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Notes from Limmud 2005

Was Joseph a Woman?

Adam Frankenburg

Was the Biblical Joseph really a woman? This talk suggests pieces of evidence - none convincing on their own, but adding to so many put together as to carry weight - that this was indeed the case. In unravelling the story, we have to consider who might have known his her true identity. Tracking down the evidence becomes a detective case: we have to bear in mind motive, opportunity and means for all possibilities.

First, a bit of background. The patriach Jacob has two wives: Rachel, whom he met at a well (as his grandfather's servant Eliezer first met his mother), and Leah. Rachel, we are told, is loved but barren; Leah is unloved [or less loved] but fruitful. After they get married, Leah has four sons in rapid succession, but Rachel has had no children. Leah has stopped giving birth because Rachel prevented her having access to Jacob. ("Is it not enough that you have taken my husband; now you are taking my son's mandrakes too!"). Finally Leah gives birth to a daughter. Now Rachel becomes pregnant and gives birth to Joseph.

We are told (Gen. 37) that Jacob gives Joseph a כתנת פסים, a coat of many colours (or possibly long sleeves). This term only occurs twice in the תנ״ך [the Jewish Bible], once about Joseph and once about Tamar the daughter of King David, where it says (II Samuel 13:18):

And she had a garment of divers colours upon her: for with such robes were the king's daughters that were virgins apparelled.

This is the first piece of evidence: Joseph is wearing clothing specifically described as being for women.

The second piece of evidence is that exactly the same description (יפת תאר ויפת מראה) is used to describe both Rachel and Joseph:

Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful of form, and beatiful of appearance (Gen. 29:17)
[Jacob] he left all that he had in Joseph's hand, and he knew not ought he had, save the bread which he ate; and Joseph was beatiful of form, and beatiful of appearance. (Gen. 39:6)

Joseph is the only man for whom this description is used in the whole of תנ״ך.

When Joseph gets married, he is very passive in the process - unlike most people in the Bible. He is presented with his wife by Pharaoh, and the description of his becoming a father is descriped in the passive:

"There were born to Joseph two sons, Ephraim and Menashe."

We would expect "Joseph knew his wife", or "Joseph begat Ephraim and Menashe". Compare also Gen. 37:1-2:

Jacob dwelt in the land of his father's sojournings, in the land of Canaan. These are the generations of Jacob. Joseph [...]

with Gen. 25:19:

These are the generations of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham begat Isaac.

When Joseph is described as becoming a grandfather they are described as being born upon his knees - the same phrase that was used for Sarah, Rachel and Leah having children through their handmaids. Rashi says that this means they were midwives.

Note also that there is no tribe of Joseph. Instead, there are two tribes named after his sons. The traditional interpretation is that this is his double portion for being the firstborn, but it is an odd double portion, losing his name in this way.

When "Mrs Potiphar" tries to seduce Joseph, why does Potiphar merely throw Joseph into jail, not kill him? He's a slave; Potiphar would be within his rights to do so. This is an incredibly mild reaction! It suggests he's in on his secret

Joseph is very emotional, and cries a lot - seven times during the course of his story. Surely Jacob's sons wouldn't cry! Similarly, when Joseph meets his father, after their decades of separation Joseph cries, but Jacob doesn't. And when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he cries on Benjamin's shoulder, but Benjamin doesn't cry.

According to the Midrash, Joseph was originally meant to be born to Leah, but she prayed that she did not have another son, as she did not want to exclude Rachel altogether; instead she gave birth to Dina.

If Joseph was Rachel's only child, there would be a very good case for her to pass him off as a boy. So there is her motive. She has opportunity too. And according to Rashi's interpretation, she was a midwife, so could be her own midwife. (And even if her handmaid was there, she owned her; she could do whatever she wanted with her there.)

As for Jacob, he desperately wanted a son and an heir from Rachel, so he has a motive too. He too has means and opportunity; he's the head of the family and can do whatever he wants.

Leah might not have known, because she would have had her own mini-camp: a tent for her, one for her handmaid, and lots for her multitudinous grown-up sons.

Or maybe (Shoshanna B) the rest of the family was in on the act, or at least had their supicions; this was the reason they were so resentful about Joseph being placed on a pedestal in this way.

When Benjamin was born, that enabled her to come clean; maybe that is why both Rachel and Jacob gave him a name starting בן, "son".

And when Jacob blesses Joseph on his deathbed, he says G-d will give him "blessings of the breasts, and of the womb" (Gen 49:25). Seems an odd blessing to confer upon a man!

Joseph left his brothers when he was seventeen. It's just conceivable that Joseph could have been regarded as being a late bloomer. He is taken to Egypt; this is the one place in the ancient Near East where many people were clean-shaven.

What about Ephraim and Menashe then? Maybe they were not biologically his. Or they had a father we don't know about. Or maybe given that his wife was the daughter of Poti-phera, maybe she was really a husband, daughter of the Mrs Potiphar who tried to seduce him, and was now in on the act.

So, why does it matter?

In the Jewish traditions, Joseph is often balanced against Judah as examplars of two different ways of living your life. [For example, when Joseph is faced with seduction, he runs away; when Judah is in the same boat, he falls for it, but when faced with the consequences, owns up to his part: "she is more righteous than me" (Gen 38:26).] This makes sense if Judah and Joseph are a man and a woman.

Judah is more about making mistakes and recognising them, and learning from them; Joseph is about being cautious and risk-averse and not making mistakes.

Joseph's idea is יסוד ["foundation"; I suspect this is something Cabbalistic], and the prayer which relates to him is שים שלום, which says ברכנו אבינו כלנו כאחד - bless us all together, i.e. men and women together.

The Joseph story is extremely long - the final third of the book of Genesis. The Torah is overwhelmingly male-based; if Joseph was indeed a woman, this changes the balance significantly. The whole of the end of Genesis now becomes about women: Joseph, and Tamar, and Dina. But it is done subtly, as something for us to discover, rather than overtly.


It turned out this was not the first person to put forth this hypothesis: See also the poem היא יוסף (She is Joseph) by Nurit Zarchi.


[Well, it's a nice hypothesis, but I don't think it necessarily all ties together. Take, for example, the coat of many colours. Leaving aside the question of why Joseph would be wearing a garment described as for women when he she was trying to pass herself off as a man, the fact is that we know Canaanite chiefs, both male and (2 Samuel 13:18) female, wore coats of many colours as a status symbol: we have artistic evidence for it on an Egyptian tomb wall. (What's not apparent from this cropped photo (surprisingly difficult to turf up googling) is how the Canaanites stand out as bearded compared to all the clean-shaved Egyptians elsewhere on the mural - see above.) The garment is merely described as being for suitable for Tamar in Samuel because by then it was unusual; it was not expected people would know what it meant. All the same, it certainly is a nice hypothesis, and makes you think. :o)]

Date: 2006-02-08 10:03 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (hands)
From: [personal profile] liv
Woah, Adam Frankenburg? If he's who I think he is... I should tell you a story about him not in the comments to a public post.

I have heard the theory before that Joseph is the reflection of Rachel, to do with the internal structure of Genesis as well as his being described with the same epithet. That he was actually female is taking it a rather intriguing step further. I don't buy the thing about his crying a lot; men cry and show emotion in Torah much more than in most modern western literature. Esau cries all the time, and nobody's suggesting he's in the least bit girly!

If we're talking Kabalah though, יסוד corresponds to the "sign of the covenant" in the body plan of Adam Kadmon, which I would imagine to be definitely masculine. Altough Adam Kadmon does extremely odd things with gender, so if the penis is somehow connected with feminine attributes, it wouldn't surprise me that much.

Date: 2006-02-08 10:09 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
"After studying natural sciences at Keele University, Adam went on to take an MA in Jewish studies at Manchester University, where he specialised in the Hebrew Bible. He enjoyed studying that so much that he has just embarked upon a Ph.D. in non-orthodox halachic theory."

And feel free to write me an email; I reckon you've got a pile sky-high of emails I sent you (not least whilst you were of limited Net access last year) waiting to me replied to. :o)

Oh, and I love the icon.

Date: 2006-02-08 10:06 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (teeeeeeeeea)
From: [personal profile] liv
Oh, and I forgot to say, have fun in Budapest!

Date: 2006-02-08 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
Thanks. I just hope I don't spend the whole time feeling lurgeatious.

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