If it hadn’t been for Sid Caesar, I wouldn’t know that Joseph’s reunion with his brothers is one of the funniest schticks in the bible.
“And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it ... Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them.” (Genesis 45:2; 14-15a.)
Call me insensitive, but the scene is hilarious. It’s set up like a spoof of This is Your Life on Caesar’s TV comedy program Your Show of Shows (1950-1954). Caesar plays Al Duncey, a man in the audience who is unwillingly pulled to the stage by Carl Reiner to have his life examined on national television. (Yes, kids, Ralph Edwards actually did have a show like that, but it was never as amusing as Caesar’s send-up.)
The riotous episode reunites Duncey with his long-lost Uncle Goofy, played by Howard Morris. Their reunion is so emotional that it frustrates Reiner’s efforts to move the show along. Caesar and Morris weep and embrace and embrace and weep and can’t keep their hands off each other. Finally, as Reiner insists it’s time to move on, Caesar carries Morris to a chair. But still sobbing convulsively, Morris climbs on Caesar’s back and howls as Caesar awkwardly drags him to back stage. But as additional guests are introduced, Uncle Goofy leaps into the huddles of reunited relatives, all of them blubbering copiously.
Okay, it gives me pause that I can recall the details a 58-year-old TV show but can’t remember the skeleton on last night’s Bones. Be that as it may, once you see that scene, I dare you to read about Joseph and his weeping brothers without snickering. I try to be piously reflective, but all I can see are these big hairy dudes, their desert burlap soggy with tears, climbing over each other to embrace their gilded brother whose Egyptian mascara is streaking down his cheeks. It has all the homoerotic energy of a Worldwide Wrestling Federation bout. I love it.
Granted, the intent of the story is not so much to amuse as to remind the reader that God is the God of history, and that the brothers’ scheme to sell Joseph into slavery was brought to naught. In the dramatic moment when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them not to feel bad because their dastardly scheme was God’s doing, not theirs.
“So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and Lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” (Genesis 45:8)
It’s a little difficult, in the second decade of the 21st century, to accept the concept of God as the governor of history. The Holocaust, Stalinist genocides, endless wars, chronic human hatred, AIDS, cancer, xenophobic excesses, 9/11, bad things happening to good people, all make it hard to explain to our children how God watches over us and keeps us safe. In the late 20th century, evidence of God’s presence was so rare TIME asked, “Is God Dead?” and artists and writers began to insinuate the theme into their work. Prior Walter, the angel-designated prophet living with AIDS in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, expresses his anger that God has gone missing:
“He isn’t coming back. And even if he did … If He ever did come back, if He ever dared to show His face, or his Glyph or whatever in the Garden again...if after all this destruction, if after all the terrible days of this terrible century He returned to see...how much suffering His abandonment had created, if He did come back you should sue the bastard. That's my only contribution to all this Theology. Sue the bastard for walking out. How dare He.”
Not everyone believes God has abandoned creation, although theater audiences generally applaud Prior Walter’s bitter complaint.
But even if the God-in-history angle takes some sorting out, the central character Joseph remains intriguing. He is a classic literary conceit: the person with issues who, for whatever reason, disappears for a long period of time and reappears at a dramatic moment to save the day. The conceit often includes an element of mystery, a secret identity, or a masquerade. Joseph the shepherd boy disappears and, for all practical purposes, is lost to history. Then, when he is all but forgotten but when it matters most, he reappears as a person of great power.
Modern literature is full of such characters. The ones we knew when we were children were Superman and the Lone Ranger. Both mythical heroes shared with Joseph a violent banishment from everything they knew. They wandered in an uncertain wilderness and eventually emerged with amazing powers and indisputable moral authority. Superman was a refugee from a shattered planet who wandered the known universe before arriving on earth, where his super strength and moral authority were virtually messianic. (See Messiah in Blue Tights from an earlier era of Little Scrolls, below.)
The Lone Ranger was a virtuous lawman whose band of Texas Rangers was massacred by the Butch Cavendish gang and who lay dying in the sun until his loyal indigenous associate and life companion Tonto nursed him back to health. Long after Cavendish was no longer around to recognize him as the ranger he couldn’t kill, he wore a mask as a sign of moral authority and justice for all.
There are also interesting Jungian twists on the story of people who, like Joseph, disappear and later reappear with a different image. There are legends in many cultures about soldiers who go away to war and are not heard from for years, until they mysteriously reappear and resume conjugal relations with their startled wives. One such tale was told in the 1993 film, Sommersby, starring Jody Foster and Richard Gere. Jack Sommersby (Gere), a surly and somewhat abusive man, leaves his farm to fight for the Confederacy and never returns. That’s okay with his wife (Foster), who manages very well on her own. But then a man strongly resembling Jack and claiming to be him shows up unexpectedly. He looks like Jack, but there’s something wrong with him: he’s nice. Is he an imposter? And if he is, why does he know so much about Jack’s past life? It’s a mystery and, for those still planning to get the DVD, I won’t reveal the ending. But the story is very Joseph-like: he’s here, he’s gone, he’s back – and he’s very different.
My favorite Joseph character in literature is Jean Valjean, the central figure in Victor Hugo’s massive 1862 novel, Les Misérables and, more recently, lead tenor in the Broadway opera of the same name.
The full story of Jean Valjean is too complicated to be told here, and the musical drastically abridged it, but literati who made it through the novel know he was born of poor parents in tiny French village. When he was a child, his parents died. One suspects Hugo is not trying to be funny, but the story goes that Jean’s father, also Jean Valjean, falls out of a tree and his mother, Jeanne Valjean, dies of milk fever. Jean is raised by his sister Jeanne Valjean, but hard times fall upon them and young Jean steals a loaf of bread so they can live.
It’s at that point that Jean, like Joseph, disappears from familiar surroundings. Like Joseph, he is forced into the insidious form of slavery maintained by the French penal system. Assigned prisoner number 24601, his sentence for stealing a loaf of bread is five years. Adding penalties for bad behavior, he’s in the clink for 19 years.
When he is finally released, Valjean is taken in by Bishop Myriel, a kindly only man in the town of Digne. But Valjean steals the bishop’s silver and runs off. When police capture him and return him to the bishop, Myriel pretends to scold Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks as well (“Would you leave the best behind?”). Chastened, Valjean turns away from temptation and commits his life to God.
When we see Valjean again in the musical, he has evolved from hardened criminal to the virtuous mayor of Montreuil-sur-Mer. Just how that happened is voluminously detailed by Hugo, but for theater-goers it’s enough to gauge the dramatic ascendency from prisoner to chief executive. It’s not unlike the rise from slave to Pharaoh’s first minister.
For the rest of the story, Jean Valjean’s life is full ups and downs: he risks his life to protect prostitutes and an escaped prisoner, among others, and when his identify is discovered by police Inspector Javert, he is forced to go into hiding with Collette, his adopted daughter whom he has rescued from a life of poverty and abuse. It’s all in the book, and much, much more.
But at the end of the story, Valjean can look back on his life and know that God has brought him from a life of poverty and crime to positions of power and opportunity that he has used in love to protect the weak, the poor, the young, the oppressed and the disempowered. I defy anyone to hear without weeping the song in the final scene of the musical:
Take my hand
And lead me to salvation.
Take my love,
For love is everlasting.
The truth that once was spoken:
To love another person
Is to see the face of God.
That truth once spoken – to love another person is to see the face of God – is the real message in the story of Joseph and his brothers. Despite all the angry, cruel and resentful baggage they are carrying, they still find it possible to love each other. That’s a major miracle, and it enables all the brothers to see God’s face as they gather in Pharaoh’s pristine palace.
It was not, as Joseph told his brothers, God who made them sell their little brother into slavery so many years before. His brothers committed that sin on their own. It can’t be blamed on God.
Nor is the story of Joseph and his brothers a confirmation that God controls the events of history. Evidently, in the fallen world in which we live, God has designated that responsibility to a flawed humanity.
So maybe it’s not history, per se, that God controls. What God controls are the hearts and minds of the individuals who make history. Earlier in Genesis, when Joseph first recognized his brothers after years of separation, he had the power to arrest them, torture them and execute them. But God spoke to his heart, and that potential vindictive history – so common in our time and in all times – never happened.
It is the God of love, not the God of history, who is introduced to us late in the book of Genesis. Love changes everything. And when the brothers repented of their cruelty, their jealousy and their sins and decided to love each other, history was changed forever.
And they knew it had changed because, when they least expected it, they could see the face of God.
Pictured above: Clockwise from top left: Clayton Moore as the Lone Ranger; Colm Wilkinson as Jean Valjean; George Reeves as Superman; Joseph and His Brothers by Francois Pascal Simon Baron Gerard; Sommersby with Jody Foster and Richard Gere.