A BIBLICAL TALE RETOLD
ST. MARTIN’S ESSENTIALS 2019
Stephen Mitchell’s gift is to breathe new life into ancient classics. In Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, he offers us his riveting novelistic version of the Biblical tale in which Jacob’s favorite son is sold into slavery and eventually becomes viceroy of Egypt. Tolstoy called it the most beautiful story in the world. What’s new here is the lyrical, witty, vivid prose, informed by a wisdom that brings fresh insight to this foundational legend of betrayal and all-embracing forgiveness. Mitchell’s retelling, which reads like a postmodern novel, interweaves the narrative with brief meditations that, with their Zen surprises, expand the narrative and illuminate its main themes.
By stepping inside the minds of Joseph and the other characters, Mitchell reanimates one of the central stories of Western culture. The engrossing tale that he has created will capture the hearts and minds of modern readers and show them that this ancient story can still challenge, delight, and astonish.
“Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a beautiful retelling of one of the most profound and moving passages in the Bible. Stephen Mitchell has fashioned a deceptively simple version of the story of Joseph and his brothers, and given it back to the world in luminous prose. A unique and special kind of masterpiece.” —John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize for The Sea
The Coat of Many Colors
When Joseph was seventeen, his father bought him a coat of many colors. It was the pièce de résistance of a Midianite caravan headed southwest. Jacob spent a whole morning bargaining for it, and in the end, he had to pay through the nose, so brightly had desire glittered from his eyes. The coat had been woven of the finest wool, dyed scarlet, crimson, maroon, yellow, green, royal blue, turquoise, and Tyrian purple. Its collar and the ends of its sleeves were threaded with gold and silver, and on its front was embroidered a scene of the earthly paradise: at the top shone the sun, moon, and stars, and underneath them was a garden of brilliant flowers, in the middle of which, on either side of the Tree of Life, two curlicue-bearded angels, with large furled eagle’s wings, stood facing each other. Both were grinning, as if Yahweh had just told them an excellent joke.
What had Jacob been thinking when he bought this coat? Certainly not about the consequences, and in that blindness he resembled his favorite son. He saw only what he wanted to see: an occasion for lavishing his affection on Joseph by expressing it in the most material of ways, like a rich man who buys a diamond ring for his young mistress while skimping with his wife and children. There was a desperate, an almost demented quality to his passion for Joseph; you might even say that it was a form of idol worship. But the genius of the unconscious mind, which functions as a mode of providence, was clearly at work here. It is Jacob’s very unwisdom that forces the plot of our story to its tipping point. In the words of Job:
My worst fears have happened;
my nightmares have come to life.
What Jacob most feared was losing Joseph. But that loss was precisely what his gift precipitated.
After his purchase, Jacob held a ceremony to mark the occasion. He killed the fatted calf and told everyone to eat and be merry. During the feast, he presented the coat to Joseph and held it as the young man put his arms through its sleeves. “You are the true son,” he whispered in Joseph’s ear, with love and sorrow. “You are the true son of the true wife.”
Later that day, Joseph told his brothers what their father had whispered to him.
Levi gave voice to what they all were feeling. “The true son? The true wife?” he snarled. “Does that make us bastards? Does it make our mothers whores?”
Levi is always so irritable, Joseph thought.
In the Pit
At first, he was too sore and frightened to move. He kept drifting in and out of consciousness, and he lost track of time. Was it only for hours that he had been lying here on the cold stone slab, or had it been for days? He heard some animal groaning, and he was frightened again. Then he realized that the animal was him.
As the pain subsided a bit, he was able to think. Why had his brothers done this to him? How could they be so cruel? How could they not see who he was?—the chosen one, the salvation of them all. He felt sad, angry, and bewildered. Nothing made sense.
Then, in the midst of his confusion, a glimmer of insight. Something he had done had so deeply offended his brothers that they wanted to kill him. Was it something, or was it everything—his whole way of being? Across the endless shivering hours, he could see himself from the outside, as the pampered favorite who sits at the right hand of the father, expecting the whole world to come worship at his feet. He was appalled. His heart ached at the arrogance of it, and at his foolish sense of entitlement. He realized that he was entitled to nothing, not even his own life.
Naked, chilled, bruised, blood-caked, terrified, stinking of urine and feces, he prayed not for forgiveness but for a little understanding of how he had gotten himself into such an unholy mess. He prayed for a little humility, which, if he ever emerged alive, he could follow through the night, as a caravan follows the North Star.
Just One Meaning
Pharaoh told Joseph his two dreams in as much detail as he could remember. “I described all this to my dream interpreters,” he concluded, “but none of them could come up with a meaning that made any sense.”
The remarkable thing about Egyptian dreams was not that they might be direct revelations of God—Joseph could see no reason to be proprietary about revelations, since, for all he knew, God was just as concerned about the welfare of the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians, and the Canaanites as He was with the welfare of Joseph’s own tribe—but that the dreams hypostatized time as space. Three branches; three baskets. The threes had been easy to equate with days, since back then Pharaoh’s birthday lists had been on everyone’s mind. And the sevens: could they too be days? No, in the context of cattle and grain, good and bad seasons, they had to symbolize years. So: good years and bad years, one series after the other, years of abundance and years of deprivation, abundance eaten up by deprivation.
This conclusion was not reasoned out. It simply appeared to him, all at once, outside the confines of temporal succession. If it occurred in time, the reasoning had been compressed into a fraction of a second, inside which Joseph felt he had all the time in the world, just as a great athlete at the peak of his game can enter a mental zone in which a second expands to contain minutes, and a tennis ball, for example, hurtling forward at a hundred miles an hour, seems as if it is floating lazily over the net, fat as a melon.
“Pharaoh’s dreams can have just one meaning,” Joseph said. “God has told Pharaoh what He is about to do. The seven healthy cows are seven years, and the seven healthy ears of corn are the same seven years; the seven lean cows that followed behind them are the seven years that will follow, and so are the seven shriveled ears—they are seven years of famine. Seven years of great abundance are coming to Egypt, but they will be followed by seven years of famine, and the famine will be so severe that nothing will be left of all the abundance, and death will consume the land. So Pharaoh should look for a man who has foresight and wisdom, and he should put this man in charge of all the affairs of Egypt. Pharaoh should also appoint supervisors to gather all the surplus grain that is harvested during these years of abundance, to collect it under Pharaoh’s authority and bring it into the cities and store it there. That grain will be a reserve for the seven years of famine, and the people will be saved, and the land will not be destroyed.”
Silence. All eyes turned toward Pharaoh. All ears waited for his words.
“Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a beautiful retelling of one of the most profound and moving passages in the Bible. Stephen Mitchell has fashioned a deceptively simple version of the story of Joseph and his brothers, and given it back to the world in luminous prose. A unique and special kind of masterpiece.”
— John Banville, winner of the Booker Prize for The Sea
“Stephen Mitchell is a tireless curator of wisdom whose life’s work is nothing less than the study of human transformation. With Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, Mitchell has reached back in time to one of our oldest stories of grace and brought its lessons forward to us. The heart cannot help but be moved and healed by the treasure to be found in these pages.”
— Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love
“A rich and meaningful chronicle-cum-midrash.”
— Cynthia Ozick, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and of the PEN/Nabokov Award
“Stephen Mitchell’s vividly imagined narrative breathes interior life into the classic Joseph story, and offers the reader a generous and much needed gift—an incisive and moving account of the spiritual power of forgiveness.”
— Elaine Pagels, author of The Gnostic Gospels
“How do you honestly and deeply ‘interpret’ a dream? By dreaming it onwards. How do you honestly and deeply read a story from the Bible? By telling it onwards, again and again, with a reverent imagination. Stephen Mitchell has beautifully reimagined the Biblical story of Joseph with an enhanced retelling in exquisite language and with subtle insight. You won’t find a more moving, inspiring, and enlightening book on the Bible.”
— Thomas Moore, author of The Care of the Soul
“Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a sparkling, joyous retelling of a story that seems endlessly opaque and hard to comprehend in the Bible. Stephen Mitchell has made the story wondrous, and a page turner that takes us into a new, mysterious world, as palpable as the one we live in today.”
— Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest
“Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a timeless narrative that will transform your mind as it engages your imagination. It’s a delight to read, a wonder for the heart, and an inspiration.”
— Daniel J. Siegel, MD, author of Aware—The Science and Practice of Presence
“A lyrical and vivid retelling of the biblical tale, with powerful lessons for those of us living in a fractious age.”
— Rabbi David Wolpe, author of David: The Divided Heart
“It is not just Tolstoy who saw the Biblical tale of Joseph and His Brothers as ‘the most beautiful story in the world.’ It is also the Qur’an, which narrates it in full, while introducing it as ‘the most beautiful of narrations.’ In this elegant book, Stephen Mitchell takes that beauty to new heights, while also elucidating the moral wisdom behind it. He presents not just an enchanting prose, but also an uplifting spirit.”
— Mustafa Akyol, author of The Islamic Jesus
“In Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness, Stephen Mitchell re-creates the biblical story of Joseph into a novelistic tale of self-discovery, tragedy, love, and reconciliation. He approaches this ageless tale with tact and respect, adding to it through his artistic, sensitive retelling. His prose is rich with imagery and reflection and he creates vivid psychological portraits of the characters as well. A bold work of creative storytelling, exceptionally written and scripturally loyal, this is a fine achievement.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Evoking the ancient Jewish art of Midrash, Mitchell has now novelized this timeless story, bringing to it a touch of metafiction, and a sometimes breezy and insouciant but always reverent style. Richly imagined and told in bite-size chapters, the story is compulsively readable and inspirational. It’s a timeless tale retold in a timeless fashion.”
— Michael Cart, Booklist
“[Stephen Mitchell] retell[s] the biblical story of Jacob and his sons (and daughter), amplifying with a rich imagination the wellsprings of love and animus in their world… However we read Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness—as another midrash on the biblical story of Jacob’s sons or as the ethical will of a man in his eighth decade whose life and work have been inflected by nearly every culture that left some written record—the abiding message is one of ‘love, compassion, and gratitude.’.”
– Sidra DeKoven Ezrahi, Tikkun
“A captivating contemporary retelling of the biblical story of Joseph.”
“Not since Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat has the tale of Joseph and his brothers sparkled as much as it does in Stephen Mitchell’s fictional retelling of the story. With the voice of a Zen-trained narrator who’s steeped in midrash, Mitchell weaves together the biblical text, insights about human psychology, and theological questions that refuse to settle for easy answers.”
—The Christian Century
“With the gift of a storyteller and the knowledge of a Bible scholar, Mitchell engages in an extended work of midrash that breathes new life and meaning into familiar characters…. A pleasurable, enlightening, lively, and lyrical book.”
“A long, cool drink of understanding in a fractious and overheated contemporary world of ill will and retribution.”
—Bob Bahr, Atlanta Jewish Times
“Mitchell has… created a novel that will have you turning the pages to see what happens next or what gems of wisdom the author has discovered within a story we already know…. He has done a superb job…. In his approach to a story that has no surprises, he surprised me with the sensitivity and perception with which he retells the famous story. Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness is a refreshing and thoughtful interpretation.”
—Miriam Kates Lock, Jerusalem Post