ContentParashat Vayeshev continues the narrative of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs with a new generation. It follows the story of Joseph, most beloved son of Jacob, and includes vignettes about his complex family dynamics. This portion also features several moments that highlight the importance of issues of sexuality within the narrative structure of the Torah. In Genesis 37, we learn that Joseph is the favorite of his father’s 12 sons. He receives a many-colored coat and relays his dreams to his brothers, who become jealous of him. Joseph goes to check on his brothers in the fields with their flocks; they throw him in a pit and, after Reuben persuades them not to kill Joseph, the brothers sell him as a slave. Jacob believes that his son has been killed by a wild beast. Instead, he has been sold to Potiphar the Egyptian. Genesis 38 tells the story of Judah and his daughter-in-law, Tamar. Tamar’s husband dies and she is not given the right to remarry one of Judah’s other sons. Instead, she dresses as a harlot and conceives a child with Judah. In Genesis 39, we find Joseph a slave in Potiphar’s house in Egypt. Potiphar’s wife (referred to as Zuliakha in the Persian retelling) tries to convince Joseph to engage in sexual relations with her but he refuses. Spurned, she declares that he has been untoward in his behavior toward her, and Joseph is thrown into prison. Genesis 40 begins with Joseph in prison, joined by Pharaoh’s butler and baker. Joseph interprets their dreams, correctly predicting that one will be released from prison and one will be killed. There are several moments in this Torah portion where sexuality becomes an essential aspect of the plot. The text offers us interpretive space to consider how in many ways sexuality remains a tool or a punishable trait in our modern context. We might use this portion to link the narrative of the Torah with the Gilead Sabbath initiative to end the oppression of LGBTQ individuals worldwide.
This portion is rich with interpretive possibilities, but we will focus on Genesis chapter 39, which is particularly relevant to the Gilead Sabbath initiative in that it depicts a case of imprisonment based on the expression of a person’s sexuality. Many scholars, modern and pre-modern, have struggled to understand Joseph’s motivation in turning away the advances of Potiphar’s wife. The text reads: “He refused, saying to his master’s wife, ‘Look, my master gives no thought to what is in this house; all that he owns he has put into my hands. There is none greater than I in this house; he has withheld nothing from me, other than you, inasmuch as you are his wife; how then could I do this great evil, and thus sin against God?’” (Gen 39:8-9)
Bereishit Rabbah 87:5, the classical midrashic text, offers three explanations for why Joseph turns his mistress away. Perhaps, the rabbis offer, Joseph recalled Adam’s banishment from the Garden of Eden and knew that adultery could yield even harsher punishment than eating a forbidden fruit. Joseph understands the weight of consequences surrounding his sexual behavior. Bereishit Rabbah’s second explanation centers on Joseph’s brother Reuben, who loses his birthright for his own sexual activity with Bilhah, one of Jacob’s wives. Perhaps, the text argues, Joseph fears the loss of his own birthright based on his sexual choices. Finally, the midrash states that Potiphar’s wife offered to kill her husband in order to be with Joseph. Joseph refuses her because he does not want to take personal responsibility for murder. Rabbi Neal Katz, in his treatment of this passage from Bereishit Rabbah, writes:
“This intriguing midrash reveals a progression and lesson in personal behavior. From Adam (a distant relative), to Reuben (Joseph’s brother), to Joseph himself, we see that the point of motivation moves ever closer to the self…does Joseph act in this manner because of external consequence or internal conscience?”
Katz’s words remind us of the link between our own personal needs and our fears around the external consequences of acting on those needs, especially when it comes to sexuality.
Where do we understand God to be in this ordeal? Joseph’s long explanation invokes loyalty to God as a motivating factor in his decision to deny Potiphar’s wife. Certainly we see in many other places in the Torah that God is understood to be intimately bound up in the regulation of human sexuality. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat notes that God’s presence is a frame on this piece of the narrative:
“The phrase ‘[The Eternal] was with Joseph’ appears four times in this chapter, forming (in the words of the JPS Torah commentary) ‘a literary framework within which the narrative is encased.’ The motif appears twice in the first section (God was with him, and Potiphar saw that God was with him), and twice in the last section (even in the prison God was with him, and the chief jailer put him in charge of things because God was with him.)…I’m inclined to read the phrase simply; the presence of God was with him, wherever he went.”
Barenblat understands this episode of Joseph’s life as a reminder that the divine remains present to human beings, even surrounding the darkest moments of imprisonment, othering, and oppression.
We cannot draw an exact parallel between the Joseph narrative and a global system of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ people. But looking at Genesis 39 through the lens of our Gilead Sabbath initiative opens some space to access the biblical text in a new way. Joseph comes to stand for the figure of society’s downtrodden; he is betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, and finds himself criminalized based on his chosen expression of sexual activity. An emotional connection to his character, as a focal point of the book of Genesis, can be an excellent starting point for exploring the personal stories of LGBTQ people worldwide. You might use this text to speak about the complex web of external consequences which unfairly regulate the lives of LGBTQ individuals.
Of course, you might also seek to educate your congregation by looking at Genesis 39 within the larger context of Parashat Vayeshev. As mentioned above, this portion contains more than one story which engages with human sexuality. The Bible seeks not to shy away from discussions of sex and gender, but to find a way to engage with those issues from a spiritual place. Though we might not always agree with how the text approaches human sexuality, here we at least find grounding for the fact that as communities of faith we must be engaged with this topic. Joseph’s story, the story of Judah and Tamar, and much more, call us to be active participants in shaping the way our society interfaces with issues of gender and sexuality; they call us to help build a compassionate world where all can find full expression free from the fear of discrimination, violence, or imprisonment.
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, The Velveteen Rabbi, “The Strange Soap Opera of Vayeshev.”
Rabbi Neal Katz, “Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife: Conscience Over Consequence.”
Bereishit Rabbah 87:5