Names in the Middle

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction to Parashat Hashavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Names in the Middle


By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley




A.                 INTRODUCTION


With the dramatic reunion between Yosef and his brothers at the beginning of our parasha, we tend to view the remaining chapters of Sefer Bereishit as little more than a happy epilogue:  both famine and fratricide have been avoided, Yaakov is reunited with his beloved son, blessings are conferred, and an era comes to a close.  Granted, there are moments of tension – Yaakov’s vision at Beersheva, the switching of the hands between Ephraim and Menashe, the brothers’ uncertainty regarding Yosef’s intentions after Yaakov’s passing - but they come across as little more than minor squabbles to be resolved as opposed to major crises that interrupt the story’s movement.  A closer inspection, however, reveals that while the reunification of the family may be the emotional climax of the story, textually, the story reaches its turning point at the most unlikely of places – the list of Yaakov’s descendants in chapter 46.  To appreciate the importance of this census, we must see where this list fits into the overall narrative of the Yosef story.





Many modern commentators praise the Yosef story as “the most artistic and most fascinating of Old Testament biographies,”[1] containing an “unparalleled continuity of narrative.”[2]  By closely examining the story, we can discover how its literary patterns reveal the story’s thematic meanings.  The narrative contains a number of episodes that build towards a climax, and then follows a second series of matching episodes in reverse order (a chiastic structure),[3] that bring the narrative to a clear resolution.  Each episode is a self-contained unit that can be read independently of the larger context yet is linked thematically and textually to both its matching episode and the larger story.  As such, the text exhibits clear unity of form, due to not only the embedded chiastic structure but also the organic cohesion of the entire narrative.  


Among the major themes of the Yosef story is reversal.  Characters undergo reversals, fortunes undergo reversals, and even families undergo reversal.  Yosef undergoes several: he begins occupying a favored place in his father’s household only to find himself at the bottom of a pit; drawn out of the pit to become a slave, he rises to prominence in his mater’s household; when he descends to the depths of Egyptian prisons, he ultimately reappears as the country’s savior at the time of its greatest need.   The brothers attain temporary prominence when they dispose of Yosef, only to grovel and prostrate themselves before him as the dreams foretold.  Several times, the younger children overtake their older siblings; and Yaakov, who dreams of settling peacefully in Canaan, finds himself on route to Egypt on Divine orders, to live the remaining years of his life in exile from the land.  We suggest the following structure for the narrative:

A.                 Yaakov and Family Settle in Canaan (37:1-2)

B.                    Hostility between Yosef and his Brothers (37:3-11)

C.                       Death (apparent) of Yosef, Yaakov Mourns (37:12-36)

D.                          Yehuda and Tamar: Yehuda becomes worthy (38:1-26)

E.                              Reversal between Competing Children (38:27-28)

F.                                   Placing Potifar’s Wife in her Place (39:1-23)

G.                                     Yosef’s Wisdom Saves Egypt (40:1-41:57)

H.                                        Movement to Egypt (43:1-46:7)

I.                                                THE CENSUS OF YAAKOV’S FAMILY (46:8-27)

H1.                            Settling in Egypt (46:28-47:12)

G1.                        Yosef’s Wisdom Saves Egypt (47:13-26)

F1.                     Placing Yaakov’s Wife in Her Place (48:1-9)

E1.                Reversal between Competing Children

D1.            Yaakov’s Blesses his Children; Yehuda becomes leader

C1.         Death of Yaakov, Yosef mourns

            B1.     Hostility between Yosef and brothers resolved

A1.  The Children of Israel settle in Egypt


As a chiastic structure, the story of Yosef builds to a pivot point after which the themes repeat in reverse order.  Everything from A to H works to place Yosef in a position of power, which will enable him both save the civilized world from famine, and still end the schisms that have plagued this family.  With the denouement in his palace at the beginning of this week’s parasha, he appears to have accomplished both goals.  Yaakov comes down to visit him, and to heal the final rift in the family.  Suddenly, God appears in a vision, and informs both Yaakov and the reader that this descent into Egypt will be permanent. It is time for the individual to leave the stage – now his sons, working as a family and as a people, must fulfill their communal destiny.  The stories that appear after the census are more than wrapping up loose ends – they are the preparations of a family preparing to enter the next stage of  their history, a future foretold to them long before, in the Covenant Between the Pieces.  To appreciate how the chiastic structure conveys this message, we shall compare and contrast the matching units that create the artistic symmetry that is our story.


C.                 MATCHING EPISODES


  1. A-A1 From Canaan to Egypt


These two units serve as the introduction and conclusion to the story.  Yosef appears at the beginning as a ‘na’ar’ – a 17-year-old youth.  By the end of the story, he is 110 years old, having lived the majority of his life as the trusted viceroy of Pharaoh.  More importantly, his personal rise to power signified a cataclysmic shift in the destiny of the Jewish people.  Chapter 37 began with “And Yaakov dwelled in the land of Canaan.” The narrative’s final episode begins with “And Yosef dwelled in Egypt; he, and the house of his father.”   He is witness to the blessing of fertility – and even “the children of Makhir, Menashe’s son, are born on his knees.”  Yet, there is an acute awareness that the other Divine promise remains unfulfilled.  As Yosef states, “God will surely remember you and He will bring you up out of this land.”   He acknowledge that he is now dependent on is brothers, upon whom he used to tattle incessantly, to take his body out of the land.  Not surprisingly, the story concludes with the words “in Egypt.”


  1. B-B1 Brotherly Hate and its Resolution


The story opens with the rivalry between Yosef and his brothers that began with Yaakov’s giving over of the striped coat, and continued with Yosef’s retelling of his dreams.  The overwhelming emotion that permeated the first section was the hatred that the brothers felt towards their younger sibling.  By the end, this feeling has been reversed.  The brothers’ overwhelming concern was not the hatred that they had once harbored towards their brother, but the fear that Yosef has been secretly nurturing a feeling of hatred towards them. They come to him, beg for forgiveness, and tell him that Yaakov gave them a message (a parallel to the coat that Yaakov gave Yosef?) that they are not to be harmed.  Prostrating themselves while they do so, they ironically fulfill the dream that had caused such consternation so long ago.


  1. C-C1 Death and Mourning


Chapter 37 continued with the apparent loss of Yosef and Yaakov’s mourning.  In reality, slave merchants were taking Yosef down to Egypt.  The sons could not comfort Yaakov; parents never reconcile themselves to the loss of a child.    In Chapter 49, Yaakov dies, and Yosef is responsible to bring Yaakov back up to Canaan for burial (another reversal).  Even the unexpected appearance of the Canaanite mourners (50:11) during Yaakov’s funeral procession find its parallel with the appearance of the anonymous local who appears briefly in the text to point the wandering Yosef in the direction of his brothers.


  1. D-D1 Yehuda Becomes the Leader


Chapter 38 describes the episode of Tamar.  In this brief interlude, which some critics felt interrupted the flow of the Yosef story, Yehuda had temporarily left the brothers to establish a life on his own.  He has children, but tragedy strikes when the eldest dies leaving no heirs, and God kills the second child for refusing to perform his brotherly obligations.  When Yehuda refuses to ensure that the third son take responsibility for his sibling, Tamar takes matters into her own hands, seducing Yehuda and forcing him acknowledge his errors.  While it appears to be nothing but a humiliation for Yehuda, his internalization of the lesson of responsibility is what ultimately enables him to convince Yaakov to entrust Binyamin to his care and to persuade Yosef to drop the faחade and reunite with his brothers.  In Chapter 49, Yaakov, recognizing that the brothers all acknowledge Yehuda as their leader, blesses Yehuda as such.  He continues by saying that his scepter should never depart from Shilo – an allusion to the original loss of his staff to Tamar many years before, and the name of Yehuda’s third son, Shela.


  1. E-E1  Competing Children and Reversal


The story of Yehuda and Tamar concludes with the birth of Tamar’s twin sons, Peretz and Zerach.  Zerach had put out his arm first, and would have naturally been the firstborn.  The nurse tied a red thread around his wrist to identify him. However, Perez was actually born before him.  This story’s significance is through the parallel to the birth of Yaakov and Eisav, where the eldest, who is associated with the color red, will lose the birthright.  Like his grandfather, Yaakov, Peretz (whose name evokes the blessing given to Yaakov “u’faratzta”- you shall break forth), supplants his brother.  This story confirms what readers of Sefer Bereishit long suspected – the Divine approval of the practice of the younger supplanting the older.  It is no surprise that when confronted with Yosef’s two children, Yaakov would choose to bless Ephraim, the younger.


  1. F-F1 Tensions with Wives


Thematically, there does not seem to be much connection between Potifar’s wife’s attempted seduction of Yosef, and the deathbed scene between Yaakov and his favorite son.  However, we note that several theme-words link the two sections:


(a)     The verb “bless” appears prominently in both units (39:5, 48:3, 9, 15, 16, 20).

(b)    Yosef finds favor in Potifar’s eyes (39:4), and Yaakov asks Yosef “if I have found favor in your eyes” (47:29).

(c)     In both stories, a main character is on a bed, so that the root “” (to lie), so significant in the attempted seduction (four times between 39:7-14), reverberates heavily in 47:30.

(d)    The word “hand” appears 9 times in ch. 39; and through his hand Yosef will swear to Yaakov in 47:29.


Perhaps most significantly, the linking of the two stories helps decipher the reason for the unexpected mention by Yaakov of the burial of Rachel while speaking to Yosef.  By noting the wordplay between 39:6, where nothing in Potifar’s house (beit) has been held held back except “lechem” (bread) (a figurative term for wife), and Rachel’s burial near “Beit-Lechem” (the house of bread), we can suggest the following:  Chapter 39 discusses a wife who attempts to have Yosef infringe upon his place, to which he heroically refuses.  In Chapter 48, Yaakov explains to Yosef why his mother is buried out of her proper place.  However, he confers upon Yosef the right of the firstborn (the double inheritance) – perhaps as a reward for having resisted the blandishments of Potifar’s wife so many years before.


  1. G-G1 Yosef Saves Egypt


In addition to the obvious thematic parallels of how Yosef’s wisdom enables him to save Egypt from hunger, we see that shared theme-words heighten the correspondence, including the constant repetitions of the words “famine,” “bread,” “cities,” “buy/sell grain,” and the bureaucratic division of the land into fifths (41:34; 47:24, 26). 


  1. H-H1 The Visit Becomes Permanent


As mentioned above, one of the major purposes of the Yosef narrative is to bring the nascent Jewish people down to Egypt.  If the first trips to Egypt are simply to procure food (and free Shimon), the second trip involves their settling in the land of Goshen.  Goshen was chosen, as the Egyptian did not wish to associate with the Hebrews; a reality reflected in the first half when the brothers and Yosef dine apart.


  1. I – The Census


This development brings us to the pivotal section of the narrative – the census of Yaakov’s descendants as they descend to Egypt.  We have encountered previous genealogies in Sefer Bereishit listing the descendants of Adam, Noach, Yishmael and Eisav.  Previously, the appearance of the genealogy signified the final rejection of that character from the plot of the story; once their descendants are enumerated, the character disappears from the book.  Here, however, the genealogy signifies something different.  Finally, we have a father who has managed to create a family that is loyal to its Divine mission, where all sons are included.  With this accomplishment, we can more forward to the next stage – from the creation of a family to the creation of a nation.  However, one final issue remains to be resolved; and that is alluded to in the summary below.





The commentators immediately note several of the inconsistencies within the census.  The number of names that enumerated does not equal the total given at the end of the census (32 descendants of Leah are listed, not 33).  To complicate matters even further, two different numbers appear in the summary:


All the persons who came with Yaakov to Egypt, the issue of his loins, asides from the wives of Yaakov’s sons, sixty-six people in all.  All the sons of Yosef who were born to him in Egypt were two persons.  All the persons of the household of Yaakov coming to Egypt were seventy. (46:26-27)


Some of the commentators (Ibn Ezra) suggest that the larger numbers are meant as rounded figures (Rosh points out that the Torah uses the number forty when it intends thirty-nine [see Devarim 25]).  However, this does not explain the discrepancy between 32 and 33.  The Rashbam and the Baalei Tosafot suggest that Yaakov was included in the number.  Other commentators suggest the existence of an unnamed character (Ramban and Rashi mention the Midrash that Yocheved was born between the walls, the Ketav Ve-hakabbala suggests that it refers to Yosef’s wife, whom the Midrash identifies as the daughter of Dina). 


            More significantly is the discrepancy in the summary between sixty-six and seventy.  Rabbi Yehuda Nachshoni brings an interpretation that  the sixty-six only include those who were “the issue of his loins,” while the inclusion of Yaakov and his three remaining wives bring the number up to seventy who came to Egypt.  However, the simple meaning of the text is that the additional four refer to Yosef and his family.  We can suggest that the inconsistency is intentional.  The literary tension created through the different numbers alludes to the deeper thematic question that needs to be resolved – is Yosef to be considered part of the family, or has he gone of on his own, separate part.  This final question will be the focus of our study on Parashat Va-yechi.




[1] John Skinner, Genesis 1969, p. 438. 

[2] Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis, 1966, p. 211.  Among other praise that this narrative has received was Voltaire’s confession that “it is one of the most precious documents handed down to our own age from antiquity.

[3] We will define chiasm as a stylistic literary device that consists of a series of two or more elements, which is followed by a presentation of the corresponding elements in reverse order.  The elements may be words, phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or even longer narratives.  The correspondence can be textual (repeated words) or thematic (similar plots).  The chiastic structure focuses upon a pivotal theme that is located at the center, around which the other propositions of the literary unit are developed.   Therefore, the structure assumes a center (or crossing point), illustrated by the Greek letter Xi (pronounced chi – hence the name chiasm).  In previous studies, we have noted how individual stories (Noach and the vineyard, the sale of Yosef) use this structure to develop their message.