The saga of Jacob and his sons has the air of brutal honesty; he and his mother deceive Isaac and then he in turn is deceived by his wives to be Leah and Rachel. Moreover, he is deceived by his sons: Reuben, the titled first born, commits the heinous sin of bedding his father’s concubine Bilhah. Simeon and Levi dishonoured and disrespected him brazenly ignored his counsel, and behind his back, led the slaughter and plunder of Shechem. Interestingly, Yehudah was deceived by his daughter in law Tamar, thus extending the family tradition. Unfortunately his sons would again deceive him, by fabricating a tale that would knowingly cause him great pain and emotional suffering.
The ultimate act of deception is described in this week’s Torah reading, Parsha VaYeshev. Joseph’s brothers, out of spite and jealousy sold him into slavery. There cover story was that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. For many long and aching years they led Jacob to believe that his favourite son was dead. But then he was also betrayed by the self same Joseph, whose inexplicable failure to contact his father, certainly compounded the pain and anguish that Jacob suffered. This was not the glorious life befitting God’s one true subject, nor was the conduct of any of that cadre meant to guide future readers, except perhaps as a reminder of how not to behave.
Yet, in spite of the loathsome qualities of some of the dramatis personae who figure prominently in the Joseph, it is perhaps the most remarkable of the event narratives of the Torah, and certainly the most literary. The entire tale is told with a remarkable amount of detail, delicately woven throughout a wonderful series of vignettes. The careful depictions of characters and of events contribute to the grandness and the timelessness of the tale. The pace of events allows the narrative to unfold, much like a modern-day novel, with dramatic flourishes.
Traditional commentary abjures the description of the Torah as a body of literature or as a history book, but that reduction does not detract from the fact that the Torah describes a certain historical context and it uses expression and form to convey ideas and establish basic truths. It was, after all, fashioned as a living document describing real people suffering the real vicissitudes of life. Most importantly its contents were meant to be disseminated, read and discussed by the Children of Israel; to impart a sense of their history and ground their national memories and to create national consciousness. And undoubtedly, it was the very human frailties of the people whose lives are described and the very human condition of their experiences; of love and loyalty, betrayal and blemished behaviour, that drove, and still drives, the passion for words first committed to vellum over four thousand years ago.