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Sold into Egypt: Journeys into Human Being (The Genesis Trilogy Book 3) Kindle Edition
About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Reuben, thou art my firstborn, my might, and the beginning (first fruits) of my strength, the excellency of dignity, and the excellency of power:
Unstable as water, thou shalt not excel; because thou wentest up to thy father’s bed; then defiledst thou it: he went up to my couch.
He was a spoiled brat, Joseph, the eleventh brother. Indulged, self-indulgent, selfish. He clung to his father and the women. Whined. Got his own way. If one of the wives said no, another would surely say yes. When he was crossed he wailed that he had no mother. His older brothers took off in the other direction whenever he came around.
In his adolescence he became arrogant. He knew that he was the favoured one of the twelve brothers, but he was not yet old enough to know that a father does a son no favour in singling him out, giving him a beautiful coat, lavishing him with love.
He dreamed big dreams, and he was not wise enough to keep them to himself.
Pouring fuel on the fire of his brothers’ resentment one day, he said,
“Listen to this dream I have dreamed! We were binding sheaves in the field, and my sheaf rose and stood upright. And all your sheaves stood round about, and bowed down to my sheaf.”
Not surprisingly, his brothers were angry.
“Will you reign over us indeed? Will you have dominion over us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dreams and his bragging.
Joseph could not keep his dreams quietly in his heart, but went on boasting.
“Listen. I have dreamed another dream! In this dream the sun and the moon and the eleven stars bowed to me.”
This time even his father, Jacob, scolded him, saying,
“What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow down before you?”
Which mother was Jacob referring to? Rachel was dead--Rachel who had borne Joseph, and then died, giving birth to little Benjamin. Was Jacob thinking of Leah, Rachel’s elder sister, who had given him six sons and a daughter? Or Bilhah or Zilpah, the maids, who had each given him two sons? Or was he, deep in his heart, still thinking of Rachel, the one he most loved? Could it be, that after all these years, more than ten, Jacob still did not, deep in his heart, believe in Rachel’s death?
There is something in all of us that shares this disbelief, especially after we have lost those dearest to us. I still want to turn to my mother, saying, “Mother, you’re the only one who knows about this--” It is a reflex that will never completely vanish. The mortal fact of my husband Hugh’s death is still, sometimes, a matter for total disbelief.
Many African tribes do not believe in the deaths of their members, but hold that they are still available, can be talked to, conferred with, asked for advice. Across the world and across time in the Episcopal Church (and in other liturgical churches) we celebrate All Saints’ Day and talk about that great cloud of witnesses with which we are surrounded--all those, known and unknown, who have gone before us. We talk of the communion of saints, and by saints we mean not only those especially endowed with holiness, but the saints as all of God’s people. This communion is the gift to us of the Resurrection. So, although the death of this mortal body is undeniable, in a very deep way we do not believe in death. I believe that it was Rachel in Jacob’s heart when he referred to “your mother.” Joseph’s mother in fact. Jacob’s beloved always.
Joseph’s brothers were poisoned by envy. But his father observed and thought about what Joseph had told about his dreams. Perhaps the old man was secretly proud that his favoured son was going to be a great man. He was rich, old Jacob, having settled in the land of Canaan, but keeping himself apart from the natives who worshipped alien gods. These natives were, in fact, distant cousins, being descended from Noah’s son, Ham. But they worshipped the storm god Baal, giver of rain, which was desperately needed in this desert land; and they worshipped Mot, a god who could strike those he disliked with sterility and death. Goddesses were part of the Canaanite pantheon, too, fertility goddesses who ruled over the crops and animals.
Jacob held to the one god he had chosen, the God of his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham. And he prospered; his flocks increased in number so much that his sons had to take the beasts further and further afield to find pasture.
Joseph, the braggart, like the baby brother, Benjamin, was not given his full share of the work, and this, too, was resented. Joseph was fourteen, more than old enough to pull his own weight. In those days so many thousands of years ago, a lad was a man at fourteen, and most girls were married, and had borne children.
Being the favoured one is lonely. Benjamin, the baby, was pampered in a different way, adored by Dinah, the one sister, worshipped by the two concubines. He was happy, easily pleased, demanded little. He did not remember his mother and accepted, without question, the mothering of the other women. He was not a question-asker.
But Joseph was inquisitive, wanting to know everything.
“Why does the moon get bigger and then smaller and then bigger?” He was not satisfied when Bilhah, who had been Rachel’s maid, told him that the goddess ruled the moon. “What is the goddess like? Is she beautiful? Why don’t we have a goddess? Does a goddess look like my mother?”
Bilhah put her finger to her lips. “Hush.”
“Your father doesn’t approve of goddesses.”
He turned to Zilpah, Leah’s maid. “Why is the sun so hot that it withers the crops? Why did El put the stars in the sky since they’re not bright enough to see by? Why?”
When he was given answers, they were simple, because the world then was a smaller and simpler world than ours. The sun and the moon and the stars were put in the sky by the Creator for the benefit of human beings. Crops, calving, lambing, all were determined by the rhythm of the heavenly bodies which in turn determined the essential rain, and the cycles of the females of all species. The cosmology of creation was accepted, rather than understood. It was a knowledge which had been passed down from Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob, and which Jacob was now passing on to his twelve sons.
Twelve sons. Four mothers. Polygamy was customary. There were more women than men. The planet was sparsely populated and sons were important.
As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man, so are the children of the youth. Happy the man that hath his quiver full of them; they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.
Thus spoke the psalmist centuries later.
For a man to have a quiver full of sons, he needed more than one wife and, in addition, concubines. As far as we know, it was not the custom for a woman to have more than one husband. Because men were killed in skirmishes with other tribes, or by wild animals when they were out hunting, there were extra women, and surely it seemed the kindest thing to take these otherwise superfluous women into the family circle as wives. Customs tend to reflect the realities of a time and culture. We, of the late twentieth century, have tended to impose our own mores on others, without trying to find out why certain customs have arisen. Because we have failed to listen to each other’s stories, we are becoming a fragmented human race.
I try to listen to the story of Joseph and his brothers, and of his father, Jacob, because it is a story of human beings becoming more human through their adventures and misadventures. The story of Joseph is the journey of a spoiled and selfish young man finally becoming, through betrayal, anger, abandonment, unfairness, and pain, a full and complex human being. I have much to learn from his story.
Jacob and his sons lived in a masculine world, with a masculine God, surrounded by alien deities, many of them feminine, who directed the planting of the crops. It was a polytheistic world full of rivalry, each tribe convinced of the superiority of its own particular deity. The One God of the Hebrew, the God who is One, the God who is All, was still remote. A pantheon of gods was accepted by our forbears, as the psalmist makes quite clear:
Whose god is like unto our god?
Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord; there is not one that can do what you do.
It was normal to assume that one’s own particular god was more potent than other peoples’ gods.
And yet for Joseph and his family there was also the paradoxical and contradictory belief that God, the Creator, had made everything, the earth with its seas and land masses and all the various species of fish and birds and animals and finally, as the culmination, the triumph of creation, man--male and female. Homo sapiens, the creature who knows. We know that we know and consequently we ask unanswerable questions.
Joseph’s questions were simpler than ours, but still questions.
When Joseph’s mother, Rachel, left the home of her father, Laban, the home where she had grown up, where she had married Jacob, where she had finally given birth to Joseph, she took with her--stole--her father’s household gods, her teraphim, the little clay creatures who might make the rain fall, the sun burn less harshly, the journey safe. But they had not kept Rachel from death, those little teraphim. They were idols, man-made things. What kind of power did they have? Why did Rachel treasure them enough to steal them from her father? To lie, in order to keep them? Why?
And where were her teraphim now that she was dead and the rest of the family was settled in Canaan? Had Jacob given them back to his father-in-law, Laban? Joseph--the questioner, the dreamer--had overheard the concubines talking about the lost teraphim and, secretly, had searched for them, but found no trace of the little figures.
The other brothers did not have the time or inclination for questions, or even to remember their dreams. Life was rugged. They had to tend the animals, take them to pasture, make sure the women brought enough water from the well for human and animal needs, keep the cook fires going, peg down the nomad tents in case of sudden wind. The more successful Jacob, the patriarch, became, the more work there was for his sons.
It was good for Jacob to keep busy. It helped to assuage his unremitting grief over the death of Rachel, the one woman he truly loved. The other women? Oh, they gave him sons, and sons were valuable, but it was Rachel who was loved, Rachel who died giving birth to Benjamin, Rachel for whom he grieved.
How hard it must have been for Leah, his first wife. The Book of Genesis suggests that Leah was cross-eyed. Certainly she was not beautiful, like Rachel. But she bore him six sons, and his undying grief for her sister may well have seemed to her yet another rejection.
But we do not choose who we love, and Jacob loved Rachel.
In these late years of the twentieth century it seems to be more usual for a woman to outlive her husband than vice versa. In the early Genesis days the patriarchs buried their wives, dead in childbirth, or worn out from childbearing. The patriarchs grieved, went on living, sometimes remarrying and having children in their old age like Abraham. Old age was treasured, revered, not hidden away because then, as now, it was a reminder that we all grow old and die. In Deuteronomy 34:7 we read,
And Moses was an hundred and twenty years old when he died: his eye was not dim, nor his natural force abated.
What a triumph that Moses, dying at a venerable age, still had “his juices”!
Not long after I started working on this book my husband became ill, and I lived with the story of Joseph during his dying and his death. I grieve for my husband, and as time goes by the grief does not lessen. Rather, as the shock wears off, it deepens, and through my own grief I have at least a flicker of understanding of Jacob’s continuing grief for Rachel. Hugh and I were married for forty years. How long were Jacob and Rachel married? Not quite that long, but long enough. Dinah, the one daughter, Leah’s last child, born before Joseph and Benjamin were born to Rachel, was old enough to be married before Benjamin was born.
And love cannot be timed, judged chronologically. Love transcends time. And the love of one human being for another transcends animal sex (which is sheerly for the purpose of procreation). The human being, it would seem, is the only being whose love-making is not limited to the reproduction of the species, who makes love for the sheer joy of loving. It is the depth and width of love that makes us human.
Human. How do we become human? What does it mean to be human? We human creatures seem to become less and less human as this sorry century staggers to a close. We have been made dependent on Social Security numbers, on plastic credit cards; we are overwhelmed by paper forms in duplicate and triplicate and quadruplicate. The amount of legal/financial paperwork following Hugh’s death was staggering, not to mention the personal correspondence.
Jacob, after Rachel’s death, had no such problems with banks, Social Security, insurance. I’ve had to produce papers to prove that I was born (“Since I’m standing here, talking to you, it seems quite evident that I was born.” Still I was told, “You must produce your birth certificate.”), or that I was married; sign affidavits that I was still married to Hugh at the time of his death, that we were not divorced or living separately. Our joint bank account was frozen, and I was made very aware that this is still a male-dominated and male-chauvinist society, less paternalistic, perhaps, than in Jacob’s day, but equally male-oriented. Hugh and I had had that account for over twenty-five years, and yet I had to prove that I, Madeleine, the ux, the wife, in this case, was capable of having a bank account. (Occasionally, even today, in financial or legal documents, the wife is still referred to with the Latin ux, for uxor--woman.) Fortunately I also had my own personal bank account in another bank, or I would have been hard-pressed to pay my bills during the quarter of a year it took me to get that bank account activated. One reason I had always had my own bank account was that a friend, after her husband’s sudden death, had to live on the charity of friends until the bank where she had a joint account deemed that she had a right to have her own account there.--This text refers to the paperback edition.
- ASIN : B01I85PPXK
- Publisher : Convergent Books; Reprint edition (23 May 2017)
- Language : English
- File size : 1831 KB
- Text-to-Speech : Enabled
- Screen Reader : Supported
- Enhanced typesetting : Enabled
- X-Ray : Enabled
- Word Wise : Enabled
- Print length : 242 pages
- Page numbers source ISBN : 0451497104
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It took me a few chapters to get to grips with the authors style. In fact I skipped a couple, as the book seemed to meander from thoughts on Joseph, to thoughts on the author's grief, to comments on the Universe.
Each chapter is titled after one of the sons of Jacob, and then the author sets off into the unknown with her thoughts. At the end of each chapter she uses a character from Joseph's story to speak first hand.
Now here's the bizarre thing. When you start to get used to the way L'Engle writes, you begin to pluck out a few nuggets. I used the book as a compliment to the commentaries I have on Genesis to preach about Joseph and his faith journey, and I found it helpful and at times insightful.
It's a mixed bag but ultimately worth it.
L'Engle intersperses her commentary on Joseph with autobiographical material regarding her widowhood and changing sense of family after the death of her husband. At one level, this makes for a rambling and almost chatty work; at another level, it adds intimacy and makes for a sympathetic (rather than judgemental) reponse to the foibles of Joseph's family.
Like an old favorite aunt, L'Engle sometimes repeats herself, overgeneralizes, or wrongly assumes that her faith is the same as ours. Oh, but would that we all had a favorite aunt with this much compassion for the human condition to which this epic story speaks! My spiritual journey has been enriched.
Thanks for fast shipping! Book was in perfect shape.