Friday, November 30, 2007

Vayeshev: You call this wisdom?

Vayeshev contains the beginning of what is almost universally called “the Joseph cycle.” This term recognizes the extraordinary literary quality and unity of the narrative that begins here. In contrast to most of the narrative of Genesis, characterized by disorder, inconsistency, and confusion, the Joseph story is orderly and polished. Although it is not free of interruptions, they are few and do not seriously impair the narration.

Jewish tradition refers to Joseph as Yosef ha-Tzaddik: Joseph the Wise. Even though the Bible stories that we often teach to our children emphasize the wisdom of Solomon, it is hard to argue that Solomon epitomizes wisdom. There is the episode of the disputed infant in I Kings 3, which follows immediately after Solomon’s prayer (in a dream) for wisdom, but that incident reflects cleverness rather than wisdom.

The Bible itself refers several more times to Solomon’s wisdom, generally in connection with the long period of peace that Israel enjoyed during his reign and with the resultant prosperity, but it also depicts Solomon himself as profligate and self-indulgent, not at all in keeping with the tone of the so-called “wisdom books” of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. (Although there is a tradition that identifies Qohelet, the self-ascribed author of Ecclesiastes, as Solomon and calls the book “The Wisdom of Solomon,” there is no historical or textual basis for such an attribution.) Biblical and extra-Biblical “wisdom literature” teach a different philosophical stance.

Rather, Solomon’s reputation for wisdom derives predominantly from his patronage of wisdom, in particular the kind of wisdom that was developing in the circles of scribes who constituted his civil service. In other words, it is based on the success of their statecraft.

It is Joseph, of course, who provides the model of a skillful civil servant. His brilliance as an administrator is obvious even when he is in Potiphar’s service; there is some sense that his talents are wasted there and it is not completely surprising that he ends up in charge of all Egypt.

In the beginning of the story, however, Joseph does not seem especially wise. In fact, it would be apt to describe him not as “Joseph the Wise,” but as “Joseph the Brat.” On the surface, the Biblical narrative encourages us to accept the favoritism that Jacob shows him, just as it invited us to agree that Isaac was more worthy than Ishmael, Jacob more than Esau.

And yet we inevitably dislike his prattling about the meaning of the first two dreams. How might the story have gone if he had not antagonized his brothers in this way?

The dream episode nonetheless illustrates an aspect of Joseph’s wisdom that rabbinic interpretation treats as more important than his administrative skill. It is not his ability to interpret dreams as such that matters—dream interpretation seems to have been a major industry in the ancient world, albeit not especially among the people of Israel—but that he attributes the interpretations to God.

That, however, is a characteristic of his interpretations in Egypt, not in this episode. He hasn’t yet achieved true wisdom.

Jewish tradition is largely unfavorable to dream interpretation and fortune telling. The Bible portrays it favorably in the cases of Joseph and Daniel, but they act in foreign lands and for foreign rulers. Even when it’s clear that the interpretation really comes from God, the message seems to be “This isn’t for us.”

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