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BEST OF BROTHERS, FINEST OF MEN, OR...?

Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold. Stephen Mitchell, New York, NY: St. Martin's Essentials, 2019 254pp. $21.99.

It's hard to think of a literary genre that the versatile, prodigiously learned, and widely acclaimed Stephen Mitchell has not ventured into: poetry and fiction, non-fiction, translations (of everything from Gilgamesh to Homer to Rilke) and adaptations (from eight languages), compilations of all sorts, including "sacred prose and poetry," and even children's books--about four dozen volumes in all, some of them in collaboration with his wife Byron Katie.

The bulk of his work has centered on the classics, both ancient and modern, and religion, from Hinduism to Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity. This time around he has chosen to do a contemporary Midrashic version of the story of Joseph, a tale that, Mitchell reminds us, Tolstoy thought the most beautiful in the world, with a hero whom he calls "the most spiritually mature character in the Hebrew Bible." Jack Miles said as much in God: A Biography (1996), but then the Old Testament seldom engages in hagiography (cf. the way Moses was banned, for an obscure minor lapse, from entering the Promised Land). In fact, the Hebrew Bible specialized in warts-and-all portraiture long before that phrase became popular in the 18th century. Mitchell makes a compelling case for the moral greatness of Joseph, with a little help from laudatory early rabbinical commentary. But the Bible, like the Talmud, always leaves room for contrary voices; and while joining Mitchell in his warm, affectionate, compelling account, we can still ask a few edgy questions.

Mitchell actually begins on a misleading note, when he writes that the previously, and agonizingly, barren Rachel welcomes her newborn son by naming "the boy Joseph, which means He Has Taken Away (that is, God Has Taken Away My Humiliation)." Well, she did thank God for taking away what the KJV calls her "reproach" (Gen. 30.24); but the actual etymology of the name means "let him [the god] add," (from the verb yasaf) as Rachel herself acknowledges when she immediately proclaims, "The LORD shall add [or 'May the LORD add'] to me another son" (Gen. 30.24). Then too, Mitchell occasionally refers to the "Jews," which is unhistorical, because the ancient Hebrews or Israelites weren't called Jews until long after the reduction of Israel to the southern kingdom of Judah in 721 BCE.

Oh well, no big deal. The authors of midrash can take all sorts of liberties. For example, the biblical story of Joseph fuses two different versions, in one of which it's Simeon who saves Joseph's life from his murderous brethren; in the other it's Judah. Mitchell opts for Judah, which among other things lets him make good use of the seemingly ill-placed narrative of Judah and Tamar in Chapter 38. The original text likewise provides two alternative groups of traders, Ishmaelites and Midianites, who buy Joseph and take him to Egypt to sell him as a slave. Mitchell chooses the Ishmaelites, perhaps because of the link with the fateful events surrounding the lives of Isaac and Ishmael, the chosen and the exiled offspring of Abraham.

He breaks up his meditation on Joseph into more than a hundred very brief chapters, combining two things the Bible seldom has time for: detailed descriptions of the thoughts, emotions, and self-analyses of both major and minor characters. Practically everyone here, from Jacob and Joseph to his brothers to Potiphar's wife is torn by guilt or some painful inner conflict--all of which will be resolved in the end.

Mitchell obviously isn't going to aim for the gargantuan proportions of Thomas Mann's Joseph and His Brothers, which took sixteen years to write (roughly 1926-1942) and is over 1,500 pages long in John E. Woods's splendid translation. (Mitchell never even mentions Mann, which seems odd.) But he expands the original with many invented episodes and his own reflections. Among the former, Joseph's brothers savagely thrash him before flinging him into a ditch to wallow in his own urine and feces. Mitchell makes Potiphar a eunuch (so does Mann), which is reasonable enough, given that high officials in the ancient world (like the baptized Ethiopian who was the treasurer of Queen Candace in Acts 8.27) were frequently eunuchs, although the Egyptians apparently did not practice castration. This time around it turns out that Dinah was never raped (it was a passionate love affair), and the Shechemites were not massacred: Mitchell likes to erase such crude features.

Elsewhere, Mitchell idealizes the personages of both Potiphar and the Pharaoh and quips that Joseph's Egyptian wife, Asenath (Gen.41.45), was "as Gentile as they come," when the Bible merely says that she was the daughter of a priest, and turns her into a model of tender perfection (even as he exalts another shiksa, the pregnant widow Tamar, for risking death by not directly accusing Judah, the father of her twin boys, Perez and Zerah). Joseph's marriage is from first to last so close to perfection that it strains credulity. But that's all part of life in a lovely, imagined exotic land that is eons away from the genocidal Egypt of Exodus 1.8 and the evil Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph."

Mitchell's Joseph is not just "a goodly person and well favored" (Gen. 39.6), but dazzlingly handsome, charming, and omnicompetent. No wonder Potiphar's (unnamed) wife went crazy over him. But Joseph conquers the false accusation against him and shoots up the ladder of power until he's not just the viceroy, but for most practical purposes the ruler of Egypt. It's the ultimate career coup, parallel in part to the success of Mordecai in the court of Ahasuerus, and Daniel (the supreme dream-interpreter) in the courts of Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Darius.

Joseph's planning and providing for the seven lean years of famine saved both the Egyptian people and his own family who came to Egypt as refugees. But there was a price for all this: the virtual enslavement of the Egyptian population to the Pharaoh. All that carefully gathered grain from the fat years had to be bought from government storehouses (why not distribute it as welfare?). The payments were first in cash (but Mitchell's Joseph overcharges the rich and undercharges the poor), then, when the money ran out, in livestock, and finally in land. As Genesis 47.20-21 (RSV) bluntly puts it:
And Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh; for all the
Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe upon them.
The land became Pharaoh's; and as for the people, he made slaves of
them, from one end of Egypt to the other.


Meanwhile, he had already settled his extended family "in the best of the land, in the land of Rameses" (Gen. 47.11). How clean, then, were Joseph's political hands? And, in view of this, could the "hard bondage" inflicted by the hostile Pharaoh on the children of Israel in Exodus be a karmic payback for the sufferings of the Egyptian masses inflicted by the earlier Pharaoh under Joseph's direction?

But all this comes as a postlude after the grand climactic scene of the reunion between Joseph and his brothers, justly celebrated for its tenderness and humanity. Still, Joseph's various tricks--imprisoning the brothers for three days, placing money in the brothers' sacks (which looked like a set-up) and the silver cup in Benjamin's sack (after demanding that Benjamin leave the anguished Jacob and come to Egypt), putting off his tear-drenched self-revelation and his brothers' amazed anagnorisis--while creating a maximum dramatic effect (a bit like the Pharaoh's persistent refusal to let the children of Israel go despite the accumulating plagues)--all this introduces a tense element of what might be considered cruelty into the whole adventure.

Why the three trips before everyone is reunited? In Gen. 42.37 Reuben guarantees poor Jacob that he will bring back Benjamin alive, adding "Slay my two sons, if I bring him not to thee" (Gen. 42.37). That ugly and unlikely touch seems to have been too brutal for Mitchell, so he omits it altogether.

But since long before that, once Joseph had acquired a position of power and confidence, first with Potiphar and then the Pharaoh, why couldn't he at least have sent a message to Jacob, Benjamin, and the rest that all was well with him? Mitchell argues somewhat convolutedly that there was no way Jacob was going to leave Canaan (nor could Joseph, once attached to Pharaoh's service, leave Egypt); and finally, Joseph couldn't assure the safety of his brothers' traveling to Egypt. But even so, wouldn't a letter full of convincing details have brought hope to the mourning family during his long absence? He could have omitted the shameful parts about the kidnapping and substituted some plausible fiction to spare his brothers' position with his father. Instead, he let something like two decades pass by in complete silence.

Having carefully studied his brothers (who can't recognize the harsh Egyptian-speaking official as their kin), Joseph knows that they have already repented their crime; and so, in a way there is no need for forgiveness, noble and heartbreakingly sincere as it is. Then, at the culminating point, Joseph announces the moral of the story:
"God sent me ahead of you to save lives," he said. Since they all
believed in God's power to do whatever He wants--at least Joseph
presumed that they did, being sons of his father--they might be able to
realize that there are no accidents in the world. Everything happens
according to God's will, Everything that happens, whether apparently
good or apparently bad, is meant to happen, precisely because it did
happen; though the future has infinite possibilities, the past has only
one.


Thus far Mitchell's buoyant theology. The near-murder and selling of Joseph into slavery was a felix culpa, because it brought down such lavish blessings on the perpetrator, their victim, and the family members who loved him. There are a number of Christian echoes in Mitchell's retelling; but at one point he explicitly backs off from likening Joseph's thinking to Jesus': Stunned by the sight of Joseph come alive again, Jacob wonders if this could be some kind of resurrection. But no, he decides, "life becomes death, death doesn't become life." Jesus may have said (Jn. 12.24) that a grain of wheat has to die to bring forth new, fruitful life. "Ah," replies Jacob-Mitchell, "the metaphor is false. The seed hadn't been dead. It had just been dormant: life in a slower form."

Or is this a Jewish version of the tragic Greek belief that wisdom comes through suffering (even as Judah "wised up" after he almost condemned Tamar to death--by burning!--for getting pregnant out of wedlock). All of histoiy (the Bible in a nutshell) is salvation history; and Mitchell bears eloquent witness to this. It's no surprise that, after having written so sympathetically about all sorts of religion, he should, in his conclusion, echo the final words of Georges Bernanos' Diary of a Country Priest: "Everything, even the most painful experience, turns out to be pure grace" ("Tout est grace"), a line that might be hard to square with the Egyptian experience of the Exodus; but that's an argument for another day.

Then again his brothers' sin, once Joseph was a free man on the road to glory in Egypt, brought him such spectacular rewards that he might ultimately have looked back on the whole thing with a kind of complacent irony. His brothers were still living as pastoral nobodies; he was an international mover-and-shaker. Let bygones be bygones, with a bit of Schadenfreude'? As the son of Jacob's adored Rachel, Joseph always was his father's favorite (along with Benjamin); and now he had pulled off a sensational rescue of the whole disgraceful lot of them. And then too time sometimes does indeed heal all wounds. Why hold a grudge forever?

But Mitchell's Joseph wouldn't stoop to such lowly thinking. After all, he too has had a saving purgative experience in the ditch, his youthful arrogance and unabashed superiority have turned into a permanent instinctive humility; so he wouldn't dream of settling scores. One wonders if Mitchell's readers will be soft-hearted enough to wholly accept his hero's conclusion, as he looks back on his past, that "There was nothing in it that he could call evil--not the pit, not the prison [but what about the poor baker, who was hanged by Pharaoh?--PH], not slander, famine, destruction, death," because it had all led to such a rapturous denouement.

For modern scriptural scholars, the story of Joseph is plainly an edifying fiction. (There are traces of the Egyptian "Tale of Two Brothers" in the attempted seduction by Potiphar's wife, although John L. McKenzie says, "The Egyptian coloring and background is mostly authentic") Mitchell adds to the edification by expanding on and delving into the Bible's typically hinted-at psychological depths. As Erich Auerbach pointed out in Mimesis (1946), Genesis 22 never tells us what was going on in the minds of Abraham and Isaac on their dreadful three-day journey to Mount Moriah for the Aqedah--but it invites us to probe into what must have been their (especially Abraham's) unspeakable terrors.

Similarly, Mitchell takes the spare narrative of Genesis 37-45 and creates a believable persona of extraordinary sensitivity and selflessness:
Joseph's confidence was not in himself-or rather, it was not in any
self that he could identify. It was in what remained when he stepped
aside from the self he knew as Joseph. In that state of inner
alertness, he became the listener, with no intentions, no
preoccupations, no opinions to defend. The still, small voice [cf. 1
Kings 19.12] that arose inside him was the voice of God, but it was
also the voice of reason, stripped of the ordinary selfish distortions
that desire and aversion impose.


This mystical, Zen-ish Joseph, "couldn't help hearing the word misfortune as a failure of insight. A misfortune is a blessing that has not yet been recognized." So, he is less the epitome of virtue or heroic holy man than a sort of kindly magician who works miracles by spontaneous cooperation with a indefinable, omnipotent cosmic force called God. It's an engaging fantasy, and Mitchell lets it play out beautifully.
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Title Annotation:Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold
Author:Heinegg, Peter
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2019
Words:2380
Previous Article:INTERVIEW WITH DR. ROBERT ORSI (NORTHWESTERN UNIVERSITY).
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