Off the Shelf: Jacob’s sons and the 12 tribes of Israel

by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

There are numerous ways to study the biblical text. Some commentaries focus on the portion of each week. Others look to find meaning in the text as a whole. Nechama Price offers a slightly different way of organizing the material. In her “Tribal Blueprints: Twelve Brothers and the Destiny of Israel” (Maggid Books), she focuses on the 12 sons of Jacob and shows how their personalities not only affected their own lives, but that of the tribes who were their descendants. 

Price offers an Orthodox interpretation of the text, using biblical and rabbinic sources, without any discussion of whether sections of the text might have come from different sources. Readers are expected to not only be familiar with the Chumash (the first five books of the Bible), but with the entire Tanach (the complete version of the Bible) since Price frequently refers to all sections. The author also uses the Hebrew version of names of the biblical characters (for example, Yaakov for Jacob, Yosef for Joseph and Yehoshua for Joshua), which can cause confusion for those unfamiliar with the Hebrew. On some pages, Price offers almost as many footnotes as regular text, something that can slow down the pace for those interested in additional commentary. However, her interpretations of the brothers’ actions give great insight in the characters’ thoughts and motivations.

Each brother is viewed through two lenses: their actions in Genesis and the actions of their descendants in the later books of the Bible. For example, while Reuven [Reuben] is the oldest son, his lack of leadership ability is the reason why, during the period of judges and kingship, his descendants served as neither. Part of the reason for his inability to assume command is his father’s neglect: even though he was the first son, his father ignored him and preferred his second wife, Rachel, to Reuven’s mother, Leah. Reuven is shown trying to make up for his father’s behavior by picking mandrakes for his mother. Price notes there are two ways to interpret his actions. On the one hand, this may have been Reuven’s way of showing his love for his mother: “[Reuven] watches Yaakov’s treatment of [Leah] during the day and sees her crying at night. As her oldest son, Reuven may be the shoulder Leah cries on. So too, he may know... his mother’s desperate pleas for love, and he wants to help her fill the void.” On the other hand, Reuven may have brought Leah mandrakes because they represent fertility, which is her only connection to Yaakov, whose love she craves. Either way, Price sees Reuven as involving “himself in his parents’ personal matters. Our story reveals a young Reuven overstepping his boundaries by invading his parents’ private affairs for his mother’s sake.” 

Reuven’s lack of leadership is shown when his brothers want to kill Yosef, Yaakov’s favorite: he plans to save Yosef, but the others refuse to follow his words. The members of the tribe that carries his name are also refused leadership, as shown in the story of Datan and Aviram, who rose up against Moses in the wilderness and failed. Prices notes that “Datan and Aviram, like Reuven, himself, revolt again leadership and blame others for their mistakes. Therefore, just as Reuven’s attempts at leadership are unsuccessful and precipitate his downfall, Datan and Aviram are literally swallowed up into the ground. Their private rebellion accomplished nothing and leads nowhere.”

There isn’t room in a short review to discuss what Price writes about each brother, but her approach includes both positive and negative suggestions for all the brothers’ behavior. This includes a fascinating look at Yosef, where she offers three reasons behind his behavior while viceroy of Egypt: 1) Yosef had matured and knew the best way to help pharaoh and the people of Egypt; 2) Yosef sought power over others when he made the Egyptians donate food and then later, during the famine, charged them for it, leaving the Egyptians impoverished and powerless against him and pharaoh; or 3) he unwittingly served as a puppet for pharaoh, who recognized that Yosef wanted power, and used him as a front so that the people of Egypt would be angry with Yosef (and later the descendants of all of Yaakov’s family), rather than the real person behind the scheme. Yosef’s ability to lead is found in his descendants, as shown during the period when Israel was ruled by judges, many of whom were from the tribe of Yosef through his sons Ephraim and Menashe. 

Price also looks at Zilpah and Bilah, who each produced two children for Yaakov. Were they concubines or wives? Was their relationship with Yaakov permanent or did they only serve as momentary proxies for the wife who offered them to him? Price also discusses how being the sons of maidservants – whether they were concubines or wives – affected those sons’ relationship to their father and their half-brothers. 

“Tribal Blueprints” works well as a commentary for anyone studying the book of Genesis. It also serves a way to understand the later books of the Bible by showing how the relationship between the tribes mirrors that of their forefathers. Price’s greatest gift to readers is her understanding of the different psychology of the each brother, though which she offers interesting and thought-provoking ways to view the biblical text.