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The Sale of Joseph vs. the Rape of Tamar (Vayeshev)

There’s a lot in common between William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, and John Steinbeck. All three lived in the twentieth century. All three were American citizens. All three wrote great works of literature. All three won Pulitzer Prizes. And, all three incorporated scriptural allusions into at least one major play or novel. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! draws its title from the book of Samuel; Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, from the book of Job; and Steinbeck’s East of Eden, from the book of Genesis. These are but three instances of many in which prominent authors, playwrights, philosophers and poets refer obliquely to the Bible in their own writings.

Actually, the authors of the Tanach played this game themselves. When we study the Bible from a bird’s eye view, we walk away with what seems to read as a single, forward-moving narrative. If we look carefully, though, we notice something fascinating: most of the chapters in our cannon contain cleverly concealed clues which, put together, point us to passages we’d never have thought to connect. Leaving aside the controversial Bible codes, there’s no question that the Bible has been “coded,” so to speak, with all sorts of intertextual parallels. It’s as if our text is having a conversation with itself.

Take this week’s Torah portion, for example. We’re about to begin the section of the Pentateuch which recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers–a story which, most people assume, ends with Jacob’s death and the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt. But that’s not all He wrote. Over a hundred chapters later we find another episode, seemingly unrelated, which reintroduces almost all of the significant motifs from the Joseph narrative. This is the story of Tamar’s rape. In a nutshell, the story goes like this:

Amnon, the son of King David, covets his sister Tamar. Following the advice of his friend, Yonadav, Amnon feigns sick and insists that Tamar attend upon him. Once he lures Tamar into his bedroom, Amnon overpowers her and forces her to sleep with him. Avshalom, Tamar’s brother, finds out what has happened. He invites all of the kings’ sons to join him in the countryside where he is shearing his sheep. It is here where Avshalom takes his revenge on Amnon, murdering him and fleeing from the country.

With that introduction, let’s focus on some of the uncanny parallels between the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar:

Without a doubt, the story of Tamar is intended to evoke the story of Joseph. But why?

In 2009, Judy Klitsner’s Subversive Sequels in the Bible won the National Jewish Book Award for “best scholarly work.” In her introduction, Klitsner – who spoke at Yeshiva University just this week – suggests a fascinating approach to understanding parallels such as these:

“As if aware of its own problematics, the Bible contains a lively interaction between its passages that allows for a widening of perspective and a sense of dynamic development throughout the canon. If certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one narrative, a later passage may revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities.  I call these reworkings “subversive sequels.” Like all sequels, they continue and complete earlier stories. But they do so in ways that often undermine the very assumptions upon which the earlier stories were built, as well as the conclusions these stories have etched.”

Can we apply Klitsner’s idea to our texts?

Nobody acts the way they should in the Joseph story. Jacob picks favorites among his children; Joseph slanders his brothers and boasts that he is destined to rule over them; they, in turn envy Joseph and give him the silent treatment. When the brothers cast Joseph into a pit, and then sell him into slavery, the saga draws to the tragic ending which we as readers have been expecting.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t. Through a series of unbelievably fortunate events, Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt, rescues the world from famine, and ends up saving the lives of the very brothers who sought to take his. Indeed, Joseph observes: “Although you intended harm, God intended good.”

In literary terms, we call this type of “happy” ending a deus ex machinaLatin for “God coming out of the machine” (i.e. coming out of nowhere) to save the day. William Golding used this device in Lord of the Flies, as did Sophocles in Philoctetes. Yet with the possible exception of Walt Disney enthusiasts, most critics dislike the deus ex machina, finding it artificial and forced. As Aristotle puts it in his Poetics, “the solutions to a plot should come from the plot itself, and not from contrivance.”

What’s wrong with the Joseph story is that everything goes right. As readers, we are tempted to walk away from this text believing that we can treat each other however we please, since God will always be there to clean up our messes. In fact, R. Akiva Tatz points out, some even cite this text as a proof that nobody can harm anybody else unless heaven accedes in the scheme. To think this way is to deny that we are responsible for our actions, convincing ourselves instead that whoever we have hurt must have “had it coming” anyways.

That’s why we needed a sequel to the Joseph story – a sequel which, like the story of Tamar, is far more realistic and far less perfect. It’s also why the chapter which recounts Tamar’s story is the only chapter in all of II Samuel in which the name of God does not appear even once. Sometimes, God isn’t standing right there behind us, isn’t holding us by the hand every step of the way. The very same actions taken by Joseph and his brothers, repeated in a context in which God has chosen to give human beings the freedom to shape their own destinies, this time ends in disaster.

If God wants our successes to be ours then He must let our failures be ours, too. That means we often make mistakes – sometimes very big ones, which impact negatively on those around us. It also means we have the power and the responsibility to be the agents of good, and not only its conduits. Such is the lot of the human being, who has been designated not as God’s puppet, but His partner, in creation.

Shabbat shalom!


5 Comments

  1. Shosh says:

    I never thought of Lord of the Flies having a happy ending; the boys are saved by the navy, ya-nee armed forces, guys who make wars. And Genesis ends with a chill too, because we know what’s coming, no? Though this is all part of God’s plan… I really like your blog, and the Joseph/Tamar parallels! Shabbat shalom!

    • alexmaged says:

      Fair enough. To be more precise, the deus ex machina doesn’t necessarily have to produce a “happy” ending so much as a “salvaged” one — that is, an aversion of what seemed to be an inevitable tragedy. The Lord of the Flies application isn’t my own, it seems to be the general consensus among literary scholars. But it makes sense — without the last minute intervention, the boys would have killed Ralph and savagery would have won.
      As for Genesis: Read for the first time, it does seem to end on a generally positive note, I think. We can debate that point, but at the very least, there’s no question that a tragedy has been averted — both Joseph and his brothers should have been dead by now, and miraculously, all have been reunited, alive. Definitely a deus ex machina.
      Shabbat shalom!

      • Shosh says:

        I know this isn’t facebook, but I want to do the equivalent of ‘like’ cuz I’m rushing! Thanks!

  2. Sarah says:

    Very fascinating observations and intriguing analysis as always

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Nadav says:

    Great post!
    I would just like to push back on the conclusion as to the meaning behind these parallels. The story of Amnon and Tamar didn’t occur out of a vaccum of divine intervention. On the contrary, in the story of David and Batsheva, Hashem promises to bring David’s punishment from within his own house and the implication is that the story of Amnon, Tamar, and Avshalom is that punishment.

    Perhaps the story of Tamar is a foil for that of Yosef. Just as Hashem’s hashgacha can redeem a family’s disfunction, it can also cause disfunction in a “perfect” family.

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