Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Flourishing Shepherd

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

"Jacob was truly in his element as a breeder of sheep, as a master of the sheepfold . . ." (p 223)

With this line Thomas Mann begins a paean to Jacob's fruitfulness as a shepherd.  His success and the bounteous beauty of his herds of sheep reminded me of my early years growing up in the farm country of southern Wisconsin.  I was not a shepherd or even a farmer or, at that early age, one in training.  I was a city boy but one experience with the fruits of the orchard gave me a chance to experience something like that of Jacob and it gave me a memory that I find echoed in these lines from a famous poem of Robert Frost:

"My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there's a barrel that I didn't fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn't pick upon some bough."

My experience was something memorable and fruitful in both the literal and metaphorical sense, but not nearly as meaningful and deep as that of Jacob or that of which Frost goes on to speak.  In Frost's poem apple-picking leads to dreams and the sleep that is brought with age; while Mann, too, will soon be narrating the aging of Jacob.  But as shepherd working for Laban and for himself he is a man in the strength of young adulthood with the blessing of god multiplying his flocks.

  "For it was not merely that Jacob improved the breed and produced splendid sheep valuable for both their meat and wool, but the sheer growth in numbers, the constant fecundity of his herd exceeded all common standards, became extraordinary in his hands." (p 224)

More than that we see Jacob's expectation, dreams, thoughts of the fruitfulness to come, for as an "expectant lover" waiting for union with his bride to be he found his energies directed toward great deeds that presaged a flourishing life with many children to come.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)

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