Parashat Vayechi: Uncovering Joseph’s Bones

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's Bones. Creative Commons/Dan Diffendale
Creative Commons/Dan Diffendale

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?

The bones of Joseph represent memory. By insisting that he be buried in the land of Israel, not immediately but generations later, Joseph forces his descendants to remember their promise over time, and thus to remember their identity. Only by remembering can they one day be free.

In fact, in later midrash, memory of the location of Joseph’s bones is crucial to the Exodus. Jewish legend holds that the Egyptians sink Joseph’s coffin in the Nile so the Israelites will never be able to find it, and thus will never be able to leave. Only one descendant of Jacob remembers where the coffin is. This one person is Serach, the daughter of Asher (mentioned in the Bible but only fully fleshed out in midrash). Serach, it is said, was blessed by Jacob with impossibly long life, for it is she who first told Jacob that Joseph was alive. During the Exodus, while the Israelites are packing, Serach shows Moses where Joseph’s coffin is, so that Moses can fulfill the promise of his ancestors to take Joseph’s bones out of Egypt (Midrash Tanhuma Beshalach). The aged Serach has preserved the knowledge of the location of Joseph’s bones for 400 years. Along with the bones, she has preserved the knowledge that a redeemer is destined to take the people out of Egypt. Without her, the people could not have remembered. Without her, no redemption could have taken place.

Only recently have I come to realize how crucial memory is to my identity as a queer person, and how deeply the history of GLBT folk has been suppressed. On my reading list has been Sappho, who showed me women loved women and poetry in ancient Greece; John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, where I learned that same-sex marriage ceremonies occurred all over Christian Europe until the fifteenth century; the poetry of Jewish scholars of Muslim Spain, which often expressed love and admiration for young men; and books about how Native American tribes made space for “two-spirited people.” I now know that the same-sex unions of the United States have had their counterparts in ancient and medieval Ireland, Romania, and Greece, that some notion of a “queer” or “transgendered” identity was accepted by Navajos long before I was born, and that Jews were writing what might be called queer literature hundreds of years ago. Ritual and spirituality can be and have been applied to GLBT people, many times over.

To me, this simple yet radical information has been like the discovery of Joseph’s bones beneath the Nile. I no longer feel that acceptance of queers is the ultramodern “tolerance” of a 21st century society. Queers are part of the fabric of time, just as Jews are. This knowledge is what makes it possible for me to leave my own Egypt; to envision a future where Joseph’s bones are buried in honor, in a land where I feel at home.

So as Genesis comes to an end this Shabbat, and Joseph is buried in an unknown location, I will know that he will come to light again, as he always does. The man as beautiful as Rachel can be hidden, but he can’t be forgotten. So too, I pray that all my ancestors will one day show us their bones.

I want to dedicate this d’var Torah to the historians, literary critics, archaeologists and anthropologists without whom I would know none of this. We are told that Serach bat Asher comes in many forms, and appears throughout history whenever we need her. To me, these wise and dedicated folk are Serach bat Asher, and I am grateful for their work of memory.

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Parashat Vayechi: Summary

On his deathbed, Jacob blesses his sons and asks them to bury him in Canaan.