Saturday, January 11, 2014

The Servant Joseph and a Covenant

Further Notes on
Joseph and His Brothers

 "For this was the beginning, and his head was raised up in many ways;  but as for his becoming the servant closest to Potiphar--who, as the story presents it, then gradually placed the entire household in the Ebrew's hands--all that was already fully prepared for, its seed contained in Mont-kaw's words and in the covenant he made with Joseph, as surely as a tree's slow years of growth already lie within its seed, needing only time for development and fulfillment." (p 740)

In a lecture presented to the Royal Society of London in 1947 John Maynard Keynes described Sir Isaac Newton as "the last of the magicians . . .  Because he looked at the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret that could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence . . ."  Reading Joseph and His Brothers I sometimes feel the same way about Thomas Mann.  His interpretation and presentation of the Joseph story in Genesis is expanded and made vivid by his application of pure thought to the brief verses and terse suggestions in the Biblical story.  Undoubtedly his thought was amplified by his scholarship that was as lengthy as it was deep.  The evidence of this is presented on almost every page with references to the mythology of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Greece along with hints that he gleaned from Hebraic studies of the biblical text known as the Midrash (Sommer, 1977).  The result is magnificent in the detailed and seemingly realistic portrayal of Joseph's life in Egypt.  This is developed throughout the middle of the third novel in the tetralogy, Joseph in Egypt, especially in parts three through five; "The Arrival", The Highest", and "The Man of Blessing".

In these parts once again Joseph finds another father figure.  It is Mont-Kaw, the overseer who manages Potiphar's estate, who deals with the Midianites demonstrating his "sensible, natural" way one would describe as common sense.  He buys Joseph and from the very first notices his beauty, his aura, the difference in Joseph.  A difference that set him apart:

"Joseph stood before him . . . a human being, not a god, not Thoth of Khmunu.  But he had intellectual connections with that god, and there was something ambiguous about him--just as there is about certain words, about the adjective "divine," for instance, a word that, when compared to the sublime noun to which it refers, has undergone a certain diminution, no longer contains that noun's total reality and majesty, but is simply a reminder of it and thus retains about it something half unreal and figurative . . ."(p 651)

Mont-kaw took in these "ambiguities"  when "he first set eyes upon Joseph.  There was a repetitive quality to what was happening here.  The same thing or something very like it had happened, and would happen again, to others."(p 651)  It is not long before Mont-kaw takes Joseph under his wing and there develops a bond stronger than the one Joseph had developed with the old leader of the Midianite traders; a bond that would rival the one with his own father for whom he was no longer of this world.  The chapter depicting the death of the overseer, Mont-kaw, becomes even more heart-rending as a result of this bond.  It is a bond so strong that as Mont-kaw lays on his deathbed he gives Joseph his blessing and makes a covenant with him; "the gods have given your mind subtle refinements and higher charms that mine lacks . . . Which is why I have made a covenant with you for the sake of such service, which you are to keep when I am dead and am no more;"(p 808)  yet through it all Joseph does not lose sight of his destiny which means following the lead of his God.

It is in this part also that the narrator reminds us once again of the growing maturity of Joseph as the years pass by reinforcing the separation from his past life.  The world of Potiphar's court and his courtiers is exotic, filled with challenges for Joseph which he seems to handle well with his innate intelligence and clever ability, managing both fields and people, and an aura that surrounded him apparently stemming from the confluence of his inner direction and his outward beauty; one might call this his charisma.  It served him well but did not eliminate enemies for, after all, he was a foreigner from the East with strange beliefs who had made amazing progress in becoming the right hand of the Overseer in position to succeed him. These enemies and the power of Eros would ultimately present even more challenges for the stranger in Egypt.

Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann, John E. Woods, trans. Everyman's Library, 2005 (1933-43)
Mann, Midrash, and Mimesis by Doris Sommer.  Rutgers University, 1977


Brian Joseph said...

I love your commentary on this work James.

The quote relating to the word "Divine" makes me think a little about Plato's concept of Forms. Perhaps we can think of the word "Divine" as describing an imperfect refection of the perfect Form.

James said...

Yes, thank you. I had not thought about the Platonic connection but rereading the quotation from Mann it is clear.
The Platonic influence on biblical thought has been significant ever since the hellenization of the middle eastern world following Alexander's conquests. Mann's use is always subtle and reinforces the "magician" metaphor.