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The Sale of Yosef through the Eyes of Zechariah (Vayeshev)

On the first day of my “Intro to Bible” course here at Yeshiva University, R. Jeremy Wieder challenged us students to name history’s first Biblical commentator. Some guessed it was Rashi. Others suggested Onkelos. Another group thought that perhaps the Tannaim and the Amoraim best fit this description. In fact, however, none of these answers were the one that R. Wieder was looking for. Instead, he explained, the oldest commentary on the Bible is the Bible itself. That is because, from the time of Moshe, Neviim were constantly referring to events that happened earlier in Tanach as a way of developing their messages—and, in so doing, they were in effect interpreting the meaning of those events for their audiences.

This concept—referred to in academic lingo as “Biblical intertextuality”—is one that we’ve explored together in this context many times. It is an idea that is especially valuable to return to as we enter the series of Parshiyot dedicated to the story of Yosef and his brothers, because, as we’ve seen before, this story seems to have been of particular interest to later Neviim. And for good reason: to a large extent, the enmity between Yosef and his brothers sets the stage for the conflict between the “House of Yosef” and the “House of Yehudah” that will animate most of Biblical history.

All of this is mentioned here by way of introduction for a fascinating passage from the book of Zechariah which caught my attention earlier this week:

Be exceedingly happy, O daughter of Zion; Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem. Behold! Your king shall come to you. He is just and victorious; humble, and riding a donkey and a foal, the offspring of [one of] she-donkeys. And I will cut off the chariots from Ephraim, and the horses from Jerusalem; and the bow of war shall be cut off. And he shall speak peace to the nations, and his rule shall be from the sea to the west and from the river to the ends of the earth. You, too—with the blood of your covenant I have freed your prisoners from a pit in which there was no water. Return to the stronghold, you prisoners of hope. Also today, I will restore to you a double promise. For I bend Judah for Me like a bow; I filled [the hand of] Ephraim, and I will arouse your children, O Zion, upon your children, O Javan; and I will make you as the sword of a mighty man… And the Lord their God shall save them on that day like the flocks of His people, for crown stones are exalted on His land (Zec. 9:9-16).

Zechariah prophesied at the beginning of the Second Temple period, during the reign of the Persian king Darius. The latter portion of his book is comprised of eschatological visions such as the one cited above. In this particular vision, Zechariah tells of the reunification between the Houses of Yosef (=Ephraim, Yosef’s oldest sons) and Yehudah which will occur at the end of days: teaming up as if they were a bow-and-arrow, Yehudah and Ephraim will together vanquish their enemies and usher in the Messianic era.

Against this backdrop, it is instructive to think about the way Zechariah portrays the Israelites who he imagines returning from exile:

You, too—with the blood of your covenant I have freed your prisoners from a pit in which there was no water [בור אין מים בו] (Zec. 9:11).

Although none of the traditional mefarshim appear to make this point explicitly, Zechariah’s image of a “pit in which there was no water” is undoubtedly intended to evoke memories of an earlier such “pit:”

And they [Joseph’s brothers] took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty—there was no water in it [והבור רק אין בו מים] (Gen. 37:24).

borharet_tmunaWay back in the book of Bereshit, our nation’s founding fathers had cast one of their brothers into a “pit with no water” before selling him into slavery. Now Zecharia, standing at the other end of Biblical history, looks back at that moment and comforts his listeners with the assurance that its legacy shall be overturned: the exile shall end, and the prisoners shall return from the waterless pit.

By itself, this is an inspiring bit of exegesis. Yet perhaps the connections which it conjures for us can be traced even further. Remember, after all, that Zechariah addressed the community of Babylonian exiles. There was an exile that preceded the Babylonian one, though: the Egyptian exile, which was the first exile in Israel’s national history. Wouldn’t it be neat, then, if the process Zechariah narrates for us—call it “the reversal of Yosef’s sale”—expressed itself somehow in the texts which discuss that exile, too?

In fact, it probably does—and it may actually be Zechariah himself who gives us the clue we need to piece this puzzle together. Recall the mechanism through which, in the words of Zechariah, Hashem redeems Israel from the “pit:” “with the blood of your covenant I have redeemed your prisoners…” The meaning of this expression, “blood of your covenant,” is not immediately clear. Though Rashi associates this blood with the blood sprinkled during at Sinai (see Exod. 24), and Ibn Ezra entertains the notion that it might represent the blood of circumcision, there actually a third covenantal ceremony in Israel’s history which featured the sprinkling of blood—the ceremony of the Paschal sacrifice, on the eve of Israel’s exodus from Egypt:

The Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying… Speak to the entire community of Israel, saying, “On the tenth of this month, let each one take a lamb for each parental home, a lamb for each household… You shall have a perfect male lamb in its [first] year; you may take it either from the sheep or from the goats. And you shall keep it for inspection until the fourteenth day of this month, and the entire congregation of the community of Israel shall slaughter it in the afternoon. And they shall take [some] of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and on the lintel, on the houses in which they will eat it. And on this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. You shall not eat it rare or boiled in water, except roasted over the fire its head with its legs and with its innards. And this is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste it is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord. I will pass through the land of Egypt on this night, and I will smite every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast, and upon all the gods of Egypt will I wreak judgments I, the Lord. And the blood will be for you for a sign upon the houses where you will be, and I will see the blood and skip over you, and there will be no plague to destroy [you] when I smite the [people of the] land of Egypt… And you shall take a bunch of hyssop and immerse [it] in the blood that is in the basin, and you shall extend to the lintel and to the two doorposts the blood that is in the basin, and you shall not go out, any man from the entrance of his house until morning… It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal… So Pharaoh called for Moses and Aaron at night, and he said, “Get up and get out from among my people, both you, as well as the children of Israel, and go, worship the Lord as you have spoken…” (Exod. 12:1-31).

If we take Zechariah’s remarks to the Babylonian exiles and superimpose them upon the Egyptian exile, we find that they apply quite literally: it truly was through the blood of the [Passover] covenant that the prisoners of Egypt were redeemed.

Upon carefully studying the details of this sacrifice, in fact, we discover that they, too, bring us back to Yosef. Consider:

  • Yosef’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery (Gen. 37) / Israel is being redeemed from Egyptian slavery (Exod. 12)
  • Yosef’s brothers slaughtered [ש.ח.ט] a goat [עז] and dipped [ט.ב.ל] his tunic in its blood [דם] / The Israelites slaughtered [ש.ח.ט] a goat [עז] and dipped [ט.ב.ל] hyssop in its blood [דם]
  • Yaakov identified the blood on Yosef’s coat as his son’s and declared him dead / Hashem identified the blood on the doorposts of the Israelites as a sign that they should live.

These are the most salient narrative parallels. Besides for these, there are many details of the Paschal ritual which seem to be rooted in Yosef’s experience. Among them, we might count the following:

  • Yaakov mourned Yosef by placing sackcloth on his loins [מתניו] / Israel was instructed to eat the Paschal sacrifice with girded loins [מתנים]
  • Yosef’s brothers, upon selling him, sat down complacently to break bread [לחם] / Israel was instructed to eat the Paschal sacrifice in haste and was specifically prohibited from eating leaven, the ingredient necessary to produce bread
  • Yosef was thrown into a pit [בור] / Hashem specifically mentioned that He would strike Israel’s enemies down to the “captive in the pit” [בית הבור]
  • Yosef’s pit contained “no water” [מים] / Israel was forbidden from cooking the Paschal sacrifice in water [מים]
  • Yosef’s brothers offered him as a slave [עבד–Gen. 39] who could be acquired [ק.נ.ה–Gen. 39] through money [כסף] / Israel was forbidden from inviting acquired slaves [עבד… מקנת כסף] to partake of the Paschal sacrifice
  • Yosef’s brothers tried to rid themselves of Yosef without laying a hand on him directly, or otherwise harming him physically / Israel was forbidden from breaking even a single bone of the Paschal sacrifice

In light of all this, we are now able to appreciate the multilayered meaning of Zechariah’s remark, “with the blood of your covenant I have redeemed your prisoners.” In a very real sense, the blood of the Pesach covenant, and the ceremony of which it is a part, serve to atone for the blood that brought Israel into exile, in the first place. Israel’s re-enacts the sale of Yosef through this sacrifice, confronting the errors of the past as part of the process of overcoming them. This process has perhaps been intrinsic to the ceremony from its inception. Yet we might have missed it, had it not been for the intertextual interpretation provided to us by the book of Zecharia centuries later.

Shabbat shalom!


  • Please note that others have already noticed and written about the connections between the Paschal sacrifice and the sale of Yosef, though without the intermediary of the Zechariah text. See, for instance, R. Jacob J. Schacter’s essay in the Yeshiva University Pesach Haggadah, “Seeking Redemption in an Unredeemed World: Yosef at the Pesach Seder.” In R. Schacter’s essay, one finds cataloged the comments of Acharonim, Rishonim, and even Amoraim, which connect the rituals of the Paschal sacrifice, and of the Seder ceremony more broadly, back to the sale of Yosef. As we say in the world of the Yeshiva: ברוך שכיוונתי!
  • The ideas presented here fit into a larger trend, which one observes both in modern parshanut and academic scholarship, of attempting to demonstrate ways in which—to borrow R. David Fohrman’s phrase—“our history becomes our laws.” One particularly intriguing study of this sort, from a secular source, is The Genesis of Justice, written by now-retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. In this book, Dershowitz argues that Sefer Bereshit serves to inform the legal content found later in the Torah in much the same way that the “state-of-nature” imagined by political thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu informs their theories of social contract. The relationship between the Torah’s narrative and legal sections is a topic which we hope to return to at length, iy’’h, during Parshat Shelach.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Shriqui says:

    Thanks for the excellent essay and reference to secondary sources. Really great work Alex, Shabbat Shalom.

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