A new look at the Joseph story

Mitchell surprises, revealing new sides of the age-old Bible story

JOSEPH’S CUP is found in Benjamin’s sack in the biblical story (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
JOSEPH’S CUP is found in Benjamin’s sack in the biblical story
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
One of the most amazing things about Bible stories is that no matter how many times one reads them, there is always something new to learn. Jews read the weekly Torah portions during Shabbat morning services week after week, year after year, and have continued to study and interpret them century after century. And of course it is not only Jews who continue to delve into the Bible searching for new meaning within its familiar stories. The Bible has a universal message for people of all religions.
In recent years, there have been numerous attempts by modern writers to retell famous biblical stories from a modern point of view. One that comes to mind is The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and there are many other books that tell the stories of biblical personalities and are written by authors from different religious and cultural backgrounds.
These books are based on both the Old and the New Testament. Some of the authors believe that the Old Testament, which is the Jewish Bible, is the word of God dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. Others believe it was written later by more than one author. But what they all agree on is that the stories of the Bible remain significant and intriguing no matter how much the world keeps changing.
Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is the latest in this growing genre. Stephen Mitchell is a scholar, translator, anthologist and the author of about 40 books, which include numerous translations and adaptations of biblical stories. He is a Jew who practices Zen Buddhism, and is married to author Byron Katie, with whom he has co-written a number of books.
Mitchell has taken a story that is one of the most well-known Bible stories and created a novel that will have you turning the pages to see what happens next or what gems of wisdom the author has discovered within a story we already know. The Joseph story has been retold numerous times in writing and has even been performed onstage as a musical. So what can be new about it?
In the prologue the author says about the Joseph story, “Like most of Genesis, it’s written in a style of extraordinary concision, so spare that it can compress pages of characterization into a single phrase.” Stephen Mitchell believes, as do the many rabbis and interpreters who have been writing commentaries on the Bible over the centuries, that there is a lot more to the story than what is written down, and he has done a superb job of filling in the blanks.
ACCORDING TO Mitchell, Joseph was physically beautiful and had superior intelligence. He was much more beautiful and brilliant than his brothers who were simple shepherds. As a youth, he loved them but felt superior to them. He reveled in his special status as Jacob’s favorite and did not understand his brothers’ reaction to the family dynamics. What Joseph lacked as a youth was humility.
In answer to the question of why Jacob loved Joseph more than he loved all his sons, Mitchell explains that Joseph was the son of Rachel, Jacob’s true love, and when Rachel died, Jacob was heartbroken. As a way to comfort himself, he kept Joseph close because he reminded Jacob of Rachel with his looks, personality and laughter. Jacob clearly favored Joseph, and the other brothers knew it and hated him for all the attention he received. They hated him when they heard his dreams, and hated him for the multicolored coat their father gave him as a present.
Mitchell takes a closer look at what is really happening. He describes Joseph’s thought processes when he is thrown by his brothers into a deep pit. This horrific experience gave him a lot of time to think, and as the story unfolds, he matures from a brilliant but self-centered 17-year-old boy into a man with integrity, values and wisdom, eventually becoming one of the most important leaders in Egypt.
It was in the pit that Joseph began to ask himself why his brothers had done such a cruel and terrible thing to him. He was sad, angry and confused until suddenly he had an insight. Could he have done something to offend his brothers? He began to see himself as his brothers saw him and prayed to God for understanding and humility.
Mitchell’s chapters are short, and interspersed with the story are meditations about major themes such as this:
“Humility looks very ordinary. It’s hello and goodbye. At first it may seem like dying. What you are so proud of when you were flying high, you now recognize as selfish; it falls apart under scrutiny, and there is a profound change that takes place within you. There is no humiliation or shame in any of this. It’s total surrender to what is. You discover that you have let go into an intelligence that is incomparably vaster than yours, and it’s the gentlest, most comfortable feeling. You stand in what’s left of you, and you die to self, and you keep on dying. It’s like a tree that lets go of its leaves. That beautiful clothing has fallen away, and the tree just stands there in the cold of winter, totally exposed, totally surrendered.”
When I began reading this book, I did not have any expectations. I knew the story and knew what would happen. Would the book be boring because I knew the story already, or would the author find a way to keep me turning the pages?
The answer is that there is a definite reason why Mitchell has already published so many successful Bible-based books. In his approach to a story that has no surprises, he surprised me with the sensitivity and perception with which he retells the famous story. Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a refreshing and thoughtful interpretation.