill my brother Jacob.” (27:41) That anger must have been evident. Rebekah commands Jacob to flee to Haran, and exclaims, “…why should I lose both of you in one day!”[18]

When Jacob finally sees Esau coming (33:1) he divides his family with the handmaids and their children precariously in the front, Leah and her children next, and two dearest, Rachel and Joseph, strategically placed last.[19] In case the reader should consider this placement unimportant, it is repeated in verse 7, this time with Joseph in front of Rachel.

Midrash Genesis Rabbah (150:8) explains this switch as the product of Joseph’s precocious desire to shield his beautiful mother from his uncle’s lascivious eyes, but it suffices to note that Jacob has kept his most treasured family members in the safest position. The narrative focuses entirely on the reconciliation: the sentiments of the other characters in this scene remain unrecorded, though I think, predictable.[20]

The Cards Are Stacked Against Joseph from the Beginning

The implication of these three passages on our reading of Genesis 37 hardly needs comment. Had Joseph been the most ingratiating younger brother possible, he still needed to overcome all of his older brothers’ knowledge that their father loved the departed Rachel more than their mothers,[21] their resentment that only his birth warranted a return to Canaan, and that when confronting a potentially deadly situation, Jacob chose to protect Rachel and Joseph above all.

While the causes of the brothers’ hatred for Joseph in Genesis 37 are detailed plainly enough, they do not exhaust the fraught background, which careful readers should not neglect.


December 1, 2015


Last Updated

October 28, 2020


View Footnotes

Prof. Alan T. Levenson holds the Schusterman/Josey Chair in Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and is the director of the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies. He received his Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from Ohio State University. Levenson is the author of The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel and America Transformed an Ancient Text, and Joseph: Portraits Through the Ages (forthcoming).