A Band of Brothers and the Herd Mentality *

by Josh Yarden, with Dotan Yarden

ScreenHunter_1058 Mar. 09 10.11

The Arc of Change

In a previous essay posted here last month, I began to sketch the arc of Joseph's life. With Joseph, the narrative takes a new turn. All of the major figures in the Book of Genesis before him are in some way chosen—created, inspired or called to serve. Their stories begin with some sort of exemplary behavior or praise-worthy qualities. Each protagonist rises and falls, followed by the next rising star. As each star sets, the heroes' later days somehow disgrace their valiant youth. If we ignore this recurring theme that spirals through the narrative at the end of each episode, we miss an important opportunity to learn from the text.

Joseph is the first hero to reverse the ‘rise and fall' pattern. He starts out as an arrogant liar, braying at his brothers like a jackass, treating them like animals, the way a shepherd growls at sheep to keep them in line with the flock. Provoking his brothers, and eventually his father too, led them to put Joseph in his place. He will eventually become a great hero, but not before being put in his place and nearly losing his life along the way.

The Herd Mentality

Joseph first imagines he can lord over his brothers. This foreshadowing doesn't seem to bother his father, Jacob, who rewards Joseph with the striped tunic, the ‘coat of many colors.' Taunting his older brothers, however, does not satisfy his desire for power and influence. Joseph goes on to dream that his own parents will also bow down to him.

When Joseph has the audacity to tell his father about that dream, Jacob finally loses his temper. The text reads: “He kept the matter,” which is a gentle euphemism for bearing a grudge. The context of the story makes that plain, if not crystal clear, when Jacob sends his sons away with the flock and later sends Joseph off to bring him a report. It may seem innocent enough at first glance, and Joseph does not seem to suspect anything right away, but Jacob is sending Joseph into the hands of his angry brothers who now know that Jacob is also incensed.

The enmity between Joseph and his brothers spirals out of control when they see him approaching. The idea of killing him is first mentioned in the text, but the suggestion is not attributed to anyone by name. A murder is about to be committed, and it is not even clear where the idea came from. This is how the dynamic of the herd mentality can transform honest folks into an angry mob: Individuals stop thinking when they lose their patience. Intoxicated by a cocktail of indignation and strength in numbers, the adulterated human spirit is stirred into a rage. With the loss of individuality goes the capacity for independent judgement. One who is caught up in the fervor of the crowd is lost without access to a moral compass.

Swept up in the frenzy of a crowd, it is impossible to follow an otherwise obvious moral imperative. The critical turn away from violence requires reemerging from the sea of anger as an individual. This essential character of critical thinking is embedded in the conceptual level of the text. Take a look at the following translation of Genesis, chapter 37 verse 16-27. When the narrative refers to the brothers acting as one group, Joseph's life is in danger. When an individual acts alone, sanity is restored, at least to some extent.

And they see him from afar
and before he draws near to them
they consort against him to kill him.

So they said
one to his brother
hey, the dreamer approaches.

Now go and we will kill him
and we will throw him in one of the cisterns and we will say a wild beast ate him
then we'll see what his dreams will be.

Acting as a gang, the brothers want to spill Joseph's blood. The text does not say anything about the thoughts or the motivations of the individuals until Reuben steps up in verse 21. Thinking on his own, he saves Joseph's life.

When Reuben hears,
he saves him from their hand.
We will not strike him mortally.

And Reuben says to them, “Do not spill blood.
Throw him into this cistern in the desert, but do not lay a hand on him,”
so that he could save him from their hand, to return him to their father.

And so it was, when Joseph comes to his brothers
they strip Joseph of his tunic
the striped tunic that's on him.

When Reuben leaves, in verse 24, the gang goes back into action:

And they take him
and throw him into the empty cistern
without any water in it.

Then, they sit to eat bread
and they raise their eyes and they see, here comes a caravan of Ishmaelites from Gil'ad
with their camels bearing spices and myrrh and balm going to bring it down to Egypt.

Yehuda emerges as an independent actor in verse 26. He also tries to save Joseph:

What would be accomplished by us killing our brother and covering up his blood?
Let's go and sell him to the Ishmaelites and we don't lay a hand on him
because he is our brother, our flesh. And his brothers listen to him.

When the brothers act as a group they are all cruel to Joseph. Each time an individual takes the initiative to think for himself, he works against the dynamic of the herd mentality. Standing up to group requires real courage. When Ruben returns to the pit and discovers that Joseph is no longer there, he rips in own garment, in a sign of mourning. Assuming Joseph has been killed, he is struck with notion that he may be next. Approaching his brothers, he says, “Joseph is gone. What, pray tell, will become of me?”

The brothers have a more pressing question on their mind. What will they tell their father about his favorite son? It turns out that they reserve the worse punishment for him. Deceiving their own father into believing that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal may be the cruelest act of the story. Jacob, who set the events in motion, blames himself. Remember the opening words of this chapter of Genesis: “These are Jacob's issues.” These sons were issued from his seed, and these are the issues he must deal with for the rest of his life.

Jacob tears his clothes and puts on sackcloth. His children disingenuously attempt to console their father, but he will not be comforted. Instead he cries,

I will go down
mourning for my son
to Sheol

The Book of Genesis is a family affair (and, frankly, it seems to be the kind of family that gives holiday gatherings a bad name.) Abraham's family tree has more than a few broken branches. They do set the stage for the story of a nation, but they are a rather unpleasant bunch, to say the least.

Tradition praises the virtues of biblical characters. Some commentators seem to go to inordinate lengths to justify their behavior, or at least to see it within the context of a larger plan. But the characters themselves do not attribute their actions to a higher purpose. We can make excuses for them, but if we judge the archetypal characters in the Genesis narrative on the merit of their own behavior, we have to conclude that they are not particularly honest, often impatient, and at times—when they seem to need each other the most—they are irrevocably cruel to one another.

Joseph is Different

Joseph might have died in that empty cistern in the desert, but surviving that dramatic moment is a small part of his story. He will be imprisoned and threatened with death again. His true greatness is this: He starts out as an insufferable problem child, thanks in large part to his father's conspicuous favoritism. He manages to get ahold of his dreams, and he becomes truly powerful when he learns to becomes the world's greatest problem solver.

After adopting an entirely new life for himself, Joseph is caught off guard when, due to the famine in Canaan, the brothers seek assistance in Egypt. Joseph is revisited by his past. He recognizes his Hebrew brothers, but they do not see that they are speaking with Joseph, because they never would have imagined that he would grow up to become a most powerful Egyptian. Now he is faced with a golden opportunity to take revenge on his brothers. All he has to do is ignore them.

Imagine for a moment that Joseph's story was written with three possible endings, the one we have as well as a version in which Joseph is killed by his brothers, and another in which he ignores them when they seek his assistance in Egypt. If you didn't know the story as it is told, which ending do you think you would choose? I wonder which ending would be the most popular in a society where people seem to prefer winners and losers, so often rationalize away their own mistakes, and commonly justify nefarious actions by ignoring the consequences and focusing instead on some imagined higher purpose.

Given the recurring cycle of falling heroes in the Book of Genesis, with previously honorable people adopting immoral ways later in life, it makes sense to assume that Joseph would punish his brothers in some manner. If so, he would simply join the parade of fallen heroes. In a surprising shift of the narrative arc, however, Joseph's story is a critical turn for the biblical hero. He chooses to resolve rather than to perpetuate the cascading conflicts among generations of brothers in his family. All of the brothers will get through this crisis together, and from this generation on, the descendants of all of Jacob's sons will be the People of Israel.

The story of Jacob's issues contains multiple negative lessons about hubris, favoritism, anger and the herd mentality. It also culminates in a wonderfully complex and powerfully positive message: Recurring cycles can be disrupted. It is possible to have a new beginning in life, even under the most difficult conditions.

When it comes to personal integrity, we are not condemned to accept that 'what goes up must come down.' Our ethical judgement does not have to fail us or those who depend upon us. On the grand national scale, it is Joseph's ingenuity that enables Egypt to survive a drought without falling into famine. And Joseph is also the great innovator on the personal level, saving his family from destroying itself.

Epilogue: Why read the Bible?

The 'heroes' of the Bible stories are complex literary protagonists, rather than idols to be worshipped. Regardless of the historical accuracy of these stories, they ring true through the experiences of characters with real faults, sometimes causing and often grappling with the very real types of problems people actually face in life. In that sense, the stories of the biblical archetypes are perhaps even more truthful than some of the well-spun stories that appear to be verifiably accurate journalistic accounts.

The biblical stories that have been passed down for millennia are indeed literary treasures. They are particularly valuable in the way they leave so much open space for filling in details between the lines, within the framework of the story. The stories themselves make no claim of historical accuracy. They are canvases upon which successive generations can join in the conversation and draw their own conclusions.

Through interpretation and reinterpretation of the moral ambiguity embedded in ancient literature, we learn to examine the moral ambiguity present in our own lives. Then, when the time comes for us to act in our own historical context, we might be better positioned to reflect on the potential repercussions of our decisions. If we can avoid going down a regrettable path before the damage is done, we may be able to avoid spending our later days at war, in mourning, cursing ourselves or making contemptible excuses for reprehensible behavior.

* This essay is a continuation ofJoseph: Fallen Hero Rising,” posted here last month.

Joseph: Fallen Hero Rising

by Josh Yarden

Joseph's Coat


How could Joseph's brothers have plotted to kill him? Why would they, and why stop amidst a frenzy of murderous intent? Was fratricide common in biblical times? Surely the story of Cain and Abel, whether it is factual or not, appeared with some historical context in which jealousy led to unbounded anger, and before the perpetrator could regain his senses, the regrettable act was complete. Intentional killings—be they foolishly impassioned manslaughter, premeditated murder or political assignation—continue to occupy our fascination today. A few thousand years later, and we're not all that different. What can we learn from this ancient story?

Perhaps a reading of Genesis was meant, at least in part, to provide an opportunity to reflect on the power of envy before it was too late. What thinking person who read the Bible would choose to become Cain in his own personal narrative? Later in the Book of Genesis, Jacob's older sons manage to stop short of killing their brother, and while throwing him in a dry cistern and selling him off to slavery was nothing to write home about—indeed they did not tell their father what they had done—at least they spared Joseph's life.

My problem with the story was that the brothers' jealousy motive never really made sense to me. Ok, their father Jacob's thoughtless favoritism for a younger son not born of their mother would certainly breed some resentment, but even with the ‘coat of many colors,' and Joseph's self-aggrandizing dreams, the plot remained simply too thin to support a murderous rage… that is, until I understood a couple of key words in the Hebrew I was not able to understand in English translation. Once I saw what I had previously missed, there was no going back. The meaning of the sequence of events in the whole story fell into place.

“Meaning of Heb. Uncertain”

The footnote “Meaning of Heb. uncertain” appears dozens of times. In spite of all the learning, teaching and preaching rooted in the stories of the biblical narrative over the past few thousand years, we know that some of the meaning has been lost in translation along the way. How does one know when to be uncertain? Let's face it; in the Bible as in life, there may be much more uncertainty than we are comfortable admitting to ourselves. Ambiguity reigns in a world that is subject to multiple interpretation. Ancient Hebrew is so foreign to modern readers that there are simply many passages where the translation relies on interpretations, rather than on a verifiably definitive meaning of the text itself. There are many phrases where wordplay carries the deeper meaning of a passage, and the unfortunate reader of a translated text cannot even see the double entendre that may well be the literary jewel of a certain passage.

It should come as no surprise that we cannot easily render ancient Hebrew into modern English. It can also be difficult to render ancient Hebrew into modern Hebrew. It's not that the meaning of an occasional word is uncertain. The very fact that these words came to us via hand written text on parchment scrolls is enough to suggest that we might easily misunderstand some of the words and much of the context. We really ought to have a bit less hubris about our own abilities to grasp the meaning of the ancient past.

Translators are interpreters who make choices for less informed readers. Some of those choices render the text in ways that alter or limit the meaning of the original. This is even true when we look at contemporary texts translated from one widely used and easily understood language to another. How much more so, must this be the case when we read translations of ancient texts? From spelling and usage to grammar and syntax to style and circumstances, we have to accept that we can neither see nor hear the text in quite the same way it was seen and heard a few millennia ago, and the differences are not always clear.

Genesis 37; 1-2

Here is the King James Version (KJV) rendering of Genesis 37:1-2 “And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was feeding the flock with his brethren; and the lad was with the sons of Bilhah, and with the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives: and Joseph brought unto his father their evil report.”

Here is the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) version: “Now Jacob was settled in the land where his father had sojourned, the land of Canaan. This, then, is the line of Jacob: At seventeen years of age, Joseph tended the flocks with his brothers, as a helper to the sons of his father's wives Bilhah and Zilpah. And Joseph brought bad reports of them to their father.” In these and in many other Christian and Jewish translations, there are both subtle and significant differences.

I want to focus here on three key words. As I see it, they clarify the reasons for the intensity of the brothers enduring anger. They are: “na'ar,” “et” and “dibah.”

In the case of the word “na'ar,” both of the translations above and others completely miss a possible instance of double entendre. Simply by putting the accent on one syllable or the other, the word could either be the noun for ‘young person' or the verb for vocalizing an aggressive animal sound.* Take them together, given the possibility that the double meaning is intended, and we have young Joseph braying like a jackass or growling like a dog, barking orders at his older brothers, taking advantage of his privileged position in his father's eye's.

The preposition “et” could indicate that he is with his brothers, or that he is doing something to his brothers. It would be nice if Joseph was just a helpful lad, herding with his brothers, but it would be out of step with the rest of the story. Nothing else in the text supports that reading. It makes much more sense that he is he is 'herding his brothers,' as a simple reading of the Hebrew text suggests. He is treating them as they treat the animals, taunting and maybe even threatening them. He is lording over them, as his dream portends.

The report Joseph brings to Jacob is labeled “dibah,” which could mean ‘bad' (according to JPS) or ‘evil' (according to KJV.) If it is bad, is that because of the quality of the report or the way it was delivered? If it is evil, who is responsible for that? Is it a report on the evil brothers, or is Joseph the evil one, intentionally delivering a slanderous report? If the brothers found out that Joseph provided Jacob with an intentionally false report to increase his own standing in their father's eyes, this clearly strengthens the case for their resentment boiling into a rage.

Here is an alternate translation of the second verse of Genesis 37:


Joseph at seventeen years

was herding his brothers

with the flock

And he brays

at the sons of Bilha and Zilpah, his father's wives

and Joseph comes with an slanderous report to their father

יוסף בן-שבע-עשרה שנה

היה רעה את-אחיו


והוא נער

את-בני בלהה ואת-בני זלפה נשי אביו

ויבא יוסף את-דבתם רעה אל-אביהם

Fallen Hero Rising

Jacob does not see through Joseph's act until his favorite son dreams that his parents will bow down to him. At this notion Jacob becomes livid, finally castigating Joseph. It is no coincidence that in the next passage of the story Jacob sends Joseph into the hands of his brothers. It is a set up, and Jacob is the one who put it in motion. As the opening of chapter 37 indicates in a slightly ambiguous way, 'these are Jacob's issues,' implying perhaps both the progeny and the problems with which they must all contend.^

It is worth remembering that Jacob didn't ‘start the fire.' He inherited his contentious family relationships. His parents, Isaac and Rebecca, taught him to set up his brother. Later his uncle Laban set him up, tricking him into marrying Leah before Rachel, and making him work for fourteen years as an indentured servant. Jacob later returns the favor, tricking Laban into losing much of his flock. Tricking and trapping each other seems to be the robust and irresistible inclination of this family. It is what they do, over and over again.

All of the archetypal characters in the Book of Genesis follow this arc of rising to become the hero of the narrative for a time, until they fall to the depths of disgraceful behavior. But Joseph is a new type of hero, with the opposite trajectory. He is the first and only character in the Genesis narrative to get off to a despicable beginning and then rise above himself without falling from greatness. After Joseph is thrown to the depths of the pit where he is almost left to die, the story continues and of our fallen hero begins to rise. The rest is history, or perhaps not, but that is a subject for a different day.

Read the next installment of this essay.

* Think of an English word such as ‘kid.' Figuring our whether it means a young human or a young goat, or the verb to tease in a playful way, is all a matter of context. Another example would be ‘ram' or ‘buck' which could be an animal or an aggressive action. In the case of ‘buck' the word can also be a proper name or slang for a dollar. A young buck might ram a kid, and you might have to read that passage more than a few times to figure out who is who and what is going on.

^ “These are Jacob's issues,” The Hebrew word “toldot” is a plural that refers to things that have been born of other things, in either a literal or a figurative manner. 'Toldot' is alternately rendered in English as generations, lineage, history, events, etc.

Image credit: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0034261.html

Torasophy: A Biblical Humanism (Part I)

by Josh Yarden Torah-scroll

Prequel to the world as they knew it

Reading the Hebrew Bible is a bit like entering a time machine to travel back a few millennia. Imagine people wearing sandals and clothes somewhat unlike yours, but strip away the styles and the trends, and you see that they are concerned in their own ways with the same issues that concern people in your day and in your town: place, property, power, privilege, position, passion, poverty and all the games people still play today. Even when the text as we know it was being compiled and edited, it was already an attempt to recall an ancestral time. These were the stories the ancient Israelites told of the primordial world and of their ascendence to their present day. Fast forward, and even with all of the advances in technology and science, we are still concerned with many of the same essential themes and questions.

Milky_Way_Night_Sky_Black_Rock_Desert_Nevada The Torah, as the first five books of the Bible are known in Hebrew, opens with a dreamlike inception of time and space. After a brief introduction to light and matter come the profiles of archetypal characters. The story quickly moves from the Big Bang to Mesopotamia to Canaan, from Adam to Noah to Terah. Everything in the history of the world leads to Abraham becoming the first Hebrew. There is a lot of traveling down to Egypt and back up to Canaan, and along the way the focus on Abraham and his children is further narrowed to the descendants of his grandson, Jacob. Some sections read like a genealogical archive of heroes and their arch-enemies, but the lists of dry details give way to compellingly detailed accounts of some exemplary human beings and their deplorable human failings. Oppression, emancipation, liberation, and the epic journey comes to fruition with People of Israel on the threshold of the Land of Israel.

That is the story as painted in a sweeping arc with one long stroke of a broad brush. At first there is nothing but an empty canvas. Then there is light, and soon after that the world is full of everything good. Humanity appears early on in the biblical narrative, when the clear skies—having just recently been separated from the water—are still carefree. It is a beautiful day and the reader can imagine Adam and Eve wishing it would never end. Look more closely and you can see a great deal of detail along the route from Eden Garden to the River Jordan—intrigue regarding all matters of personal, inter-personal and political relationships. These are the three areas of investigation in the biblical narrative. Adam is at first free to roam about the garden, naming everything he sees. He is then suddenly faced with rules, choices and dilemmas. The scene begins filling with moral ambiguity as the creator-spirit rumbles into the garden on a late afternoon breeze. The story grows dark.

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