“I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
[Tevye prior to deportation from Anatevka, Fiddler On the Roof]
If nothing else, the Genesis narrative is one of the choices by God of His Chosen emissaries and the choices of these chosen-few of their successors. Disappointed in his original progenitors; Adam and Noah, God chooses Abraham (“father of many nations”) who picks Isaac over his older brother Ishmael, and Isaac who then picks Jacob over his older brother Esau.
As do many commentaries, I have detected a clear biblical bias (in these choices) against the oldest – entitled son and for the outlier, the rejected, the underdog, the downcast etc. From Genesis and beyond there is clear rejection of the entitled class, its caste system and primogeniture. From Abraham to King David there is a straight, albeit crooked line of runts, rejects, sordid pasts and questionable births that include the suspect senior-citizen birth of Isaac, Judah and the Harlot; Tamar, not to mention the line from Lot and his incestual union with his daughter and the resulting line from Moab to Ruth to David.
But the clear dichotomy between The Entitled vs The Chosen begins to break down, like all clean models, with Joseph.
Joseph is a transitional figure, not quite a patriarch (micro) and therefore not quite a paradigmatic structural symbol for the later narrative of the Jewish people, and not quite part and parcel of the narrative of the Jewish people (macro). Is the story of Joseph’s decent to Egypt a prototype of the later sojourn in Egypt of the Israelites, or is Joseph’s story the actual beginning of the Exodus narrative itself? It’s not quite clear.
3 Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he made him a coat of many colours.
4 And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.
8 And his brethren said to him: ‘Shalt thou indeed reign over us? or shalt thou indeed have dominion over us?’ And they hated him yet the more for his dreams, and for his words. (Genesis 37)
10 And he told it to his father, and to his brethren; and his father rebuked him, and said unto him: ‘What is this dream that thou hast dreamed? Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down to thee to the earth?’
11 And his brethren envied him; but his father kept the saying in mind.
20 Come now therefore, and let us slay him, and cast him into one of the pits, and we will say: An evil beast hath devoured him; and we shall see what will become of his dreams.’
21 And Reuben heard it, and delivered him out of their hand; and said: ‘Let us not take his life.’
26 And Judah said unto his brethren: ‘What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?
27 Come, and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, and let not our hand be upon him; for he is our brother, our flesh.’ And his brethren hearkened unto him.
I’m sure that if we were to ask Joseph sometime between when he was thrown into the pit in Shechem and when he was thrown into jail in Egypt…” So Joseph; how’s this favorite-chosen son thing working for you?” He might have responded along the lines of Tevye … Can’t you choose someone else for a change?
Any parent will read the Joseph story sympathetically… favoritism is a recipe for disaster in general but especially in familial relationships and amongst siblings.
If Abraham chose Isaac for the birthright, he still cared deeply for Ishmael and exiled him only at Sarah and God’s insistence. Isaac was tricked into giving the birthright to Jacob but explicitly loved Esau more. Even if they did not receive the birthright, both Ishmael and Esau received their own blessings and presumably knew that their father loved them a lot, if not as much or even more than their brother. It is only with Joseph that Choseness as favoritism appears or at least appears with such vengeance.
So how did this all work out for Joseph both in his life in the biblical narrative and in his after-life in the psyche of the Jewish People?
Besides his obvious talent as a dream-reader, forecaster and treasury tsar (all good Jewish professions) Joseph and his line don’t play a featured role in Jewish folklore. In fact, mixed into the early Joseph story (above) we see the dynamic of Chosen/entitled playing out with more historical implications between Reuven (Jacobs’s first born with Leah) and Judah (the fourth born of Leah). Reading the text (above) it is clearl that there are two accounts regarding which brother plays the responsible and leadership role in saving Joseph, both accounts were preserved in the text, but it is Judah (not Reuven) who prevails and it is Judah whose little escapade with the ‘harlot” Tamar interrupts the previously scheduled Joseph story. It is Judah, and neither Reuven nor Joseph, who gives birth to the messianic line. Reuven loses because he represents the entitled first born. Joseph loses for reasons I struggle with below.
So the mainstream narrative of Chosen-through-covenant taking precedence of entitled-by-birth is preserved with Judah.
The choseness of Judah is informed by obligation and responsibility as demonstrated in both Judah’s saving the brother he hates and admitting his guilt when confronted by Tamar. It is a choseness not informed by purity but to the contrary by struggle… physical struggle and many times a struggle with ambiguity.
As Nathaniel Deutsch writes in New American Haggadah:
“Unlike salvation, chosenness is a question, not an answer; the beginning of a journey, not it’s end. It will not take place in the future and, therefore, we do not hope or pray for it. Instead, like the Exodus from Egypt, being chosen is something that has happened to us already, something that we must remember and, in so doing, make present in every generation. As a modern people, we are used to choosing; being chosen is much more difficult, at least for many of us. Some of us do not accept it at all.
We might even say that wrestling with being chosen, like Jacob wrestling with God – or was it with himself? – is Jewishness itself.”
note: Judah is known for succumbing to temptation with Tamar and struggling with the aftermath. Joseph is known for overcoming temptation with Potiphar’s wife … and the physical and possible self-righteous narcissism that follows…. Joseph the Tzadik (pure).
So if the mainstream Chosenness of the Judah line ended up with the universalist Light-unto-the-Nations strain of Davidic Messianism including lambs lying down with lions and swords beat into plowshares… where did the alternative Joseph stream lead? Where did Choseness based not on responsibility and struggle but on favoritism lead?
Well, Joseph died in Egypt and, as promised, his bones where taken by Moses and then Joshua into the promised land where (according to some authorities) were buried in a tomb aptly named Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem… modern day Nablus. If you’re up on turf-wars in the Much Too Promised Land, you will know that since its conquest in 1967, the tomb of Joseph has been a flash-point between religious Zionists and Palestinian Arabs.
What you may not know, is that there is a tradition of two messiahs in Judaism. The Messiah ben (son of) David and the Messiah ben Joseph.
Messiah ben Joseph will act as a precursor to Messiah ben David and will prepare the world for the coming of the final redeemer. The main function of him will be of political and military nature. Messiah, son of Joseph shall wage war against the evil forces and he will die in combat with the enemies of God and Israel. Messiah ben Joseph will be killed, this is described in the prophecy of Zechariah “they shall mourn him as one mourns for an only child.” (Zechariah 12:10). After his death there will be a period of great calamities which shall be the final test for Israel. After this, Messiah ben David shall come, avenge his death, resurrect him and all the dead, and usher in the Messianic era of everlasting universal peace. [Messiah ben Joseph – Wikipedia]
Is there a connection between the militancy of the Messiah of Joseph and the affinity of Religious Zionists for the Tomb of Joseph? One religious Zionist Rabbi wrote after a group of Palestinian Arabs desecrated the tomb:
So, how fitting it is at this late stage of history, while the Jewish people seem to be grappling for ground on so many fronts, that Joseph’s Tomb was decimated. I hope it is a good sign, for they know not upon which holy ground they tread, nor what powers of redemption they have unleashed. Perhaps the spirit of Messiah Ben Joseph?
What is the connection between the biblical Joseph the chosen as favorite and the tradition of the militant Messiah Ben Joseph is harder to conjure.
All I know, as a father, a brother, a son and as a student of history…. Favoritism is a recipe for disaster.