By Israel Drazin
We have been offering some unusual and controversial Bible interpretations that Arnold B. Ehrlich placed in his book Mikra Ki-Pheshuto (The Bible According to its Literal Meaning). The following are a few of his comments on the biblical portion Vayeishev (Genesis 37:1 to 40:23). The parenthetical statements are mine.
- Why is Jacob’s eleventh son Joseph called “his son in his old age” in 37:3; Benjamin was younger and should have had this title? Jacob loved his wife Rachel who died giving birth to Benjamin so Jacob wasn’t kindly disposed toward Benjamin. However as time passed and he thought that Joseph was dead, he became protective of Benjamin. (One of the narrative themes of Jacob’s life is that he constantly shows preference to one person over another, with wife and son, and this constantly leads to problems. Why didn’t he learn from his father’s preference of his older brother Esau over him?)
- Ehrlich is convinced that Joseph was very immature and probably not overly bright (see also item 9). We read in chapter 37 how he angered his brothers when he bragged about his first dream which clearly implied his desire that they bow down to him, but then does it again, and he foolishly adds that the moon, meaning his dead mother, should also bow to him. Why, then, Ehrlich asks, did he make wise decisions in Egypt? Ehrlich doesn’t suggest that he matured, but says that the Bible answers this question: God helped him.
- How could the brothers pasture their sheep in Shechem, as stated in 37:12, we read in a previous chapter that the brothers had destroyed Shechem? Ehrlich does not write that what is meant is the area of Shechem, but not the demolished city. Instead he says that this chapter really belongs prior to the chapter about the city’s destruction. (There is an accepted biblical interpretation – accepted by commentators such as Rashi, but not by some like Nachmanides – that there is no perfect consistent chronological order in biblical tales.)
- What prompted Jacob to be immediately convinced that his son Joseph was killed by a wild beast when his sons showed him a torn coat, 37:15? (A simple answer is that the premise is wrong; Jacob was not immediately convinced, he investigated the matter, but Scripture frequently doesn’t give details when readers can infer them on their own. Good literature includes ambiguities and obscurities allowing readers to participate in composing the story.) Ehrlich reminds us that the Bible states earlier that Joseph was lost and needed directions from a man. He asks the man to tell him where his brothers are. The fact that he doesn’t identify himself to the man or tell him any details about his brothers indicates that the man knew him and his family and was probably a neighbor. Ehrlich supposes that this neighbor told Jacob that Joseph was lost and he helped him. When Joseph’s brothers showed Jacob the torn coat, Jacob immediately drew the conclusion that a person who wandered about lost in the wild had a good chance of being killed by a wild beast. (Why doesn’t the Torah identify the man as a neighbor and tell about his conversation with Jacob? As we wrote above, the Torah frequently omits details when readers can infer them.)
- (The only way that the story of the kidnapping of Joseph, 37:18-30, and his sale into slavery can be understood is that it is a conflation of two versions. In one, Reuben is the brother who tries to save Joseph. In the second, it is Judah. In one, the brothers take Joseph from the pit and sell him to Ishmaelites. In the other, Midianites lifted Joseph from the pit and sold him to Ishmaelites.)
- Tamar, Joseph’s brother Judah’s daughter in law, married one of Judah’s sons who died in chapter 38. Then, according to the law, currently called yibum, she had to marry Judah’s second son, who also died. Judah didn’t want to give her his third son, lest he die also, so he put her off by telling her to wait until the third son was older. She tricked Judah, slept with him, and became pregnant. When her pregnancy was discovered, she was sentenced to death because she had sex with a man forbidden to her under the law of yibum. It was then disclosed that Judah was the father and the death sentence was dropped. Why? According to the biblical law of yibum the woman must marry a brother. She didn’t do it, but had sex with a man who was not a brother-in-law. Ehrlich explains that the ancient law from which the biblical law was developed was different: the widow could fulfill the yibum requirement by marrying any family member and naming the first born son after the deceased husband. (There is also a third version in the biblical book Ruth where a distant relative could marry the widow and also take the deceased’s husband’s property.)
- Why did Judah not have sexual relations with Tamar after this incident, 38:26? Erhlich supposes that this was the ancient practice: a relative had sex with the widow to produce a son to be named after the deceased husband so that he would not be ashamed to die without a son, but having fulfilled this duty, the relative had no further relations with the widow.
- Why does the Torah inform readers that Tamar’s son Zerach stretch out his hand first from the womb, 38:28, then drew it back, Peretz came out, (and Peretz was the ancestor of King David and the messiah). The Torah abhorred the ancient practice that gave preferences and privileges to first-born sons. Thus in the Torah first-borns were always superseded by their younger brothers. This story emphasizes this fact: Zerach the first-born did not gain any privilege. (This explanation also explains why Jacob gave a preferential blessing to Joseph’s second son in 48:14.)
- (Many people today refer to Joseph as Yosef Hatzadik, Righteous Joseph. Other people and books are given similar accolades, such as “The Holy Ari,” a founder of a strand of mysticism, “The Holy Zohar,” an important mystic book. Yet the term is not used, for example, for Moses or Rashi’s popular Bible commentary. Is it possible that the tribute was sometimes attached to people and books that others disparaged? Could it be that in Joseph’s case there were many people who felt that Joseph was far from pious: he acted foolishly when he told his dreams to his brothers, he didn’t inform his father for over twenty years that he was alive, he tricked and tormented his brothers when they came to him in Egypt for food, and, arguably, he went into his master’s home to encounter his wife, who had been petitioning him for sex for days, when no one was home, and only fled when he became frightened that he would be punished if his master heard what he did?)