Torah Ecology: Vayehi (Gen. 47:28 – 50:24)

Genesis ends with hints and an increasing sense of foreboding about the future of Joseph’s family in Egypt. The portion is sandwiched between two references to G-d as a shepherd, parallel to the role of the Israelites with their flocks.

The references to animals in this portion follow:

  1. Gen. 48:15 – In the preamble to his blessing, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”
  2. Gen. 49:6 – With reference to Simeon and Levi, “For when angry they slay men, And when pleased they maim oxen.”
  3. Gen. 49:9 – “Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, ave y ou grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts – who dare rouse him?”
  4. Gen. 49:11 – Still referring to Judah, “He tethers his ass to a vine, His ass’s foal to a choice vine…”
  5. Gen. 49:14 – Issachar is a strong-bonded ass, Crouching among the sheepfolds…”
  6. Gen. 49:17 – “Dan shall be a serpent by the road, A viper by the path, That bites the horse’s heels So that his rider is thrown backward.”
  7. Gen. 49:21 – “Naphtali is a hind let loose, Which yields lovely fawns.”
  8. Gen. 49:22 – “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailted him; They shot at him and harried him…
  9. Gen. 49:24 – “And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”
  10. Gen. 49:27 – “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf; In the morning he consumes the foe, And in the evening he divides the spoil.”
  11. Gen. 50:8 – “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went upo with him; it was a very large group.”

As Jacob approaches the end of his life, the last 17 years in Egypt, he summons Joseph and asks for Joseph’s promise to return his bones to the burial place of his fathers in the land of Canaan. Jacob continues with blessing Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Menashe, giving the primary blessing to the younger, Ephraim. In Gen. 48:15, Jacob speaks of “the G-d who has been my shepherd from my birth to this day…”

In the course of Jacob’s testament, as he blesses his sons in Gen. 49:23-24, Jacob speaks of Joseph saying, “Joseph is a wild ass, A wild ass by a spring — Wild colts on a hillside. Archers bitterly assailed him; They shot at him and harried him. Yet his bow stayed taut, And his arms were made firm By the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob — There, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel.”

The caring, nurturing, constant, protective shepherd imagery is suggestive in two directions, describing G-d’s relationship with G-d’s people and the Israelites’ relationship with their animals. This is the constant care and protection that sustained Jacob through a turbulent life filled with loss, that sustained Joseph through a painful youth, and that will sustain the Israelites through their trials in Egypt. It is the care and protection a shepherd provides to flocks as they travel in search of pasture. The image of G-d’s relationship to G-d’s children parallels the shepherd’s relationship to a flock.

Eight of 12 brothers are described in terms of animals: Simeon and Levi (Gen. 49:6), Judah (Gen. 49:9), Issachar (Gen. 49:14), Dan (Gen. 49:17), Naphtali (Gen. 49:21), Joseph (Gen. 49:22-24) and Benjamin. Four brothers are not: Reuben, Zebulun, Gad and Asher.

Noteworthy among those described in terms of animals are Simeon and Levi. Like Reuben, Simeon and Levi are excoriated in Jacob’s blessing: “Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not my person be included in their council, Let not my being be counted in their assembly. For when angry they slay men, and when pleased they maim oxen.” They are probably paired because of their joint attack (as the brothers of Dinah) on the city of Shechem. They are singled out for their violence, ruthlessness and cruelty, and Jacob dissociates himself from them.  Now the three eldest sons, Reuben, Simeon and Levi, are disqualified from assuming Jacob’s leadership role.

What is powerful in this section of the testament, though, is the way cruelty and barbarism toward other people is parallel to cruelty and barbarism toward animals, whom Simeon and Levi, the brothers of needlessly “maim” as a sign of their victory. In the parallelism of the poetry, both targets of violence are equally inexcusable.

Finally, we become increasingly aware through the last chapter of Genesis of a deteriorating situation in Egypt. As important as Joseph as been to the Pharaoh, as high in the administrative hierarchy as he has been, when his father dies and Joseph wants permission to carry his bones to the burial site of Jacob’s fathers in Canaan, Joseph doesn’t go directly to Pharaoh but instead speaks to “Pharaoh’s court.”

Despite the fact that he assures Pharaoh he will return (was there a question?), Pharaoh sends all his officials with Joseph and his family, a “very larger troop” including horsemen. Did this signify that Pharaoh didn’t trust Joseph when he said he would return?

If there is any doubt about the answer to that question, the latter part of the verse seems to resolve it: “So Joseph went up to bury his father; and with him went up all the officials of Pharaoh, the senior members of his court, and all of Egypt’s dignitaries, together with all of Joseph’s household, his brothers, and his father’s household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the region of Goshen. Chariots, too, and horsemen went up with him; it was a very large group.”

Perhaps the children, flocks and herds were insurance. And once again, human life parallels animal life: even if the Israelites real intention was to escape, they will return for their flocks and herds as much as for their children.

And now on to Exodus and a “new king who did not know Joseph.”

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