His brothers return with his coloured coat covered with blood. No wonder Jacob fears the worst, and exclaims, “An evil beast has devoured him; Joseph is surely torn to pieces!” (Gen. 37:15).
But why does Jacob immediately blame an animal? Is it not more likely that a human being is responsible for the crime?
The actual truth is that though both humans and an animal were involved (it was Joseph’s own brothers who had thrown Joseph in a pit, killed a goat and spread its blood on the famous coloured coat), Joseph was not dead at all, and years later father and son would be reunited.
But still, why did Jacob not blame human beings for the fate that he thought had befallen Joseph?
Few of the commentators address this question. One, however – Chizz’kuni – suggests that if humans had been guilty they would have seen what a valuable coat Joseph was wearing and would have stolen it.
It is also possible that Jacob could not believe human beings would commit murder.
The question needs more attention, and there may be better answers.
But if we transfer the problem to our own age it assumes amazing relevance. The Holocaust saw not just one but millions of lives endangered and destroyed.
We sometimes say it was because human beings behaved like beasts. It is an understandable assertion, but it is an insult to the animal world.
Do animals coldly formulate racist philosophies and decide that those who do not fit the right mould deserve annihilation? Do animals work out “final solutions” and build concentration camps and gas chambers? Do animals dehumanise and degrade as well as destroy?
This is Aaron Zeitlin’s question in one of his poems. “Tell me not man is a beast,” he says: “Compared to man beast is angel”.
But though man can be worse than a beast, he can be more than a beast and more than an angel: “Unlike beast and unlike angel, man can begin again… asserts the poet: “So tell me not what man is; tell me instead what man can be”.