Book review: Stephen Mitchell’s “Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness”

I watched Joseph: King of Dreams with my kids the other night. I am always touched when I watch it for different reasons. My dad’s favorite part is the song when Joseph is in prison, and he cares and nurtures the tree: You know better than I \ You know the way \ I’ve let go the need to know why \ For you know better than I. This time I was struck with the poignancy of the scene when Joseph is reconciled to his brothers. The movie, like the original scripture, leaves Joseph’s internal thoughts somewhat of a mystery. But the portrayal in the film still gives hints at some internal turmoil. You see Joseph recoil when he sees his brothers for the first time when they come to Egypt. He stumbles backward, has a hard time holding himself upright. He takes off his headdress, showing his crop of reddish hair underneath, hinting at the fact that he is re-living the past. And it isn’t all healed yet, at least in my reading of it. He puts on a hard face for the following confrontations with his brothers. It isn’t until the moment he knows they are changed men, when Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin, that he softens and beings to cry. He seems to have released his burden, and he is reconciled to his brothers. His words, asking forgiveness of his brothers brought me to tears: Can you forgive me for thinking I was some miracle from God? I think we as Latter-Day Saints could learn a lot from Joseph’s story, as I think we fit well into the mold of the spoiled younger brother holding himself of much higher worth than his brothers.

A friend on Twitter read my post and mentioned Stephen Mitchell’s Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness:

I haven’t encountered this book before, but I am always excited for recommendations when it comes to theology and scripture. The book purports to be a work of midrash, which Mitchell describes beautifully in his introduction:

It cries out for the ancient Jewish art of midrash, or creative transformation– a way of inhabiting the text in order to deepen your understanding of it. To penetrate into these unsaid realms, you need a certain degree of irreverence– or, more accurately, reverence masked as irreverence… You need to swallow the text whole, digest it, assimilate it, excrete it, walk around with it resonating inside you for hours or days, let it become your constant meditation and your unceasing prayer.

I have read another midrash on a different character from the same narrative, the story of Dinah in The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. Beautifully executed, but in a much different way than Mitchell’s book. Mitchell’s book still has the same essential feel to the story, whereas Diamant’s turns it on its head in a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead sort of way.

Mitchell is humble in his interpretation of the story of Joseph. He makes clear you shouldn’t expect any scholarly or an attempt at historical accuracy (the Egypt of this book is an imaginary country, in which anachronism may sneak up and tap you on the shoulder). In one passage describing the landscape on the road to Egypt, he compares the rocks to Henry Moore sculptures! But Mitchell has clearly done his homework here– he regularly cites rabbis, commentators on the Talmud, even the Kabbalah. But he also brings other works to the table: the epic of Gilgamesh and the Iliad, for example. In many instances I found this refreshing and helpful. I love an author who can bring all things into one great whole and who can find wisdom in other traditions.

However– as with every interpretation of scripture– I felt a distinct narrowing of the text. It wasn’t after I wiki’ed Stephen Mitchell that he has a distinct Zen influence. A lot of his favorite phrases in the text began to make sense: he really likes the word “equilibrium” to describe the Joseph’s mature spiritual state, and he often uses the phrase vast intelligence to describe God or a supreme being rather than just God. It gets mystical-ey at times, and even foreign to my understanding of the Biblical text as a practicing Latter-Day Saint. For example, Mitchell centers Joseph’s spiritual development on learning that there is no such thing as agency. It comes through in this passage when Joseph is accepting his fate:

No one wants to suffer. And yet the fortunate among us manage to learn from our suffering what can be learned nowhere else. We become– clearly, joyously– aware of the cause of all suffering. Instead of sleep, the remembered pain drips into the heart, and an understanding dawns on us, even against our will, that there is a violent grace that shapes our ends. Humility follows as a natural result. We learn how to lose control. We discover that we never had it in the first place.

I prefer the You know better than I lesson from the film adaptation, personally. But Mitchell’s midrash is also beautiful in its own ways. I really liked his account of the story of Tamar and Judah, the interlude between Canaan and Egypt. But I did feel that his telling does some damage to the story of reconciliation and forgiveness. The way Mitchell tells it, Joseph has his most powerful spiritual transformation in the pit in which his brothers threw him. He has already forgiven his brothers in that moment:

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 he was entitled to nothing, not even his own life.

This spiritual transformation is beautiful, to be sure. But in my eyes, it weakens the moment of reconciliation significantly. Joseph, who has by then already achieved “equilibrium” has nothing to forgive. Instead, he expresses a pity for his brothers that they can’t understand that free will doesn’t exist:

Joseph understood how painful it is to live in a mental world of good and evil, in which people consciously choose to think the thoughts that come into their minds and then consciously choose to believe those thoughts: a world in which God rewards and punishes people for actions that in reality they couldn’t help, because those actions were the direct effect of those beliefs… True forgiveness, he had learned, is the realization that there is nothing to forgive. His brothers simply hadn’t known what they were doing. And given the violence of the emotions, there was nothing else they could have done.

I have some strong disagreements with such an interpretation, and more than just aesthetics. I think there is true evil in the world. And I think people are held accountable for their actions, but from a loving Father in Heaven who understands our circumstances and only seeks our happiness and progress. I think his statement In reality, God doesn’t see anything as evil doesn’t account for instances of true evil in this world, the Holocaust being one prime example. And to me, this is what makes forgiveness beautiful. It isn’t explaining evil away. It is the seeming paradox of being able to let feelings of anger, resentment, and retaliation go despite the evil done to you.

Still, a great book and a worthy interpretation of the story of Joseph King of Dreams.

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