osewalrus (osewalrus) wrote,

A lengthy experiment

This is a rather lengthy essay which attempts a more literary analysis of the Joseph story in the context of the Genesis story and the broader Bible Story. Comments are welcome, as this is still fairly rough.

I probably should have used David Eddings Belgariad as my example, on reflection. But a lot fewer people would recognize it.

Joseph v. The Revisionists: A Literary Criticism-Centered Analysis

We spend about a month on the Joseph story in our weekly reading of the Torah in synagogue. For those not Jewish (or not keeping track) we just finished the second of 4 weekly readings on the subject, bringing us to the dramatic denouement between Joseph and his brothers. The rather lengthy weekly reading this week gave me opportunity to reflect on the character of Joseph and why I dislike most modern interpretations by either secular revisionists or modern religious apologists. It also inspired me to try my hand at what I hope will be a genuine effort to examine Joseph using a text-based literary analysis.

Joseph attracts a lot of controversy as a biblical figure. From a historic perspective, commentaries that lived and worked in centers of non-Jewish political power, such as Nachmonides and Abarbanel, tend to take a more sympathetic view of Joseph than those that did not, such as Rashi. A closer examination of their commentaries displays an interesting philosophical difference on critical questions such as destiny and faith. For example, Nachmonides commentary reflects an idea that Joseph acted appropriately by trying to positively achieve the results of the dream (e.g., by asking the Butler to remember him), whereas Rashi criticizes Joseph for taking action to make God’s vision occur (e.g., by describing Joseph’s asking the Butler to remember him as a lack of faith). For all these commentaries, however, the Joseph story is not a literary construct but a religious parable. Both Nachmonides and Rashi begin their commentaries with the question of why God includes the Book of Genesis (and the other narrative portions) at all. Accordingly, the sole reason for including the Joseph story is to provide a religious parable with the role of the commentator to draw out the meaning in the context of Jewish tradition and Jewish philosophy. For Rashi, Nachmonides, and the other traditional commentators, what is interesting about the Joseph story is what it teaches us, not the story itself.

More recently, modern revisionists have taken what they purport to be a more literary and text-based approach. I say “purport” because, by and large, modern commentators – particularly the revisionists – do not do justice to the text as literature. What they are actually doing is taking the language of the text and transporting it into the real world. In literary criticism terms, it would be like trying to critique the character of Harry Potter as if there were no magic, and gauging his reactions to the prophecy about his destiny as if it were a conventional horoscope rather than a plot element that comes with certain indicia of reliability based on the rules established in the literary world.

The result is that most modern revisionists frankly despise Joseph as a self-centered egotist. But while purporting to do so based on textual evidence, they are actually making no effort to understand Joseph as a literary character. There is no effort to analyze the Biblical world as presented, or place the characters in anything remotely resembling the context of the story itself. Instead, the analysis plucks Joseph and his family from the literary context into the modern context, analyzing their actions and reactions as if they were playing out in a modern
telenovella. It is like trying to analyze Frodo Baggins and his decision to take on the quest as if he were a character from Ugly Betty, with the power and corrupting influence of the One Ring treated as a chemical addiction because, of course, magic doesn’t actually exist.

In making this criticism, I am not seeking to invoke midrash or traditional Jewish philosophy or understanding. To the contrary, I find the the common response of modern apologist invoking an extra-literary tradition equally disappointing. Indeed, I regard them as equally revisionist and out of synch with traditional interpretation in the Jewish tradition. We live in an age where the Art Scroll Chumash commentary (referred to ironically in Modern Orthodox circles as “the RAS HAK” for “Rabbeinu ArtScroll HaKodesh”) and its companion publications “The Midrash Says” and “The Little Midrash Says” create the unfortunate illusion of understanding by grabbing disconnected bits of tradition to assemble an ahistoric worldview in which all Jewish leaders since the dawn of time have emerged from the exactly identical mold. What Nachmonides has to say on Joseph is interesting in no small part because it follows a common thread in the Joseph story, with Nachmonides drawing a central narrative and meaning throughout his commentary. The modern style of isolating a single incident, bringing in a handful of commentaries out of context, and concluding that Joseph and his bothers fit exactly with a preconceived notion of how Jews ought to behave throughout the ages, is equally anti-textual and, to my mind, not intellectually satisfying.

Rather, I would like to see is a text-based approach that actually takes the Biblical world on its terms as a piece of literature. If we wish to analyze the character of Joseph in the same way that we analyze characters such as Harry Potter or Frodo, than we should do so within the actual literary framework of the Book of Genesis as a literary work. This means recognizing the internal rules of the work and how they shape the characters. Just as Harry Potter and Frodo react differently in a world where magic is taken for granted and prophecies are certainly true (if unclear), Joseph and his family exist in a world that is very different from our own by its own terms. We need not accept the traditional Jewish framework of Midrash to recognize that the Egypt of Genesis is not the Egypt of history and that analyzing the characters of the story as if these differences were of no moment creates a fundamentally flaw in any so-called textual analysis.

The Rules of The World

To analyze the Bible as literature, it is important to consider what the book tells us are the rules for this world. Whether one believes they are the rules of the real world is irrelevant and, for purposes of this analysis, distracting. You don’t need to believe that God made the actual world in 6 days to observe that for characters of the Book of Genesis, that’s the setting for the story. On the other hand, it is cheating for purposes of this analysis to pull out the idea that one of Noah’s children, Shem, was sitting around as keeper of the tradition and that Jacob studied with him before fleeing to his Uncle Laban.

In understanding Joseph and his character, an analysis that fails to consider the following underlying realities is not a “textual analysis.” It’s another form of parable analysis, that can lay no greater claim to credibility from th text than any other.

1. God is a character and everyone believes this.

Throughout the Book of Genesis, everyone believes there is a character out there who I will translate into English as “God.” He goes by a bunch of names (as do other characters), but no one doubts that there is a “God” (although that doesn’t necessarily mean what it does to us) and that God is an active character in the world going around talking to people and doing stuff.

As a result, people who don’t follow God still show a good deal of respect and deference to people that God likes. See, e.g. Gen: 21:22-34; 27:28.

2. When God talks to you, you absolutely know it is God talking to you and that what he says is totally true, even if it isn’t entirely clear how or what it means.

These rules don’t just apply to Abraham and his descendants as a matter of faith. If you read the book of Genesis, these rules hold true for lots of people who worship other Gods and don’t particularly follow Abraham’s path or vision. When God sends a plague against Pharaoh for grabbing Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh knows immediately that Abram’s God is protecting him and why. (Gen. 13:17-19) Similarly, when God appears to Abimelech (Gen. 20:3-7) and to Laban (Gen. 31:24), they have no doubt that God is talking to them and that what God says is true.

3. As a result of Rule #1 and Rule #2, Abraham and his descendants expect God to tell them what to do with their lives at critical moments.

No one in Abraham’s family thinks it is in the least bit odd for God to tell them to do stuff. Jacob, for example, tells his wives in Gen. 31:10-13 “God just sent me a vision that it’s time for us to leave” and they are all “OK, Dad never loved us anyway.” To the contrary, it is pretty much expected that God is going to provide input for major life changes.

Similarly, God is also routinely telling Abraham and his descendants stuff that will happen in the future. Whether that’s “your descendants will be strangers in a strange land” distant future or “you’re pregnant with twins who will grow up to fight with each other – and the younger will prevail” more immediate future, God is constantly giving spoilers to Abraham and his descendants. Less clear, however, is what God intends them to do about it. Is Rebecca right or wrong to try to make the prophecy come true by disguising Jacob as Esau so he can get the blessing? That’s where the dramatic tension in the story comes in.

Understanding Joseph In His Literary Context.

These rules are important in understanding Joseph in the context of the Genesis story. Most of the supposed arrogance of Joseph is, I would argue, better understood contextually as certainty. Joseph has dreams which he knows are from God. Modern revisionists regard this and the manner of his pronouncement as arrogance. But see Rule #1 and Rule #2. Joseph doesn’t have uncertainty about the dreams because that’s how this universe operates. When God talks to you, you are absolutely sure God is talking to you. So Joseph does not have the slightest doubt that God is talking to him.

This is not unusual for his family. This is why his family takes them seriously, and why Jospeph has no concept that there is anything wrong with simply announcing God’s latest instructions. After all, that’s what his father, grandfather, and great grandfather do.
What Joseph does not understand, but what should be clear to the reader, are the differences between Joseph’s experience and that of his progenitors. There is no prophetic indication to Jacob or Rachel or Leah that there will be a single heir to the divine connection as there was with Isaac and Jacob. Also of note, but subtler, God does not appear to Joseph in any manner other than dreams. While God appeared to Jacob in dreams, he also spoke plainly with Jacob.
In other words, God is, in a sense, withdrawing as a direct character. This was foreshadowed in a literary sense by God’s prophecy to Abraham that his descendants would be “strangers in a strange land.” From a thematic standpoint, God is transitioning his “chosen people” to move to where they can act in accordance with the divine plan without direct guidance. As direct guidance is withdrawn, the character’s are increasingly required to make their major life decisions for themselves rather than with God’s direct instruction or blessing.

Thematic tension: How Does Prophecy Work?

From the emergence of Abraham, the narrative poses a central question to the reader. If a person has a destiny, is that person supposed to actively work to achieve the destiny, or passively wait for God to provide the direction in life. Abraham embodies the duality. At times he passively does what God tells him (e.g., to leave his home and go to Canaan), at other times he takes action into his own hands to achieve the ends foretold by prophecy (finding Isaac a wife). Isaac and Rebecca embody the duality separately, with Isaac taking the passive role of simply responding to God, whereas Rebecca actively tries to bring the prophecy ("the younger will rule the elder") into existence. Jacob embodies the duality in his own person, but with constant uncertainty. He prays to God, but divides his camp to protect himself from Esau. He is paralyzed by the abduction and rape of Dinah. He understands that God is protecting him from Laban’s schemes, but he endures them with resentment.

Joseph and the Transition To Uncertainty

Joseph finds himself in the peculiar situation of possessing certainty in an increasingly uncertain world. The result is that nothing whatsoever shakes Joseph’s faith that everything is happening as part of the divine plan. He is untroubled going down to Egypt because he perceives himself as recapitulating the experiences of his father, who was exiled from his home by a brother who wanted to kill him and endured circumstance which Jacob described as little better than slavery.

And this is where I part company with both the revisionists and the apologists. Revisionists insist on treating this as a modern world rather than a mythical supernatural one. The absolute faith that Joseph shows, his preoccupation with not screwing up the prophetic destiny to the extent that it brings him into conflict with his own family, does not require recourse to modern megalomania. Nor does it require a modern religious faith as posited by apologists. Joseph’s faith is not belief in God or God’s plan. These are as obviously factual to him as the belief that getting on a camel and going south takes you to Egypt. Joseph’s challenge in the literary context of the Genesis story is entirely different. It isn’t whether there is God and whether he, Joseph, has a destiny. It is what exactly he is supposed to do to make this all come out right the way God wants.

Thus Joseph needs to ask, “do I contact my family from Egypt without direct instructions from God, or does that mess things up?” “Do I ask the Butler for help, like Abraham sending his servant to find a wife for Isaac, or is that a violation of God’s plan?” And, perhaps most critically, “do I reveal myself to my brothers or do I try to manipulate circumstances to make the dreams come true first?”

The Triumph of Judah

This literary construct provides, in my opinion, a far more satisfying explanation for the unexpected role of Judah. Joseph is the transition from direct Divine intervention to a more withdrawn Divine perceivable through dreams. Judah completes the transition. He is required to to develop a moral sense and an ability to act in the total absence of Divine guidance.
Judah’s story begins in a less than uplifting way. He is the mastermind of the plot to remove his brother from the family in a manner undetectable to their father. He suggests the sale of Joseph to the passing caravan (the text does not indicate if he was also responsible for the ruse with Joseph’s coat and the goat blood). Unwilling to live with the consequences, he flees the family and marries a Canaanite woman – violating a strong family taboo.

Tellingly, although his sons are killed by God for their misdeeds, Judah is unable to perceive the hand of God in these events. He attributes their deaths to his daughter-in-law, Tamar. This is the first time since Abraham came on the scene where a descendant of Abraham who is also heir to “the blessing of Abraham” is utterly incapable of perceiving the direct hand of God in natural events and instead attributes them to natural causes. As if this were not enough, on his return from the sheep shearing, Judah decides to visit a local prostitute, whom he fails to perceive is his daughter-in-law in disguise.

Judah is saved not by God, but by his own conscience. When Tamar sends him the rod and signet ring that demonstrate that Judah is the father of her child, Judah repents without divine guidance. For all his demonstrated failings by the traditional criteria of the House of Abraham (as set forth in the text), Judah finds the correct moral path as a consequence of his intellectual and emotional understanding of God and the teachings of the House of Abraham rather than because God appears to him in a dream and tells him to behave.

Judah’s growth as the member of Jacob’s household as the one person capable of acting independently without Divine guidance continues in his handling of the return to Egypt. At no time does God tell Jacob or anyone in the household that he needs to go back to Egypt to retrieve Simeon. It is Judah who provides Jacob with the independent reassurance needed to secure Benjamin and permission for the return journey. That Jacob accepts Judah’s assurance without God’s confirmation is another step away from the security of a world where God provides explicit reassurance and direction in daily affairs to the world where God’s desires must be intuited on the basis of faith and religious training. It is also, from a literary perspective, a further element in the growth of Judah.

The Climax, Judah Displaces Joseph, God Effective Withdraws From the World (until the next stage of development).

From a literary perspective, this is why Judah is capable of surprising Joseph. Joseph has neatly constructed a plan to lure first his brothers, then his father, down to Egypt to fulfill the prophecy. Joseph avoids meeting the returning brothers until after Simeon is restored to them so that all 11 of them can bow to him when he enters the room – thus fulfilling the first dream. By keeping Benjamin, Joseph can lure his father Jacob down to Egypt in the same fashion. After fulfillment of the dreams, Joseph will have fulfilled his destiny as he understands it from God’s direct (if obscure) communication.

But Judah surprises Joseph. Judah has learned to move in a world in which God is entirely hidden. Joseph expects things to neatly fall into place. Judah is groping in the dark. But for this reason Judah does the most surprising thing from Joseph’s perspective – he acts in a way that is both unforeshadowed by prophecy and in accordance with God’s will. This is what ultimately breaks Joseph’s self-control. Judah’s selfless act to sacrifice himself in place of his brother Benjamin utterly upends Joseph’s careful planning. But, from Joseph’s understanding, since nothing can interfere with God’s intended plan, it must mean that Joseph’s plan is now unnecessary. Deception is no longer required, and Joseph may give himself over to his emotions in the certainty that revealing himself is not contrary to God’s will.
From the perspective of the narrative, Judah’s intuition based on faith in a God who has not directly communicated with him has proven superior to Joseph’s planning based on a direct Divine communication. Judah thus displaces Joseph as the ultimate leader in the world when God is more directly removed. The climax of the story is thus not merely the emotional climax of the brothers, but the transition of the House of Abraham from being dependent on direct Divine guidance to being able to make suitable life choices in a world where God is hidden and where the actions of God may not be perceived.

The concluding chapters confirm the transition. Jacob still requires a direct communication from God to make the journey down to Egypt. Joseph, for his part, never doubts the certainty that this was all God’s doing. Joseph’s direct statements to this effect are usually dismissed by modern revisionists as self-satisfied egotism. In their literary context, however, they are thematically consistent literal statements. Joseph never doubts that this is all according to God’s plan. He hasn’t doubted since God told him the plan in dream form when he was 17.
But Joseph’s certainty in God is also a sign of his inability to transition to the world in which God is withdrawn. It is the brothers who remain in a world without direct Divine guidance. This prompts their concern that Joseph harbors ill-feelings for their actions, whereas Joseph is grieved that they fail to understand.

Which brings us to the ultimate, poignant end of the Genesis story. The chasm between Joseph and everyone else in the House of Jacob after the death of Jacob is narrow, but deep. Joseph alone retains the certain knowledge of God. God has not spoken directly to anyone else – even Joseph’s other brothers. They lack the certainty. They have only ordinary human faith, and ordinary human blindness. This is why Joseph must impart to them the last prophecy (until Moses comes). Further, because they are subject to ordinary belief and doubt, Joseph cannot rely on them to trust the prophecy as the word of God that always comes true. That knowledge has faded from the world with the death of Jacob, and will vanish with Joseph’s death. Joseph therefore makes them swear, because prophecy will no longer be sufficient.


I have attempted a literary analysis of the Genesis story on its own terms, as literature. Such analysis is not, of course, definitive. The beauty of a literary text is that a rich text is consistently a source of new inspiration. But what I hope I have accomplished is to demonstrate what happens when one genuinely approaches the text on its own terms. Viewed as a single, consistent piece of literature, the Abraham story, culminating in the Joseph story, becomes an epic of transition. Doing so avoids both the trap of modern revisionists, who insist on ignoring the internal consistency of the text, and the modern apologist, who seek to eliminate the independence of the text.

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