Following Joseph Home: New Understanding of an Old Theme

    March 2010            
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Following Joseph Home

By Annette Keen © 2010 *

“Until his brothers returned to him, Joseph was alone.”


What explains the long grip of the Biblical tale of Joseph and his brothers on the human imagination? Perhaps it is because the Joseph story captures the conflicted nature of human beings. Our predilection for arrogance, deception, hate and cruelty, wrestling with regret, remorse, love and kindness. We care about the characters. We understand their gripes. We feel their frustrations and disappointments with others, with themselves, with the world. We recognize in Joseph and his family, ourselves. Their moments of transgression and nobility resonate. It is the human condition under a microscope.

Where one places God in the life of Joseph is not essential. It is just as uplifting for the secular as the religious person to follow the characters and actions of Joseph and his family, as they succumb to and overcome their human flaws. We sorrow when the family is thrown into conflict and estrangement. We cheer when they survive the catastrophes that drove apart a family. We rejoice when they move towards rapprochement, towards unity, surely with God’s blessing, if not his footprint.

There is no complete villain in Joseph’s family, but each does, knowingly and not, villainous things that will rip apart the unity of the family. A loving father, Jacob foolishly favors and spoils Joseph, first-born of his favored wife Rachel. Among Joseph’s fine qualities is a malicious arrogance that taunts his brothers, whose jealousy and fury drive them to near murder. The brothers’ selling Joseph into slavery may have saved his life, but leading Jacob to believe that his favorite child was killed by a lion demolishes the father whose respect they so sorely crave. They rid themselves of an annoying burr to their pride only to condemn their father to years of searing pain and suffering. Nor is Joseph untainted.

Slavery and prison in the larger world of Egypt temper his arrogance but his rise to greatness and power dulls his connection to family. Joseph never attempts to confront his brothers, or to contact his grieving father. Years pass but not until famine drives Joseph’s brothers to Egypt in search of food, does he remember his family. Joseph recognizes his brothers while they don’t recognize him, and so he plays on their fears and anxiety with cruelty.

What then moves Joseph to overcome his darker side and to reach out to his brothers and reconnect with his family and heritage? Perhaps this is the natural consequence of Joseph confronting his own flaws, as a self-centered child, become a self-centered adult. Perhaps in acknowledging what negative part he played in the tragic family dynamics, he comes to realize that he was not the only recipient of betrayal and pain. Perhaps from this flowed the wisdom and the will to forgive his family and himself, and thus reclaim and deserve his heroic status not only in the hierarchy of Biblical Tradition, but in the annals of Great Literature.

What moves me most is the price Joseph paid, seemingly unconsciously, in accepting the loss of family and identity. That suffering punches through all the glory and riches he had found in Egypt. I hear it in Joseph's heart-rending question to his brothers, "Does my father still live?" And I feel his essential loneliness, because, as Scripture tells us, despite all his success in Egypt, “until his brothers returned to him, Joseph had been alone."

* * * * *

*Annette Keen is a freelance writer in Upstate New York.


from the March 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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