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AJS Review 43:1 (April 2019), 67–104

© Association for Jewish Studies 2019

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Robert A. Harris
Abstract: This article explores rabbinic traditions that see in the char-
acter of Joseph a figure of uncertain sexual orientation. I examine a
series of rabbinic and biblical texts in which an unconventional gender
dynamic may be present. While it is true that these biblical and rabbinic
texts ran contrary to the normative ideational and behaviorally prescrip-
tive traditions concerning sexuality presented by the main body of bibli-
cal and rabbinic texts, it is nonetheless true that the texts I examine invite
readers to see an alternative dynamic through their stories. I will employ
a variety of methodologies, including philological/critical scholarship,
close literary reading, and queer theory, through which we might most
profitably examine the interpretative traditions I consider.
In his monumental The Legends of the Jews, which attempted over a century
ago to paraphrase the entirety of ancient rabbinic interpretation of the Bible, Louis
Ginzberg incorporated a detail into his presentation of the Joseph narrative that
likely took most early twentieth-century readers of the Bible by surprise: “There
was something boyish about Joseph. He painted his eyes, dressed his hair care-
fully, and walked with a mincing step.”1 This description bears closer scrutiny:
How did such an interpretation come about?2 Further, why should or would
such behaviors be considered “boyish”? Indeed, as we shall see, Ginzberg’s para-
phrase, in this instance, of one particular midrashic interpretation, is but the tip of a
deep and extensive iceberg that encompasses a great many rabbinic interpreta-
tions; these midrashim themselves strive to tease out the meaning of several
core biblical texts that are featured as parts of the broader biblical narrative
about Joseph. To examine the history of this interpretative tradition, we will con-
sider the intersection of philological/critical scholarship, close literary reading, and
queer theory, both in terms of rabbinic literature as well as of the Bible itself.

I am grateful to a number of colleagues who have read through drafts of this article or otherwise
discussed elements of it with me: Steven E. Fassberg, Amy Kalmanofsky, S. Tamar Kamionkowski,
Gwynn Kessler, Marjorie Lehman, Alex Salzberg, Mark S. Smith, Benjamin Sommer, and Burton

1. Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society,
1920), 2:5. It goes without saying that the approach Ginzberg takes is dated in many respects; cf.
Galit Hasan-Rokem and Ithamar Gruenwald, Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews: Ancient Jewish
Folk Literature Reconsidered (Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2014). Despite the consider-
ations presented in Hasan-Rokem’s critique, the work remains a classic.
2. James L. Kugel extensively and brilliantly treated the postbiblical interpretive traditions and
rabbinic expansive midrashim on Joseph: In Potiphar’s House: The Interpretative Life of Biblical Texts
(San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1990), 13–155.

Robert A. Harris
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In one of the rabbinic texts that underlies Ginzberg’s paraphrase, Bereshit

Rabbah 84:7, the rabbinic expositors turn to Genesis 37:2 (‫ֵא ֶלּה ֹתְּלדֹות ַיֲעֹקב יֹוֵסף‬
‫ ֶבּן־ ְשַׁבע־ֶע ְשֵׂרה ָשָׁנה ָהָיה ֹרֶעה ֶאת־ֶאָחיו ַבּ ֹצּאן ְוהוּא ַנַער ֶאת־ ְבֵּני ִבְלָהה ְוֶאת־ ְבֵּני ִזְל ָפּה ְנ ֵשׁי אִָביו‬,
“These are the generations of Jacob: Joseph, a seventeen-year-old, would shepherd
with his brothers among the flock and he was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and
with the sons of Zilpah, the wives of his father”) and, in particular, the Bible’s
description that Joseph “was a lad with” his brothers. What, in the rabbinic estima-
tion, might the Bible have meant by this phrase?3

‫ בן י”ז שנה ואת אמר והוא נער?! אלא שהיה עושה מעשה‬:’‫יוסף בן שבע עשרה שנה וגו‬
.‫ מתלה בעקיבו‬,‫ מתקן בשערו‬,‫ משמשם בעיניו‬,‫נערות‬

Joseph was seventeen years old: Seventeen years old, and you say that he was a
boy?! Rather, he would engage in deeds of girls,5 apply makeup to his eyes,6 fix7
his hair, dangle8 his heel.9

3. I will discuss the phrase as it is interpreted in rabbinic literature first, and return to a consid-
eration of it in its biblical context, below.
4. In presenting both Hebrew exegetical texts and their translations, I prefer to put the incipit in
bold-faced type; the exegesis itself in regular font; and any biblical texts that the source cites in support
of its interpretation in italics. Unless otherwise noted, all translations of Hebrew texts are my own.
5. See discussion below.
6. J. Theodor and Ch. Albeck, Bereshit Rabba with a Critical Apparatus and Commentary
(Jerusalem: Wahrmann, 1965), 1008. Theodor-Albeck offers a wide variety of variant readings, in par-
ticular with respect to the morpheme ‫משמשם‬. This appears to be a hypercorrection for ‫מסמסם‬, from the
root ‫( סמם‬Steven E. Fassberg, personal communication, May 2, 2016). Considering the midrashic
context, it would appear that the rabbis intimate that Joseph ground up ingredients (as in preparing a
mixture in a mortar and pestle) and “applied it” to his eyes. Alternatively, if one chose to read the
variant ‫ממשמש‬, one would understand that Joseph “touched up” his eyes. See below.
7. Or possibly “curl.” See Rivka Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash (Berlin: de
Gruyter, 2009), 248. Joshua Levinson has suggested depilation as a possible midrashic reference,
see “Cultural Androgyny in Rabbinic Literature,” in From Athens to Jerusalem: Medicine in Hellenized
Jewish Lore and in Early Christian Literature, ed. Samuel Kottek, Manfred Horstmanshoff, Gerhard
Baader, and Gary Ferngren (Rotterdam: Erasmus, 2000), 136. If the latter is intended, one might
have expected additional midrashim to focus on the episode of shaving Joseph’s body hair in
Genesis 41:14 as a source of rabbinic concern. However, it does not appear to be the case; see e.g.,
Bereshit Rabbah 89:9; Menahem Kasher, Encyclopedia of Biblical Interpretation, a Millennial Anthol-
ogy (Torah Shelemah) [in Hebrew] (New York: American Biblical Encyclopedia Society, 1938),
6:1539–40. In Bamidbar Rabbah 10:10 the shaving of Joseph is singled out as something done for

beauty. The medievals seem to be divided with respect to precisely what hair Joseph shaved (Ibn
Ezra, Bekhor Shor, Nah.manides) but none appear to regard it with opprobrium. For a modern perspec-
tive, see Lisbeth S. Fried, “Why Did Joseph Shave?,” Biblical Archaeology Review 33, no. 4 (2007):
36–41, 74. I am grateful to Ms. Osi Drori for her stimulating questions about this particular episode,
when she attended my presentation, ‫ בספרות הרבנית ופרשנות‬,‫אורינטציה מינית בתיאור דמותו של יוסף במקרא‬
‫ימי הבינים‬, at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, August 10, 2017.
8. Or possibly, the midrash suggests that Joseph “swung his heel.”
9. Lori Lefkovitz, in an essay otherwise replete with insightful observations, states that Bereshit
Rabbah employs this identical description (“apply make-up to his eyes, fix his hair and dangle his

Sexual Orientation in the Presentation of Joseph’s Character
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Bereshit Rabbah 87:3 incorporates virtually this identical description in a similar

midrash, albeit not in the context of Joseph’s behavior with his brothers but with
respect to Mrs. Potiphar, behavior that attracts her to him. James Kugel considers
this a midrashic doublet, the original interpretive context of which was not Genesis
37:2 but Genesis 39:7. This is, of course, possible, but Kugel’s analysis is not
In any case, the midrash presents Joseph’s actions in an even more remark-
able way than Ginzberg represents; indeed, his paraphrase seems almost muted in
comparison. Let us focus on the enigmatic midrashic designation of Joseph’s
behavior as ‫ ;מעשה נערות‬it is worthwhile to remember that midrashic texts, since
they were first written down in the Middle Ages, were generally transmitted
without vocalization. As we saw, Ginzberg preferred to read this as a reference
to Joseph’s “boyishness.”11 Instead, I translated it “deeds of girls” (though
perhaps one might prefer, less literally, “feminine practices”). Others might
prefer simply to read ‫ נערוּת‬as “deeds of youth.” But perhaps the point we should
be considering is that this very linguistic (or textual) ambiguity points to gender
ambiguity in Joseph’s character, both in rabbinic literature and, as we shall see,
in the Bible itself.
In contrast to any of the proposed alternatives, particularly considering the
deeds that the midrash attributes to Joseph, I find the translation “deeds of girls”
(or “feminine practices”) to be more appropriate to the rabbinic context.12 The
rabbis would certainly not likely consider applying eye makeup, nor hairstyling,
nor heel dangling to be specifically “boyish” or even “youthful” behavior, but
rather things that women do.13 Another rabbinic text, B. Yoma 9b,14 disparages

heel”) for Abel; see Lori Lefkovitz, “Not a Man: Joseph and the Character of Masculinity in Judaism
and Islam,” in Gender in Judaism and Islam: Common Lives, Uncommon Heritage, ed. Firoozeh
Kashani-Sabet and Beth S. Wenger (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 155–80.
However, I cannot find any such reference to Abel; the closest thing is the observation of the
midrash that when the “evil inclination” sees a person engaging in these behaviors, he states “that
man is mine!” (Bereshit Rabbah 22:6 [Theodor-Albeck, 1:211–12]). Lefkovitz also treats this
midrash in “Coats and Tales: Joseph Stories and Myths of Jewish Masculinity,” in A Mensch among
Men: Explorations in Jewish Masculinity, ed. Harry Brod (Freedom, CA: Crossing Press, 1988), 21.
10. See Kugel, In Potiphar’s House, 77–78. We shall return to this question below.
11. Kugel terms this “youthful foolishness”; see James L. Kugel, Traditions of the Bible: A
Guide to the Bible as It Was at the Start of the Common Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 1998), 441. In In Potiphar’s House, Kugel labels this the behavior of a “dandy” (76).
12. Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash, 248 n. 8.

13. This argument may be considered fraught, of course, for how does one determine attitudes
towards deeds or objects whose “gender” in antiquity might be completely other than what our own con-
temporary world assigns them? For example, consider Sara Elise Phang’s discussion of whether so-called
“feminine objects” found in Roman military archaeological sites necessarily indicate the presence of
women in the camps, or whether the objects might belong as well to men. See The Marriage of
Roman Soldiers (13 B.C.–A.D. 235): Law and Family in the Imperial Army (Leiden: Brill, 2001),
127–28, and in particular, nn. 42–25. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer for pointing me
towards this source.
14. See also B. Shabbat 62b.

Robert A. Harris
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practices it considers characteristic of “the daughters of Zion” that are similar to

those mentioned in the midrash about Joseph that we encountered earlier. This
pericope, however, addresses a different topic:

‫ ויאמר ה’ יען כי גבהו בנות ציון ותלכנה נטויות גרון ומשקרות עינים‬:‫ דכתיב‬,‫גלוי עריות‬
‫ שהיו מהלכות ארוכה בצד‬:‫ יען כי גבהו בנות ציון‬.‫הלוך וטפוף תלכנה וברגליהן תעכסנה‬
‫ דהוו מליין‬:‫ ומשקרות עינים‬.‫ שהיו מהלכות בקומה זקופה‬:‫ ותלכנה נטויות גרון‬.‫קצרה‬
.‫ שהיו מהלכות עקב בצד גודל‬:‫ הלוך וטפוף תלכנה‬.‫כוחלא עיניהן‬

Sexual immorality15 [was rife], as it is written: The LORD said: “Because

the daughters of Zion are haughty16 and walk, stretched-out of neck
and wanton of eyes, walking and mincing they go, and with their feet
make a tinkling [sound] [Isaiah 3:16]. Because the daughters of Zion
are haughty, i.e., they would walk with proud carriage. And wanton of
eyes, i.e., they would fill their eyes with kohl. Walking and mincing they
go, i.e., they would walk with [movement of] heel and toe.”17

While neither the biblical nor the rabbinic expressions in this text employ precisely
the same idioms as the midrashic pericope,18 the general picture is clear enough.
The various practices described are all ascribed to women, not to “youth” in
general; certainly the rabbis would not likely have considered them as “boyish.”19


Before proceeding with analysis of additional sources, it would be prudent
to pause to consider the type of method that we would best employ in examining
our question. Queer theory suggests itself, of course, as it has supplied us with new
understandings of human behavior. Indeed, in the present essay I will consider the
interpretations of a variety of queer readings both of biblical texts and, by exten-
sion, the rabbinic texts that have themselves endeavored to illuminate Scripture.
Nonetheless, in assessing the rabbinic and biblical literature, I will, for the most
part, first analyze texts within the scholarly disciplines with which I am most
familiar—historical-critical scholarship and literary theory—which have long
been the coin of my realm. I have chosen to proceed in this way not out of any
disparagement of reader-response approaches but rather out of respect for what
I consider to be a primary concern, articulated a generation ago by Krister

15. Literally, “the uncovering of nakedness,” this is the standard rabbinic term for incest and
other sexual practices that the Bible considers illicit.

16. Literally, “tall.”

17. The meaning of the idiom is not certain; literally, “they would walk, heel at the side of big
toe.” A parallel text to B. Yoma 9b is found in Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Va-tomer Z.iyon, pis. 17:6 to
Isaiah 49:14 (ed. Mandelbaum, 1:288–289). While that pericope disparages other practices that the
midrash considers “feminine,” it does not contain the specific expressions found with respect to
Joseph that we are considering.
18. Even the expressions that reference the use of eye makeup are different, the midrash
employing a Hebrew idiom whereas the Talmud uses an Aramaic expression.
19. See also Eikhah Rabbah 4:15, 18.

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Stendahl, to distinguish between the questions “What does the Bible mean?” (to
us, its contemporary readers) and “What did the Bible mean?” (i.e., the meanings
intended by its original writers and/or construed by its first audience).20 That is,
while I respect the role readers and communities have in creating meaning,21
I nonetheless believe in the prior need to endeavor to understand texts and tradi-
tions—both biblical and rabbinic—within the social and historical context of their
original writers, compilers, receivers, redactors, and transmitters.22 In the language
of certain medieval rabbinic traditions, I remain committed to the need to distin-
guish between peshat (plain or original/contextual meaning) and derash (interpre-
tive traditions that are “demanded” out of a text).23 However paramount the
concern of the reader or exegete to offer a reading that is moral or otherwise com-
pelling, that reader’s interpretation is ultimately best served first by being firmly
rooted in a historically and philologically accurate reading of whatever text is
under consideration. While it is no doubt true that the reader completes the con-
struction of meaning (without a reader, a text cannot “mean” and the voice of
the author is therefore silenced), and it is also possible that reader-response meth-
odologies may on occasion illuminate original readings, the first reading ought to
show fidelity to the context in which the text (or artifact) was produced.
What, then, is the role of queer theory in my analysis of the biblical and
rabbinic narratives that challenge us to question any preconceived notions we
may have about Joseph’s sexual orientation? Amy Kalmanofsky has offered an
insightful way to consider our material: “The existence of these narratives suggests
that the biblical authors thought about gender, and intentionally played with its
norms. The fact that they sometimes portrayed masculine women and feminine
men suggests that on some level the Bible’s authors understood that gender was
socially constructed, and that gendered characteristics and behaviors are not
fixed.”24 Though the Bible invests deeply in this conventional gender dynamic,
it allows its readers to see an alternative dynamic through these stories, and

20. I paraphrase, of course; see Krister Stendahl, “Biblical Theology, Contemporary,” in Inter-
preter’s Dictionary of the Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick, John Knox, Herbert G. May, and Samuel
Terrien (New York: Abingdon, 1962), 1:418–32; and Stendahl, Meanings: The Bible as Document
and as Guide (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1984).
21. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980).
22. As the nineteenth-century rabbinic exegete R. Samuel David Luzzato cautioned, “The fourth
principle [of biblical exegesis] … is the love of truth. It should be the purpose of our endeavor to discern
the truth of the writers’ intentions. Nor should there be in the chambers of our hearts a desire to discover in

the Holy Scriptures a sustenance and strengthening for faith and theology that have come to us from other
sources, whether they be of philosophical logic or beliefs about the [Bible]”; Samuel David Luzzato,
introduction to Commentary on the Book of Isaiah [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1970), viii.
23. See Rashbam’s commentary on Genesis 37:2 for one articulation of this distinction; for a
discussion of this text, see Robert A. Harris, “Concepts of Scripture in the School of Rashi,” in
Jewish Concepts of Scripture: A Comparative Introduction, ed. Benjamin D. Sommer (New York:
New York University Press, 2012), 113–14.
24. Amy Kalmanofsky, Gender-Play in the Hebrew Bible: The Ways the Bible Challenges Its
Gender Norms (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017), 15.

Robert A. Harris
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even more radically, I argue, it demands that they embrace this alternative dynamic
on some level.25
My goal in this essay is, therefore, akin to Kalmanofsky’s. While she
focused exclusively on biblical texts, I will examine both biblical narratives
about Joseph and rabbinic interpretations of those biblical texts that all “manifest,”
as Kalmanofsky writes, “an unconventional gender dynamic.”26 Following a close
reading of the texts I have selected, I will endeavor to draw conclusions with
respect to the question of their purpose and meaning within the broader constructs
of biblical and rabbinic literature.


Let us return to the midrashic take on Joseph and his personal conduct.
Earlier, we noted that Kugel considered that the original midrash addressed not
Genesis 37:2 but Genesis 39:7, the episode between Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar.27
Thus, it might be argued that the practices in which Joseph engaged were
regarded by the rabbinic sages as specifically Egyptian, and not Israelite,
behaviors. To be clear, we are not speaking of “actual” ancient Egyptian practices,
but rather, what the rabbis thought those customs to be as they read the Bible.
Consider the rabbinic understanding of Joseph’s hairstyling (‫)מתקן בשערו‬. As
Rivka Ulmer observes, “Joseph’s elaborate hair-style was subjected to the
hermeneutics of midrash and it became an Egyptian hair-style in the view of the
rabbis. In opposition to Egyptian customs, applying make-up and curling one’s
hair was considered to render a male effeminate in rabbinic literature.”28 In any
case, the ancient rabbinic perspective that Joseph was excessively concerned
with his appearance apparently continued into the Middle Ages. In relying on a
midrashic understanding of Joseph’s practices, Rashi had no doubt about their
ultimate purposes:

25. Ibid., 16.

26. Ibid., 15.
27. Joshua Levinson has dealt with this episode in rabbinic literature in two extensive and well-
argued articles: see “An-Other Woman: Joseph and Potiphar’s Wife. Staging the Body Politic,” Jewish
Quarterly Review 87, nos. 3–4 (1997): 269–301; and “Cultural Androgyny in Rabbinic Literature,”

119–40. As I was unaware of these articles when I undertook my own study, my initial approach to
the Joseph material was virtually exclusively historical-critical and diachronic; Levinson’s interest in
the material was quite different, therefore, from my own. As he explicitly states, his focus is the
“use of gender discourse to establish cultural identity, that is, how discourses of gender were employed
to produce and police discourses of identity in the social formation of rabbinic Judaism” (“An-Other
Woman,” 274–75; “Cultural Androgyny,” 133–36). However, prodded by an anonymous reviewer, I
have come to understand the importance of the kinds of questions Levinson (and others) have
posed. I will return to these questions below.
28. Ulmer, Egyptian Cultural Icons in Midrash, 247.

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.‫ בעיניו—כדי שיהא נראה יפה‬29‫ משמשם‬,‫ מתקן בשערו‬:‫ שהיה עושה מעשה נערות‬:‫והוא נער‬

He was a lad: he would engage in deeds of girls: he would fix his hair, apply
makeup to his eyes—in order that he would appear beautiful.30

The explanation Rashi adds to the ancient midrash is telling: Joseph engaged in all
these practices in order to “appear beautiful.”31 Grooming oneself in the ways that
these texts, both ancient and medieval, depict Joseph, has generally been taken as
more characteristic of women than men.


We have looked at rabbinic texts that understood the Biblical Hebrew phrase
‫ והוא נער‬as a series of deeds that Joseph performed, which the ancient rabbinic
sages may or may not have considered effeminate. The late medieval Midrash
ha-gadol (fourteenth century)32 looked not only at the anomalous phrase but at
a longer series of words in the biblical verse, and interpreted accordingly:
.‫ שהיו בני השפחות מנשקין אותו ומגפפין אותו‬:‫והוא נער את בני בלהה ואת בני זלפה‬

He was a lad with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah: the sons of the
handmaidens would kiss him and embrace him.33

29. Most common editions of Rashi’s Torah commentary read ‫( ממשמש‬which I have translated
“touch up,” above), whereas I have transcribed the more authoritative reading of MS Leipzig 1 (the final
mem is somewhat erased but is nonetheless legible). On the importance of this manuscript, see Avraham
Grossman, “Marginal Notes and the Addenda of R. Shemaiah and the Text of Rashi’s Biblical Com-
mentary” [in Hebrew], Tarbiz 60, no. 1 (1990): 7–98.
30. On the motif of Joseph’s great beauty in Islamic tradition, see Shari Lowin, Arabic and
Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus (New York: Routledge, 2014), Kindle edition, chapter 7, “The
Cloak of Joseph: Ibn Hazm and the Therapeutic Power of Romantic Love.” See also Lutz Richter-
Bernburg, “Plato of Mind and Joseph of Countenance: The Notion of Love and the Ideal Beloved in
Kay Ka’us B. Iskandear’s Andarzname,” Oriens 36 (2001): 276–87.
31. The trope of Joseph’s beauty continued to be developed in other literary genres in the
Middle Ages. Consider, for example, a homoerotic Hebrew poem by Isaac ibn Mar Saul that compares
the beauty of a young boy to several beautiful male biblical characters, Joseph among them: ‫צבי חשוק‬
…‫ כמו יוסף בצורתו‬/… ‫ יפה תואר כיריח‬/…‫ עלי‬/ ‫ והמשילו והשליטו‬/ ‫ יצרו רב עלילה‬/ ‫“ באספמיה‬Beloved gazelle in
Spain, crafted by Divine Master / who has enabled him to rule and master / Me … / Beautiful of stature
as the moon / like Joseph in his form”; see Jefim Schirmann, Studies in the History of Hebrew Poetry
and Drama [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1979), 145–46. This poem was translated elegantly,
if less literally, by Raymond P. Scheindlin, Wine, Women, & Death: Medieval Hebrew Poems on the

Good Life (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1986), 87. For yet another translation and
a discussion, see Lowin, Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus, chapter 2: “ ‘He Has Slain
Me Like Uriah’: Ibn Mar Shaul’s Unexpected Love Triangle.”
32. See Hermann Leberecht Strack and Günter Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and
Midrash, trans. Marcus Bockmuehl (Minneapolis, MN: T&T Clark; Fortress Press, 1996), 354–55.
33. Mordecai Margulies, Midrash Haggadol on the Pentateuch: Genesis [in Hebrew] (Jerusa-
lem: Mosad Harav Kook, 1975), 625. Note that Rabbinic Hebrew g-p-p, the root used here for “embrac-
ing,” is not found with a corresponding Biblical Hebrew verb. Assuming it is related to the root g-w-p,
the closest Biblical Hebrew verb is found in Nehemiah 7:3.

Robert A. Harris
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It is not immediately clear why the midrash would treat the biblical narrative in
this way, and its modern editor, Mordecai Margulies, states that whatever
ancient precedent may have existed is unknown.34 And while we must admit
that we do not know the precise social-historical circumstances in which this
midrash was first proposed,35 and it is possible that it is more of medieval prov-
enance than a recovery of an ancient source, it may well be that placing the
midrash within the context of Hebrew and Arabic medieval homoerotic poetry
may be the soundest explanation for this otherwise unknown interpretation.36
However, it is well known that Midrash ha-gadol often preserves versions of
ancient midrashim that did not survive elsewhere.37 Indeed, there may be one
late ancient reverberation of such a midrash. In her work on the piyyutim of the
seventh-century Palestinian Hebrew poet, Yannai, Laura Suzanne Lieber records
a variant reading of one of Yannai’s poems.38 In this piyyut, a kedushta for
Genesis 37:1, the poet references Joseph interacting affectionately with the sons
of the maidservants, and writes ‫מנשקן לילדות‬, “he kissed them during (his) child-
hood.” In the context of this work, the poet considers the affection exchanged
approvingly, as it was indicative (in the midrashic tradition that he followed) of
Joseph’s elevated status over that of his brothers.39
Moreover, lest one dismiss the midrashic expression ‫מנשקין אותו ומגפפין אותו‬
as reflecting “mere” (and permitted, nonsexual) boyish affection, let us consider its
precise idiom in another rabbinic context. Midrash Eikhah Rabbah relates the sad
tale of the children of Z.adok, the high priest, who were taken captive by the
Romans following the destruction of the Second Temple.40 The rabbinic narrative
relates that these enslaved children, one male and one female, were placed by their
eventual respective owners in the delicate circumstance of potential incestuous
sexual union:

34. Margulies notes in the apparatus, ‫מקורו נעלם‬, “its source has disappeared.”
35. Of course, similar questions might be asked of most any midrash that explore semantic
ranges of biblical words and posits multifaceted levels of interpretation. A potentially relevant
example, for reasons I discuss below with respect to the meaning of ‫ מגפף ומנשק‬in traditional
sources, might be midrashim on the word ‫ מצחק‬in Genesis 21:9, where ancient rabbinic sources
suggest meanings that incorporate the three “cardinal sins” of rabbinic lore, idolatry, incest, and
murder; see Rashi there, and Kasher, Torah shelemah, 3:847.
36. For background on the trope in medieval Hebrew poetry of the love expressed to young
boys, see Jefim Schirmann, “The Ephebe in Medieval Hebrew Poetry,” Sefarad 15 (1955): 55–68;
Norman Roth, “‘Deal Gently with the Young Man’: Love of Boys in Medieval Hebrew Poetry of
Spain,” Speculum 57, no. 1 (1982): 20–51; Helen Leneman, “Reclaiming Jewish History: Homo-erotic
Poetry of the Middle Ages,” Changing Men 18 (Summer/Fall 1987): 22–28; I am grateful to Gwynn

Kessler for referring me to this last article.

37. It should be recognized that “the feminine boy” is a motif that may be found already in pre-
Quranic Arabic poetry, and may therefore be seen as correspondent with early midrashic interpretations.
See Jim Colville, Poems of Wine & Revelry: The Khamriyyat of Abu Nuwas (London: Kegan Paul,
2005), vii and n. 2; I am grateful to an anonymous reviewer who pointed me towards this source.
38. Laura Suzanne Lieber, Yannai on Genesis: An Invitation to Piyyut (Cincinnati, OH: Hebrew
Union College Press, 2010), 659 n. 18.
39. See 1 Chronicles 5:1.
40. Salomon Buber, Midrash Eikhah Rabbah (Vilna: [s.n.], 1899 [offprint]), 83–84.

Sexual Orientation in the Presentation of Joseph’s Character
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,‫ נפל זה לאחד איסטרטיוט‬,‫ אחד זכר ואחת נקבה‬,‫מעשה בשני בניו של צדוק הכהן הגדול שנשבו‬
‫ והלך זה אצל החנווני ונתן‬,‫ הלך זה אצל הזונה ונתן לה את הזכר בשכרה‬,‫וזה לאחד איסטרטיוט‬
‫לו את הנקבה בשכרו ביין … בתר יומין אזלת ההיא זונה גבי הוא קפילא ואמרה ליה אית לי חד‬
‫גבר יהודאי והוא דמי לטלייתא דאית לך איתא ואנן מנסבין דין לדין ומאן דאינון ילדין באמצעא‬
‫ אמרה ליה‬,‫ סגרון יתהון בביתא חדא וטרדון באפיהון … אמר לה הוה לך אחא‬,‫ עבדון כן‬,‫נחלק‬
,‫אין … וכד הוה אתי מבי מדרשא הוה מגלי ההוא שומתא ומנשקא ליה … גלייא כתפיה קדמה‬
‫ עד דנפקין‬,‫ ובכיין דין לדין‬,‫ ונשקין דין לדין‬,‫ גפפין דין לדין‬,‫חמת ההיא שומתא וחכים דין לדין‬

It happened that two of the children of Z.adok, the high priest, were taken
captive, one was male and one was female, one fell to one officer and one
to another officer. The one officer visited a prostitute and gave her the male
in payment; the other went to a tradesman and gave him the female as a
payment for wine.… After some days the prostitute went to the wine-seller
and said to him, “I have a Jewish man who resembles the girl whom you
have. Let’s you and I marry them together and let us divide their children.”
They did so, and closed them in one house and locked them in.… He said
to her, “Did you have a brother?” She said, “Yes … and when he would
come from the study house he would uncover a mole and I would kiss it.”
… He uncovered his shoulder to her, she saw that mole, and they recognized
one another, they embraced one another, they kissed one another, they cried
one with the other, until their souls left them.41

While the details of that narrative, in its various tradents and versions, do not inter-
est us here, the precise expression, ‫מנשקין… ומגפפין‬, that is used to describe the
physical contact between Joseph and the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, is likewise
found in the Eikhah Rabbah narrative: ‫ ונשקין דין לדין‬,‫גפפין דין לדין‬, “they embraced
one another, they kissed one another.” In her discussion of this aggadah, Galit
Hasan-Rokem is most convincing in claiming for the expression’s erotic

41. A similar rabbinic narrative, redolent of the ‫נשק‬/‫ גפפ‬language employed here, is found in
Midrash Shir Ha-shirim 8:1: ‫אמ״ר פנחס מעשה בשני אחים שהיה אחד במירון ואחד בגוש חלב נפלה דליקה בבית‬
‫זה שהיה במרון ובאת אחותו מגוש חלב התחילה מגפפתו ומחבקתו ומנשקתו ואומרת לית דא מבדה לי דהוה אחי באננקי‬
‫ונתפלט ממנה‬, “Said R. It happened with two siblings, one of whom was in Meron and one of
whom was in Gush H.alav. A fire befell the house in Meron and his sister came from Gush H.alav,
and began to embrace him, hug him, and kiss him. She said to him ‘there is not one who can
despise me, for he is, perforce, my brother.’ And he ran away from her.” Note that the brother here,
at least, is concerned that the nature of the physical contact is inappropriate to siblings. I am grateful

to Naama A. Weiss for bringing this midrash to my attention, and for our fruitful discussions about it.
42. Galit Hasan-Rokem, The Web of Life: Folklore in Rabbinic Literature. The Palestinian
Aggadic Midrash Eikha Rabba [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: ‘Am ‘Oved, 1996), 29–36. For a contrary per-
spective, cf. Yonah Fraenkel, Sipur ha-’agadah, ’aḥdut shel tokhen ṿe-z.urah: Kovez. meḥkarim (Tel
Aviv: Ha-kibbutz Ha-me’, 2001), 236–52, especially p. 247 n. 50. I am grateful to the anonymous
reviewer for pointing me to this contemporary discussion. To be sure, the verbs ‫ גפפ‬and ‫ נשק‬are often
found together in rabbinic literature, and not always with erotic connotation. For example, with respect
to the question asked of R. Eliezer by a “wise woman” (B. Yoma 66b), about the inconsistency of divine
punishment of Israel following the incident of the Golden Calf, the Talmud observes ‫איתמר רב ולוי חד אמר‬

Robert A. Harris
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Whether of medieval rabbinic provenance or of ancient ’Erez. Yisra’el poesy,

the intent of both midrash and piyyut seems clear enough: from these perspectives,
the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah would “use Joseph as a boy,” that is, engage with
him in what would be, in the rabbinic estimation of the Bible, atypical expressions
of physical contact or affection, one which would potentially lead to explicitly
illicit sexual behaviors. Of course, the Bible often describes men embracing
and/or kissing other men, particularly in moments fraught with emotion.43 From
an ancient rabbinic perspective, however, it is likely that the kissing and caressing
described in this midrash would have been thought of encompassing or leading to
sexual practices that the Bible explicitly forbade.44 In any case, we shall return to a
consideration of the biblical verse on its own merits, below.


Let us consider an ancient rabbinic understanding of yet another episode in
the biblical narrative, when the wife of Potiphar attempts to seduce Joseph,
Genesis 39:11–12:45

‫זיבח וקיטר בסייף גפף ונישק במיתה‬, “It was said by Rav and Levi: one said, ‘He who sacrificed and burned
incense, [his punishment is] by sword; he who embraced and kissed [the calf, his punishment is by
divine] execution.’” Similarly, in Shir Ha-shirim Rabbah 5:16:3, it is reported that the heavenly
angels attempted a kind of resuscitation on the Children of Israel upon seeing them swoon (lit.
“die”) following God’s opening speech at Mount Sinai, ‫כך כשדיבר הקב’ה עם ישראל אנכי ה’ מיד פרחה‬
‫ כיון שמתו התחילו המלאכים מגפפין ומנשקין אותם‬.‫נשמתן‬, “So it was when the Holy One spoke with Israel,
‘I am the Lord …,’ immediately their souls flew off. Since they had died, they [the angels] embraced
them and kissed them.” Nonetheless, particularly with regard to the pathos of this aggadic narrative, it
seems to me that Hasan-Rokem makes the better case.
43. See, e.g., Genesis 29:13, 33:4, 45:15; 1 Samuel 20:41.
44. See Leviticus 18:22, 20:13, and the ways these verses have almost universally been inter-
preted in rabbinic literature (e.g., B. Sanhedrin 54ab; B. Yevamot 83b). An analogous rabbinic aversion
was typically expressed also with respect to otherwise licit heterosexual touching that might lead to
love-making (‫דרך חיבה ותאוה‬, “the way of affection and desire”) that is forbidden at specific times,
e.g., during a woman’s menstrual cycle. The sources on the subject are numerous; see, e.g., B.
Shabbat 13a, and Rashi there: even ostensibly innocuous activities, such as eating together, let alone
kissing and caressing, are forbidden ‫מפני שמתוך שמתיחדין יבא לבעול‬, “because they are alone together,
he may come to have intercourse [with her].”

45. In the rabbinic imagination, Mrs. Potiphar’s interest in Joseph was preceded by that of her
husband. See B. Sotah 13b where, wondering why the Bible calls Potiphar ‫סריס פרעה‬, often translated as
“a courtier of Pharaoh” but which also could be understood as “a eunuch,” the Talmud reports this
wordplay-based interpretation: ‫ מעיקרא‬.‫ בא גבריאל ופירעו‬.‫ אמר רב שקנאו לעצמו‬:‫ויקנהו פוטיפר סריס פרעה‬
‫ ולבסוף פוטיפרע‬,‫כתיב פוטיפר‬, “And Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh’s bought him [Genesis 39:1]:
Rav said: He bought him for himself, but Gabriel came and mutilated him. Originally his name was
written ‘Potiphar’ [i.e., here in Genesis 39:1] but afterwards ‘Potiphera’ [Genesis 41:45].” In other
words, playing on Rabbinic Hebrew ‫פרע‬, “to destroy, mutilate,” “Potiphar” was mutilated, “Potiphera,”
thus becoming a eunuch. See also Bereshit Rabbah 86:3.

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‫ַוְיִהי ְכַּהיֹּום ַה ֶזּה ַו ָיֹּבא ַה ַבְּיָתה ַלֲעשֹׂות ְמַלאְכתֹּו ְוֵאין ִאישׁ ֵמאְַנ ֵשׁי ַה ַבִּית ָשׁם ַבּ ָבִּית׃ ַו ִתְּת ְפּ ֵשׂהוּ ְבִּבְגדֹו‬
‫ֵלאֹמר ִשְׁכָבה ִע ִמּי ַו ַיֲּעֹזב ִבְּגדֹו ְבָּיָדהּ ַו ָיָּנס ַו ֵיֵּצא ַהחוָּצה׃‬

It happened around that day that [Joseph] came home to do his work, and there
was no man from the men of the house there in the house. [Mrs. Potiphar]
caught him by his cloak, saying, “lay with me,” and he abandoned his
cloak in her hand, and he fled and he went outside.

It is somewhat telling that the biblical narrator, while consistently describing

Joseph’s character around this episode as unwavering in his devotion to remain
steadfast,46 nonetheless does not choose to repeat a disclaimer about his moral rec-
titude precisely at this stage; following the general contours of biblical narrative
poetics, the narrator chooses delightful ambiguity as a fundamental rule of dis-
course. Note what seems to be the lack of complete narrative disclosure in the indi-
vidual phrases of these biblical verses: Mrs. Potiphar “grabbed hold of him by his
garment”; she commanded him “lay with me”; and “he left his cloak in her hand”
and fled outside.47 Thus the biblical narrative itself suggests there may be more at
play here than immediately meets the eye.
Some ambiguity may even be found in the phrase “to do his work” (‫לעשות‬
‫ ;)מלאכתו‬this “work” is otherwise unspecified. The combination in Biblical Hebrew
of the verb ‫ עשׂה‬followed by the noun ‫ מלאכה‬is overwhelmingly found either in pre-
scriptive or descriptive texts whose subject is the construction and/or maintenance
of the tabernacle/temple; thus, its use here may be seen as exceptional and worthy
of comment.48 One might assume that “the work” that drew Joseph into Potiphar’s
home was simply “his household chores.”49 However, according to one talmudic

46. See what is for the Bible a lengthy description, Genesis 39:8–10, in particular Joseph’s state-
ment, “You are [my master’s] wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?”
For ancient interpretations that describe Joseph’s exemplary moral character in this episode, see Kugel,
Traditions of the Bible, 442–43. One text Kugel presents there emphasizes this dimension in particular
(4 Maccabees 2:2–4): “It is for this reason, certainly, that the temperate Joseph is praised, because by
mental effort he overcame sexual desire. For when he was young and in his prime, by his reason he
nullified the frenzy of his passions. Not only is reason proved to rule over the frenzied urge of
sexual desire, but also over every desire.”
47. Indeed, it seems that she functioned as with magician’s stagecraft: with one sweep of her
hand she whisked Joseph’s cloak off his body like the magician does when pulling a tablecloth off a
table under a stack of champagne glasses! See Kugel, In Potiphar’s House, 97. Even if one were to
imagine rabbinic understanding of slave clothing as minimal and easily removed, the almost ineluctable
movement of “clothed to naked” seems overly brisk. Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 16–50 (Waco, TX:
Word Books, 1994), 376, writes, “To pull … garments off against the wearer’s will must have involved

surprise and violence”; to this, I would add, “unless the wearer was complicit.” See his citation of
Menahem Haran, “Clothing (‫)מלבושים‬,” in Encyclopedia mikra’it (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1962),
4:1034–50 (note in particular photographs and images, 1035–44).
48. Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with
the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), 273, notes the ambigu-
ity also in other descriptions of Joseph’s work, though without the use of the term ‫( מלאכה‬Genesis 39:3,
22). He also references the Targum’s interpretation that Joseph did Potiphar’s accounting, ‫ְלִמבַדק ִבכָתֵבי‬
‫חוּשָׁבֵניה‬, “[Joseph] checked the books of [Potiphar]’s accounts.”
49. See Rashbam and Ibn Ezra ad loc.

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sugya, the phrase “to do his work” was a euphemism designed to disguise the more
salacious intent both of Joseph as well as Mrs. Potiphar:
‫ הוסיפו עליו אות‬,‫ יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר‬:‫אמר ר’ חנא בר ביזנא אמר ר’ שמעון חסידא‬
,‫… יוסף מאי היא? דכתיב ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו‬.‫אחת משמו של הקב”ה‬
.‫ מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו‬:‫אמר ר’ יוחנן‬

Said R. H.ana bar Bizana in the name of R. Simon the Pious: Joseph, who sanc-
tified the Name of Heaven in private, they added to him one letter from the
name of the Holy One, Blessed be God.… As to Joseph, what were the cir-
cumstances? As it is written, It happened around that day that [Joseph]
came home to do his work [Genesis 39:11], said R. Joh.anan: This teaches
that both of them to a sinful matter intended.50

The ancient rabbinic exegetes were not satisfied with portraying Joseph as a one-
dimensional character of unquestioned moral repute, but rather sought to present a
more nuanced, and indeed (for an attractive young man) a more natural, approach.
And just in case a reader misses the point, and does not quite understand to what
“sinful matter” the midrash alludes, Rashi, the great medieval expositor, helpfully
adds: “They [both] intended to have sex.”51 In fact, Kugel cites other midrashic
texts that situate Mrs. Potiphar’s nearly successful seduction of Joseph not
while she happened upon him doing his household chores—but in her bed!52
Let us examine one of these midrashim:

,‫ורבי יהודה אומר אותו היום יום זבוחו של נילוס היה ויצאו כלם ונשתיירה היא והוא עמה בבית‬
.‫ותתפשהו בבגדו ועלה עמה למטה‬

Moreover, R. Judah stated: That very day was the day of sacrificing to the Nile,
and everyone went out and [Mrs. Potiphar] remained, she and [Joseph] with her in
the house, and she took hold of his garment, and he went with her into bed.53

Kugel has suggested that the term, ‫בבגדו‬, generally translated to mean that Mrs. Poti-
phar seized Joseph “by (or in) his garment,” can equally mean “in his dealing faith-
lessly with her.” In fact, this is not such a midrashic stretch, as the Hebrew term
means that very thing in such biblical verses as Exodus 21:8: ‫ִאם־ָרָעה ְבֵּעיֵני ֲאֹדֶניָה‬
ֹ ‫ֲא ֶשׁר לֹו ְיָעָדהּ ְוֶהְפ ָדּהּ ְלַעם ָנְכִרי ֹלא־ִיְמ‬, “If she is displeasing in the
‫שׁל ְלָמְכָרהּ ְבִּבְגדֹו־ָבהּ‬

50. B. Sotah 36b. See Rashi on Genesis 39:11, who echoes this talmudic passage. Islamic tra-
dition, as well, reports that Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar (there, “the wife of al-‘Aziz”) intended to consum-

mate their attraction for one another. As Shari Lowin describes, “the wife of al-‘Aziz lay before him and
he sat between her legs, or Joseph loosened her clothes as she lay before him, and/or he loosened his
own, or he ‘sat with her as a man sits with his wife’”; see Lowin, Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in
Al-Andalus, chapter 7, “The Cloak of Joseph.” Lowin also notes (n. 96) that other Islamic interpreters
state that “she managed to untie seven knots on Joseph’s trousers before Joseph came to his senses and
raced out of the room.”
51. Rashi, B. Sotah, ad. loc. ‫ והאי מלאכתו תשמיש‬:‫לדבר עבירה‬.
52. In Potiphar’s House, 97 and see 120 n. 4.
53. Tanh.uma 1:9, translated somewhat differently by Kugel.

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eyes of her master, who to himself he has designated, he shall have her redeemed; to
a foreign people he shall have no right to sell her, on account of his betrayal of her.”
Thus, in Kugel’s heightened midrashic reading, by entering into Mrs. Potiphar’s bed
together with her, Joseph has essentially already betrayed his master.


Following on the heels of this rabbinic interpretation, if the two of them,
Joseph and Mrs. Potiphar, were already in bed, how would the midrashic perspec-
tive explain why the illicit intercourse did not occur? Of course, one could concur
with interpretations that state that “at the last minute, although [Joseph] was pre-
pared to sin, he conquered his inclination and did not sin.”54 But another view is
provided by the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 87:7:

.‫ בדק ולא מצא עצמו איש‬:‫ אלא ואין איש‬,‫ לעשות מלאכתו וודיי‬:‫ר’ שמואל בר נחמן אמר‬
:‫ ר’ יצחק אמר‬.‫ ותשב באיתן קשתו‬:‫ הדא הוא דכתיב‬,‫ נמתחה הקשת וחזרה‬:‫דאמר ר’ שמואל‬
‫ איקונין‬:‫ ר’ הונא בשם ר’ מתנא אמר‬.‫ ויפזר זרועי ידיו‬,‫נתפזר זרעו ויצא דרך ציפרניו‬
.‫שלאביו ראה ונצטנן דמו‬

R. Samuel bar said: To do his work [Genesis 39:11], of course! But
and there was no man [ibid.]: he checked, but he did not find himself to be a
man. For R. Samuel had said, “It had become hard, had that bow [been], but
then it subsided. That is in accordance with what the Bible wrote: Yet firm
remained his bow [Genesis 49:24].”55 R. Isaac said: His seed was scattered
and exited by way of his fingernails, and agile stayed his arms and hands
[ibid.]. R. Huna in the name of R. Matana stated: An icon of his father did
he see, and his blood became cool.56

This midrash adds to the parallel account in the Talmud several interpretations that
account for the “chaste” outcome of the episode. Once again alluding to Joseph’s
undetermined sexuality, R. Samuel claims that Joseph “did not find himself to be a

54. See Kasher, Torah shelemah, 6:1498 n. 96.

55. In rendering this biblical citation, and the next, I have followed Everett Fox, The Schocken
Bible, vol. 1, The Five Books of Moses (New York: Schocken, 1995). The parallel variant of this
midrash found in the Babylonian Talmud (B. Sotah 36b) cites an explanatory interpretation of the bib-
lical verse: “R. Joh.anan said in the name of R. Meir: ‘[This means] that [Joseph’s] passion subsided.’”
56. Bereshit Rabbah 87:7 (Theodor-Albeck 3:1072); see also Y. Horayot 46d. With respect to
Joseph, approaching the moment of climax, and seeing his father’s image, Dalia Marx writes, “It is
hard not to notice an Oedipal undertone in the midrash about Joseph encountering the image of his

father while he is in a woman’s bed. The image of the ‘great father’ appears in the middle of the
sexual act, cools off his son’s passion and denies his manhood.” See Dalia Marx, “Joseph and Gender
Complexity,” Parsha E-letter, Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23) (December 2014),
2014/12/joseph-and-potiphars-wife-gender-compexity/. Levinson, “An-Other Woman: Joseph and Poti-
phar’s Wife,” 299, also draws our attention to what he terms “the Freudian family romance,” but partic-
ularly stresses the cultural dimension that is his main point: “Why would Joseph’s act of adultery result in
the subsequent loss of his patrimonial connections? By cross-coding the gender and the cultural codes,
not only is the foreign other troped as female, but masculine sexual identity … becomes a sine qua non of
cultural identity” (298).

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man.”57 According to this interpretation, Joseph could not or did not function sex-
ually in the way that the rabbinic mind expected of a man when faced with an
opportunity to so engage, in the privacy of an unoccupied home, and with a
woman who had been propositioning him. A variant of the midrash on Genesis
39:11 adds yet another dimension to the reading:

‫ שלא‬,‫ לא מצא עצמו איש‬,‫ אלא ואין איש‬,‫ שהלך לעשות עבירה‬,‫ ממש‬.‫ וודיי‬,‫לעשות מלאכתו‬
.‫היה בו גבורת אנשים‬

To do his work, certainly! Literally [this means] that he went to engage in a

sin, but there was no man, he did not find himself to be a man, for there was
not in him the power of men.58

In the crucial moment, it was not moral rectitude that spared Joseph from sin but
rather his inability to consider himself a “man”—here defined by the ability to
perform sexually with a woman (even if the propositioning party was legally
and morally forbidden to him). R. Samuel found support for his understanding
by his particular reading of Genesis 49:24, taken from Jacob’s testamentary bless-
ing of Joseph.
In the continuation of the midrash in Bereshit Rabbah 87:7, R. Isaac either
adds to R. Samuel’s reading, or offers another independent view of the narrative
circumstances. According to his understanding, Joseph’s “seed was scattered
and exited via his fingernails,” a somewhat elusive idiom. While it might mean
that R. Isaac felt that Joseph pleasured himself and that action enabled him to
resist the blandishments of Mrs. Potiphar, the parallel account in the Babylonian
Talmud offers this midrashic variant, “He stuck his hands in the ground so that
his spilling-of-seed came out from between his finger-nails”; this second
version may contain a different idiomatic reading, or may simply suggest
another variant of what is essentially the same midrash.59 On the other hand, it
may be an instance in which the aggadic characterization of Joseph has him
follow rabbinic advice given to men who find themselves in circumstances that
require the suppression of sexual urges. Joshua Levinson makes the case for
this interpretation, for example, with respect to a statement in Talmud Yerushalmi
Horayot 46d, found immediately before a rabbinic observation about Joseph’s
ability to withstand the blandishments of Mrs. Potiphar:

57. Lori Lefkovitz also cites this midrash in her essay, “Coats and Tales,” 23.
58. Referenced in the notes to Theodor-Albeck, ‫מנחת יהודה‬, ad. loc.
59. We should, at the very least, consider Rashi’s understanding of the expression (B. Sotah
36b): - ‫ … ואף על פי כן יצאו מבנימין אחיו‬:‫ תולדות שיצאו מיעקב כנגדן ראוי לצאת מיוסף‬- ‫אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף‬
‫אותן עשרה שפיחתו מיוסף בעשר אצבעותיו‬, “These are the generations of Jacob, Joseph … [Genesis 37:2]:
The same number of generations that descended out of Jacob should likewise have descended from
Joseph … nevertheless they descended from Benjamin, his brother—those self-same ten whom
Joseph diminished by means of his ten fingers.”

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‫ פירש מיד… מה יעשה? יטוח ראשי אצבעותיו‬,‫ נטמאתי‬60‫ לי‬:‫היה משמש עם הטהורה ואמרה‬
.‫בכותל ויהא מיצן‬

If [a man] were to engage in intercourse with a woman who began the act
while [still] in a stage of purity, but who said: “I have become impure unto
myself,” he should separate himself immediately. … What should he do [in
order to deal with his aroused state]?… He should press his fingertips into
the wall until he cools down.61

Of course, this statement is not identical with the idiom found in the aggadah we
have cited above, so it may express a different idea.62
Finally, R. Huna cites an interpretation of R. Matana that Joseph’s passion
subsided in the presence of a vision of his father, Jacob.63 Where some interpreters
of rabbinic literature might consider this iconic representation of his father a
classic use of conscience in a narrative of seduction, it is also possible to read it
as an insightful intuition of themes present in the actual (as opposed to midrashic)
flow of biblical narrative; in short, it may well be a midrash that is close to the
contextual meaning of Scripture.64


Ambiguity about Joseph’s sexuality may also resound within a midrash that
relates to a relatively early stage in the Joseph narrative. The midrash in question
(Bereshit Rabbah 98:18) is actually taught about Genesis 49:22, but concerns the
point in the narrative in Genesis 41:43 in which Pharaoh leads Joseph in a trium-
phal public chariot ride:

60. Perhaps one ought to read ‫ נטמאתי‬:‫ואמרה לו‬, “but who said to him: ‘I have become impure.’”
61. See Levinson, “An-Other Woman,” 293 and n. 91.
62. On rabbinic portrayals of men resisting illicit or inadvisable sexual expression, see Michael
Satlow, “Try to Be a Man: The Rabbinic Construction of Masculinity,” Harvard Theological Review
89, no. 1 (1996): 26–40.
63. Y. Horayot 46d offers a variant of this midrash, and adds: ‫ אף איקונין שלרחל ראה‬:‫אמר ר’ אבין‬,
“Said R. Abin: Even an icon of Rachel did he see”; see Yaacov Sussmann, ed. Talmud Yerushalmi:
According to Ms. Or. 4720 (Scal. 3) of the Leiden University Library with Restorations and Corrections
(Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2001), 1420. This raises an additional layer of
potential Oedipal ramifications in the rabbinic evaluation of Joseph’s conduct.
64. See below. In Rashi’s oft-cited methodological statement (in his commentary on Genesis
3:8), this might thus be considered an instance of ‫אגדה המיישבת דבר המקרא ומשמעו‬, “an aggadah that
settles a matter of Scripture and its sense.” On my reading of this methodological statement, along

with a slight emendation of the received version, see most recently Robert A. Harris, “What’s in a
Blessing? Rashi and the Priestly Benediction of Numbers 6:22–27,” in Birkat Kohanim: The Priestly
Benediction in Jewish Tradition, ed. Martin Cohen and David Birnbaum (New York: New Paradigm
Matrix, 2016), 254 n. 10. Having recently examined Rashi’s commentary in the authoritative,
thirteenth-century Leipzig MS Hebrew 1 during a visit to that city, I will take this opportunity to
correct one aspect of that note: contrary to what I write there, Rashi’s methodological statement
does survive in the manuscript, though partly faded and partly deficient due to some degree of medieval
damage. Despite the unique reading in the manuscript, which I will address in a future study, the fun-
damental idea remains the same.

Robert A. Harris
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‫ היו בנות מלכים מציצות עליו דרך החרכין והיו משליכות‬,‫בשעה שיצא יוסף למלוך על מצרים‬
.‫ אף כל פי כן לא היה מביט בהן‬,‫עליו שיריין וקטלין ונזמים וטבעות כדי שיתלה עיניו ויביט בהן‬

When Joseph went forth to rule over Egypt, daughters of kings would look at
him through the lattices and throw bracelets, necklets, ear-rings, and
finger-rings to him, so that he might lift up his eyes and look at them; yet
he did not look at them.65

It is possible to read the narrative as testimony to Joseph’s moral rectitude and

chastity. However, in light of the rabbinic texts we have examined thus far, it is
equally legitimate to read here an insight into a rabbinic view of Joseph’s lack
of interest in females. And while the Bible indisputably reports that Joseph
fathered two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, with the wife given to him by
Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45; 50–52), even here the Bible may allude to a curiosity
with respect to Joseph’s relationship with his wife. The text I have in mind is
not the pericope in which the narrator offers name midrashim upon the birth of
these two sons, but rather a text that has not received sufficient attention in
either the gender identification readers (rabbis and moderns alike) assign to
Joseph, or the ways in which his sexuality might be considered.66 I refer to the
point in the narrative when Jacob formally adopts Ephraim and Manasseh as his
own two (additional) sons, and then adds what looks like in context as a reassur-
ance to Joseph that he will nonetheless found his own “nuclear family”: ‫וּמֹוַלְד ְתָּך‬
‫ֲא ֶשׁר־הֹוַלְד ָתּ אֲַחֵריֶהם ְלָך ִיְהיוּ ַעל ֵשׁם ֲאֵחיֶהם ִי ָקְּראוּ ְבַּנֲחָלָתם‬, “But your progeny to whom
you shall give birth after them to you shall they be; over the name of their brothers
shall they be called in their inheritance” (Genesis 48:6). Thus, Jacob promises to
Joseph that Joseph’s future sons will inherit directly from their father instead of
Ephraim and Manasseh, who will already inherit directly from Jacob, their biolog-
ical grandfather, but legally their father. Yet one late medieval midrash makes the
following observation:

‫ לא מצאנו שהוליד יוסף בנים אחרים חוץ ממנשה‬:‫ומולדתך אשר הולדת אחריהם לך יהיו‬
!?‫ והיאך אמר לו אבינו יעקב ומולדתך אשר הולדת אחריהם‬,‫ואפרים‬

But your progeny to whom you shall give birth after them to you shall
they be: We have not found that Joseph gave birth to any sons after them,
only Manasseh and Ephraim. So how did our father, Jacob, state to him
your progeny to whom you shall give birth after them?!67

65. Theodor-Albeck 3:1268–69. For other ancient interpretations of Joseph’s triumphal proces-
sion (in light of Genesis 49:22), see Kugel, Traditions of the Bible, 444–47.
66. In addressing questions of gender and sexuality, I have been guided by definitions of these
and related terms found on the website of the American Psychological Association, https://www.apa.
67. Solomon Buber, Midrash lekah. tov … of R. Tobiah Ben Eliezer (Vilna: Romm, 1880), 228.

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In fact, the midrash has hit upon an inescapable truth: following the birth of these
two sons, Joseph never again fathers children.68 In contradistinction to his broth-
ers, Joseph gave birth to only two sons.69 While the midrashic interpretation is
itself not an indication that following the birth of Ephraim and Manasseh,
Joseph abstained from sexual relations with his wife, nonetheless, it is undeniable
that despite Jacob’s expressed expectation in Genesis 48:6 that Joseph would bear
additional children like all of his brothers, he in fact is never recorded as having
done so.70


The previous examples have established a perspective rooted in ancient and
medieval rabbinic literature that at the very least raised questions with respect to
the confusion rabbinic expositors expressed regarding Joseph’s gender identity. To
add to the picture, at least one rabbinic tradent explicitly states that the conception
and pregnancy that ultimately resulted in the birth of Joseph had originally been a
female fetus.71 Thus, we might say that according to this rabbinic tradition,
“Joseph,” as it were, had been destined to be born a woman! The Genesis narrative
that related the births of Jacob’s sons to his several wives begins with the rapid
births of Jacob’s first four sons, by Leah (Genesis 29:31–35). The narrator then
turns to the births by the maidservants (Genesis 30:1–13) that result in four addi-
tional sons. Subsequently, the narrator relates the episode of the mandrakes and its
aftermath (Genesis 30:14–20), and two more sons are added to Leah’s progeny. At
this point in the narrative, to make it clear, Jacob has ten sons by three of his four
wives, and none yet by his favorite wife, Rachel. In relating all of these births, the
biblical narrator employs a variant of the formula, ‫ותהר ותלד בן‬, “she conceived and
bore a son,”72 for example, ‫ַו ַתַּהר ֵלאָה ַו ֵתֶּלד ֵבּן ַו ִתְּקָרא ְשׁמֹו ְראוֵּבן‬, “[Leah] conceived and

68. Ibn Ezra and Ramban, on Genesis 48:6, postulate that Scripture alludes to other sons of
Joseph but does not mention them by name, but their comments seem apologetic and unconvincing;
cf. Abarbanel’s critique (Va-yehi, Genesis 48, question 6 and accompanying commentary).
69. See Genesis 46:8–27. We will not address the problem of Genesis 46:23; see Sarna, The JPS
Torah Commentary: Genesis, 316. Joseph’s brothers may have indeed fathered many children each, but
in fathering only two, Joseph follows in the footsteps of his mother, Rachel, yet another link between
mother and son. I am indebted to Gwynn Kessler, who pointed this out to me.
70. In an otherwise anomalous interpretation of Genesis 35:22, David Kimh.i holds that follow-
ing the birth of his twelve sons, Jacob abstained from further sexual relations with any of his wives and,
monk-like, devoted himself exclusively to the worship of God. (:‫ זהו שאמר‬,‫ ופירש מן האשה‬:‫וישמע ישראל‬
:‫ זהו שאמר‬,‫ כי לא היה עוד בן והיה פרוש עוד כל ימיו מאשה ומדרכי העולם והתעסק בעבודת האל‬,‫ויהיו בני יעקב שנים עשר‬

‫“ והיה ה‘ לי לאלהים‬And Israel heard: And he separated himself from the woman, as it is said: And the
sons of Jacob were twelve. Indeed, he had no more children after that, and he remained celibate and
removed from the ways of the world all the remaining days of his life, and occupied himself with the
worship of God, as it says: And the LORD shall be my God [Genesis 28:21].”) No analogous medieval
commentary of which I am aware offers any remotely comparable interpretation of Joseph’s lack of
further progeny after Ephraim and Manasseh.
71. Y. Berakhot 9:3 (14a). See the discussion below.
72. The formula is abbreviated with regard to births of Zilpah’s sons (Genesis 30:9–13), and
states only ‫ותלד‬, “she bore.”

Robert A. Harris
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bore a son, and she called his name Reuben” (Genesis 29:32).73 Note that the nar-
rator employs the typical Biblical Hebrew verbal form for relating events in nar-
rative sequence, ‫( ויקֹטל‬wyqtl), that is, a prefixed verb with vav-consecutive, used in
the first position of a sentence or major clause.74 However, following this long nar-
ration, when describing the birth of Dinah the narrator alters the formula and,
apparently to highlight the distinctive circumstances of this particular birth,
chooses instead a suffixed-form verb (‫קטל‬, qtl), and places this verb, significantly,
not in the first position of the clause: ‫ְואַַחר ָיְלָדה ַבּת ַו ִתְּקָרא ֶאת־ ְשָׁמהּ ִדּיָנה‬, “And after-
wards [Leah] bore a daughter, and she called her name Dinah” (Genesis 30:21). In
midrashic discourse, a shift such as this virtually cries out for interpretation.75 The
significance of the shift is heightened when the Bible, in the account of Rachel’s
birth of Joseph, reverts to the previously used formula, ‫ַו ַתַּהר ַו ֵתֶּלד ֵבּן‬, “[Rachel] con-
ceived and bore a son” (Genesis 30:23).76
Thus, the rabbinic mindset noted the disjunction in the biblical account of
Dinah’s birth, and focused on its peculiarities to learn some insightful truth. A
number of texts in both the Babylonian Talmud and the Talmud of the Land of
Israel, as well as several midrashic compositions, incorporate the tradition that
Dinah had originally been intended as a male birth.77 The Yerushalmi’s midrash
is brief:

73. The formula ‫ותהר ותלד בן‬, “she conceived and bore a son,” itself goes back to the very first
births recorded in the Bible (see Genesis 4:1–2).
74. See, e.g., Wilhelm Gesenius, Emil Friedrich Kautzsch, and Gotthelf Bergstrasser, Wilhelm
Gesenius’ Hebraische Grammatik (Leipzig: J. C. Hinrichs, 1929), 2:6c; Thomas Oden Lambdin, Intro-
duction to Biblical Hebrew (New York: Scribners, 1971), 279–82; Jerome T. Walsh, Style and Structure
in Biblical Hebrew Narrative (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 155–59.
75. ‫“ אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשני‬This verse says nothing other than ‘expound me’!” The
formula is famously found in Rashi’s first midrashic interpretation of Genesis 1:1. Surprisingly, the
complete expression does not appear elsewhere in rabbinic literature (though elements of it do), but
one may state that the sentiment behind Rashi’s gloss animates virtually the entirety of midrashic enter-
prise with respect to biblical verses. See the observation by J. D. Eisenstein, ’ Midrashim: A
Library of Two Hundred Minor Midrashim [in Hebrew] (New York: Noble Offset Printers, 1915),
vii: ‫ ובפרט‬,‫למלאכת הדרוש האגדי השתמשו בכל פסוקי תנ”ך כ”ז שהיו יכולים להוציא מהם איזה דבר טוב ומועיל‬
‫ ומורגל בפיהם לומר אין המקרא הזה אומר אלא דרשני‬,‫“ הפסוקים הקשים והסתומים‬For the purpose of expounding
narrative [the sages] used all of the Bible’s verses on any occasion that they could derive from them
some worthy or useful teaching, and especially with respect to difficult and obscure verses, and they
were accustomed to saying, ‘This verse says nothing other than expound me.’” On this formula, see
also the addenda to Abraham Berliner, Rashi on the Torah: The Commentary of Solomon B. Isaac
(Berlin: Levant, 1866), 182b n. 1.
76. This observation remains true even accounting for the “drum roll” nature of the previous,

interceding verse, “Now God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and opened her womb” (Genesis
77. Most of these texts and traditions were thoroughly analyzed in Gwynn Kessler, “The God of
Small Things: The Fetus and Its Development in Palestinian Aggadic Literature” (PhD diss., Jewish
Theological Seminary, 2001), 107–20. Relying on her own analysis in a subsequent publication,
Kessler concludes, “When the rabbis imagine individual fetuses, they imagine them as male—to the
point that the one female fetus that makes it into rabbinic literature, Dinah, is ‘made male.’” See
Gwynn Kessler, Conceiving Israel: The Fetus in Rabbinic Narratives (Philadelphia: University of
Pennsylvania Press, 2009), 24; see also 77–80.

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‫ נעשית‬,‫ מאחר שנתפללה רחל‬.‫ עיקר עיבורה שלדינה זכר היה‬:‫ר’ יודה בר פזי בשם דבית ינאי‬
.‫ ואחר ילדה בת ותקרא את שמה דינה‬:‫ הדא היא‬.‫נקיבה‬

R. Judah bar Pazzi in the name of the House of Yannai [stated]: The essence of
Dinah’s pregnancy was male. After Rachel prayed, she was made female. That
is [what is written], And afterwards she bore a daughter and called her
name Dinah [Genesis 30:21].78

In this midrash, Rachel prays, presumably for a son, since earlier in the biblical
account she had expressed great distress over not apparently being able to con-
ceive.79 Note that while this midrash explicitly claims that, at the instance of
Rachel’s prayer, Leah’s conception of what originally was a male fetus was
changed into a female, it states nothing with respect to any fetus that Rachel
might be carrying. Indeed, if the midrash were to follow the sequence of biblical
narrative—not necessarily required or even expected, of course—Rachel only
conceives a child after Dinah is born: “Afterwards, she bore a daughter, and
called her name Dinah. Then, God remembered Rachel; God heeded her and
opened her womb” (Genesis 30:21–22).
A more expansive version of this midrash is found in the Babylonian
Talmud Berakhot 60a:

‫ לאחר שדנה לאה דין בעצמה‬:‫ מאי ואחר? אמר רב‬.‫ואחר ילדה בת ותקרא את שמה דינה‬
‫ י״ב שבטים עתידין לצאת מיעקב ששה יצאו ממני וארבעה מן השפחות הרי עשרה‬:‫ואמרה‬
.‫ מיד נהפכה לבת שנא’ ותקרא את שמה דינה‬.‫אם זה זכר לא תהא אחותי רחל כאחת השפחות‬

And afterwards she bore a daughter and called her name Dinah [Genesis
30:21]. What does afterwards mean? After Leah judged a judgment against
herself, and said: “Twelve tribes are destined to emerge from Jacob, six have
already emerged from me, and four from the handmaidens; this makes ten. If
this [pregnancy should result in a] male, my sister Rachel shall not [even] be
like one of the handmaidens!” Immediately, she was switched into a daughter,
as it is said, and she called her name Dinah.81

78. Y. Berakhot 9:3 (14a); I have translated this according to the version found in Sussmann,
Talmud Yerushalmi, 73.
79. Of course, the reader knows that Rachel is barren, since the Bible has explicitly stated this in
Genesis 29:31, but Rachel accuses Jacob of not giving her seed (Genesis 30:1). Despite all of her efforts
to conceive (see Genesis 30:14–18), Rachel remains barren until God steps in to “open her womb”
(Genesis 30:22).

80. Tova Rosen, Unveiling Eve: Reading Gender in Medieval Hebrew Literature (Philadelphia:
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2003), 170 and 246–47 n. 6, briefly discusses this midrash in her
analysis of the unusual medieval piyyut by Kalonymos ben Kalonymos, ’Even, which features
a man’s prayer that he might become a woman. I am grateful to my colleague, Ray Scheindlin, for this
81. See Rashi, who references this rabbinic narrative. For an account parallel to the Bavli, albeit
with some nuanced differences, see Bereshit Rabbah 72:6 (Theodor-Albeck 2:845); and Tanh.uma, 19, Solomon Buber, Midrash Tanhuma (1913; repr. Jerusalem: [n.p.], 1964), 157. Cf. Ibn
Ezra, who cites an unattributed opinion that Dinah was essentially Zebulon’s twin (‫יש אומרים כי עם‬

Robert A. Harris
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In this midrash, it is Leah who prays: working from the rabbinic perspective that
Jacob is “destined” to father twelve sons, each of which is to become one of the
Twelve Tribes of Israel,82 Leah selflessly acts on behalf of her sister. Certain
that her current pregnancy will yield another male birth, and realizing that this
would prevent Rachel from even the possibility of giving birth to two sons
(Jacob being midrashically limited to twelve sons, ten of whom are already
accounted for), she prays that God change this fetus into a female; God grants
this request, and this accounts for the birth of Dinah. Here, too, though, nothing
is stated about any child that Rachel is currently carrying; this midrash easily
accords with biblical narrative sequence, since Rachel conceives and bears
Joseph immediately afterwards.
Thus, none of these midrashim mention that, corresponding with the switch
of Leah’s male fetus into a female (Dinah), Rachel’s conception of Joseph had
originally been female. However, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 30:21,
while not making precisely this claim, comes astonishingly close to stating this:

‫ומן בתר כדין ילידת ברת וקרת ית שׁמה דינה ארום אמרת דין הוא מן קדם ייי דיהון מיני פלגות‬
‫שׁיבטייא ברם מן רחל אחתי יפקון תרין שׁיבטין היכמה דנפקו מן חדא מן אמהתה ושׁמיע קדם ייי‬
.‫צלותא דלאה ואתחלפו עוברייא במעהון והוה יהיב יוסף במעהא דרחל ודינה במעהא דלאה‬

Then after this she bore a daughter, and she called her name Dinah,
because she said, “It is right from before the Lord that half of the tribes
would be from me, but from Rachel, my sister, two tribes would come
forth, just as came forth from each of the maidservants.” Then the prayer of
Leah was heard from before the Lord, and the fetuses of their wombs were
exchanged, and Joseph was given into the womb of Rachel, but Dinah into
the womb of Leah.83

The remarkable observation that “the fetuses of their wombs were exchanged, and
Joseph was given into the womb of Rachel” appears to be a midrashic conclusion
without precedent in the extant literature.84 Since it is nonetheless there we must
consider what this tradition suggests—and what it does not suggest. It does,
without question, expand the biblical account of the birth of Dinah with a

‫זבולון היתה בבטן אחת‬, “There are those who say that she [Dinah] was with Zebulon in one womb”);
Bekhor Shor concurs with this interpretation.
82. See, e.g., Bereshit Rabbah 71:4 (Theodor-Albeck 2:826–27).

83. The importance of Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Genesis 30:21 seems to have escaped the
attention of others engaged in the academic discussion of midrashic sources on the relationship
between Dinah’s and Joseph’s birth stories.
84. That is the conclusion of no less an authority on the breadth and scope of rabbinic literature
than Menahem Kasher: ‫ויש חידוש בדבריו שכתוב ואיתחלפו עוברייא במעיהון‬, “There is an innovation it its
words, in that it is written ‘and the fetuses of their wombs were exchanged’”; see Kasher, Torah she-
lemah, 5:1199. See also the brief comments of Avigdor Shinan, The Embroidered Targum: The
Aggadah in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of the Pentateuch [in Hebrew] (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1992),
142 and n. 215.

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version of a midrash that suggests that either Rachel or, in other accounts, Leah,
prayed that Rachel not be denied at least the same number of male births as the
two maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah. To repeat, it is the presumption of the
midrash that Jacob would be the progenitor of twelve sons, from whom would
be descended the Twelve Tribes of Israel; Leah had already given birth to six,
and each maidservant had given birth to two, making a total of ten. If Leah had
given birth to one additional male child, reasons the midrash, then Rachel could
not end up responsible for more than one, thus making her “of lesser status,” in
the ancient estimation, than the maidservants. Thus, the motivation for the
prayer: Leah’s current pregnancy, destined to result in the birth of a male child,
would be exchanged for that of Rachel, who was destined to give birth to a
female. On the other hand, while the midrash in Yerushalmi Berakhot (and the
others that follow and/or expand it) states explicitly that Leah’s fetus had origi-
nally been male and was changed into a female, the Targum’s midrash does not
correspondingly state that Rachel originally carried a female fetus that was
turned into a male (Joseph); what the Targum does state is ‫ואתחלפו‬, that is, in
some undisclosed way, their two respective fetuses were exchanged, Dinah
going from Rachel’s womb into Leah’s, and Joseph going from Leah’s womb
into Rachel’s. Thus, while it remains a bold midrash, the Targum does not quite
enable us to consider Joseph as an originally female fetus; the most one can say
is that the Targum states that he occupied the womb where a female fetus once
dwelled. Thus far, the midrashic imagination. To go beyond this, as some
would,85 and suggest that the rabbinic depiction of the origins of Joseph’s concep-
tion and birth result in any “latent femininity” that may be associated with Joseph’s
character or self-image exceeds a fair reading of the targumic midrash.86

85. Marx, “Joseph and Gender Complexity,” cites only the midrash in B. Berakhot 60a, and
concludes: “The author of the midrash seems to feel there is something essentially feminine about
Joseph. He explains it with the judgment Leah passed upon herself and her sensitivity towards her
sister, worrying that if Rachel gave birth to fewer males than the handmaids it would disgrace her.
That is why she had the fetuses switched: the fetus in her womb turned into a girl, namely Dinah,
whereas Rachel, who was supposed to give birth to a daughter, had a son—Joseph. This midrash
explains … Joseph’s latent femininity.” However, without referencing the expansive translation of
the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, which explicitly mentions the switching of the fetuses (but even at
that, not that the male fetus “turned into a girl”), she deduces implications from the Bavli that are
not explicitly present in that text.
86. Thinking about the targum’s midrash from a reader-response perspective, were one to want to
suggest a gender relationship of some kind between the two fetuses that results in the births of Joseph and
Dinah, one might build an interesting case through reference to quantum information processing.

Quantum computing relies on two basic principles of quantum mechanics: superposition, meaning
that a quantum “object” essentially occupies multiple states at the same time; and entanglement,
whereby two or more quantum objects can share their states even if they are separated from one
another by great distances. Based on these quantum mechanical principles, one might consider Joseph
and Dinah in the wombs of Rachel and Leah as an entangled quantum system, instantaneously
sharing their quantum states (via superposition and entanglement). In any case, through quantum com-
puting one can measure or otherwise understand the relationship between what had appeared to be two
separate objects, but which are really one and the same; see
computing/quantum-computing-101. For a wonderful prose explanation of quantum computing, see

Robert A. Harris
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We have engaged with a series of rabbinic interpretations that, surprisingly,

depict Joseph against gender type. What would lead these exegetes to present
Joseph in this way? Midrashim do not generally interpret without some “textual
provocation,” or what I like to call “grist for the midrashic mill.”87 What hints
does the Bible itself provide that might have led the exegetes to interpret in the
way that they did?88


In Genesis 37:3 Jacob gives Joseph the so-called “coat of many colors”:89
ֹ ‫ְוִי ְשָׂרֵאל אַָהב ֶאת־יֹוֵסף ִמ ָכּל־ ָבָּניו ִכּי־ֶבן־ְזֻקִנים הוּא לֹו ְוָע ָשׂה לֹו ְכּ‬, “Israel loved
‫תֶנת ַפּ ִסּים‬
Joseph more than all of his sons, for a son of old age was he to him, and he
made for him a ketonet passim.” I have deliberately transliterated the term
instead of offering a conjectural translation. Although some would speculate
about the appearance of the garment itself 90 or the significance of the gift, the
question that seems to me of primary importance for our present considerations
is, who wore this kind of garment? While the garment is featured a handful of
times in the Joseph narrative,91 the Bible only mentions it on one other occasion,
in the narrative that relates Amnon’s rape of his half-sister, Tamar: ‫ְוָעֶליָה ְכֹּתֶנת ַפּ ִסּים‬
‫ ִכּי ֵכן ִתְּל ַבּ ְשׁן ָ ְבנֹות־ַה ֶמֶּלְך ַה ְבּתוֹּלת ְמִעיִלים‬, “Upon her was a ketonet passim, for so would
the daughters of the king, marriage-aged, wear cloaks” (2 Samuel 13:18–19).92

Phillip Ball, “How Quantum Mechanics Could Be Even Weirder,” The Atlantic, June 22, 2016, http:// I am grateful to
my friend, Dr. Shalom Wind, of the Columbia University Applied Physics Department, for introducing
me to this subject.
87. I have long used this idiom to render Rashbam’s innovative term ‫יתורי מקרא‬, literally, “the
(apparently) superfluous/redundant aspects of Scripture” through which traditional Jewish exegetes had
developed their midrashim (and in contrast with which Rashbam sought instead to give exclusively
contextual, or peshat, explanations). See, e.g., Rashbam’s introduction to the legal section of Scripture
(at Exodus 21:1). For a related use of the familiar idiom “grist for the mill” in Zoharic interpretation, see
Elliot R. Wolfson, “Beautiful Maiden without Eyes: Peshat and Sod in Zoharic Hermeneutics,” in The
Midrashic Imagination: Jewish Exegesis, Thought, and History, ed. Michael Fishbane (Albany: State
University of New York Press, 1993), 184.
88. I am not the first person, of course, who has raised these questions, and I acknowledge, inter
alia, the following other readers who have offered readings that examine Joseph as a transgender or
queer character: Michael Carden, “Commentary on Genesis,” in The Queer Bible Commentary, ed.
Deryn Guest (London: SCM, 2006), 52–60; Gregg Drinkwater, Joshua Lesser, and David Shneer,
Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible (New York: New York University

Press, 2009), 53–59; Ken Stone, Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (London: Sheffield Aca-
demic Press, 2001).
89. This, of course, is the famous rendering of the King James Bible; cf. RSV (“a long robe with
sleeves”) and NJPS (“an ornamented tunic”).
90. For a color plate of an Egyptian depiction of Canaanites wearing what may be similar gar-
ments, see Moshe Weinfeld, ed., ‘Olam ha-Tanakh: Bereshit (Tel Aviv: Yedi‘ot ’Ahronot, 1993), 207.
91. Genesis 37:3; Genesis 37:23; Genesis 37:32.
92. The full text reads: ‫תֶנת ַפּ ִסּים ִכּי ֵכן ִתְּל ַבּ ְשׁן ָ ְבנֹות־ַה ֶמֶּלְך ַה ְבּתוֹּלת ְמִעיִלים ַו ֹיֵּצא אֹוָתהּ ְמ ָשְׁרתֹו ַהחוּץ‬ ֹ ‫ְוָעֶליָה ְכּ‬
‫תֶנת ַה ַפּ ִסּים ֲא ֶשׁר ָעֶליָה ָקָרָעה ַו ָתּ ֶשׂם ָיָדהּ ַעל־ֹרא ָשׁהּ ַו ֵתֶּלְך ָהלֹוְך ְוָזָעָקה‬
ֹ ‫ ַו ִתּ ַקּח ָתָּמר ֵאֶפר ַעל־ֹרא ָשׁהּ וְּכ‬:‫ְוָנַעל ַה ֶדֶּלת אֲַחֶריָה‬, “Upon

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Whatever else this tragic narrative may tell us, it clearly resolves at least one
matter: the cloak that Jacob gave his favorite son was one specifically designed
to be worn by (high-born) women!
Assuming that to at least some degree there is a legitimate connection
between the garment that Jacob gave to Joseph in Genesis 37 and the one
Tamar wore (and tore) in 2 Samuel 13, why would Jacob give Joseph women’s
clothing to wear? Was it not enough to endanger Joseph that Jacob loved him
the best? As we have already seen in earlier biblical narratives, favoritism alone
leads to serious family discord. What circumstances would have led Jacob to
make his son even more vulnerable to the ill feelings of his brothers?93 While
the Bible does not state explicitly the circumstances through which Jacob gave
his favorite son a special garment, I believe that it does give us one significant
clue, which may be precisely the kind of “grist” that led the midrashic exegetes
to paint the picture of Joseph with which we began this study. The first fruition
of that clue actually occurs much earlier in the biblical narrative, when, in the
midst of the burgeoning love story between Jacob and Rachel (Genesis 29:2–9),94
the narrator steps in to describe both Rachel and her sister, Leah: ‫ְוֵעיֵני ֵלאָה ַרכֹּות‬
‫תּאַר ִויַפת ַמְרֶאה‬
ֹ ‫ְוָרֵחל ָהְיָתה ְיַפת־‬, “The eyes of Leah were weak,95 but Rachel was

her was a ketonet passim, for so would the daughters of the King, marriage-aged, wear cloaks. He thrust
her out, (did) his attendant and locked the door after her. Tamar took ash on her head and as for the
ketonet passim that was upon her—she tore it; she put her hand on her head, and walked, walking
and crying” (2 Samuel 13:18–19).
93. According to several midrashim, Jacob knew he had endangered his ostensibly favorite son
by sending him to his brothers (Genesis 37:12–13); see Kasher, Torah shelemah, 6:1408–11, and notes
there. For an Islamic interpretive tradition that Jacob endangered Joseph even as he intuited his broth-
ers’ hatred for him, see Sura 12:11–13: “They said, “O our father, why do you not entrust us with Joseph
while indeed, we are to him sincere counselors? Send him with us tomorrow that he may eat well and
play. And indeed, we will be his guardians. [Jacob] said, ‘Indeed, it saddens me that you should take
him, and I fear that a wolf would eat him while you are of him unaware.’” I have cited this from the text
found at The Noble Quran, On this sura and its treatment in post-Quranic commen-
tary and medieval Islamic poetry, see Lowin, Arabic and Hebrew Love Poems in Al-Andalus, chap. 7,
“The Cloak of Joseph.”
94. For other biblical couples who first met at a well, see Exodus 2:15–21; one may also add
Genesis 24:11–17, where Abraham’s servant, effectively Isaac’s surrogate, meets Rebecca.
95. Biblical Hebrew ‫ רכות‬might mean “weak” or “soft.” Ibn Ezra refers to a Karaite interpreter
(with whom he disagrees) who believes that an initial aleph has elided, and that the word should be
understood as though it were ‫ארכות‬. Assuming that the Karaite did not simply mean that Leah’s eyes
were “long,” that is, “almond-shaped,” presumably, the meaning would then be “crusty, scabby,”

that is, in need of healing; see the word ‫ֲאֻרַכת‬, “healing,” in Jeremiah 8:17: ‫ִכּי ַמדּוַּע ֹלא ָעְלָתה ֲאֻרַכת ַבּת־‬
‫ַע ִמּי‬, “Why has the healing of the daughter of my people not arisen?” While an Arabic cognate might
have led either Karaite or Rabbanite exegete to think of this interpretation, it is curious that there is
a rabbinic midrash that might also have contributed. In B. Bava Batra 123a a midrash relates the cir-
cumstances through which Leah’s eyes became “injured” or “weak”: ?‫ מאי רכות‬.‫ ועיני לאה רכות‬:‫כתיב‬
‫ שהיתה שומעת על פרשת דרכים בני אדם שהיו‬,‫ לעולם רכות ממש ולא גנאי הוא לה אלא שבח הוא לה‬:‫… רב אמר‬
,‫ והיתה יושבת על פרשת דרכים‬,‫ גדולה לגדול וקטנה לקטן‬,‫ שתי בנות יש לו ללבן‬,‫אומרים שני בנים יש לה לרבקה‬
‫ והיתה בוכה עד שנשרו‬,‫ מה מעשיו? איש תם יושב אוהלים‬,‫ מלסטם בריות; קטן‬,‫ מה מעשיו? איש רע הוא‬,‫ גדול‬:‫ומשאלת‬
‫ריסי עיניה‬, “It is written And the eyes of Leah were weak. What [is meant by] weak? … Rav said:

Robert A. Harris
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beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance” (Genesis 29:17).96 As far as folk

narratives go, this one seems to follow a usual pattern, “there’s a pretty sister and,
well, a not-so-pretty sister.”97 However, upon closer reflection the verse turns out
to be much more unusually formulated: the biblical narrator has not just chosen a
typical phrase to describe Rachel’s beauty, but a phrase that occurs (albeit in mas-
culine form) only in one other place in Scripture—not coincidentally, it would
seem, it is a phrase used to describe Joseph’s stature and beauty!98 In the midst
of the build-up to the scene in which Mrs. Potiphar attempts to seduce Joseph,
the biblical narrator relates: ‫ַו ַיֲּעֹזב ָכּל־ֲא ֶשׁר־לֹו ְבַּיד־יֹוֵסף ְוֹלא־ָיַדע ִאתֹּו ְמאוָּמה ִכּי ִאם־ַה ֶלֶּחם‬
ֹ ‫ֲא ֶשׁר־הוּא אֹוֵכל ַוְיִהי יֹוֵסף ְיֵפה־‬, “[Potiphar] left all that he had into the
‫תאַר ִויֵפה ַמְרֶאה‬
hand of Joseph and he knew with respect to him nothing except the food that
he ate. Now Joseph was beautiful of stature and beautiful of appearance”
(Genesis 39:6). Again, while there are several similar biblical descriptions of
beauty that use one or more parts of this description,99 only Rachel and Joseph
share the complete and precise formulation.100


Let us return to one of the biblical texts we examined earlier through the
prism of rabbinic midrash, Genesis 37:2. We looked at a rabbinic interpretation

indeed [her eyes] actually were weak—but that was no disgrace to her but a credit. For at the crossroads
she heard people saying: Rebecca has two sons, [and] Laban has two daughters; the elder [daughter
should be married] to the elder [son] and the younger [daughter should be married] to the younger
[son]. And she sat at the crossroads and inquired: ‘The elder one, what are his deeds?’ [And the
answer came that he was] a wicked man, a highway robber. ‘How does the younger man conduct him-
self?’—‘A quiet man dwelling in tents.’ And she wept until her eyelashes dropped.”
96. In other words, in contradistinction to her sister, Rachel had both a beautiful body and a
beautiful face.
97. See, e.g., the “Tatterhood” tale in Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jorgen Moe, “East o’ the
Sun and West o’ the Moon,” in Popular Tales from the Norse, trans. George Webbe Dasent (Edinburgh:
David Douglass, 1888); cited from
98. Ibn Ezra (commentary on Genesis 39:6) quite tersely expresses recognition of the connec-
tion between the description of Joseph’s beauty and Rachel’s in a single word: ‫כאמו‬, “[Joseph’s beauty
is] like his mother’s.” See Menachem Cohen, Mikra’ot gedolot “Ha-keter”: A Revised and Augmented
Scientific Edition of ‘Mikra’ot Gedolot’ Based on the Aleppo Codex and Early Medieval Mss, vol. 2,
Genesis (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), 113. Bereshit Rabbah likewise observes the
connection between the biblical narrator’s description of Rachel’s beauty, and of Joseph’s; see Bereshit

Rabbah 86:6 (Theodor-Albeck 2:1059). A contemporary commentator writes, “This sort of language in
reference to male beauty is unusual in the Bible and draws our attention for that reason if no other. But
in addition it teaches us something about Jacob’s reasons for feeling so close to this particular son.…
Joseph resembled his mother and so was a constant reminder of her for the bereaved Jacob.” See David
W. Cotter, Genesis (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2003), 291.
99. Cf., e.g., Genesis 12:11 (Sarah); 1 Samuel 25:3 (Abigail); Esther 2:7 (Esther).
100. As earlier stated, Kugel, In Potiphar’s House, 67, notes the rabbis are aware that the precise
biblical description of Joseph’s beauty is elsewhere only used of Rachel, although both he and they
draw different conclusions from this connection than I do.

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of what the Bible might have meant when it stated that Joseph “was a lad with” the
sons of Bilhah and Zilpah (‫)ְוהוּא ַנַער ֶאת־ ְבֵּני ִבְלָהה ְוֶאת־ ְבֵּני ִזְל ָפּה ְנ ֵשׁי אִָביו‬. Recent bib-
lical studies have raised a number of possibilities for the full connotations of the
term ‫( נער‬lad).101 Our concerns are more particularly focused on its use in Genesis
37:2: historical-critical Bible scholars have long sought to understand the peculiar-
ities of the phrasing, which in the entire Bible occurs only here.102 It seems that
standard commentaries do not quite do justice to the phrase. E. A. Speiser, for
example, translates that Joseph “was assisting the sons of his father’s wives
Bilhah and Zilpah,” and notes the (inexact) correspondence of ‫ נער‬in Exodus
33:11.103 A century ago, John Skinner observed, “The clause ‫ והוא נער‬is difficult.
As a parenthesis … it is superfluous after the definite statement of Joseph’s age
[earlier in the verse], and leaves us with a wrong identification of the sons of
the concubines with the previous ‫אחיו‬. If it be joined to what follows, Gunkel
has rightly seen that we want a word expressing something that Joseph was or
did in relation to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah.”104 Skinner’s conclusion that
“Joseph, while shepherding with [all] his brethren, fell out with the four sons of
the concubines,”105 although possible, is by no means certain. Nonetheless, his
(or Hermann Gunkel’s) observation that an interpretation of the morpheme ‫נער‬
in this context requires “a word expressing something that Joseph was or did in
relation to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah” is sound, as the phrase seems less
nominal than verbal. Unfortunately, the other meanings of the root n-ʿ-r in Biblical
Hebrew, “to roar” or “to shake,” do not appear to be particularly helpful.106 Eliezer

101. See, e.g., H. F. Fuhs, “‫נער‬,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament, ed. Botter-
weck, G. Johannes. and Helmer Ringgren, trans. John T. Willis (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1977), 9:474–85; John MacDonald, “The Status and Role of the Na‘ar in Israelite Society,” Journal
of Near Eastern Studies 35, no. 3 (1976): 147–70 (see in particular p. 152, n. 16, for references to schol-
arship about the term in its ancient Egyptian context); Carolyn S. Leeb, Away from the Father’s House:
The Social Location of Na‘ar and Na‘arah in Ancient Israel (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press,
2000). These and other studies are discussed in Stephan M. Wilson, Making Men: The Male
Coming-of-Age Theme in the Hebrew Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 48–51; as
Wilson points out, each of the aforementioned studies seeks to explore meanings of the term outside
the narrow considerations of “youth.”
102. A search of “‫ נער‬followed by ‫את‬,” using Accordance 11.1.6, yielded fifty-nine results, but
only Genesis 37:2 contains this precise syntactic arrangement. Trenchantly, Rashbam cites a corre-
sponding text not often referenced in the standard commentaries, Hosea 11:1: ‫ ִכּי ַנַער ִי ְשָׂרֵאל ָוֹאֲהֵבהוּ‬,
“Israel was a lad and I [God] loved him.” However, Rashbam does not follow up with any further sug-
gestion about any other meaningful connection between these two verses.
103. E. A. Speiser, Genesis (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964), 287–89.

104. John Skinner, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Genesis (New York: Scribner’s
Sons, 1910), 443–44.
105. Ibid., 444.
106. Although I have considered the potential of ancient Semitics to aid in understanding the
root n-‘ -r in some sort of sense indicating sexual arousal, I have thus far been unsuccessful. In fact,
the only occasion when I have found such a suggestion in print was in a surprising (and unsubstanti-
ated) source, Braude’s English translation of Bialik-Rawnitzki’s Sefer ha-’aggadah: “The commentator
seems to take na‘ar as a nominal form of the stem ‘r (‘to awake, to become sexually mature’).” Fol-
lowing this observation, the editor adds: “So Rabbi Julius Kravitz of Tucson, Ariz.” H.ayim

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Ben Yehuda offers what might be an interesting and linguistically precise

approach to the difficulties of this verse. He notes that elsewhere in the Penta-
teuch107 the morpheme ‫ נער‬can be vocalized either as masculine or feminine
(‫)אפשר שנער משמש לזכר גם לנקבה‬, and references both Greek and Arabic equiva-
lents.108 One may also consider that the plural ‫ נערים‬may include both males
and females.109 At a minimum, one might propose that this orthographic ambigu-
ity—we can think of it as “sight-play”110—may have provided a basis for the rab-
binic midrash we explored earlier; at the same time, it may also offer us a more
nuanced understanding of what lies under the surface of Genesis 37:2.
In his book Making Men: The Male Coming-of-Age Theme in the Hebrew
Bible, Stephan Wilson proposes other layers of meaning associated with the
term ‫נער‬, some of which may inform our discussion of Joseph.111 First, Wilson
points to the general powerlessness of characters whom Scripture designates by
this term:112 “Turning to the specific characteristics ascribed to individuals
referred to as ‫ נערים‬with respect to their youth reveals that the most frequently
attested attribute is a lack of power. Biblical ‫ נערים‬are those acted upon, not the
actors. Often this impotence is understood as an absence of physical strength.…
Joseph … lacks the strength to put up any resistance to the malicious actions of
his brothers.”113 Additionally, Wilson notes that “a less prominent, but recogniz-
able, facet of the biblical portrayal of youths identified by the term ‫ נער‬is that they
are held up as an aesthetic ideal for the male body.”114 Wilson points out that “two
of the three male characters referred to in the Bible as beautiful … are explicitly

Bialik and Yehoshu‘a Hana Rawnitzki, The Book of Legends equals Sefer Ha-Aggadah: Legends From
the Talmud and Midrash, trans. William G. Braude (New York: Schocken, 1992), 51 n.1.
107. E.g., Genesis 24:14 (and throughout chapter 24); 34:3, 12; see also Deuteronomy 22:15
(and elsewhere in the chapter).
108. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew [in Hebrew]
(New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1908), 3714a.
109. For example, the disaster that befalls “the young people” (‫ )נערים‬in Job 1:19 clearly
includes both Job’s sons as well as his daughters (see Job 1:18).
110. See Edward L. Greenstein, “Verbal Art and Literary Sensibilities in Ancient Near Eastern
Context,” in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Ancient Israel, ed. Susan Niditch (Chichester: Wiley
Blackwell, 2016), 471–72. Greenstein notes that “a special type of literary art that was oriented to the
eye was the scribal joke.… A cuneiform scribe may write a word in a surprising or punning manner for
the amusement of his colleagues” (471). See also Ilana Pardes, Countertraditions in the Bible: A Fem-
inist Approach (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), 104–5, where the author treats the

ambiguity of the morpheme [‫ושכבת]י‬, and interprets it as not necessarily an archaism but rather as a
deliberate plot device employed to provide additional nuances of meaning in the narrative. I am grateful
to Edward L. Greenstein for this reference.
111. See Wilson, Making Men, 53–56.
112. Ironically, this conclusion diametrically opposes MacDonald’s study, which explores the
military role played by characters whom the Bible and Ancient Near Eastern literature designates
with this term; see MacDonald “Status and Role of the Na‘ar in Israelite Society,” 157–66.
113. Wilson, Making Men, 53; the italics are Wilson’s.
114. Ibid., 55.

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identified as ‫נערים‬.115 Finally, he references a number of occasions when ‫נערים‬

display a “predilection for rash and violent action”; one instance of particular
significance for our consideration is Ruth 2:9, where Boaz endeavors to
keep Ruth safe and cautions his ‫ נערים‬not to physically or sexually abuse her.116
Thus, any and all of these meanings may be understood with regard to the
character of Joseph and his designation as a ‫“ נער‬with the sons of Bilhah and
the sons of Zilpah” in the biblical narrative of Genesis 37:2. Indeed, we may
even imagine the ambiguity in this phrase (‫ )נער את‬to indicate that Joseph
engaged in some degree of willing and mutual sexual liaisons with the sons of
the concubines,117 and that this contributed to the hatred his other brothers had
for him.118


Thus, we may claim that Scripture has subtly painted a picture of Joseph
with a certain degree of confused or transgendered sexual identity. Consequences
arising from this question of sexual identity may have been accentuated both by
Jacob’s parental abuse of his ostensibly favorite son, and by certain traumatic
youthful experiences to which this favoritism may have led. Indeed, this portrai-
ture fits in well with other aspects of the Bible’s characterization of these two
Two incidents in the biblical depiction of Jacob help portray him as one of
the most egocentric characters in the Bible.119 In Genesis 34, the narrative that
describes Schechem’s rape and abduction of Dinah, Jacob distinguishes himself
in the main by … doing nothing. He expresses nary a thought nor emotion
upon learning that his daughter has been raped and is effectively being held

115. Ibid. Wilson writes this about David (1 Samuel 17:42) and Joseph (Genesis 39:6). See also
2 Kings 5:14 and Job 33:25 for references to the beautiful, soft skin of a ‫נער‬.
116. The biblical phrase is ‫ִצ ִוּיִתי ֶאת־ַה ְנָּעִרים ְלִבְל ִתּי ָנְגֵעְך‬, “I have commanded the lads to not touch/
molest you”; see Wilson, Making Men, 55.
117. Nahum Sarna comments that Joseph “fraternized, in particular, with Dan, Naphtali, Gad,
and Asher”; Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis, 255.
118. Making this distinction between the sons of the concubines and Joseph’s “other” brothers is
in keeping with the typical way in which proponents of the Documentary Hypothesis divide the chapter;
see, e.g., Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New Look into the Five Books
of Moses (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2003), 92–93. See Rashbam, who makes a similar distinc-
tion in his comment on the phrase ‫היה רועה את אחיו בצאן‬, “He shepherded with his brothers among the
sheep,” in Genesis 37:2. See also Ginzberg, Legends, 5:326 n. 9.

119. On Jacob as an egocentric character see Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 474. For other studies that have helped me frame my
contention that the narrator of Genesis presents the character of Jacob, throughout, as egocentric and
self-centered, see: John Edward Anderson, Jacob and the Divine Trickster: A Theology of Deception
and Yhwh’s Fidelity to the Ancestral Promise in the Jacob Cycle (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns,
2011); Susan Niditch, A Prelude to Biblical Folklore: Underdogs and Tricksters (Urbana: University
of Illinois Press, 2000), 93–125; Richard D. Patterson, “The Old Testament Use of an Archetype:
The Trickster,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42, no. 3 (1999): 385–94; Yair and
Valerie Zakovitch, Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).

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captive in the home of her attacker.120 In contradistinction to his outpouring of

grief upon (mistakenly) learning that Joseph has been killed by a wild beast,121
when confronted by the news of the attack on his daughter, Dinah, Jacob
neither weeps nor tears his garments, nor becomes angry, nor plans vengeance.
When early on the narrator points out ‫ְוֶהֱחִרשׁ ַיֲעֹקב‬, that “Jacob had remained
silent,” one might have thought that this reluctance to act was only temporary.
However, Jacob’s quiescence continues throughout the story, and his sons there-
fore step into the breach, for good and for ill. In fact, Jacob only speaks
towards the very end of the narrative, when he condemns the behavior of
Simon and Levi after they have rescued “their sister” (and not, pointedly, when
his other sons had looted and despoiled the town, presumably enriching his house-
hold): ‫ַו ֹיּאֶמר ַיֲעֹקב ֶאל־ ִשְׁמעֹון ְוֶאל־ֵלִוי ֲעַכְר ֶתּם ֹאִתי ְלַהְבִאי ֵשִׁני ְבֹּי ֵשׁב ָהאֶָרץ ַבּ ְכַּנֲעִני וַּב ְפִּר ִזּי ַוֲאִני ְמֵתי‬
‫ִמְס ָפּר ְוֶנֶאְספוּ ָעַלי ְוִהכּוִּני ְוִנ ְשַׁמְד ִתּי ֲאִני וֵּביִתי‬, “Jacob said to Simon and to Levi, ‘you have
troubled me, to make me odious among the dwellers of the land, among the
Canaanite and Perizzite, whereas I am of small number, and they shall gather
against me and strike me, and I will be destroyed, I and my house’” (Genesis
34:30). It is telling that in the Hebrew text, the verse contains no fewer than
eight self-references; when Jacob finally speaks, there is no mistaking who is
the center of his universe.122 As with any narcissist, Jacob’s children serve primar-
ily to sustain him; the catastrophe that befalls his daughter functions in his eyes
only as a threat to his well-being, and nowhere in the biblical narrative does he
express a concern for her.

120. The reader learns that Dinah spends the entirety of Genesis 34 in the household of Sche-
chem (and Hamor), as she is only freed by Simon and Levi’s rescue in v. 26: ‫ַו ִיְּקחוּ ֶאת־ ִדּיָנה ִמ ֵבּית ְשֶׁכם ַו ֵיֵּצאוּ‬,
“They [Simon and Levi] took Dinah from the house of Schechem and they left.” See Sternberg, Poetics
of Biblical Narrative, 441–82. I am aware that Sternberg’s reading of this narrative has been challenged
by, inter alia, Fewell and Gunn; nonetheless, I am persuaded by the essential claims of Sternberg’s inter-
pretation. Cf. Danna Nolan Fewell and David M. Gunn, “Tipping the Balance: Sternberg’s Reader and
the Rape of Dinah,” Journal of Biblical Literature 110, no. 2 (1991): 193–211; see Sternberg’s rejoin-
der, “Biblical Poetics and Sexual Politics: From Reading to Counter-Reading,” Journal of Biblical Lit-
erature 111, no. 3 (1992): 476–79. See also Yael Shemesh, “Rape Is Rape Is Rape: The Story of Dinah
and Shechem (Genesis 34),” Zeitschrift fur die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 119, no. 1 (2007): 2–21;
Frank M. Yamada, “Dealing with Rape (in) Narrative (Genesis 34): Ethics of the Other and a Text in
Conflict,” in The Meanings We Choose: Hermeneutical Ethics, Indeterminacy and the Conflict of Inter-
pretations, ed. Charles H. Cosgrove (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 157–61; Caroline
Blyth, The Narrative of Rape in Genesis 34: Interpreting Dinah’s Silence (Oxford: Oxford University
Press, 2010).
121. Genesis 37:33–35: “[Jacob] recognized it, and said, ‘My son’s tunic! A savage beast

devoured him! Joseph was torn by a beast!’ Jacob rent his clothes, put sackcloth on his loins, and
observed mourning for his son many days. All his sons and daughters sought to comfort him; but he
refused to be comforted, saying, ‘No, I will go down mourning to my son in Sheol.’ Thus his father
bewailed him” (NJPS).
122. It is also telling that Simon and Levi seem to pick up on the implications of Jacob’s self-
centered response when they state, “Like a whore shall he [i.e., Jacob] make our sister?!” (Genesis
34:31). This verse is generally mistranslated and incorrectly, or imprecisely, taken as referencing the
initial deed of Shechem son of Hamor (Genesis 34:2, see 34:7), or Hamor’s proposal to Jacob and
his sons (Genesis 34:8–10).

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The narrator also points to Jacob’s utter lack of sentiment for his children’s
sensitivities in a scene in which he himself is off-stage. In the denouement of the
Joseph narrative, when Judah approaches the Egyptian viceroy, unaware that he is
speaking to his long-lost brother, Judah recounts a speech that Jacob had spoken to
him while they were yet in the Land of Canaan, negotiating with Judah about
giving permission for Benjamin to accompany his other sons as they returned to
Egypt: ‫ַו ֹיּאֶמר ַעְב ְדָּך אִָבי ֵאֵלינוּ אַ ֶתּם ְיַדְע ֶתּם ִכּי ְשַׁנִים ָיְלָדה־ ִלּי ִא ְשׁ ִתּי‬, “He said [did] your
servant, my father, to us, ‘you know that two has she born me, [has] my wife’”
(Genesis 44:27). As Judah recounts these words to Joseph one can only
imagine the pain and sense of continued rejection that they must bring Judah;
indeed, it may be this very sense of rejection that helps Judah in his journey
from oppressing one brother (Joseph) to standing surety for another (Benjamin).
Jacob, after all, had four wives, and these women had born him twelve sons
(and at least two or, more likely, many daughters).123 And yet Jacob, in expressing
the sentiment, seems utterly unaware of how the words “two has she born me, my
wife” would likely be received by the son whom he is addressing.
In both of these cases, as in many others in the Genesis narrative, Jacob acts
in an exclusively egocentric manner, apparently unconcerned with the repercus-
sions his actions and statements have on others; from his behavior in utero and
continuing after his death, Jacob, the heel grabber, acts first and foremost on his
own behalf. Therefore, even with respect to the gift of the celebrated “coat of
many colors” to his ostensibly favorite son, we must reevaluate the degree to
which such actions and other behaviors created danger for his son and, to one
degree or another, added to the risks that transgender human beings, or those
with evolving sexual orientation, may experience in any society. In this context,
Michael Carden’s comment in The Queer Bible Commentary comes to mind:
“Not only in the family, Jacob can also be read here as representative of those
authority figures in classroom, workplace, neighborhood or barracks who, awk-
wardly embarrassed in their homophobia, turn a blind eye to the harassment
and blatant violence that confronts a person publicly, flamboyantly, defiantly in
breach of the gender and sexual norms.”124 Indeed, Jacob more than turns a
blind eye; rather, his actions and inactions lead family members into grave danger.
Some might wish to make an opposing argument with respect to Jacob’s gift
of the “coat of many colors,” seeing such a gift as positive testimony to Jacob’s
attention to his son’s evolving self-image, and arguing that Jacob, sensitive to
Joseph’s evolving understanding of his own sexual orientation, or even his aspira-
tion to transgender identity, offered him the gift of this coat to support Joseph’s evo-
lution. Although such an argument might resound in current reader-response theory,

first, it does not comport with a historically and literarily contextual interpretation.
The Bible does not elsewhere relate any action of Jacob that sympathetically

123. In addition to Dinah, whom the narrator presumably only names on account of the catas-
trophe that befell her, Jacob’s daughters (plural) are mentioned in Genesis 37:35; 46:7, 15; see also
Genesis 34:9.
124. Carden, “Commentary on Genesis,” 54.

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responds to the existential needs of any other character with whom he comes into
contact. On the contrary, as demonstrated above, Jacob acts exclusively in
support of his own interests.125 Jacob even conditions his devotional loyalty to
God on the degree to which God supports him materially (Genesis 28:20–21).126
Second, in any event, the gift of the coat resulted in making Joseph even more vul-
nerable to his brothers’ enmity and exploitation and, as a result, further endangered
Jacob’s ostensibly favorite child. Thus, at best, even if it were an acknowledgment
of Joseph’s wish to be transgender, Jacob’s gift was a clumsy and short-sighted act
that spoke more about the needs of the giver than those of the recipient.


In a daring poem, “She Is Joseph,” the contemporary Israeli poet Nurit Zarhi
presents the biblical character of Joseph as a girl. The poem, in part, reads as

‫יושבת רחל באהל‬

‫קוצת שער אחר קוצה תאסף‬
‫להחביא תחת כפת משי‬
… ‫את שער בתה הקטנה היא יוסף‬

‫יושבת הקטנה באהל‬

‫בכתנת פסים מצוירה‬
‫ובנגלה היא נער‬
‫ובנסתר נערה‬

She dwells, does Rachel, in the tent

curl of hair upon curl does she gather
to hide under a covering of silk
the hair of her small daughter, Joseph …

She dwells, does the small one, in a tent

in a cloak with stripes adorned
revealed, she is a boy
but hidden, a girl.127

125. In addition to the texts we explored above, we might also consider how Jacob exploits his

brother and father with respect to both the birthright and the blessing (Genesis 25:29–34 and 27:6–41).
Indeed, a full consideration of the Jacob narrative would yield additional examples of exclusively self-
interested behavior.
126. Rashi disagrees with this assessment, and (at Genesis 28:22) indicates that the resultant
clause of the condition only begins with Jacob’s pledge to build a shrine. Bekhor Shor (at Genesis
28:21) sees the conditional clause as I have explained it here.
127. I have cited the Hebrew text from Malkah Shaked, I’ll Play You Forever: The Bible in
Modern Hebrew Poetry, vol. 1, Anthology [in Hebrew] (Tel Aviv: Miskal–Yedi‘ot ’Ah.ronot Books
and Sifre H.emed, 2005), 148–50; the English translation is my own. Shaked offers her analysis of

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Zarhi is alert to some of the same nuances shared by the biblical narrator, and
deftly develops them to a degree that neither ancient nor medieval rabbis
dared.128 With this poem in mind, I return to the methodological question I
raised towards the beginning of this essay: To what degree might queer readings
of the Bible help make contemporary readers aware of some of the narrative’s
dimensions that either escaped ancient readers or only emerged in disparate and
unintegrated readings?
Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone have defined queer reading as follows: “To
queer is to complicate, to disrupt, to disturb all kinds of orthodoxies, including at
least, these two … those that take our current sex/gender regime as natural and
God-given and those that posit ‘the Bible’ as a flat, transparent window into the
divine mind.”129 With respect to the intersect between the type of historical-critical
scholarship that I have followed herein, on the one hand, and queer reading, on the
other, S. Tamar Kamionkowski writes in a vein that I think is most appropriate for
our purposes, “I believe that queer readings will have an impact and will speak to a
greater audience if they are framed as a reading strategy that adds new layers to our
appreciation of the Bible. This will require queer theorists to allow themselves to
land for even a moment in the world of meaning making and, perhaps more chal-
lenging, it will require more traditional biblicists to heed the voice of Jewish
textual tradition that ‘these and these are the word of the living God’ (B.
‘Eruvin 34a).”130
Throughout this essay, I have claimed that the biblical and rabbinic texts that
I have analyzed themselves raised the issues concerning Joseph’s sexual orienta-
tion; ancient biblical writers and the rabbinic communities who first received,
developed, and transmitted these narratives considered the unconventional

the poem in I’ll Play You Forever: The Bible in Modern Hebrew Poetry, vol. 2, Criticism, 184–88. I am
grateful to my friend and colleague, Dr. Laura Wiseman, who drew my attention to this beautiful poem.
See Laura Wiseman, “Telling and Retelling Rachel,” in Parcours judaïques XIII: Tales Twice Told –
Truth, Fiction and Authority, ed. Danièle Kahn-Paycha and Bernard Zelechow (Nanterre: Université
Paris Ouest, 2015), 139–56.
128. Insofar as Zarhi is a poet, I give her wide birth to imagine the world of biblical narrative
and to state its truth as she wishes to recompose it, so to speak. It is a different case altogether, I think,
when modern writers impute their own reality to ancient (or medieval) circumstances. A case in point is
Rachel Adelman’s reading of Leah Goldberg’s poem, “Jacob and Rachel.” Adelman writes, “While in
Genesis, Leah ‘becomes’ Rachel on the wedding night (Genesis 29:23–25, and Rashi on Genesis
29:23–25), the poem suggests the inverse exchange of identities.” However, where Adelman might
be on solid ground in her interpretation of the twentieth-century Hebrew poem, she has overread

Rashi (on v. 25), who draws no such conclusion. See Rachel Adelman, “Breaking the Distaff of
Silence: The Voice of Rachel the Matriarch in Modern Israeli Poetry,” in The Bible Retold by Jewish
Artists, Writers, Composers and Filmmakers, ed. Helen Leneman and Barry Dov Walfish (Sheffield:
Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2015), 63.
129. Teresa J. Hornsby and Ken Stone, Bible Trouble: Queer Reading at the Boundaries of Bib-
lical Scholarship (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 2. See also Ken Stone, Queer Commentary and the Hebrew
Bible (London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001), 11–34.
130. S. Tamar Kamionkowski, “Queer Theory and Historical-Critical Exegesis: Queering Bib-
licists—A Response,” in Hornsby and Stone, Bible Trouble, 135.

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gender dynamics that ran contrary to the normative ideational, and behaviorally
prescriptive, traditions presented by the main body of biblical and rabbinic texts.


We are therefore impelled to inquire about the circumstances that led to the
creation and the development of the narratives and the interpretive traditions they
engender. To what degree, for example, might they have reflected the multivalent
(solely Greco-Roman?) cultural constructions of gender identity?131 Or, how
might the Hellenist cultural world in which the rabbis first expressed their interpre-
tive traditions have informed the rabbinic construction? Indeed, among those
scholars who have explored the social constructs that might lay behind the rab-
binic texts in particular, Greco-Roman cultural contexts have seemed primary.
However, having begun our own line of inquiry, we should not be so limited in
scope. To the extent that I have correctly identified and noted the latent biblical
dimensions of uncertain sexual orientation in the Bible’s presentation of
Joseph’s character in the narrative settings in which it placed him, the rabbinic
interpretations should be seen to a degree as an authentic reflection and not an arti-
ficial scaffolding upon which to place the rabbis’ own cultural concerns. It is the
biblical narrator—refracting what it is in all probability an Iron-Age, not Hellenist,
sensibility—who creates or conveys the character of Joseph in the following ways:
(a) Joseph was beautiful, and the narrator describes him in precisely the same two
expressions as that narrator had chosen to describe Joseph’s mother, Rachel—the
only two instances in the entire Bible in which those precise terms are employed
together; (b) Joseph received and wore a cloak typically worn only by high-born
women; (c) Joseph engaged in some not-completely-disclosed (and possibly inti-
mate) relationship with two of his brothers; (d) Joseph did not consummate a
sexual relationship with a temptress, despite having opportunity to do so; and
(e) although admittedly not as conclusive as the foregoing, Joseph did not
father more than two children, despite the narrator’s explicit expectation (placed
in the mouth of his father, Jacob) that he will, in fact, do so. Thus, questions of
cultural constructs that are asked of rabbinic texts might be asked of the biblical
narratives themselves in their own contexts.132
Why might traditions originating in the Iron Age question Joseph’s sexual
orientation even as they pair him with brothers, and especially with Judah,
whose sexual orientation was unquestioned? The Iron-Age background points
to a precious irony: during most of this period, it was the kingdom represented
by Joseph (especially through his son, Ephraim), that is, northern Israel, that

131. It may be equally as important to consider the question within the context of ancient Persia,
and the Parthian and Sassanid Empires. Although the period she addresses is likely too early for our
concerns, the questions Irene Madreiter poses are certainly apropos; see Irene Madreiter, “Gender
and Sex in Achaemenid Persia,” in A Companion to the Achaemenid Persian Empire, ed. B. Jacobs
and R. Rollinger (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, in press).
132. For an example of the type of questions one might ask, see, e.g., Theodore W. Burgh,
“‘Who’s the Man?’: Sex and Gender in Iron Age Musical Performance,” Near Eastern Archaeology
67, no. 3 (2004): 128–36.

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was by far the more powerful of the two biblical kingdoms, and Judah’s domain,
the backward and far less populated133 southern Kingdom of Judah, that was the
weaker.134 But this may be precisely the point: following the destruction of the
Israelite kingdom in the eighth century BCE, it was the Kingdom of Judah in
the south that assumed the status of “all Israel” and was afforded the opportunity
to refract all of the older traditions in its own preferred image. One might therefore
well understand the desire of Judah’s transmitters of already ancient narrative tra-
ditions to re-image its own eponymous ancestor as the strong and heroic leader of
the remaining brothers, and to develop a narrative arc that encompasses an unques-
tioned—if morally questionable—heterosexual orientation (in Genesis 38) as well
as true character growth (culminating in the long and heroic speech of Genesis


In this article I have mostly focused on the character of Joseph as presented
by ancient rabbinic exegesis. Twentieth-century scholarship has firmly placed rab-
binic traditions and cultural attitudes within the Hellenistic world, and it is there-
fore only right to assess those traditions and attitudes within that context,
interrogating the cultural factors that may have been at play in the rabbinic
world for the sages to have developed and presented interpretive gender-bending
narratives about the character of Joseph. Those narratives are indeed remarkable
when considered among the postbiblical interpretive traditions that lay outside
the rabbinic world. As Joshua Levinson has observed with respect to the range
of the nonrabbinic, postbiblical interpretive narratives about Joseph and Mrs. Poti-
phar, “one dominant theme [prevails]: the dichotomy of promiscuity versus self-
control, staged as a gendered opposition … the overriding concern of this
corpus is to present Joseph as an ethical model of temperance and chastity.”136
As we have already seen, while Joseph’s ethical behavior and chastity

133. See Israel Finkelstein, The Forgotten Kingdom: The Archaeology and History of Northern
Israel (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013), 109–10. Finkelstein’s assessment there is that
“the population of Israel on both sides of the Jordan River in its peak prosperity in the middle of the
eighth century can accordingly be estimated at … three times larger than the population of Judah of
that time.”
134. For Joseph as representative of the northern Kingdom of Israel, see, e.g., Amos 5:6, 15;
Zechariah 10:6; Psalms 78:67.
135. See also Judah’s preparedness to stand surety for Joseph in Genesis 43:8–10.
136. Levinson, “An-Other Woman,” 272; see n. 9, there, for additional bibliography. In general,

the character of Joseph as presented in the postbiblical Judean literature is much “flatter” and more one-
dimensional than in rabbinic literature, and more consistently and conventionally “pious and chaste.”
See, e.g., the Testament of Joseph (especially chapters 1–9) within the Testament of the Twelve Patri-
archs narrative (“I struggled with a shameless woman who kept prodding me to transgress with her, but
the God of my father rescued me from the burning flame.”) in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testa-
ment Pseudepigrapha (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983), 819–21; Josephus, in Antiquities 2.4.2–5
(41–54) in H. St. J. Thackeray, Josephus in Nine [I.e. Ten] Volumes, vol. 4, Jewish Antiquities, books
1–4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; W. Heinemann, 1961), 184–95; Philo, “On Joseph,”
9–10 (44–52) in F. H. Colson, G. H. Whitaker, and Ralph Marcus, Philo: In Ten Volumes (and Two

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characterized certain rabbinic traditions, those qualities by no means described his

character in others.
As Levinson understands it, whereas the nonrabbinic interpretations high-
light the distinction between the female temptress (Mrs. Potiphar) and the virtuous
male (the righteous Joseph), in midrashim that expand the narrative of Genesis
39:7–20, “Potiphar’s wife functions not only as Joseph’s sexual other but as his
cultural other as well, whose unruly body becomes a symptom of a threatened
national culture.”137 But, taken as a whole, does the entire corpus of rabbinic nar-
ratives about Joseph we have presented here constitute a mapping of “ethnic dif-
ference upon a gendered dichotomy,” as Levinson argues?138
Daniel Boyarin has written about this subject in a similar vein. In consider-
ing a series of rabbinic narratives, not about Joseph but about rabbis themselves,
Boyarin observes, “Christian and Jewish images of gender-crossing, and particu-
larly of the feminization of the male, have in common that they are forms of resis-
tance to a culture that equated power and dominance with maleness and maleness
with the ‘husband’s natural position’ in coitus. Where Roman culture despised the
submissive male, both early Christian and early Jewish cultures valorized him.
Both early rabbinic Jews and early Christians performed resistance to the
Roman imperial power-structure through ‘gender-bending,’ thereby marking
their own understanding that gender itself is implicated in the maintenance of
political power.”139 Later, he concludes, “Ultimately the point that needs to be
emphasized is that this is not a discussion of ‘real’ differences between Roman/ce
and Jewish male behavior but about different cultural models signified in
large part in specular, mutually confirming stereotypes.” What is surprising here
is not merely what Boyarin terms the rabbinic “valorization” of the submissive
male—after all, Joseph remains the rabbinic “Joseph the Righteous” even after
the various midrashic readings we have examined that have portrayed him in a
way that runs counter to the generally accepted biblical and rabbinic ideas of
ideal behavior—but that the rabbis so thoroughly do so with the character of
Joseph and not a host of other biblical characters.
Thus, both Levinson and Boyarin, each in his own way, bid us to understand
the narrative expansions in rabbinic texts about Joseph to indicate a complex
weaving of relationships the rabbis sought to express via the biblical narratives,
not only about gender bending per se but most particularly about rabbinic perspec-
tives concerning the ethnic interrelationship between vulnerable Jews and the
temptations of the Roman world. It is a powerful and insightful argument.

Supplementary Volumes): with an English Translation, vol. 4 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press; W. Heinemann, 1984), 162–69.
137. Levinson, “An-Other Woman,” 274.
138. Ibid., 280.
139. Daniel Boyarin, “Homotopia: The Feminized Jewish Man and the Lives of Women in Late
Antiquity,“ Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 7, no. 2 (1995): 41–81. See also Boy-
arin’s book-length treatment of the subject, Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the
Invention of the Jewish Man (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997).

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However, might something else altogether also be at play here? In a recent study,
“Redemptive Readings: Grappling with Rabbinic Homophobia,”140 Marjorie
Lehman notes Levinson’s trenchant analysis of rabbinic texts with appreciation:
“Joshua Levinson, in his analysis of this narrative, exhorts us to push the
element of sexual seduction into the background of this story so as to see Poti-
phar’s wife as Joseph’s ‘cultural other.’ Through Joseph, he argues, the rabbis
bring the challenges of being a slave in ‘a foreign and hostile environment’ to
the fore in an attempt to denigrate foreign culture and to dramatize the transgres-
sion of cultural boundaries. For Levinson, this is an example of where gender
discourse is ‘employed [by the rabbis] to produce and police discourses of identity
in the social formation of rabbinic Judaism.’”141 Nevertheless, I think she is alert
to the dangers of arguing towards only one type of analysis. “Unfortunately, argu-
ments focused on bringing identity politics to the fore in the case of Joseph can
overshadow midrashic readings … that labor to expose the complexity of male
and female sexuality, arresting the potential for further inquiry.” By way of
example, Lehman turns to an interpretive tradition that we considered only
briefly above, Potiphar’s sexual attraction for Joseph, as midrashically imagined
in Bereshit Rabbah 86:3 and B. Sotah 13b. Rabbinic midrash accounted for the
apparent multiple spellings of Joseph’s master’s name, Potiphar and Potiphera
(Genesis 39:1 vs. Genesis 41:45) by relating that to shield Joseph from his
master’s unwanted advances, the angel Gabriel castrated Potiphar.142 Lehman
writes about her students’ difficulties in seeing this midrash as anything other
than a homophobic text. “Despite their familiarity with the Joseph narrative in
Genesis, they did not recognize that Potiphar’s attraction was to the one male char-
acter in Genesis who exhibits characteristics that cross gender lines. Joseph is
‘destabilizing’; he mixes up categories.” After considering many of the same
texts I have presented above, Lehman points out that, with respect to the rabbinic
treatment of Joseph, Potiphar, Mrs. Potiphar (and the angel Gabriel, for that
matter), “In the end, the rabbis use all [these] biblical figures to test the male/
female binary, and in so doing, the definition of sexuality as well.”
Ishay Rosen-Zvi makes similar arguments in his essay “The Rise and Fall of
Rabbinic Masculinity.”143 In seeking to “reexamine this narrative of the birth of a
unique rabbinic counter-masculinity,” Rosen-Zvi writes, “first, I will survey the
image of the rabbinic beit midrash as a quasi-feminine space, then analyze the
concept of the ‘feminized male’ itself. Finally, I wish to question the dichotomy
presented by Boyarin between rabbinic culture and its gentile (Roman, Christian,

140. Journal of Textual Reasoning 10, no. 1 (December 2018). I am grateful to Marjorie
Lehman for sharing this paper with me in advance of its publication.
141. Here Lehman cites Levinson, “An-Other Woman,” 274–75.
142. See Rashi’s pithy summary of the midrash in his comment on Genesis 41:45: ‫פוטיפרע – הוא‬
‫ לפי שלקח את יוסף למשכב זכור‬,‫ ונקרא שמו פוטיפרע על שם שנסתרס מאיליו‬,‫“ פוטיפר‬Potiphera: This is Potiphar,
and his name was called ‘Potiphera’ on account of his being castrated by his actions, since he had pur-
chased Joseph for the purpose of male [with male] sexual relations.”
143. Ishay Rosen-Zvi, “The Rise and Fall of Rabbinic Masculinity,” Jewish Studies, an Internet
Journal (2013): 1–22.

Robert A. Harris
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or Sasanian) surroundings.”144 By way of example, Rosen-Zvi presents a pro-

found text that describes the violent contours of a rabbinic debate:145

Here I will discuss only one of its aspects—the conceptualization of the debate
as a war; indeed, as a terrifying, merciless, violent, beastly war.146 The sages
substituted the external Roman world with that of the beit midrash, but while
doing so they adopted its deeply agonistic ethos. While Boyarin sees the retir-
ing from politics to the private spaces as a “symbolic enactment of female-
ness,” it seems here that the retreat from the world of political power was
accompanied by its profound imitation. The Roman soldier, the hoplite, is
brought into the beit midrash itself; not with his weapons, to be sure, but
with all his agonistic ethos and rules of warfare.147

Thus, Rosen-Zvi argues that his analyses of rabbinic texts “disrupt this neat
picture,” that is, the dichotomy between Boyarin’s “ideal Jewish masculinity …
as a direct opposition to a prevailing non-Jewish one.”148
My purpose here is not specifically to debate Levinson’s analysis of the rab-
binic reading of the Joseph-Mrs. Potiphar episode as a vehicle for the rabbis to
explore “the theme of a cultural seduction,”149 and argue in favor of Lehman’s
choice to explore the rabbinic texts’ confusion concerning sexual attraction. As
Levinson himself argues in another essay, “Joseph is portrayed … as a cultural
androgynos—one whose ambiguous cultural identity is coded with a gendered
semiotics.”150 I do wish to argue that we might prefer to recognize with some
humility that the rabbinic texts are themselves multivalent, and the world they
present—whether that of the midrashically interpreted biblical world or their
own place within Greco-Roman (or Sassanid) society—might be difficult to
capture in a univocal perspective.

144. Ibid., 13.

145. Tosefta Mikvaʾot 7:11 (ed. Zuckermandel, 660–61).
146. An excerpt from Rosen-Zvi’s citation and translation of this passage should suffice to
clarify his point about the violence in the rabbinic text: “At that time R. Tarfon recited this verse: ‘I
saw the ram goring westward and northward, and all the animals were unable to stand against it …’
(Daniel 8:4)—[this is] R. Akiba. ‘As I was considering, behold, a he-goat came from the west
across the face of the whole earth …’ (ibid., 5)—this is Jose Haglili and his answer. ‘And he came
to the ram with the two horns … and he ran at him in his mighty wrath … he was enraged against
him and struck the ram and broke his two horns’ (ibid., 7)—this is R. Akiba and R. Simon b.
Nanas. ‘And the ram had no power to stand before him’ (ibid.)—this is Akiba, ‘but he cast him
down to the ground and trampled upon him’ (ibid.)—this is R. Yose Haglili, ‘And there was no one

who could rescue the ram from his power’ (ibid.)—these are the thirty-two elders who voted in
Lydda and declared it clean.”
147. Rosen-Zvi, “Rise and Fall of Rabbinic Masculinity,” 15.
148. Ibid., 21. Among others who speak to his argument, Rosen-Zvi cites Jeffrey Rubenstein,
The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Char-
lotte Fonrobert, “The Semiotics of the Sexed Body in Early Halakhic Discourse,” in Closed and Open:
Readings of Rabbinic Texts, ed. Matthew Kraus (New York: Gorgias, 2006), 69–96.
149. Levinson, “An-Other Woman,” 274.
150. Levinson, “Cultural Androgyny in Rabbinic Literature,” 137–38.

Sexual Orientation in the Presentation of Joseph’s Character
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Even as the rabbis drew such dichotomies among biblical characters as the
“Jewish” ideal of Jacob, dweller in tents and mild, smooth-skinned student in the
beit midrash, vs. Esau the “gentile” hunter, hairy, brutish, and uncouth, it was to
Joseph that they turned to fully express the potential range of what was for
them an unusually gendered biblical character, one whose sexual orientation did
not fit the prescriptive and expected behavior they more “normatively” (that
word!) established in both halakhic and aggadic contexts. I believe the reason
that they performed those interpretive expansions with respect to Joseph’s
character was precisely because the biblical narrative itself made that performance
possible with him and not nearly as much with other characters.151

Having reflected on ancient rabbinic attitudes about Joseph’s character and
the cultural analysis that modern scholars have conducted in order to expand our
understanding of the multivalent possibilities on sexuality presented in rabbinic
texts, we may ask how the unconventional narratives and interpretive traditions
about Joseph might inform our own sensibilities and behaviors. In what circum-
stances might peshat—for now, the original, contextual meanings of texts, biblical
and rabbinic alike, insofar as we are able to ascertain these—inform derash, even
our own contemporary efforts to derive and to demand significance from ancient
traditions of signifying? In other words, to what extent do we wish to ask of
ancient and medieval texts to offer guides to evolving attitudes (religious, social,
political)? I am reminded of the commentary of R. Joseph Kara, an eleventh-
century northern French exegete, in which he teases out the ramifications of the dis-
tinction between peshat and derash that he had been attempting to describe:

Anyone who doesn’t know the context of Scripture [the methodology of

peshat], and prefers to incline [only] towards a midrashic explanation, is
similar to one who is drowning in a river, and the depths of the waters are
sweeping him away, and who grabs hold of any old thing that comes into
his hand to save himself. Whereas had he paid attention to the word of the
Lord, he would have investigated the true explanation of the matter and its
context, and would have fulfilled that which is written: If you seek it as you

151. To draw this essay’s case more precisely, one might contrast the sages’ treatment of the
Joseph narrative with their virtual neglect of the biblical narrative that features the relationship
between David and Jonathan. Despite the strong affection of Jonathan for David described by the bib-
lical narrator, and despite the powerful, even if enigmatic, expression of love David expresses for Jon-
athan in the lament for his fallen friend, rabbinic midrash is all but utterly silent on the relationship
between the two. Whatever biblical evidence to the contrary contemporary readers might find in sup-
porting this as a homoerotic relationship, ancient and medieval rabbis seem uninterested in it for almost
any purposes. For the few rabbinic notices, see B. Sanhedrin 104a (on 1 Samuel 20:42); M. Avot 5:16;
Yalkut Shimoni, part 2, remez 141 (on 2 Samuel 1:26; see David Kimh.i and Gersonides there).

Robert A. Harris
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do silver, and search for it as for treasures, then you will understand reverence
for the LORD and attain knowledge of God [Proverbs 2:4–5].152

Thus, R. Joseph Kara asserts that even peshat scholarship, not normally concerned
with creating normative religious behavior, ought to inform our attitudes.153 As
one who humbly considers himself an ally of those who seek to change attitudes
towards those whose gender identities and/or sexual orientations run counter to
so-called “traditional values” of earlier religious and social constructs, I would
like to suggest that the more queer reading intersects with historical-critical schol-
arship, and seeks to begin its disruption—whether of biblical literature or of its
rabbinic, Christian, or Quranic interpretive traditions—with attempts to recognize
the meaning of texts to their authors and first communities, and does not read pri-
marily or exclusively with reader-response criticism, the more those disruptions
will take hold as valid readings of ancient texts within the academic community.

Robert A. Harris
The Jewish Theological Seminary

152. This excerpt is but a small portion of a much longer commentary with which the exegete

glossed 1 Samuel 1:17–18. See Menachem Cohen, Mikra’ot gedolot “Ha-keter,” 7.

153. See also Kara’s commentary on Isaiah 5:8–10. I have treated this comment in another
context, see Robert A. Harris, “Structure and Composition in Isaiah 1–12: A Twelfth-Century Northern
French Rabbinic Perspective,” in “As Those Who Are Taught”: The Interpretation of Isaiah from the
LXX to the SBL, ed. Claire Mathews McGinnis and Patricia K. Tull (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical
Literature, 2006), 171–87. On the subject of enabling original contextual meaning to inform contem-
porary religious sensibilities, see Uriel Simon, “The Religious Significance of the Peshat,” Tradition
23, no. 2 (1988): 41–63; and Stephen Garfinkel, “Applied Peshat: Historical-Critical Method and Reli-
gious Meaning,” The Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 22 (1993): 19–28.