The Source of Joseph’s Dreams 

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Lazarre Seymour Simckes

Joseph’s two dreams of grandeur at age seventeen in Parashat Vayeshev, in which he symbolically sees his family bow down to him, are traditionally considered by biblical scholars and rabbinic commentators alike as prophetic, foretelling what occurs much later in the text when Joseph’s family actually bow down to him in Egypt.[1] This interpretation directs our attention to the future fulfillment of Joseph’s dreams rather than to any past possible source for them. As the scholar Jean-Marie Husser puts it, “Nothing tells us where Joseph’s dreams come from. Indeed the narrator does not seem to be interested in the question.” (Dreams and Dream Narratives in the Biblical World,, 113).

This exclusive focus on the future rather than on the past violates the first rule of trauma analysis, namely to assess the history of the traumatized individual. Studying the narrative leading up to the dreams will indicate that Joseph has indeed gone through significant trauma. By analyzing his astonishing dreams as we would those of a trauma survivor, we find that they do indeed have a direct source in his past, particularly the traumatic encounter with Esau and his 400 armed men, in which his terrified family all bow down to Esau, starting with Jacob, seven times to the ground, followed by the concubines and their children, Leah and her children, and finally Joseph and his mother Rachel. (Genesis 33:3-7). The Joseph saga, then, begins at age seven, not seventeen, and the critical figure in the saga is Esau.

In fact, the impact of this shocking encounter upon Joseph is subtly hinted at in the text, when Jacob scolds Joseph for his outrageous dreams: 

And when he told it to his father and brothers, his father berated him. “What,” he said to him, “is this dream you have dreamed? Are we to come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow low to you to the ground?” (Genesis 37:10NJPS)

Notice that in his rebuke of his son, Jacob misquotes Joseph. Whereas Joseph only said “bow down,” Jacob adds the words “to the ground.” Why does Jacob do so? The answer lies in the chapter relating the encounter with Esau, when Jacob “bowed himself to the ground seven times, until he came near to his brother.” Joseph’s dream prompts Jacob to remember the troubled encounter with Esau. As the text says, Jacob “kept it in mind.” So Joseph and Jacob are both entangled with Esau. Jacob played Esau to gain the birthright, and Joseph played Esau in his dreams, becoming the person the family bows down to instead of Esau, to erase Esau’s potential power over the family.

The encounter with Esau was not the only trauma that Joseph experienced as a child. He also endured his family’s frantic flight from Laban, a seven-day trek from Paddan-Aram to the hill country of Gilead. And when Laban finally caught up to them and demanded the return of his household gods, his teraphim, Jacob issued a death sentence on anyone in the family in possession of Laban’s teraphim. (Genesis 31:17-35). It is not unlikely that Joseph knew that his mother kept the teraphim under her saddle, and may have connected his father’s curse with his mother’s death soon thereafter on the family’s journey to Canaan. Burdened by such traumas in his early life, Joseph dreamed of a way to restore the family’s refuge from its adversaries.

According to one midrash, Joseph was the family’s savior from the day he was born. Rachel feared she would be divorced because of her barrenness and would have to marry Esau, so Joseph rescued her from this fate when Rachel became pregnant with him. (Midrash Aggadat Bereshit 51:1).

Another midrash says that Joseph also empowered his father Jacob:

And it came to pass when Rachel gave birth to Joseph (Genesis 3:20). As soon as Joseph was born, Esau’s adversary was born, as it is said (Genesis 3:20): And Jacob said to Laban, “Send me away that I may go to my land and to my country.” For Rabbi Pinchas said in the name of Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahman: “It is a tradition that Esau will fall at the hands of none other than Rachel’s descendants, as it is written, Surely the youngest of the flock shall drag them away (Jeremiah 49:20). And why does he call them the youngest of the flock? Because they were of the youngest of the tribes.” (Midrash Rabbah – Genesis 73:7 – my translation).

And in the prophecy of Obadiah, Joseph will be the flame to set Esau on fire and destroy him:

Jacob will be a fire and Joseph a flame; Esau will be stubble, and they will set him on fire and destroy him. There will be no survivors from Esau. The Lord has spoken. People from the Negev will occupy the mountains of Esau, and people from the foothills will possess the land of the Philistines. They will occupy the fields of Ephraim and Samaria, and will possess Gilead (Obadiah 1:18-19NIV).  

Joseph’s grandiose dreams, then, are not just a coping mechanism to erase a traumatic memory but a strategy to restore the legacy of Jacob’s supremacy over Esau. After all, the blessing that ensured Jacob’s supremacy was not intended for Jacob but for Esau. Jacob had come in disguise, his arms covered in goat’s hair, pretending he was Esau, and when Isaac asks him if he is really Esau, Jacob answers, “I am Esau your firstborn.” Then Isaac repeats his question, “Are you really my son Esau?” and Jacob replies, “I am.” (Genesis 27:19, 24- NIVI. So does Jacob really receive the blessing intended for Esau? “May peoples serve you, and nations bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow to you.” (Genesis 27:29). Perhaps Jacob was unsure of his right to Esau’s blessing, and hence bowed down to the ground before Esau at their encounter and then declared that seeing his brother’s face was like seeing the face of God (Genesis 33:10).

Furthermore, when Isaac does offer Esau a blessing, he grants Esau the right to throw off the yoke of his brother whenever Jacob strays from the path of God, though Rebecca was told by the Lord that “the older will serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Actually, in his dreams Joseph seems to usurp Jacob’s blessing when he substitutes himself for Esau and becomes the object of veneration.

Esau is not easily removed from the family legacy. According to the Zohar, the Messiah will not come until the tears that Esau sheds over his stolen blessing are wiped dry; only then will our redemption be complete (Zohar Shemot 12b, Pritzker Edition); Also, in a bizarre talmudic midrash, when Jacob is brought from Egypt to the ancestral cave in Hebron for burial, Esau shows up and demands to replace Jacob in the cave. Angered by the disturbance Esau is causing, a deaf grandson of Jacob severs Esau’s head with his sword, and the head rolls into the cave landing on Isaac’s chest, as if Esau were returning to the bosom of the family (Sotah 13a).

Another tradition holds that Esau and Jacob are symbolically the twin goats of the Yom Kippur service, when lots are cast to determine the goat to be sacrificed and the goat to be sent as scapegoat to Azazel carrying Israel’s sins (Abarbanel to Leviticus 16:4). The casting of lots echoes for me the future casting of lots in the Purim episode. Oddly enough, the Sages declare Purim as the only holiday to be celebrated in the Messianic era (Midrash Mishlei 9:2). A critical part of the celebration is the requirement of not knowing the difference between Haman and Mordechai (Megillah 7b)! This aspect of the holiday may be seen as a reminder of Jacob and Esau, as if Purim deserves the honor of an eternal holiday because the Jews of Persia acted in self-defense and in faith, uniting the hands of Esau and the voice of Jacob.

In conclusion, Esau haunts the Joseph saga. Although Joseph in his dreams attempts to erase the traumatic memory of bowing to Esau by substituting himself as the object of veneration, he cannot fully restore the legacy of Jacob’s supremacy over Esau. The ultimate redemption requires a deeper reconciliation.

[1] I wish to thank Rabbi Itamar Urbach of Israel for insisting that I write this article, Rabbi Shlomo Zuckier for recommending that I submit it to Lehrhaus, and Rabbi David Fried, editor at Lehrhaus, for all his careful edits.

Playwright, novelist, psychotherapist, and translator from Hebrew, Lazarre Seymour Simckes is a graduate of Harvard College, Stanford University, and Harvard University. He has taught literature and creative writing courses at Harvard, Yale, Williams, Vassar, Brandeis, Tufts, and abroad as a Fulbright Scholar and Visiting Writer at Haifa University. He has also conducted a live, interactive writing workshop, delivered via satellite, linking Israeli Jewish and Arab high school students with their counterparts in America.