The Torah bluntly describes the dynamics between Joseph and his brothers: they hated him. Their father, Jacob, makes Joseph a special garment. The brothers interpret this to be a sign of favoritism and hate him for this (Genesis 37:4). Joseph dreams that during the harvest his brothers’ sheaves bow down to his. The brothers interpret this to mean that Joseph sees himself as superior to them and hate him for this (Genesis 37:5). Coupled with the way he spoke to them, the brothers hated Joseph even more (Genesis 37:8). Three times in the course of five verses the narrative refers to the brothers’ hatred of Joseph, by far the most concentrated statement of disaffection in the entire Bible.
After Joseph’s second dream, however, when Joseph reports that the sun and moon and eleven stars bow down to him, the wording changes. Rather than stating that the brothers hated Joseph, the text says they envied him (Genesis 37:11). This seems rather odd. The second dream has the brothers in no better position than the first and yet this time the brothers’ hate has disappeared, replaced by envy. Aside from this incongruity, another question arises. It is easier to understand how intense and persistent envy might lead to hatred. But how does hatred culminate with envy?
Psychologist Bernard Golden in Overcoming Destructive Anger suggests that especially in groups, hate helps foster camaraderie and group identity as well as distract from feelings of powerlessness or helplessness. In the context of the sibling dynamics described in the Torah, the hate of Joseph’s brothers comes as no surprise. The only way for the brothers to regain some sense of power of which Jacob deprived them was to hate the beneficiary of his attention. Moreover, in their common hate they drew closer together finding themselves in common cause against a perceived threat. Their hate was the first and most visceral reaction to their reduction in status.
Envy comes afterwards. In his 2008 book entitled Seven Deadly Sins, Aviad Kleinberg, professor of history at Tel Aviv University offers a helpful perspective. He writes (p. 48): “Deep down, we feel that everything belongs to us – or at least should…That others have things we want is a moral outrage.” Hate was a reaction to what they lost – power, position, prestige, and parental love. Envy was the result of the outrage they experienced at Joseph’s gain.