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What are you Seeking?

Chapter 37 of Genesis begins the saga of Jacob and his children. We soon learn that seventeen year old Joseph is the favoured, gifted child, the dreamer who is given a special robe (‘of many colours’ say some translations). But he is also perceived as lording his gifts over others (37:2-9). His brothers hate him for it, and even his doting father is concerned (37:10-11).

One day, Jacob sends Joseph to check on his brothers who are pasturing sheep at Shechem. On his way Joseph meets a man who asks him a question and points him in the direction of his brothers. What happens next is a complete breakdown in family relations. Joseph is betrayed by his brothers, sold into slavery, and taken to Egypt.

While tragic, it is also a decisive turning point in the story of God’s chosen people. As Genesis unfolds, Joseph’s path ultimately saves his family from death during a famine. It also leads to the enslavement of future generations... giving way to the epic events of Exodus.

All this you can read in Genesis. Of particular interest here, however, is the stranger who Joseph encounters on his way to that fateful meeting with his brothers.

A man found him wandering in the fields; the man asked him, ‘What are you seeking?’ ‘I am seeking my brothers,’ he said. (Genesis 37:15-16)

Who is this unnamed man who appears out of nowhere and disappears from the story just as elusively? Why does the Torah record this conversation? Consisting of just two verses, the conversation is easy to overlook. Yet, as the Jewish sages are so fond of demonstrating, when we ‘slow down’ our bible reading and ponder even tiny details, God’s word surprises us with powerful meanings.

Where else does an unnamed man enter the bible story? In Genesis 32 Jacob wrestles with a mystery man, sometimes thought to be an angelic being. Is the man who questions Joseph also a divine representative? Is there more to his question “What are you seeking?” than immediately apparent? Is this a question to be answered by the reader?

The text tells us that Jacob sends Joseph “from the valley of Hebron” (37:14). ‘But isn’t Hebron on a mountain?’ asks Rashi, the 11th century Torah scholar. Why would the Torah describe it as a valley? Rashi answers that the text signifies that from this moment the depths of God’s designs are being realized. In fact, the Hebrew words for ‘valley’ (e’mek), ‘profound’ (a’mok), ‘deep’ (o’mek) share the same root.

Why is this such a significant moment?

Humanly speaking, it is significant for Joseph. From the status of a spoilt teenager found ‘wandering’ [another translation: ‘blundering’] in the fields, he begins the painful journey to maturity, even rising to power in Pharaoh’s household. Will he find what he is truly seeking?

On another level, this moment is highly significant for the history of Israel. As the sages observe: On this day, the exile of Egypt began. The day Jacob unknowingly sends Joseph to near-death at the hands of his brothers, events are set in motion that will lead the Israelites to exile in Egypt and their consequent liberation which remains central to Jewish faith, and to Christian faith too. In what appears as chance encounters, God’s designs are perfected.

By now we can see that Joseph’s encounter with a divine figure signifies a dramatic ‘pause’ in the sacred story. The Torah affords us a moment to ‘catch our breath’ and reflect on the hand of God guiding human events. Are we awake to the sacred ‘pauses’ in our own lives? •

Reflection: Sometimes people appear in our lives for a short time, they awaken us to important truths, open doors, point the way...Then they are gone, leaving us with a sense of being in a ‘new’ place and on a divinely ordained journey. Have you had an experience like this?

Bibliography: Herczeg, ed., The Torah: With Rashi’s Commentary (New York, 1999); Munk, The Call of the Torah (New York, 1994). Scripture: NRSV.

© Teresa Pirola, 2011. Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website


Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community in Australia, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Vayishev (Genesis 37:1 - 40:23), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

The eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah this year commences on the evening of 18 December 2022, coinciding with the beginning of the season of Advent in many Christian Churches.

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