The book of Beginnings ends this week with a dramatic deathbed scene. The name of this week’s torah episode is an ironic wink – VaYechi, ‘And he lived’ – actually describing death – not only the death of Jacob but also that of his son and spiritual heir, Joseph. Both will be embalmed and buried with great ceremony, leaving the children of Israel to face 400 years of Egyptian Diaspora, slavery, and eventually, an exodus. But not yet: Right now, we are gathered around the bed of Jacob, last of the patriarchs, as he delivers poetic prophecy, and brutally honest last will and testament. The scene reminds us of ‘The Godfather’, as there is more here than words – great fortunes are at stake, and ancient sibling rivalry tensions marked on the brother’s faces.
The scene starts with the blessings bestowed on Joseph and his seed, clearly favored beyond the others. But something in Jacob’s words seems weird, and over the generations many translators and commentaries have debated the fine print and its implications. In today’s political climate – this ancient verse bears chilling resonance:
Genesis 48:22 – ‘I’m giving you one more mountain ridge than your brothers. I took it from the Amorites with my own sword and bow.” This is one popular translation – but not the definitive one. The JPS translation suggests “Moreover I have given to thee one portion above thy brethren, which I took out of the hand of the Amorite with my sword and with my bow.”
Two items are fascinating here, and translated differently. The first is the Hebrew word SHECHEM – translated as either ‘mountain’, ‘shoulder’ or as the name of an actual city – Shechem – modern day Palestinian Nablus. Ouch. This is also the city savaged by Jacob’s sons over the Dina affair. And though neither Jacob or Joseph actually fought that fight – it is Joseph’s tribe that does indeed inherit this property when the Israelites take over Canaan, and in fact Josephs’ presumed burial site is right outside Nablus, a hotly contested geo-political marker.
But the more interesting item here, also politically challenging, is the end of the verse – the bow and sword that Jacob describes as the weapons with which he conquered the city. While most translations stick to these as weapons –Onkelos, the famous translator who was a Roman Jew by Choice, lived 2,000 years ago, and endorsed by the Talmud as the authoritative Aramaic translator, takes a surprising spin on this combat history, translating ‘bow and sword’ as ‘prayer and supplication’. Whoa: prayer and supplication?? That is NOT a translation, but more like a historical clean up job. Is it possible that Onkelos is giving Jacob credit for his sons’ conquest of the city due to his good deeds and pious prayer – though not thanks to his actually being involved in battle? Or is he telling history to his contemporary audience – Jews living under Roman rule, afraid of flaunting military strength?
One way or another, Joseph gets the real estate, and the other brothers, not to mention the Amorites, are left seething and compromised. For the modern Torah reader, gathered around Jacob’s bed this is just another fascinating example of biblical word, political reality, history and myth converging and inviting a critical reading of a text worthy of closer attention. Perhaps, as Onkelos suggests, words and prayers can sometimes be sharper than swords and more lethal than bows and arrows. And perhaps, as we bid Farwell to Genesis and enter the world of Exodus, we can take greater responsibility for the finer reading of what our ancient tales whisper and how our translations can help reshape a world poised for more love and less weapons.