The Joseph narrative is an exquisite novella. It is no wonder that this literary gem has inspired novelists, screenwriters, and creators of musical theatre.
Aviva Gottlieb Zornberg has masterfully demonstrated how, like all great literary works, the Joseph story is organized around several recurring motifs. Among these are the dialectics of cognition and recognition, composure and discomposure, and dismembering and remembering.
Recognition and Cognition
The Hebrew word haker [recognize] recurs in the story in its various grammatical forms. When Jacob is presented with Joseph’s special coat, bloodied and torn, the Torah declares: “Va-yakirah [and he recognized it] and said: It is my son’s coat. A wild animal has devoured him. Joseph has certainly been dismembered.” (Genesis 37:34).
Judah sleeps with his disguised daughter-in-law Tamar, thinking her a harlot, and leaves his signet ring, cord and staff as a pledge of payment. When he returns to pay her he cannot find her, and nobody recalls that she had ever been there. Unbeknownst to him, he had made Tamar pregnant. His initial cognitive assumption was that she had “committed adultery”, and was thus guilty of a capital offense. When he accused her publicly, she declared: “Haker na [recognize, if you please] to whom these signets, cords and staff belong. Va yaker [and he recognized].” Making a radical cognitive shift, Judah declared: “She is more righteous than I.” (Genesis 38:25-26).
The same Hebrew key word is used three times in the initial encounter between Joseph and his brothers in Egypt: “Va-yakirem [and he recognized them] and made himself out to be a stranger to them…and Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him.” (Genesis 42: 7-8)
Composure and Discomposure
A second overarching theme of the Joseph narrative is its dizzying oscillation between composure and discomposure, which so disorients the lead characters. The novella begins with the sentence: “And Jacob dwelt in the land of his fathers, sojourning, in the land of Canaan. “ (Genesis: 37:1) Rashi, citing the Midrash, declares: “Jacob wished to dwell in tranquility, but the upheaval relating to Joseph suddenly overtook him.” Jacob’s life had been extraordinarily difficult. He had fled from his brother, Esau, fearing for his life. His father-in-law, Laban, had tricked him into marrying a woman whom he did not love, and then exploited him for twenty years. Having been unexpectedly forgiven by his brother, he had suffered the pain of his daughter Dina’s rape, and the humiliation of the barbarous revenge of his sons, Shimon and Levi. And finally, when he was at last living securely, his composure was to be ruptured by the crowning tragedy of his life, the assumed death of his beloved son Joseph, whose loss he could not stop mourning.
Joseph’s life is also a series of disorienting oscillations between composure and discomposure. His youth is a striking example of self-confident composure. He is the favorite son, spoiled by his doting father, and dreaming extravagantly of his superior destiny. But his tranquility is suddenly shattered when he is sold into slavery. There, again, he experiences a measure of composure, as master of Potipher’s household, only to be accused of rape by his employers’ wife. His prison experience is once more the inexorable shift from discomposure to the relative composure of his trusted role there. Real composure comes to him only when he achieves greatness in Pharaoh’s court.
There are other instances of the novella’s theme of dizzying shifts from composure to discomposure. Judah’s complacent composure is shattered by the revelation that he has fathered his own grandsons. The composure of Joseph’s brothers is shattered by the absurd accusation of the Egyptian Viceroy that they have come to spy out the land, and that their brother has stolen his ceremonial goblet.
Dismembering and Remembering
The final theme to which I should like to draw attention is the story’s counterpoint of dismembering and remembering. Joseph’s brothers had deliberately created the impression that he had been devoured and dismembered by a wild animal. There is no reference to any feeling of guilt on their part for this cruel subterfuge, until, astonishingly, so many years later, confronted by the false allegation of espionage and theft, they remember Joseph, and the pain they has caused their father. Almost absurdly, dis-membering eventually brings re-membering, and family reintegration follows family fragmentation.
From Emergency to Emergence
What is it that unifies the central motifs of the Joseph story? I believe that it is the movement from disorienting emergency to spiritual emergence. The emergency situations in the Joseph story result from inappropriate cognitions, and eventual spiritual emergence comes from the restructuring of initial erroneous cognitions.
Joseph’s brothers had made the cognitive error of believing that the alleged dismemberment of their spoiled brother would bring them peace and tranquility. Their disorienting experience in Joseph’s court radically altered this cognition. Their own experience of distress awakened their consciousness of the distress they had caused Joseph: “ But we are indeed guilty concerning our brother in that we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us.” (Genesis 42:21).
Joseph’s erroneous cognition that his life’s emergencies were caused by his brothers eventually gave way to the emergence of a radically different re-cognition of reality. He finally realized that the dizzying, disorienting experiences of his life were preparations for a divinely ordained mission: “And Joseph said unto them: Do not fear. Am I in the place of God? You meant evil against me, but God conceived it for good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, for me to sustain multitudes of people in life.” (Genesis 50:20).
Stanislav Grof, an eminent psychiatrist, confirms the universality of this central teaching of the Joseph story. In his seminal volume, Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis, the contributors provide many examples of the experience of crisis, of spiritual and psychological emergency, as a prelude to the emergence of spiritual and psychological wholeness. One section of the book is, significantly, titled: The Stormy Search for the Self. These essays abound with many instances of personal journeys from darkness to light, discomposure to composure, dissolution to integration (dis-membering to more evolved re-membering) and erroneous cognition to healthier, adaptive and functional re-cognition.
None of us is blessed with a life of undisturbed tranquility. Dreams are shattered, hopes are lost, and success often inexplicably ends in failure. Many of us become embittered and depressed by the absurdly disorienting changes in our lives. The Joseph story reminds us not to surrender to despair, and shows us how personal growth is often an outcome of personal crisis. Spiritual emergence frequently follows spiritual emergency. This appears to be part of God’s cosmic design.