Meir Weiss has built a career on understanding the Bible as literature. His breakthrough book entitled The Bible From Within shows how the structure of the narrative helps advance our appreciation of the text. Toldot is a fine example that illustrates his method.
The sequence of events follows a pattern. The portion opens with an encounter with angels (Gen 28:12) and ends with an encounter with the angels (Gen 32:2-3). The story continues with details regarding Jacob’s negotiations with Laban for a wife (Gen. 29:18-29) and reaches its denouement with Jacob’s negotiations with Laban for a truce (Gen 31:25-54). The implication is that the climax of the narrative lies in between. That climax is the birth of Joseph.
It is not merely that Joseph’s birth sets Jacob to the task to go back home. The structure of the narrative signals that the story line will now proceed with Joseph. Up to this point the story was that of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And the setting was the Land of Israel. Henceforth, the story will shift to Joseph and to Egypt. The settling and retention of the Land of Israel will no longer be the primary concern of the narrative. Instead, the text will concern itself with the people Israel and their continuity outside the Land of Israel.
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all took up residence outside the Promised Land. But their respective sojourns were temporary. Joseph lives permanently abroad. And although he still retains an emotional connection to his homeland – asking that his corpse be returned to Israel – he makes no attempt to return during his lifetime. Joseph becomes the first diaspora Jew and his story is our story. Joseph, initially, is forced to cope with being a stranger in a strange land. He assimilates. He is victimized. His helpfulness is forgotten. Nonetheless, he rises to the highest level of position and power. And he uses that prestige for the welfare of his people.
It is Obadiah the prophet who distinguishes between the House of Jacob and the House of Joseph, though both are assignations of the people Israel. The House of Joseph symbolizes that aspect of the Jewish people that has facilitated living among non-Jews. As much as we see ourselves as the descendants of our patriarchs, we are no less members of the House of Joseph, the first of our people to find success abroad.