Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Rabbi Jill Hammer takes comfort in the promise of eventual redemption in Joseph’s bones.
Joseph is a popular biblical character to “queer” — because rabbinic midrash claims he curls his hair, paints his eyes, and is as beautiful as his mother, Rachel (Genesis Rabbah 24), and also because he is one of the rare biblical men known for not sleeping with a woman (the lovely wife of Potiphar, who attempts to seduce him). But it’s not the living Joseph I want to queer — it’s the dead Joseph. Joseph’s bones, to be exact.
At the end of Parashat Vayechi, the very end of Genesis, Joseph lies dying. He has moved his entire family to Egypt to save them from famine, and he has rescued the whole land from hunger. Though his father, Jacob, was buried in Canaan, Joseph will be buried in Egypt. He is, after all, an Egyptian vizier. However, Joseph commands his family to take his bones with them when they eventually leave Egypt and return to the land of Israel: “When God has remembered you, you shall raise up my bones from this place.” (Gen. 50:25)
This exacted oath is especially poignant when we realize that Joseph has spent his entire life being raised and lowered. He is elevated above his brothers, then thrown into a pit; he is made head slave of an official’s household, then thrown into prison, then suddenly made viceroy over Egypt. The burial and raising of his bones is one more reminder that Joseph is a symbol for the circle of life and death, victory and defeat, despair and redemption. Like the grain he stores to feed the hungry, Joseph is cut down and replanted again and again. But why does he need to do it one last time? Why does he want his bones disturbed?