Stephen Mitchell, Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness: A Biblical Tale Retold
N.Y.: St. Martin’s Essentials, 2019
What more is there to say about Joseph? His life story, familiar to even the casual reader of the Hebrew Bible, comprises thirteen chapters and is the longest saga in Genesis, spanning four weeks in the yearly synagogue lectionary cycle (from Vayeshev, Gen. 37:1-40:23 to Vayehi, Gen. 47:28-50:26). All attentive readers notice, at some point, that the first book of the Bible, which begins in the heavenly sphere and proceeds with Creation and a compressed tale of evolution culminating in humankind, concludes entirely on the human plane, with the drama of Joseph and his siblings center-stage. God is of course alluded to at the end and accorded Pride of Place (we will come back to that), but this most human of tales recounts a lifetime stretching from youthful folly and self-importance, through adolescent descent (literally) into a pit of danger and despair, a maturity blessed with accomplishment, to an old age replete with wisdom and compassion. Joseph is probably the most realized human character in the Hebrew Bible, generating untold acts of interpretation and adaptation, from midrash, ancient and modern, to drama, stretching from the medieval and early periods (think of the dramatic possibilities embedded in the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) to fiction (think Thomas Mann and the Book you used as a doorstop).
Stephen Mitchell’s Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness owes something to all such imaginative acts but is less a fictional representation than a meditation. Coming as it does at this point in his long life, it also represents a culmination of his many pursuits and incarnations. Having followed Mitchell’s career from its earliest iterations in English translations of modern Hebrew poetry, including Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis and T. Carmi, through the poetry of Rilke and Neruda to some of his many translations of classical epics from Greece (The Iliad and The Odyssey), Mesopotamia (Gilgamesh), India (The Bhagavad Gita), China (Tao Te Ching), and the old Anglo-Saxon world (Beowulf); and having read some of his own poetry and fictional prose, I think I can say with confidence that this little volume reflects both the journey and its destination.
Mitchell’s Wikipedia entry states that he was “educated at Amherst College, the University of Paris, and Yale University, and de-educated by intensive Zen training.” The process of “de-education” has clearly left traces. Of all the texts Mitchell has handled, interpreted or translated, the one that seems most resonant with his version of the Joseph story is The Odyssey—especially in those touching moments when the hero retreats from the site of action to weep. Here is one of those moments in Mitchell’s translation, beginning with Hermes’ message to Calypso telling the nymph that the human she has loved must leave her and return home to Ithaca:
Zeus tells you to let him go now, immediately.
It is not ordained that he spend his life here with you
on this island; he is fated to reach his country
and finally see his home and the people he loves.
With these words he left, and at once Calypso set out
to look for Odysseus. She found him sitting and weeping
on the shore; his sweet life was ebbing away as he mourned
for Ithaca… by day he would sit on the rocky beach and look out
over the restless sea and shed bitter tears. (Odyssey, Book 5)
Here is how the Bible recounts Joseph’s reaction to meeting his youngest, beloved brother Benjamin for the first time in two decades, though in his Egyptian splendor he has not yet revealed himself to his brothers as their discarded sibling:
And he raised his eyes, and saw Benjamin his brother, his mother’s son, and he said, “Is this your youngest brother of whom you spoke to me?” And he said, “God be gracious to you, my son.” And Joseph hurried out, for his feelings for his brother overwhelmed him and he wanted to weep, and he went into the chamber and wept there” (Gen. 43: 29-30; all translations from Genesis are by Robert Alter).
And here is Mitchell’s rendering:
Joseph looked at Benjamin, his own mother’s son, and said, “This must be your youngest brother.” And to Benjamin: “May God be gracious to you, my son.”
The man had to be Benjamin. Still, Joseph was shocked. He stared at him, trying to make the thirty-two-year-old face fit the memory of his brother as a rosy eleven-year-old, a boy who adored him and followed him everywhere. Anxiety and deprivation had faded the boy’s flesh and dimmed his eyes, but as Joseph kept looking, the two mental images—past and present—approached each other and merged. He could feel deep emotion rising in him again, love and compassion and gratitude for being here at the end of this journey, an end that was contiguous with its beginning, like the ritual serpent biting its tail.
It was too much to contain. He hurried out of the room. He had to exert all his willpower to keep the tears from spilling out before he reached the door to his office (p. 211).
After the tears he sheds in silence, Joseph clears the hall of all the Egyptians and reveals himself to his brothers; here, again, in Mitchell’s retelling:
“Ani Yosef,” he said. (I am Joseph.) These were the first Hebrew words he had spoken in almost twenty-two years. He hadn’t heard his own name once in all that time, and it stirred nameless emotions in him, sounds and smells, his mother’s voice singing to him as she held him in her arms, the feel of his father’s palms on his forehead as he blessed him—memories suddenly so vivid that they reached down and drew up tears from the depths of him (p. 224).
The English here is, of course, a stand-in for the Egyptian language, which Joseph, as Zaphnath-paneakh, would have spoken with Pharoah and his vassals, but also for the Hebrew he can finally speak again with his brothers—echoing his own inner voice. The face of Joseph’s brother Benjamin, now twenty-one years older than the last memory he treasures, is, in a way, a physical palimpsest reflecting the layers of that inner voice. (All of us who fell in love with Hebrew in our youth can recognize that palimpsest in our own weathered speech.)
After all the action, then, comes a retelling—in one’s native tongue, revealing hidden layers that remain just barely legible, under the sign of Tears, of Grace and Forgiveness.
As in any act of fiction, the question of authority arises. Retelling the biblical story of Jacob and his sons (and daughter), amplifying with a rich imagination the wellsprings of love and animus in their world, Mitchell’s focus, like that of Genesis, comes finally to rest on Joseph. But the more the last chapters in the book of Genesis resemble human acts of storytelling, the more accounting must be given for the center of consciousness and source of power. Even as those last chapters privilege human agency that would give rise to centuries of exegesis and appropriation, and even as the various plot lines, the dreams and their interpretations, bear the stamp of human insight and imagination, the Book concludes with a statement of ultimate divine authority. In something of a spoiler, Mitchell anticipates this early on: Joseph’s moral flaws, he tells us, after recounting the adolescent’s oblivious tattling and bragging, “were really blessings, woven into a different texture of reality…What seems to be a mistake in our lives may actually be a step forward that leads to the Great Way, though we had no way of recognizing that at the time” (p. 27).
But the Bible dramatically holds back on this insight, until after Jacob’s death, when the frightened brothers again confront Joseph, still fearing his retribution. Ventriloquizing their plea through their father’s voice, the brothers beg forgiveness for their crimes: “And so, now, forgive, pray, the crime of the servants of your father’s God.” At this point Joseph weeps for the last time and acknowledges –sincerely or slyly?—the contradiction between human and divine emplotment: “And Joseph said, ‘Fear not, for am I instead of God (ki ha-tahat Elohim ani)? While you meant evil toward me, God meant it for good… And he comforted them and spoke to their hearts” (Gen.50:19-21). At this point, the implied author of these verses is stating a principle of authorship and authority that has far-reaching consequences—theological, psychological and literary.
Language itself and the weight it carries are, of course, inflected by different life experiences and the lessons learned and defined along the way. In Mitchell’s version, even as they are represented as speaking Hebrew, the brothers reflect different modes of heart and mind; while his siblings carry their guilt and remorse into this encounter from their own moral and psychological codes, Joseph has evolved into another “world”: “In Joseph’s world, they were all innocent, though guilty; in their world, they could have acted differently” (p. 245).
The Joseph story seems to be the one we tackle when we feel we have achieved not only old age but the wisdom that is supposed to accompany it. Just before the moment when everything falls apart—“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything”—we can still celebrate most of our faculties and the grace of a life well lived. What this little volume is telling us is that it is not wisdom but forgiveness that signifies our highest human achievement.
The Book of Genesis ends with Joseph, at the ripe old age of 110 (!!), anticipating his own death as but the portal to immortality, both Egyptian and Hebrew. Instructing his sons, as Jacob had done before him, that when God takes them up from the land of Egypt and returns them to the Holy Land, they are to carry his bones with them, we are then told that he died and was “embalmed…and put in a coffin in Egypt” (Gen. 50: 26). This is where Mitchell’s tale veers significantly from its biblical prototype. After the last chapter, called “Compassion,” there is a short “Epilogue,” a meditation on the last day of Joseph’s life. Mitchell substitutes for the last verses in Genesis something that can, I suspect, be attributed to both his Zen practice and the simple fact of love in his own life:
Nor would he be sorry to leave his identity behind. He had enjoyed it, this collection of thoughts and passions that people had called ‘Joseph’ or … Zaphnath-paneakh.’ More than enjoyed: he had great respect for it. It had known when to properly assert itself and when to step out of the way and give itself over to the unnamable. At those moments, there was not a trace of doing in it. It was a transparent vessel, an instrument, grateful to be used. But he was ready to leave this cherished identity behind now, along with the rest of his world, even his children, even his endlessly beloved Asenath. He had no regrets. There was nothing further he wished for, nothing he had left undone. Everything was coming to completion, like a long piece of music that has almost arrived at its final chord.
On the last day, he and Asenath gazed into each other’s eyes. There was no fear or sorrow in them, only love.
However we read Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness—as another midrash on the biblical story of Jacob’s sons or as the ethical will of a man in his eighth decade whose life and work have been inflected by nearly every culture that left some written record—the abiding message is one of “love, compassion and gratitude.”
Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi
Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature
Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of Tikkun‘s Editorial Advisory Board since 1987
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