I’ve just completed my reading of Genesis, and the narrative feels as familiar to me as a family history and as strange as all those other ancient origin stories. Like Gilgamesh, for instance. But it surprises me, too. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the great Patriarchs of monotheism. They are the headliners of our prayers. But I think that Joseph, an immigrant, a stranger in Egypt, is the real hero of Genesis.
Here’s a second surprise: After you get past the drama of creating the world and highlighting Noah’s flood, Genesis reads more like a realistic family drama than a world-defining epic, more earthy than majestic. It’s written to a human scale. The main characters are nothing like the heroes and demigods of Greek and Roman myth. There are no great warriors, and no empire-transforming battles to fight. As Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Great Britain, remarks, “They are ordinary people made extraordinary, we are told, by their willingness to follow God.” And, to my mind, their willingness to follow their God is at best erratic, episodic and generally contingent on what they can expect in return. More like relations with a minor, medieval English baron that with an Almighty Lord.
My guide through the Bible, Robert Alter, translator and commentator, notes that, as he walks the earth, “God could easily be mistaken for a man.” I suppose this idea prefigures Jesus and Christianity, but that’s a thought for another day.
For the most part, the central plots hinge on the dysfunctional family relationships of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah, and Rachel, not to mention concubines like Bilhah and Zilpah. Wives trick husbands. Sons—think Jacob and Esau—conspire with devious mothers. Almost everyone’s got a trick up their sleeve. Usually the father’s legacy is what’s at stake. With Rebecca’s advice and support, for instance, Jacob tricks his father, Isaac, into designating him the main guy when Esau was the one actually in line to rule his father’s house. Leah leaps into bed with Jacob when Rachel was his intended, thus giving her sons the advantage of being the first born. I could go on, but I imagine you know at least some of these tales of cheating, deception, and subsequent strife.
For most of the major players, who reveal to us their better selves, generally yield to the greed, competition, hunger, and selfishness that you often find when families are disrupted by travel to a new land. There’s little nobility to be found. Few opportunities to like or respect them. And yet I don’t dislike them. I know how hard it was for my grandparents to find a stable life in America, to find and to emphasize their own better angels.
In this more generous spirit, I am drawn to Abraham and Sarah. Their suffering, their wish for a son, touches me. His confusion is also compelling. He’s traveled far from his home on the basis of God’s promises, which at least so far seem far from realized. And I do admire his willingness to take on a still somewhat human God at Sodom. OK, Abraham is a big exception, maybe because he grew up in a stable society, and maybe the venality and ineffectuality of his sons are the tragic outcome of his travels.
It’s possible that most of the main reason that the main characters in this drama behave so badly is that there don’t seem to be rules and values to guide them. I know, I know. This comes in later books, very dramatically with the Ten Commandments and a rushing river of instructions for righteous living. It’s possible, of course, that the Patriarchs have been drawn in this way in order to foreshadow, to create the need for the introduction of law in Exodus. That’s what a good dramatist would do. But, for now, I’m allowing myself to be naïve, to experience what’s right in front of me.
In most great stories about heroism, protagonist have to overcome difficulties and doubts, have to transcend his or her own fears and base feelings. No one’s a hero without this act of overcoming both internal and external obstacles. And you don’t see that in Genesis—until Joseph.
You know the story. His jealous brothers sell him into slavery. He ends up in an Egyptian prison where his miraculous ability to understand dreams impresses the hell out of the Pharaoh. The dreams portend hard times and Joseph tells Pharaoh to take them seriously, to build storage containers during the good years in order to save for the inevitable draught that will follow. Pharaoh is mightily impressed with Joseph’s combination of mystical and practical wisdom and puts him in charge of the practical administration the Egypt’s great kingdom.
Joseph continues to impress when he increases Pharaoh’s long-term wealth by taxing average Egyptian farmers. (OK, it’s a little like the current administration’s policy taxing the poor and coddling the 1%.) But generally, Joseph is extremely adept and even-handed. He’s the original self-made man. An entrepreneur, a manager, and a public policy wiz, all in one.
Joseph is an ethical man, too. Unlike his father and brothers, he’s able and willing to overcome his own baser impulses. When his brothers come to Egypt in search of food, he does put them through a series of tests that you might find a little sadistic but, in the end, he lets go of his anger, forgives his brothers, and provides for the family’s material and emotional well-being.
To do so, he must achieve perspective: to see the wrongs his brothers have done in the greater context of family preservation. He is able to delay gratification, waiting months and years to see his father and younger brother, Benjamin, and to learn if his brothers will follow his instructions. Joseph is generous, ultimately loyal, and, unlike virtually every other character we’ve so far encountered, he is satisfied with his life.
Joseph is a Diaspora man. He may have come from Canaan but he became a man, and a successful man, in exile. He may have sentimental loyalties to the land of his fathers, but he remains in Egypt. And what’s more, his Egyptian prosperity is, for a time, able to help his clansmen prosper in the Holy Land that Abraham was given.
Finally, and tellingly, Joseph, despite his power, reflects the insecurity with authority that plagues all immigrants in their chosen country. Knowing the Egyptian disdain for shepherds, for instance, he tells his brothers to lie, to tell Pharaoh that they are animal breeders. The brothers refuse to lie and say that they are, indeed, shepherds, but Pharaoh is fine with that. Like any other immigrant, Joseph breaths an enormous sigh of relief.
In the very first sentences of Exodus, we learn that the Jewish people have been enslaved. Maybe Joseph’s victory has been short-lived. I know that. And I know that the immigrant story often plays out over decades, even centuries, often with very mixed results. But I don’t want to judge Joseph only by what comes later. He has, at the least, provided a model of advancement and citizenship that I can admire.