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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

By Jerome M. Segal
Riverhead Books, 320 pages, $24.95
Taking a fresh look at Joseph


Jerome Segal, who is on the faculty of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, has written a provocative “reading” of the Bible. Mr. Segal, who has written before on serious issues of peace in Israel/Palestine, has an impressive history of concern for a just settlement of that conflict, and this concern is reflected in his reading of the Bible. This aspect clearly sets it apart from other musings written by those who are not specifically engaged in biblical scholarship.

Such works populate a genre of contemporary writing that can be tiresome in its nearly obligatory insistence that we biblical scholars can’t see the forest for the trees and that it takes someone with fresh eyes to raise issues we clearly can’t see. This can be downright irritating, as when military “experts” presume to teach strategy from biblical descriptions of war that have, in fact, not the slightest interest in on-the-ground battle descriptions. Mr. Segal happily diverges from such traditions by suggesting elements of a neglected peace ethos in biblical narratives. This is most certainly an underreported area of biblical analysis in both popular and academic literature.

-- Hulton Archive/Getty Images

An early 19th-century illustration shows Joseph being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers.

The initial development of his reading explains his title. Why, he asks, does there appear to be such extended attention given to Joseph in Genesis? As a particularly important aspect of this attention, why does there appear to be such care in carrying Joseph’s bones to the Promised Land? The author reasons that what the Israelites carefully carry with them are surely symbolic artifacts of importance, as in the case of the Ark. Are the bones of Joseph symbolically important in some sense? Strikingly, Mr. Segal suggests that a major element of the Joseph story is forgiveness -- especially forgiveness of his brothers’ mistreatment, and “his forgiveness offers an alternative model for responding to wrongdoing, one that exercises power with compassion. Joseph is a figure of longing -- a man of memory who understands that his real need is for love, not vengeance.”

Although the author himself resists the simplistic division of “Ark = retributive/punishing side of the moral God,” and “Joseph’s bones = forgiving alternative morality of compassion,” it is certainly the case that the author develops these contrasting attitudes as two significant sides of Biblical narrative.

In short, Mr. Segal sets up aspects of an internal debate within many of the narrative traditions of the Bible -- a debate especially on the nature of goodness and morality and the meaning of compassion. This debate, quite profoundly, is carried on throughout the biblical narratives between humanity and God, and Mr. Segal reminds us of some of the most challenging traditions of rabbinic exegesis by suggesting that it is not a debate between a purely good God and a purely evil humanity, but it is more typified by episodes similar to Abraham’s debates with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah where Abraham appears to remind God of compassion and forgiveness as a higher value than vengeance, and thus challenges God to be greater than a mere “by the letter” moral consistency.

Thus, Joseph becomes a symbolic example of humanity’s ability to remind God of the “higher path” of compassion in Mr. Segal’s fascinating work, and the author is successful in drawing attention to this as an amazing aspect of many episodes of the Torah. For Christian readers, Mr. Segal’s final chapter where he draws interesting parallels between the Gospel portrayals of Jesus and the Joseph traditions is also interesting, especially for those who follow the literature on Jewish perspectives on Jesus research.

In the end, Mr. Segal himself is critical of the 20th-century scholarly traditions of analyzing the Torah as the product of editing because he believes that this approach overlooks narrative readings that would suggest the singular composition of a coherent whole work. But how one arranges texts to “reveal” a coherent reading can often be precisely the points of debate.

Mr. Segal’s reading of the biblical texts richly rewards the time spent pondering his suggestions and insights. In fact, I would recommend this work as among the best recent examples of reading the biblical narratives outside of, and even against, elements of the historical-critical tradition.

Daniel Smith-Christopher teaches theological studies at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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