Ancient Stories and Enactment

A previous post, One Thousand and One Nights, looked at how the classic Middle Eastern tale had much in common with the Biblical account of Esther and the origin of the Feast of Purim. In both accounts, the protagonist, the Queen, artfully delays the king and his judgement across several nights. In doing so, she not only spares her own life but the lives of many others.

These ancient tales reveal something of the way narrative and embodied narrative, almost pantomime a significant part of oral cultures. Lessons are enacted rather than spoken directly as in literate or more linear cultures.

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Another biblical tale that illustrates this exact point in the narrative of Joseph. Genesis 42 recounts the journey of Joseph’s brothers to Egypt during a crippling famine. They travel to the court of Pharoah to beg for grain and are presented before Joseph their brother, a man they do not recognise. Joseph, seeing them bow before him is reminded of the dream he had as a young boy. A few chapters earlier, ch 37 tells:

Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”

His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.

Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”

10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.

 

This jealousy had led the ten brothers to conspire to kill Joseph. Rather than shed blood however, the sell the boy to slavers who take him to Egypt. There is becomes a servant to the Prime Minister of Egypt and eventually to Pharoah himself.

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When confronted with his brothers however, Joseph does not reveal himself immediately. Instead he decides to toy with them. After quizzing them about their father and other living brothers, he tells them they are liars – and puts them in jail!!

21 They said to one another, “Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.”

22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.” 23 They did not realizethat Joseph could understand them, since he was using an interpreter.

Joseph understands that only a journey of personal discovery will help them feel what he felt, and bring them to not only a place of repentance for the wrong they did him, but of full understanding of the nature of the dream he had all those years ago.

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He sends them back to their father, retaining one brother Simeon in jail, and demanding they bring the youngest Benjamin with them. On the journey home they discover the silver with which they had paid for their grain had been hidden in their sacks, making them feel more dread of the consequences of facing the Egyptian Vizier again.

Once home they plead with their father to release Benjamin to go with them. Jacob an old man, one broken hearted by the loss of Joseph will not release the youngest, further making the brothers suffer. They know their aged father will perish if Benjamin comes to harm. Reuben even pledges the lives of his own sons if anything happens to Benjamin; however Jacob refuses.  Until they have no more food…..

Upon returning to Jospeh, the brothers fear the wrath of this Egytpian noble because of the silver that had been returned into their sacks. Againt the brothers prostrate themselves before Joseph and this time he can barely handle his emotions at the sight of his brother Benjamin.

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Joseph, according to custom, eats separately from the foreigners but he has them seated in birth order at the table leaving them to look at each other in astonishment.  He also has Benjamin presented with a portion five times larger than the others.

The following day, the brothers set off with the grain they have purchased, however Joseph has a silver cup hidden in the sack of grain on Benjamin’s donkey.

As morning dawned, the men were sent on their way with their donkeys.They had not gone far from the city when Joseph said to his steward, “Go after those men at once, and when you catch up with them, say to them, ‘Why have you repaid good with evil? Isn’t this the cup my master drinks from and also uses for divination? This is a wicked thing you have done.’”

When he caught up with them, he repeated these words to them. But they said to him, “Why does my lord say such things? Far be it from your servantsto do anything like that! We even brought back to you from the land of Canaan the silver we found inside the mouths of our sacks. So why would we steal silver or gold from your master’s house? If any of your servants is found to have it, he will die; and the rest of us will become my lord’s slaves.”

10 “Very well, then,” he said, “let it be as you say. Whoever is found to have itwill become my slave; the rest of you will be free from blame.”

11 Each of them quickly lowered his sack to the ground and opened it. 12 Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. 13 At this, they tore their clothes. Then they all loaded their donkeys and returned to the city.

Joseph feigns fury at the theft and claims Benjamin as his slave. This is too much for the brothers and prompts a lengthy speech by Judah to intercede for his brother on behalf of their aged and frail father. Judah presents himself in the place of Benjamin, declaring that their father who had alreay lost a beloved son, would not survive if they return to tell him that Benjamin was also lost.

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At this point Joseph knows that the Brothers have fully repented. They have been broken by the wrong they did him through the pain it brought their father. Several times they have bowed down to him, fullfilling the dream he had as a boy.

The tale shows an interesting feature of Ancient Near Eastern cutlure in which narrative and behaviour draw close together. Joseph acts out his message. He engages in a pantomime with his brothers, feigning fury, indignation, accusing them of being spies, thieves and liars. He imprisons them and sets them up as thieves, but he also honours them with feasts, silver and goods. Utterly confusing them, he confounds their pride and brings them to a place of contrite repentance for the evil they did against him.

Rather than wow them outright with his splendour and royal standing, he makes them take a journey in his shoes. He makes them face an ageing and grieving father and the pain they brought upon him by asking for Benjamin’s life as well. In all of this he does not seek to make them suffer, but to prepare them for the amazing revelation that it was not they that sent him to Egypt but God.

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He was destined to save them. He had been raised up at the right time to be “father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt”. With five years of famine remaining, Joseph could provide land for this family, now numbering over 70 people, and their flocks in Egypt.

Moreover, the strict mores of Egyptian life, meant the Israelites would not intermarry with the Egyptians, a segregated culture who would not even eat with foreigners. Here in safety, the Israelite people could truly grow to become a nation.

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