Jacob, Joseph, and His Brothers: A Story of Child Abuse?

Joseph appears with his coat of many colors in this stained glass window by Marc Chagall in the Collegiate Church of St. Stephan. Credit: Creative Commons/Art History Images (Holly Hayes).

Almost no one wants to talk about the abuse of children: not the abusers, not the community and even the abused find it difficult to speak. So it is understandable that almost no one wants to entertain the notion that one of our patriarchs might have abused his child. Yet the text itself supports this reading of the tale of Joseph, his brothers and Jacob.

The Garment With Stripes or Colors

Let me begin by saying I did not set out to find this interpretation. I simply set out to understand the words, k’tonet passim, usually known as the colored coat, or coat with sleeves. When we have a very rare term in Scripture, our most reliable way to understand it is to see what it means in other places in Scripture. The only other person in Tanach who has such a garment is Tamar. She is David’s daughter and Avshalom’s sister. Her half brother Amnon lusts after her and devises a plot to get her into his chambers and rapes her (II Samuel 13:1-14). With remarkable verisimilitude, Scripture depicts the self-loathing of the abuser and his projection of guilt onto the abused:

Then Amnon felt a very great loathing for her. Indeed, his loathing for her was greater than the love with which he had loved her and Amnon said: Arise and Go. And she said to him: Do not do this great wrong. To send me away after what you have done would be worse than the first wrong. But he would not listen to her. And he cried to his manservant and said: Send this one away from me, and lock the door after her. And she wore a k’tonet passim, for thus were the king’s maiden daughters clothed. And his servant put her out and locked the door after her. And Tamar put dust on her head and tore the striped garment (k’tonet passim) she wore and put her hands on her head and went and cried. (II Samuel 13:15-19)

The text implies that Tamar rips her garment and covers her head with ashes because she is in mourning. She could be in mourning for many reasons: she has just been raped; she has been abused by her half-brother. She has lost her virginity and therefore is ineligible for the sort of marital happiness that was likely her birthright. She has been made to feel unattractive and worthless by her half-brother and his servant. Really, the causes of her self-loathing are almost endless at this moment in the story. And the k’tonet passim seems integral to the moment.

The Connections Between the Two Garments

Joseph’s and Tamar’s k’tonot passim have a great deal in common:

  1. Both are given as status symbols: Joseph’s designates his favored status (Genesis 37:3) and Tamar’s designates her status as a maiden princess, also a favored status (II Samuel 13:18).
  2. Both are torn: Joseph’s is ripped when the brothers cover it with blood (implied in Genesis 37:33 by Jacob’s reaction upon seeing the garment, “My son’s tunic! An evil animal has eaten him, Joseph is surely torn!”).
  3. Both are associated with a journey away from home: Joseph’s journey away from Jacob and Tamar’s flight from Amnon’s door.
  4. There may be yet one more way these two garments are linked. The garment in Tamar’s tale appears in a story in which one family member is sexually abused by another. Is it possible that Joseph’s story contains a similar story line? Then both garments would play a part in the wearer’s flight from a sexual oppressor, i.e., Tamar’s flight from Amnon and, we will here contend, Joseph’s flight from Jacob.

We may posit, then, that there is a link between these two garments and, by extension, these two stories. This might explain why the story of Tamar and Judah (Genesis 38) is placed squarely within the Joseph narrative. Why there? It probably could have been placed elsewhere (e.g., before the beginning of the Joseph narrative). It may have been placed there to explicitly link the stories of Joseph and the later Tamar, in case the reader failed to connect the two garments in his/her mind. Today, we would recognize the “gift” of this garment as “grooming behavior” on the part of the abuser.

Just One Person

Often, the one who is abused needs just one sympathetic person to help him/her achieve what NASA would call “escape velocity”. Tamar did not have such a person to help her. Joseph, on the other hand, has such a person, but we never learn his name. Jacob sends Joseph to his brothers and, while trying to find them, Joseph encounters a stranger of whom he asks directions. The stranger points him to Dothan (Genesis 37:15-17). The story could easily have been written without including this exchange, so why is it there? What is so important about the stranger in the field?

Often, the first person in whom the one who is abused will confide is not a family member. Perhaps our unnamed guide, here, sees Joseph in that coat and realizes that something is clearly wrong. Why is this boy moving through the hills in what amounts to a ball gown? Perhaps this person not only tells Joseph which way to go but also allows him to unburden himself and, perhaps, suggests that Joseph might take this opportunity to escape. Otherwise, his inclusion in the story is simply meaningless. But if this is the first person outside the family who truly sees what is going on, and helps Joseph make his break for freedom, then he deserves to be enshrined in Torah. And this person would also deserve enshrinement as a true Jewish role model. To see what is going on, to be the person that helps another escape a dreadful situation, is to save a life in a very real way. He is a role model of how to behave when we see abuse.

Some of the Brothers are the Good Guys

In such a large, blended family we would expect to see a range of reactions to the relationship between Jacob and Joseph. They may have seen the abuse or it may have stayed a secret. One child is singled out, as we see happen in such present-day situations. The brothers are widely spread out in ages and temperaments and some of them may have been abused as well. Some of the brothers may feel jealous of Jacob’s attention to Joseph and hate Joseph for it. Reuven clearly wants to help Joseph get away to Egypt in a way that will ensure that Jacob will not go looking for him and he must convince his brothers that this is the right course of action (Genesis 37:18-33). There is reason to believe that the scene at the pit (Genesis 37:20-36) lasts three days. This would be enough time for the brothers to hear the tale, come to terms with it and create a plan of action in terms of helping Joseph escape and a pact to protect Benjamin.

The brothers liberate Joseph from his striped garment, the symbol of his shame and abuse, and return it to their father, as if to say, “We know what you did to Joseph and we have stepped in to stop it. We won’t let you abuse any of us again so you can keep this coat.” Jacob is distraught in the extreme, tearing his own clothes and covering his head with ashes (Genesis 37:34-35). This is odd. When Rachel dies, he buries her by the road, sets up a few stones to mark the spot and then continues on his journey (Genesis 35:17-21). He is not described as mourning her and we are never even informed of the deaths of Leah and the two handmaidens. But Joseph, Jacob mourns dramatically. Is it because he lost his replacement for Rachel or because of his own sense of guilt and shame or, perhaps, both?

Whatever the case, Joseph’s subsequent life is marked by the signs of earlier sexual abuse. Childhood victims of sexual abuse tend to be abused later in life. He falls prey to Potiphar’s wife (Genesis 39:6-8). The language is strikingly similar to that used in Tamar’s tale. Once Amnon has his sister in close quarters, he says, Shichvi imi “lie with me (II Samuel 13:11).” Potiphar’s wife importunes, “Shichvah imi/lie with me” (Genesis 39:7). Both Joseph and Tamar attempt to reason with the aggressor. The difference in this case is that Joseph successfully evades the trap by leaving his garment in her hands while Tamar is overpowered. In the aftermath of both episodes a horrible downturn of fortunes occurs. Tamar is disgraced and this is the last that we hear of her. Joseph goes to jail; a long fall from his place of privilege in Potiphar’s house.

Double Speak in Joseph’s Story

One of the problems that people who have undergone childhood abuse face is a confusion of memory. There is the memory of the abuse and then there is the memory, twisted by the shame, guilt and confusion that the person feels. In addition, the abuser may try to “override” the actual memories with his own version of events. This may be one explanation for the “doublespeak” that appears throughout the Joseph narrative.

  1. Joseph has two dreams (Genesis 37:5-10).
  2. His journey to meet his brothers has two stages, first with his father’s directions, second with the angel’s directions (Genesis 37:13-17).
  3. There are two plans regarding Joseph, i.e., kill him or put him in a pit (Genesis 37:20-22).
  4. He is sold to either Ishmaelites or Midianites (Genesis 37:27-28) and this “doubling” continues: The Midianites sell him to Potiphar (Genesis 37:36) or the Ishmaelites sell him to Potiphar (Genesis 39:1).
  5. He interprets two dreams while in prison (Genesis 40:1-19).
  6. Pharaoh has two dreams (Genesis 41:1-7) and they are recounted twice (Genesis 41:1-7 and Genesis 41:17-24).
  7. The brothers come to Egypt twice (Genesis 42:7 and 43:2).
  8. The brothers take double the money (and Benjamin) on the second trip to Egypt (Genesis 43:15).
  9. Joseph asks about his father’s health twice (Genesis 43:28 and Genesis 45:21).
  10.  The brothers leave Joseph and Egypt twice (Genesis 42:25-28, 44:3-4).
  11. When Joseph promises to bury Jacob in Canaan, he must agree to it twice (Genesis 47:30, 31).
  12. There are two accounts of Jacob blessing grandsons: Genesis 48:13-14 and 48:17-19.

Interestingly, there is unanimity on how to present the situation to Jacob: his son is dead (Genesis 37:32), ensuring that Jacob will not go looking for Joseph.

Is My Father Still Alive? Am I Safe Yet?

Once Joseph is completely secure in his position in Egypt, utterly defended by wealth and position, he does not send word to his family to bring them to Egypt. He does not feel safe. In fact, he betrays his sense that his father is still a threatening presence in his life in the moment that he reveals himself to his brothers. He asks, “Is my father still alive?” (Genesis 45:3). Given the theory we are exploring, the import behind the question becomes clear: he is asking if he is released from his bondage of fear and shame. He is asking if his father is dead so he can finally feel safe. He sends his brothers back home with enough wealth that they need not come back to Egypt for quite some time, if ever.

Joseph’s Triumph

At the very end of his life, Jacob calls Joseph to his deathbed. There, he asks Joseph to “swear on my thigh” that Joseph will have his bones buried in Israel (Genesis 47:29). Given our interpretation of Joseph’s life story, we can only imagine how Joseph’s skin must have crawled to be asked to again touch his father’s genitals. Jacob does not understand that his domination over Joseph is over. He shows no change in character, no repentance, no regret. In his mind, the situation remains as it was. He demands inappropriate physical contact with his son.

This request expresses a power dynamic. The only other person in Tanakh who swears upon someone’s thigh is Eliezer, Abraham’s slave, when he is asked to fetch a bride for Isaac (Genesis 24:2, 9). The one doing the swearing is subservient. The one demanding the oath is the master. Jacob does not see Joseph, the grown man, the accomplished political leader. He sees Joseph, the object, the helpless, the boy.

But Joseph does not touch his father. Instead, he simply states that he will do as Jacob asks (Genesis 47:30-31). Usually in Torah, when there is a command, there is a corresponding report that it has been followed. But that does not happen here. He promises to bury his father in Israel, but Joseph does not touch Jacob. At this, Jacob bows to Joseph; fulfilling the dream Joseph had so many years before.

Is This Interpretation Beneficial?

Some might say that such an unappetizing understanding of Joseph’s story should never be heard. Why stain the image of the patriarchs? What could we possibly gain from such an understanding of this narrative?

I believe this reading of the Joseph saga offers many important benefits:

  • It explains the stranger’s role in Joseph’s story and underscores how important each of us can be when we witness someone who is being abused. We can be that angel; we can help the abused make his/her break for freedom.
  • It gives us role models who demonstrate how family members can help the abused make his/her escape from an abusive situation.
  • It gives us an archetype of an abuser, thereby giving us the tools to recognize one when we see him/her. If we see someone like Jacob who has an inability to recognize appropriate boundaries and/or a willingness to bend or break the rules when it is to his advantage, we can learn to defend ourselves against and/or evade such a person.
  • Perhaps most importantly, Joseph provides a role model for those who are being abused and those who are recovering from this abuse. He escapes. He makes a good life for himself. He distances himself from his abuser and keeps his own children safe, effectively ending the sick family dynamic in his own generation.
  • It explains some material in the Joseph narrative that is rather opaque: the coat of many colors, the stranger and Joseph’s behavior toward his family as an adult.
  • Perhaps most importantly, for the person who is suffering from such abuse, or recovering from it, he/she can know that his/her story is in the Torah. He or she can take courage from Joseph’s story and, perhaps, use it as a model for how to overcome childhood abuse.

There are those, I’m sure, who would not want to see this interpretation expressed at all. This is precisely the sort of silence that surrounds such abuse and allows it to continue for so long. No one spoke or listened at Penn State for the longest time. No one spoke or listened in the Catholic Church for a long time and nobody wants to hear about the abuse at some of America’s yeshivot. Silence and suppression are two of the most powerful allies an abuser has. They enable him/her to continue in this harmful behavior. If abuse touches as many as one in three children, then those children need to know there is a role model for them in Torah. Let this interpretation of Joseph’s story teach us how to escape from this sort of Egypt that touches so many of us.

Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams, Ph.D., is the winner of the Covenant Award and founder and director of Maqom: A School for Adult Talmud Study. She has published over 20 books and 50 articles.
tags: Judaism, Rethinking Religion, Spiritual Politics   
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3 Responses to Jacob, Joseph, and His Brothers: A Story of Child Abuse?

  1. ray Friedman March 29, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    a liitle over speculative

  2. Michael May 17, 2014 at 10:25 am

    Thank you, Rabbi Abrams. This is incredibly useful.

  3. L August 16, 2015 at 10:08 pm

    The parallel to Tamar is very fascinating. That’s a very good find and I think it can be reasonably said to suggest sexual abuse. This wouldn’t be the first time. It’s commonly believed that Noah had some kind of sex with his son.

    I always felt uncomfortable reading about Jacob. He is understood to have been manipulative with his brother and to his children. And his fixation on Leah and Rachel is a little creepy.

    However, I suppose that many of the instances of “doublespeak” are explainable with the documentary hypothesis. And because I think interpreting the story as concealed abuse is going to be discomforting to others, it would be best to be up front about the modern interpretations of the text.

    As far as educating people, I think it’s enough to point out the inappropriate grooming behavior, whether or not the author(s) recognized it as such. This is a sad part of life and it’s comforting to know that others have gone through it.

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