Joseph at the Crossroads: Torah’s Godot Moment

There’s a murky encounter between two strangers in the middle of the Joseph story. It comes at a pivotal moment in the drama of Joseph and his brothers, but it’s really weird and begs us to shed light on it.

Two men in field foggy
Joseph meets the angel Gabriel in a field outside Shechem

The detour

Joseph’s been a real pain to his brothers from another mother. He didn’t have the discretion to keep his grandiose dream about dominating them to himself. The sages say he was so full of himself that he rubbed their noses in it every chance he got. He paraded around in his technicolor dreamcoat, too, really pouring salt in the wound, basically announcing, “I’m the favorite, see?”

Joseph’s father has already berated him for his insufferable pomposity once; now Jacob summons him, a vain seventeen years old, to go on a mission.

Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing [the flock] in Shechem? Come, and I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “I will go.” Then he said to him, “Go now and see about the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring word back to me.” So he sent him from the valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. A man found him, and behold, he was wandering in the field; and the man asked him, “What are you looking for?” He said, “I am looking for my brothers; please tell me where they are pasturing [the flock].” Then the man said, “They have moved from here; for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.'”So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan. When they saw him from a distance and before he came close to them, they plotted against him to put him to death. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer! “Now then, come and let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we will say, ‘A wild beast devoured him.’ Then let us see what will become of his dreams!” (Gen 37:13-20)

Torah’s Godot Moment

The passage has many mysteries. Why did Jacob send Joseph by himself to find his brothers if he thought the brothers hate him? He knew his favorite son’s boasting and smarminess more than irked his other sons, who already proved they’re massively violent and willing to revenge killing. Was he trying to get the brothers to make peace? Did he want Joseph to face his brothers, pay for his narcissism, and grow up?

And why does Joseph say, “Hineni – Here I am!”  submitting so completely to his father? He must have known it would be trouble for him to be so far from home and face his brothers alone. Is it out of sheer respect or does Joseph know he has to submit to his destiny just as Abraham did when God asked him to sacrifice Isaac?

And why are the brothers so far from home in the first place (Shechem is 85 kilometers from Hebron)? There couldn’t have been much competition for grazing their flocks.

Who is the strange man who tells Joseph that his brothers have moved on? Where did he come from and what is he doing hanging around Shechem if every male has been killed by his brothers? Why would the brothers tell this mystery guy where they intended to go? Why have they moved on to Dothan? There couldn’t have been too much competition for pasturing their flocks outside Shechem.

And then there’s the biggest mystery of all, a textual one: Why does the Torah take this strange detour with Joseph to tell us at all about this odd, irrelevant encounter. Why didn’t the Divine editor leave this scene on the cutting room floor? Rabbi Sacks describes this murky passage as “three verses dedicated to an apparently trivial, eminently forgettable detail of someone having to ask directions from a stranger,” and declares “there is no other moment like this in Torah” for its weird irrelevancy and strangeness.^

Joseph is alone, wandering lost in a field outside Shechem, a limbo outside normal time and space. Like an apocalyptic wasteland in a movie, the city must be desolate since Joseph’s brothers, the very ones he’s looking for, have killed every male and looted the city. Surely the symbolism of the place must have given Joseph some pause. If it’s not an utter ruin, then it’s haunted by mourning women and girls.

Then a man appears out of nowhere and mysteriously knows where the brothers have gone. The whole scene could be a surrealist or absurdist movie, like Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” Both Joseph and the narrative he is in have lost their way. 

Going Astray

A single, dramatic word may hold the key. Torah describes Joseph’s blundering in the field outside Shechem with an unusual verb: toeh  (תעה). Its usual translation is “wandering,” which makes sense since he’s searching for his brothers and is confused why they’re not there after his father, a prophet, told him they would be. But the normal word for wandering is l’shotet (לשוטט). Toeh implies a much profounder sense of confusion. It’s related to the word to err, or be mistaken, deceived, confused, or most portentously here, to stray or be led astray.

The word occurs only three other times in the Torah.^ Once is when Avimelech complains that Abraham presented Sarah as his sister instead of his wife, a deceit that jeopardizes Avimelech’s life and kingdom, since a plague breaks out when the king tries to bed Sarah. Abraham admits his ruse but covers for her: “When God caused me to wander from my father’s house, I said to Sarah, ‘Do this kindness for me…'” and go along with the imposture in order to save my life. [Gen 20:13]

As Mark Twain said about history, the Torah “does not repeat itself … but it does rhyme.” The first scene illuminates the second. Just as Abraham says, “When I left my father’s house,” Joseph has also left his father’s home. Both are unprotected physically and spiritually, which is why Abraham is afraid to present Sarah as his wife. But both scenes suggest that their heros are “off the derech” – they’ve lost their way. Their immediate actions may have been justified, but they have not fully arrived at the elevated emotional strength of character or spiritual state they will need to captain the destiny of the Hebrews.

Joseph’s detour getting lost in the limbo of a field outside Shechem sets him on the road not just to his punishment. His brothers throw him into the pit, rip his coat, consider killing him, and sell him into slavery to the Ishmaelites.

Maybe the Torah is playing with us here, but let’s continue our game of treating the text as an ultimate poem, as Wallace Stevens would say, by an ultimately intentional Author, and at least consider that every connection is plausible, however tenuous: the next time the word toeh occurs is when Hagar and Ishmael have been ejected by Abraham and Sarah and they wander the desert facing death. (Gen 21:14) Is it an accident or a fine poetic irony that the Ishmaelites buy Joseph?  In both scenes, the punishment continues, but the heros are rescued. Here the Ishmaelites return God’s favor to their forefather by ensuring Joseph will survive to pursue his, and Israel’s, destiny.

The sages say the mysterious stranger Joseph meets outside Shechem was really the angel Gabriel, the particular messenger of God’s judgment.^ He meets Joseph at the confused crossroad between youth and maturity and sends him on his way to Dothan. They also say Dothan is really the realm of legal judgement. Joseph must go to Dothan and pay the price to grow up.


[Thanks to my chevrusa Ron Kardos, Yael Esther Berenfus, Marcos Frid, and Pinchas Gardyn for making suggestions that improved this blog. All the other narishkeit is my own.]

^See R. Lord Jonathan Sacks, “The Angel Who Didn’t Know He Was an Angel.”

^As always, when I use the term Torah, I refer to the Five Books of Moses rather than the complete Jewish Scriptures or Tanach.

^The fourth occurrence of to’eh is the famous law brought down in Exodus: “If the ass of your enemy goes astray” you must return it to the owner [Ex 23:4]. This also might reflect on Joseph’s bewildered moment at Shechem.

^R. Isaac ben Moses Arama (Spanish, c. 1420 – 1494) in his Akeidat Yitzchak 20:1:7 connects the two scenes of Abraham and Joseph. Though he does not explicitly connect the two through the word for “going astray,” toeh, his insight applies to both. He notes that both Abraham and Joseph had to go through tests and perils to continue on the destined path of the Hebrews in their evolution to becoming a nation.

^Rashi, Bachya ben Asher, Or HaChaim, and others say that Dothan wasn’t just a physical place but implies the brothers had moved to a place in their attitudes where they were devising legal strategems – to’ot – to get rid of Joseph. They say the “man” – really the angel Gabriel – was warning Joseph in a veiled manner. See also Midrash Tanchuma Buber, (Vayeshev 13:5) which explains D’Tanyah” implies “DT – YH”; Gabriel was watching out for G-d’s law of the land.