Author Archives: Elana Roth

Elana Roth

About Elana Roth

Elana Roth is a graduate of Barnard College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, where she earned degrees in English Literature and Bible. She currently works as a literary agent in New York City.

The Story of Joseph

The story of Joseph is found in the Book of Genesis, from chapters 37 though 50. Joseph’s saga is both expansive and integral to the overall narrative of the Israelites’ descent into Egypt. His progression from dream-interpreting shepherd to minister of Egypt is one of the more layered and elaborate stories in the Torah.

Family Life

Joseph’s life is a series of highs and lows–literally and figuratively. In his father’s house, Joseph is the favored son: “Israel (another name for Jacob) loved Joseph more than all his sons since he was a child of his old age” (Genesis 37:3). Joseph likely also has this status because he is the eldest child of Jacob’s favorite (deceased) wife, Rachel. To demonstrate this preference, Jacob gifts Joseph with the famous kitonet passim, translated as both a garment with long sleeves, or a fine woolen tunic. (Commentators extrapolate that it had stripes of different colors.) This preferential treatment from their father elicits much jealousy from Joseph’s 10 older brothers.

the biblical story of joseph

Tissot’s “Joseph Reveals
His Dream to His Brethren”

As a teenager, Joseph does little to ingratiate himself to his brothers. To find more favor with his father, he would report back unkindly about his older brothers’ activities while tending to the flocks (37:2). Joseph also tells his family about two dreams he had, the first in which 11 sheaves of wheat bow down to his, and a second where the sun, moon, and 11 stars all bow to him as well. In each case, Joseph interprets the dream as meaning that one day he will rule over his family (37:5-11).

Eventually the brothers act on their emotions. Seeing the “dreamer” approach on a shepherding trip, they ambush Joseph and throw him into a pit–the first of the great depths to which Joseph will sink. The brothers soon sell him to Midianites who in turn sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan headed down to Egypt, continuing Joseph’s descent. The brothers then tear up Joseph’s special coat, dip it in goat’s blood, and present it to Jacob as proof of his son’s death.

The Merchant of Venice

The Merchant of Venice is a play by William Shakespeare believed to have been written between 1596 and 1598. The play is best known not for the “merchant” Antonio, but for his rival Shylock, the tormenting and tormented Jewish moneylender.

The Story

The drama of the play begins after Bassanio, in need of money to woo the heiress Portia, asks his friend Antonio for a loan. Antonio has bailed Bassanio out several times before, and is happy to do it again. But this time, because his ships are at sea and have not yet returned with their riches, Antonio has to ask Shylock for a loan.
Jewish Shylock in Merchant of Venice
Shylock hates Antonio because he is a Christian, and because, on one occasion, Antonio spat on Shylock for being a Jew. To take a measure of revenge, Shylock forgoes charging any interest on Antonio’s loan and instead sets the bond at one pound of Antonio’s flesh. When Antonio’s ships are lost at sea and he is unable to pay, Shylock demands that pound of Antonio’s flesh and brings him to court in order to be repaid.

The trial in the court of the Duke of Venice contains the great climax of the play. Unwilling to simply nullify a contract, the Duke calls upon Portia, disguised as a male lawyer, to argue on behalf of Antonio. When Shylock refuses to show mercy, she finds a flaw in the contract: Shylock’s agreement with Antonio mentioned flesh–but said nothing about blood. If, in the process of collecting Antonio’s flesh, Shylock were to be guilty of shedding Antonio’s blood, then Shylock’s property would have to be confiscated by the state of Venice. 

Portia even goes a step further, and points out that Shylock is a Jew (therefore an alien) who has attempted to take the life of a Venetian citizen, and this crime is punishable by death. While the Duke pardons Shylock’s life, he forces him to convert to Christianity and leave his entire fortune to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, who had recently converted to Christianity.

Shylock’s Characterization

Generosity appears to be the core difference between Christian and Jewish moneylenders in the play. On the one hand, Antonio thinks it is his Christian duty to lend money to friends interest-free: “For when did friendship take / A breed for barren metal of his friend?” (1.3.128-29) In other words, how can a person profit off his friend’s need? Shylock, on the other, is brazen enough to demand a pound of flesh as payment–and he does not relent when actual money cannot be handed over.

The Story of Samson

Samson is the biblical Hercules, a man of super-human strength who nonetheless could not escape tragedy. Samson’s story is found in the Book of Judges chapters 13-16. He is the last of the major judges who led the Israelites, but he is hardly an ideal role model or savior. Samson breaks vows, marries outside of the people of Israel twice, and functions more as a vigilante than a leader.

Samson’s Birth

The details of Samson’s birth already signify him as a mythical figure. Chapter 13 of Judges tells the story of Manoah and his wife, who is barren. One day, an angel of God appears to Manoah’s wife promising that she will bear a son. But this comes with a warning: She cannot contaminate her body with any alcohol, because her child will be a nazirite–dedicated to God from birth. She also learns that her son will save the Israelites from the Philistines. 
Samson’s destiny, and his connection to the Philistines, is explicitly laid out by God even before he is born. The idea of God granting a child in order to dedicate that child to save the Israelites foreshadows a famous birth that appears in the first book of Samuel. There, the prophet Samuel is born to a previously barren woman, and he is dedicated from a young age to serve in the Temple. (Samuel I, 1)

Samson’s Life

Samson’s story skips from his birth to his adulthood, where his first distinguishing act is to ask his father to bring him a certain Philistine woman to be his wife. Samson’s parents object, asking him to find a woman among the Israelites. But the text justifies Samson’s choice, explaining that by marrying a Philistine woman Samson would have opportunities to infiltrate and fight the Philistines, who were the current oppressors of the Israelites.

In fact, it is on his way to claim this non-Israelite bride that Samson first discovers his super-human strength: “Suddenly a young lion roared at him. The spirit of the Lord rushed on him, and he tore the lion apart barehanded” (14:5-6). Shortly thereafter he uses this strength to kill 30 Philistine men in a fit of rage, fulfilling the angel’s prophecy from the previous chapter(14:19). This first act against the Philistines exemplifies Samson’s revenge-based vigilantism.

The Book of Judges

The Book of Judges is the second book in Nevi’im (Prophets), the second section of the Tanakh. It is considered part of the Deuteronomic history that begins in the last book of the Torah and ends with the second Book of Kings. These books tell of the Israelites’ reign over the land of Canaan and have a heavy focus on Divine reward and punishment.

Judges begins shortly after Joshua’s death and continues until Samuel’s birth. Looking at the text itself and the various tribes on whom the stories are focused, there is evidence that the book is composed from several sources. Because each of the major judges comes from a different tribe of Israel, each with its own tradition, scholars theorize that these stories were originally separate regional texts woven together later. The redactor likely also added transitional passages, including the short accounts of the minor judges, to link the other stories together.


Judges has two introductions (1:1-3:6), both of which give a summary of the Book of Joshua and a presentation of Israel?s pattern of failure. Judges also has two conclusions that are both framed around the repeated phrase, ?In those days there was no king in Israel,? filled in by stories of continued moral decay.

In between is the main section, which scholars refer to as the “cycles.” These cycles contain a clear sequence of repeated events surrounding the stories of the six major judges: Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, and Samson. The cycle follows this pattern:
?    The Israelites sin.
?    God punishes them by sending an enemy to oppress them.
?    They serve the enemy for a number of years.
?    They cry out to God and pray for forgiveness.
?    God sends a deliverer (judge) to free them.
?    The judge conquers the enemy.
?    There is a peaceful reign for some time before the cycle begins again.
But with each cycle, the status of the Israelites deteriorates a little more and the moral lines are continually blurred by both the Israelites and the judges. At the time of Samson’s reign, the cycle is barely recognizable–and Samson himself is hardly a role model for the Israelite ideal.

The Book of Joshua

The Book of Joshua is the first book in Nevi’im (Prophets), the second section of the Tanakh. It is considered part of the Deuteronomic history that begins in Deuteronomy and ends with the second Book of Kings. These books tell the story of the Israelites from the wandering in the desert to the establishment of a monarchy in the Land of Israel.

The Six Books of Moses?

The Deuteronomic history is known for its emphasis on living in obedience to God and fulfilling the covenant. As God declares to Joshua in the opening chapter: “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses…Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left so that you may be successful wherever you go” (1:3-7).
 bible quiz
By following God’s will the people will receive all the blessings of the land.

Joshua Bin Nun

The title character of the Book of Joshua is the son of Nun (Yehoshua Bin Nun), who figures heavily in the Torah as the protégé of Moses. Joshua appears early on as Moses’ sentry at the base of Mount Sinai during the Golden calf incident (Exodus 32). He also has an important role as one of the 12 spies sent into the land of Canaan, and one of only two who came back with positive reports about the land (Numbers 13).
Finally, after Moses strikes the rock and loses his right to enter the Land of Israel (Numbers 20), Joshua is designated the next leader of the Israelites. And it is under Joshua’s leadership that they enter the land of Canaan.
The overall story arc of the Book of Joshua involves the Israelites’ conquest and settlement of Canaan. The book as a whole can be broken down into three sections: The history of the conquest, the allocation of the land, and Joshua’s farewell speech.
Aside from its clean chronological order, the book also follows a geographical logic, from the east to west crossing into Canaan, to the circular conquest of the native tribes. First the Israelites conquer the nations in the center, then the south, and finally the northern and peripheral nations.

The Book of Proverbs

The Book of Proverbs is the second book in the Ketuvim (or Writings), the third section of the Tanakh. The full Hebrew title is Mishlei Shlomo, or The Proverbs of Solomon, a reference to King Solomon, who, according to Jewish tradition, is the author of Mishlei.

Who Wrote the Book of Proverbs?

In spite of this attribution, it is unlikely that he, in fact, authored much of Proverbs. For one, several other authors are credited throughout the book, such as the officials of King Hezekiah, Agur son of Yakeh, and King Lemuel. Also, while much of the material may have been produced prior to the Jewish exile from Israel, some modern scholars set the book’s true completion in the post-exile period, long after King Solomon’s actual reign.
book of proverbs
The attribution more likely stems from the tradition of tying a book to a biblical figure known for a certain quality. For example, the Book of Psalms is associated with King David, who was known to be a poet and musician. King Solomon was known for his wisdom, and so Proverbs might have seemed like a natural fit.

Much of the book may be unfamiliar to many; however, it does include a few notable passages. One in particular, has become a focal point of the Torah service–etz hayim hi lamahazikim ba v’tomkheha m’ushar or “It is a tree of life to those who grasp her, and whoever holds on to her is happy (3:18).”

The Book of Proverbs fits within the genre of wisdom literature, as it is unconcerned with Israelite practices such as Temple worship or sacrifice.

Instead, Proverbs offers statements about how to conduct one’s life wisely. While the book does not offer a systematic presentation of specific doctrinal principles, Israelite or otherwise, Proverbs does convey a clear view of reward and punishment connected directly to God. Chapter 1, verse 7 sets the tone: “Fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” Then the text delves further: “For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent shall remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it (2:21-22).”