When I was twelve or thirteen, I had two favorite books: Homer’s Odyssey and Thomas Mann’s four–volume novel based on Genesis 37:1 – 50:25, Joseph and His Brothers.
The epic recounts how Odysseus — the wily hero whose Trojan horse stratagem allowed the Greeks to get inside the walls of Troy and win the war — makes his perilous journey home to Ithaca after the war’s end. He’ll need to surmount one hazardous obstacle after another – the man-eating Cyclops, the sirens whose irresistible singing lures sailors to their deaths, the resentful gods who backed the losing side, and so on. When he finally arrives home, the local cohort of eligible men is discovered living off his property and vying with each other for the hand of his wife Penelope, whom they mistakenly suppose to be widowed.
In the end, with the help of Athena, his ally among the gods, he kills every one of the suitors and takes back what belongs to him. It’s a happy ending, all the way down to his first marital reunion with Penelope, to whom Athena lends the restored charm of youth.
The Joseph story is rather different, as you may know. The Bible does not include happy endings, not unalloyed ones at any rate. There’ll be no goddess to restore precisely what was lost during the homesick years.
Joseph is seventeen when his story begins: in the flower of his youth. He is his father’s favorite, partly for his own precocious charms, partly because of his long-dead mother Rachel, who was the love of Jacob’s life. When we meet Joseph, he is basking insufferably in his advantages, which include precognitive dreams that announce his eventual ascendancy over his envious and enraged brothers, the sons of less-loved women.
He does not refrain from reporting his dreams to the brothers, as his father would have advised had he been consulted. Instead he babbles about them blandly, as if his brothers shared his fascination with himself. At a convenient moment, when all are far from the tents of home and their father’s eyes, the brothers seize and sell him to merchants traveling down to Egypt. To their father, they explain that Joseph was killed by a wild beast. It’s not entirely a lie, if we want to picture sibling rivalry as the wild beast in question.
Meanwhile in Egypt, Joseph learns to make full use of his talents and keep his charisma under control. After further misadventures, he is finally summoned to the court of Pharaoh. It’s an opportunity to give that ruler’s dreams an accurate decoding and, by explaining how Egypt should be administered if the dreams are accurate, to get himself advanced to the next-highest post in the land. In the years of prosperity he had foreseen in the royal dreams, he piles up provisions against the years of famine he has also foreseen.
Eventually, the widespread famine prompts the brothers to journey to Egypt to buy the provisions now available only there. Joseph has been waiting for them. He knows who they are. They don’t recognize him. He devises ingenious ways to test their intentions and degrees of remorse for the long-ago violence done to him. Though he speaks to them through an interpreter, he understands what they are saying to each other in Hebrew. They pass Joseph’s elaborate tests.
The disclosures, the moral reversals, the recognitions and reunions, are as moving as anything one can read anywhere. I never read it without tears in my eyes.
But it is not a happy ending. Jacob never gets back the beloved son he lost. This middle-aged, clean-shaven, glittering Egyptian official is not the same boy he once loved. Joseph never gets back the years of exile. The tribe’s relocation to Egypt to wait out the famine and finish this family story will eventually conduct them into centuries of slavery under “the Pharaoh who knew not Joseph” and his successors.
Why does Homer deliver a happy ending while the writers of Genesis do not? The Joseph story is more moving than Homer’s tale, more cognizant of the darks and lights of a recognizably complex human reality – but it’s not exactly “happy.”
That said, one can learn – from watching Joseph attentively – how to live out one’s own life story. No such how-to manual can be gleaned from Homer. There the obstacles are supernatural, the helps supernatural too. Odysseus learns nothing he didn’t already know. He was astute at the start. At story’s end, he is still astute.
Joseph, on the other hand, learns to overcome his youthful self-infatuation, to find openings for his remarkable range of talents, to wait patiently for the reunion through the years till the whole situation has sufficiently ripened, to find out whether his brothers have changed inwardly before rushing into their arms, and to sustain a disciplined yearning for the home he has lost:
“I am Joseph. Does my father yet live?”
He doesn’t get it all back. In real life, nobody does.
When I was closing my parents’ city apartment after they were both gone, I saw all their possessions, so stamped with their originality and brilliance, being carted away for sale, for donation, or memorabilia. There was such a discrepancy between what they had been when alive, and this empty apartment with its cartons on the bare floor! I felt utterly desolate.
Then I noticed a small notepad, on which a single line had been penned in my father’s clear and elegant hand:
The future is the past
entered through another door.
The secret that Joseph decoded is to turn our deep homesickness in the direction of the future.
We can only get home
by going on.