Gifted, talented and handsome, Joseph survives slavery and exile by his wits. But his response to the advances made by his captor’s wife raises troubling questions. Bill Moyers talks with theologians Dianne Bergant, Norman J. Cohen, Francisco O. Garcia-Treto, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Phyllis Trible and Burton L. Visotzky, and journalist P.K. McCary.
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BILL MOYERS: I’m Bill Moyers. We learn in life that most blessings are mixed blessing, a lesson that came early to Joseph — Joseph of The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph is precocious. He’s blessed with the gift of reading dreams, physical beauty, and his father’s love. But these very gifts cause his downfall, and he winds up in slavery and exile. We began this series on Genesis with the stories of Abraham on the move toward the promise land. We end it with Joseph in a strange and foreign land. But far from home, he is never far from his roots — a familiar refrain in Genesis right from the beginning.
STORYTELLER ALFRE WOODARD: Jacob had many sons, but Joseph was the son of Jacob’s old age, and he loved him more than all. And gave him a coat of many brilliant colors. Joseph’s brothers saw this, and they hated him even more when he told them, “I had a dream. And in my dream, we were binding grain in the field. My sheaves stood very straight, while your sheaves bowed to mine.” One day, the brothers saw Joseph walking in his coat of many colors. They tore it off him and threw him into a pit. And then sold Joseph or 20 pieces of silver.
Joseph was brought down into Egypt, and Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s guard, brought Joseph to his house, and put him in charge of all he owned. Joseph was young and beautiful to look at. Potiphar’s wife had eyes for him, and one day she called out to him, “lie with me.” Time and time again, Joseph refused. “My master has given me everything he owns, except you. How could I do this and sin against God?”
But Potiphar’s wife didn’t give up. One day when they were alone in the house, she grabbed Joseph by his coat. As Joseph fled, the garment tore off in her hand. That evening, Potiphar’s wife showed it to her husband saying, “That Hebrew servant tried to lie down with me.” Potiphar was furious and sent Joseph to prison. But the Lord was with him. And because of him, the chief jailer put all the other prisoners in Josephs hands. And Joseph interpreted many dreams for them. In time, Pharaoh himself had a troubled dream, and Joseph was brought up from the dungeon to interpret it.
Seven cows came up from the Nile, and they were fat and fair. Seven other cows came up in the Nile, and they were lean and straggly. The seven lean cows devoured the fat ones. Seven ears of corn grew on a stalk, and they were full and healthy. Seven ears of corn shriveled and scorched by the East Winds sprung up, and devoured the good ones. This was Pharaoh’s dream.
Joseph told Pharaoh it was a message from God. “Seven years of abundance are coming to Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow and destroy the land. Pharaoh must appoint a discerning and wise overseer so the people will store food in the good years and keep it for the bad. That way, Egypt will not perish.”
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, “No one is as wise as you. You will come to my house and I will put you in charge of the land of Egypt.” Pharaoh gave Joseph his signet ring, a gold chain, and a chariot. And during those years, Joseph had two sons by his Egyptian wife. The first was named Manasseh, which means, God made him forget his toil in his father’s house. And the second was Ephraim, because Joseph said, “God made me fruitful in the land of my affliction.”
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think this story of Potiphar’s wife is in this narrative?
DIANNE BERGANT: The end of the narrative says that he is a wise and discerning man. And I think that’s the crux of why there is a Potiphar, or wife of Potiphar narrative. Because the story of Joseph is an entirely different kind of a story than some of the stories of the other ancestors. And it belongs to the tradition, what is a righteous man? Who is the wise man? And the text says, this is a wise in discerning man. And one of the things of a wise in discerning man, as you read in Proverbs, is you avoid the foreign woman. And here you have an example of how he is tempted by the foreign woman. It’s not just sex. Sex is part of what it means to be wise and discerning. He’s wise and discerning enough to avoid the foreign woman.
BILL MOYERS: What would be the basis for withstanding a foreign woman?
DIANNE BERGANT: Bringing in foreign influence into the community, as with Solomon with his wives. Bringing in, not only the wives, but their worship and their other gods.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: I think besides the moral element, which you point to, there’s another very important element. I’ve sort of been brought up with Joseph’s story. Because in the Persian language, some of the greatest literary masterpieces of the language are about the love of Joseph and Zoleikha, that is Potiphar’s wife was mentioned in the Quran. And the element which has always stuck in my mind is a question of beauty. Now this is a story about beauty. It is a very, very central aspect of God’s creation that Joseph represents among the prophets, beauty. And it’s not here the question of he’s simply turning Zoleikha down. But it’s an even more profound element, and that is the question of choosing, in a sense, between human beauty and divine beauty. That is a great choice that we have in this life. That a person who possess beauty is always in the middle of this great tension between human love and divine love. If it happens to be an also spiritual person.
BURTON VISOTZKY: The rabbi certainly agree. In rabbinic reading of this story, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me in the Ms. Potiphar part of the story, they make Joseph of 17 years old. And they paint him in almost gaudy colors. He is very attractive. He’s very beautiful. Equally attractive to men and women. It’s really God’s grace. Physical beauty is something that comes to you as a gift.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: That’s right.
NORMAN COHEN: He’s charming too.
BURTON VISOTZKY: And he knows how to use the charm, but I don’t think he appreciates its power. I think Joseph is just foolish enough to flirt with this woman, and not understand that her attraction is the last thing he needs until it’s too late.
P.K. MCCARY: Well I think that’s precisely for me what this part of Joseph’s story with Potiphar means, because I’m teaching this story to young men and young women who are wrestling with love and how far to go with it. And she’s sophisticated. And he’s not. He probably looked at Potiphar like a father — a father figure.
BURTON VISOTZKY: And here’s deep loyalty to him as a result.
P.K. MCCARY: And he has deep loyalty to him. And that it becomes a question for youth about what is the right thing to do in situations.
NORMAN COHEN: But what is amazing here is there’s more. Because the text doesn’t simply say, how can I do this terrible thing, because I owe fidelity to my master? That little phrase that’s added on, “V’CHAT TATI L’ELOHIM” — and I will sin against God. And you say that — where does that come from?
BILL MOYERS: What’s the offense then? Why is he afraid? What is it —
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Adultery.
BILL MOYERS: Adultery.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Do you imagine this is the first time Joseph says no? This is a kid who’s used to getting everything he wants, any whim. And maybe for the first time in his life, he’s faced with a very delicious choice. And he actually says no. And the hell of it is, is then he winds up in jail for saying no.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: Well I’ve got a different take on that one because what I can’t forget the said Joseph is a slave of that household. And that Potiphar’s wife is attracted to him in what is, to me even in the text, and what she says to him, she doesn’t try to seduce him or persuade him. She just says, lie with me. It’s an imperative. It’s — get in bed with me. She’s trying to make use of him. So she has been rebuffed in something that she thought she could get away with because he was a slave.
NORMAN COHEN: I would read a differently. I think when we think in terms of Joseph as a slave, the reality is he’s in a position of power. He’s the second in command of that house. He has all of the luxury that’s attendant to that. I think it plays right into the notion of who Joseph is in terms of his own self-perception. The only thing that is kept from him is the woman. Yes, he doesn’t have his freedom in the sense that he can’t simply up and leave. But the reality is that he’s in a position of control and power. And the only thing missing from that power is this person’s wife.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: But see, what I will see in the narrative is any attraction on the part of Joseph for her.
BURTON VISOTZKY: It’s such an interesting read. I mean, the rabbis give a variety of, sometimes really hysterical, reading about what happens as she tries to seduce him. In one of the texts, they imagine that he’s really ready to go to bed with this woman. And just before he gets into the room with her, there before his eyes, he sees the image of his father — or some rabbis say, the image of his mother. And that’s just enough to deflate him.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Look, I can’t take any more of this. This story is misogynous. Where shall I start? Mrs. Potiphar is a good example of what proverbs wants to do to women. Proverbs has only two places for women. Let us say, proverbs is a book of instructions, teachings for young men. How to live in the court. How to get along in society. It’s sociology, it’s psychology, it’s etiquette. It’s all of these things. And young men are not interested in that, they’re interested in the little girls who are walking along the streets of Jerusalem. So we say, well we’ve got to teach them not to pay attention to those girls. So what is the symbol of great evil? The symbol of great evil could be the woman, but not just any woman — the foreign woman, because you get it in a double way. The foreigner, the other, and the female.
Now if you’re going to take that away from the young boys in school, what can you give them? Well we want to give them wisdom. Wisdom. Now how can you we make wisdom attractive? Who cares about be wise if you’re a little boy and you have your sexual interests? Ah, make wisdom a woman. So here’s the woman on the pedestal. These are the positions for women in patriarchy. Pedestal or gutter. Ms. Potiphar is —
DIANNE BERGANT: Both.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Exactly. Is both. Yes, because she has her status in her own society. But she is the foreign woman. And she’s the one who’s trying to seduce. So everybody here — most everybody has been taking the story at face value, and you haven’t talked about the misogyny of the story.
NORMAN COHEN: Let’s push a little bit. You’re right. In it’s context, the stories are misogynous. They’re written by male authors for a particular kind of audience and all the rest. But as a feminist reader of the — what are you going to do with the story? Are you going to simply reject the story out of hand and say, it doesn’t speak to me because this prism through a value system that I no longer — we no longer hold. What are you going to do with the story in terms of resurrecting from the story, something ultimately they can be even meaningful to you.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Well we’re not going to just say in two minutes, oh yeah, we know it’s misogynist, now what are you going to do with it? No, we’re going to talk about the meaning of the misogyny in the story. And how come the story’s so different from all the others?
BILL MOYERS: And by misogyny you mean?
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Hatred of women. The narrator is shaping a story in which women are objects of hatred. You project upon them sexuality, and the evils of sexuality.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Let me talk as an outsider for a moment. If these things are so misogynic, why do people read them? Why is there interest in the Bible? Why not throw this away? This is the product of a patriarchal society, which a late 20th century America, not the whole of the globe — not the modern world, a segment of 20th century America doesn’t accept any longer.
DIANNE BERGANT: Many have. Many have thrown it away.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Yes.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: But, I mean, why not the rest? I mean, those people who — why is it that one must torture a story or — I don’t like to use the word story, but since it’s being used, which is the product of a world view which is rejected by people. It’s like saying, for example, I hate baseball, but I’m rooting for the New York Yankees. This doesn’t make any sense. But let me come back to the question that Burt asks. It’s very interesting, again, in the Islamic world, there are many woman who are called Zoleikha. That is the wife of Potiphar. She’s a heroine. She’s always depicted in a very, very positive sense. And she’s not hated by any means. Not at all.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: So you’re saying that in the Islamic tradition, this misogyny does not exist.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Not as far as the story’s concerned. Not at all. Potiphar’s wife, far from being someone who’s detested and just someone who seduces Joseph, is seen as someone who beholds beauty. As a person who has the eyes to see God’s greatest creation. And therefore, she’s a heroine. She’s one of the major romantic heroines of Islamic literature.
DIANNE BERGANT: I think that’s a perfect example of how not only may we be reading the same text, but we’re reading it from entirely different social situations. You read it from your culture and it opens it up in a wonderful way. And you read it from your culture, from the rabbinic prospective, and it opens up other things. And we read it from a feminist perspective and we see other things. So it’s not merely which is right, but where do you stand when you read it? And I think your question, how do you save such a text? How is such a text redeeming? In certain ways, redeeming for whom? For the ancient world?
I think if we say that the text originated out of a patriarchal society, the way the story is told is from the man’s point of view, and even stories about women are told from the man’s point of view. And if you say that, that’s a fact. And so that’s the way the ancient world saw it. Now the question is, do we have to replicate their world view? We can’t replicate their world view. And so because many people, not only don’t want to replicate the world view or repeat —
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Why can’t you replicate the world view?
DIANNE BERGANT: Well we’re in another world.
NORMAN COHEN: We don’t choose to.
DIANNE BERGANT: We’re in a 20th, perhaps 21st century world. Why do we want to go back to the world view? The challenge is, how you take a religious tradition or text that originated someplace and continue to have it religiously meaningful in another place.
BILL MOYERS: Some people would say, how do you read this text and find a revelation of God in it?
DIANNE BERGANT: That’s precisely what I’m saying. And I think that for many people — and I put myself in that category — it is not by repeating or reinterpreting what it meant for the ancient world, because there are many texts where I can’t. It’s as simple as that.
BURTON VISOTZKY: What it means for us.
DIANNE BERGANT: I know. But what means for us? I think that there is a dynamic in this Joseph story that appears twice. And that is, not merely somebody falls from grace, but rather somebody rises. He goes into the pit twice and rises. He’s put in the pit by his brothers and he rises. He gets out of it. He’s put in the pit again — or he’s put in the prison again. And there is that dynamic that the ones who are lowly — for a number of reasons — The ones who are lowly are raised up. Now you take away the specifics of those narratives, and you take that notion. And you take that and apply that, who in our society are the lowly ones? The lowly ones may be women who will be raised up. The lowly ones may be people of color who will be raised up. The lowly ones may be people of a lower class who will be raised up. That I find revelatory.
BILL MOYERS: You’re saying God is on the side of the underdog?
DIANNE BERGANT: I think that story says that.
NORMAN COHEN: At the very start of the narrative, the first line describes Potiphar. He’s talked about being a courtier of Pharaoh, he’s an “Esmitchry”, he’s an Egyptian person. The very next line says, verse two, “VA HEE ADONAI ET JOSEF” — God is with Joseph. So the parameters are set right in the beginning that Joseph, set in this context of being a subservient to a power, has gone with him. I think in that sense is right. It’s right there from the very outset of the story.
BILL MOYERS: Taking what Dianne said then, Phyllis, what do you take away from it from the standpoint of faith?
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: I understand what Diane is doing, and that is a level of interpretation in which you move from the specificities of the text to the realm of themes. And you draw out of the story themes, which then you can appropriate for people for whom the story is not directly concerned. I resist that. I understand the value of that, but I also resisted it. Because I respect the particularities of the text, and specificity of the text. And I recognize there are some texts that just won’t work. So I think God is in the details, and the Devil is in the details. And we have to talk about the details. If you go to the level of themes, then you can forget the misogyny. We won’t talk about that as a theme, we’ll talk about how the lowly got lifted up.
P.K. MCCARY: There’s some interesting dynamics going on, even among us. Because you can imagine how people looked at it. It would seem that Potiphar would have had him killed if he had just been so incensed. And yet he throws him in prison. And in here is Joseph. One minister said that he was actually very cunning and very smart. But he couldn’t outsmart somebody who was a little bit more sophisticated. And that those were the lessons that Joseph was really learning. That he was probably charming. As charming to her as he charmed the pants off of everyone in Potiphar’s house.
DIANNE BERGANT: Interesting image.
BILL MOYERS: Yeah, not her. But he did, apparently.
P.K. MCCARY: We tend to think that God controls the events of our lives. And I don’t think that. I think that the events of our lives happen. And that as we get more spirited and more in tune with what God would have us do, that changes the circumstances surrounding events that happen in our lives. And that that’s what was happening to Joseph.
NORMAN COHEN: And he learns.
P.K. MCCARY: That he was learning what happens to him when he’s so charming that he doesn’t look further than the nose on his face. And I think for children, and young men, and young women, this is precisely the lesson that I wanted to get across to them, that —
BILL MOYERS: Which is.
P.K. MCCARY: Well all that glitters ain’t gold. To get across to them that what is good, and feels good, and looks good for the moment may hurt you further on down the road. They never think ahead. These are people who never think ahead. And youth is like that.
NORMAN COHEN: It is clear that this is a text that we have to struggle with personally as individuals set where we are today. I would love to —
BILL MOYERS: Before you do, let me just — has this been one of your favorite stories?
NORMAN COHEN: Not at all. When I look at the text of all the stories in Genesis, it’s one of my least favorite. It’s a slow paced, monotonous, over detailed, overwritten a story with redundancies that you could just almost fall asleep in. And I was talking about it with someone the other day and I said, well maybe that’s the key here. In spelling out so many details, it reminds us that this is a story about real life. It’s the fabric of a multiplicity of details of the redundancies of life. The manifold challenges of life that, ultimately, we struggle in. And we, like Joseph have to learn how to rise from a position of constraint to a position of wholeness.
So all I’m saying is that I think when we ask the question of reading a text from a faith perspective, we have to understand that we’re prisming it through generations — centuries of tradition of reading of that faith that on some level can help us begin to gain access in ways that, if we just came de novo to the biblical text, we wouldn’t have it.
DIANNE BERGANT: At some levels, sometimes help us.
NORMAN COHEN: Sometimes helpful, yes.
DIANNE BERGANT: Because sometimes the history of interpretation even adds layer upon layer of misogyny. And that has been my experience of the tradition.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: The Bible is not a sanitized book. It does not have a single point of view. It comes to us full of conflicts, full of contradictions, full of problems. This to me is one of the great blessings of the Bible — that is an authentic document precisely because of that, as well as for some of the reasons. But it can speak authentically human existence out of it’s conflicted nature. So there are texts and there are texts. No one text must ever become idolatrous.
BILL MOYERS: Meaning?
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Attached to it in — this is the model. This is the word of God in this text. No, a text may one day be the word of God, and another day, it may not be the word of God.
BILL MOYERS: Do you agree with that?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: No. Not at all.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Of course you wouldn’t, but let me finish. Let me finish. Because my text comes from Moses, and you agree with him?
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Yes.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Moses said, quoting God, in the book of Deuteronomy, “Lo, I set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live.” Now that to me is the paradigm for what the Bible is. It is a book that sets before us life and death, blessing and curse. And it does not always tell us which is life and which is death, which is blessing and which is curse. So I don’t take a yellow pad and my number one pencil and draw a line down it and say, these are the texts for blessing and these are the texts for curse. And now I’ve got all settled. Oh no. Because something in column on the right may one day be in column on the left, and they go back and forth. And there is no final way of doing this. This is the grandeur and the glory, and the redemptive value of the Bible.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: But that doesn’t destroy spreading the word of God. Both life and death are part of our human life. But both for those of us who believe come from God. The fact that there are different messages given in the Bible doesn’t mean only some of it is the word of God and some of it isn’t.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: In other words — I think I see what you’re saying. If someone were to read the Potiphar story in such a way that the message was women are sexually aggressive, oppressive beings. In other words, in a misogynistic way, that would of course not be the word of God. I would agree with you. On the other hand, we can’t very well excise that. It’s part there. And I think the Joseph story has other things to say that certainly in my life have been of great power. And have given great meaning to my understanding of my own existence.
BURTON VISOTZKY: The text is kind of there. It’s always there. The words don’t change. The words are always going to be the same words whether it’s Deuteronomy of Genesis. What changes is the way we read. And I think that what’s important to realize is how God’s word is heard. God’s word isn’t just in a static book, right? We open the book up, it doesn’t talk. It doesn’t say anything. The words are just there on the page. What happens is communities of readers get together. And when we read, when we talk, when we debate, when we get to heated, that’s when we hear the word of God. That’s when the text becomes revelation. You hear someone else with a different point of view, and that person doesn’t even have to convince you so much as to show you that there’s more than one reading of a text.
DIANNE BERGANT: And it can mean — the same thing can mean different things in different communities at the same time. For example, blessed are the poor. In a poor community, that’s hope. And in a privilege community, that’s challenge.
NORMAN COHEN: But the irony is it could mean different things to the same person reading at different times of his or her life.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Right. Exactly.
NORMAN COHEN: As we bring ourselves to the text, we’re different readers.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: But look, there’s a beautiful thing in the story — which appears right here, and much more as the story goes on — is Joseph’s developing sense of common humanity. Joseph reaches a kind of maturity, I think, in this that looks across at the humanity of Potiphar, who is in this position of power over him. And says, no I can’t do that to him. He’s a man. He’s a human being. He’s someone I owe something to — above and beyond — this position of power in which, he’s my master. I’m the slave.
NORMAN COHEN: At the denouement of the story in the rabbinic tradition, the rabbis, as they recreate the story in their minds eye, pictured Joseph envisioning the presence of his father. That dissuades him from continuing. So here I think you have a wonderful tension. Is it a sense of God’s presence, and what God wants of us that ultimately will impel us to act in a particular way? Or, not mutually exclusive, is there a sense of what our parents expect of us, what we’ve gotten from our parents? And what is most attractive to me about this rabbinic reading of the text is, here is Joseph, isolated in Egypt, years from his parents. And yet, the rabbis envision, he carries with him an expectation of what his parents would want to ask him. What he learned from his parents’ house. And I think here it really speaks to the issue of, how do we train our kids? What do we give our kids? And how do we prepare our kids?
P.K. MCCARY: As a mother talking to children, I told them Joseph was raised right. He had to get that home training from somewhere. And in the African American community, that’s real important — that when you go out into the world, that you remember your home training. That somewhere, Joseph got a sense of what was right and what was wrong. And when it was time to call upon it — because you’ve got children in this world that really have no sense of right and wrong. What goes beyond the scope of not just normal morality and ethics, but just a sense of themselves. That I wouldn’t do this to myself. Joseph didn’t do that to himself, as well as to Potiphar and as well as his religious upbringing.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: I think you have a really human Joseph. I think the Joseph is away from home. Joseph is on his own, which he hasn’t been. And I think in this particular instance, there’s just a natural sense of, on the one hand, loyalty to a master that’s been good to him. On the other hand, an actual sense that there’s something wrong here. He in fact describes it to God. And I think in this story —
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: God can come directly both the Quran and the Bible. It’s not only human master.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: That’s right. God’s not in the story as a character, but God’s not in my life or your life as a character either. God is in my life — and this is one reason I like the Joseph story — God is in my life as feelings, promptings, inclinations. The kind of thing that you can easily miss. In a moment of attraction for something or another. And I see Joseph sort of picking the right vibes in this situation and say, no, it’s wrong I can’t do that.
BILL MOYERS: So you’re putting in a good word for this story —
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: I’m putting in a good word for the whole story. For me, the Joseph story has come to mean a lot as I’ve — I perhaps should say, I’m an exile myself. I live in a country where I was not born like Joseph. I didn’t come here as a baby, I came here as a boy. I was in college. I was 19 when I first came to this country.
BILL MOYERS: You came from where?
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: I came from Cuba.
BILL MOYERS: In?
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: In 1955 I first came to this country to study. And I’ve basically stayed here since. I have raised a family here. I’ve become an academic here. I have a good life here. But I can see both sides of exile. And I think the people who wrote the story, whatever else they were, were people for whom exile was the dominant experience. And maybe, in many ways, I see exile us as the great paradigm for human existence that speaks to us in the Bible. Definitely the Joseph story speaks to me that way.
BILL MOYERS: What does this story say about keeping faith in exile?
NORMAN COHEN: From a Jewish perspective, Egypt on some level is the quintessential exile. It’s the place of alienation, of lost identity. Just as the pit is a place of lost identity for Joseph. He’s out of sight. He’s not remembered. He’s not seen. And the question is, is their calamity and loss in Egypt? Or is there hope in Egypt? And that point speaks to every single person. It speaks to me in a context of feeling other, lost, fragmented. Can we point to something that gives us hope that we can build upon. And I think on some level the Joseph story does.
BILL MOYERS: So Egypt is a kind of pit for Joseph?
NORMAN COHEN: Egypt. Exactly. And the word pit is used for the pit that he’s thrown into, for the prison that he’s thrown into. The same word in Hebrew, “Boer”, pit, the dungeon is a pit. And I think Egypt is the pit. And on some level, can he be fertile? Simple example. He names his two children. The second child is named Ephraim. The meaning of the name in Genesis 41 is God made me fertile — where? In the land of my affliction. And there you get the tension. He’s fertile. He rises. He finds himself. But Egypt is yet the land of his affliction. And can you become fertile, become creative, come to some kind of wholeness even in the place of alienation. It talks to the soul of every single human being.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Pharaoh has to get some credit here. Pharaoh, King of Egypt, is willing to take a risk that a foreigner, an alien, an immigrant — he can put him in charge and thus save Egypt. It’s a very different pharaoh that we see in the Book of Exodus, who’s xenophobic. He doesn’t like strangers.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: A pharaoh who did not know Joseph.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Right. The good pharaoh is the one who takes that risk. That the immigrant community can contribute — can become part of a greater enterprise.
BILL MOYERS: This is a very modern story to me.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: The fact that Joseph was successful in Egypt had a lot to do with the Islamization of Egypt later. People do not pay attention to this because Joseph is a great prophet as presented in Islam. And to this day, the Egyptians take great pride the Joseph came to Egypt. If you drive-through the streets of Cairo, there’s several places right Al-Azhar University where there’s a big poster with verse of the Quran, that this was the land to which God sent Joseph. It’s still living with us. The whole story of Joseph presents two aspects of human life. One is this going beyond one’s own land to identify oneself and serve another people. That is breaking racial barriers.
Another, of course, is a very profound theme of exile. It’s interesting that throughout the history of Islam, Canaan is seen as sort of our original abode — paradise, where we come from and to which we will return. And so despite the success of Joseph in Egypt, he is always seen in exile. And the great sorrow of his father, Jacob, and the fact that he cried until he became blind — according to the Quran — for the fact that his son was in exile is seen as the prototype, really, all our exile in this world. That is the spiritual person is always in exile in this world. By definition.
BILL MOYERS: This world is not my home.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Yes, the Christ has referred to —
BILL MOYERS: Is the old spiritual guide.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Yes, all of the different religions have emphasized that. And it’s a wonderful, beautiful story, which shows also this leading nostalgia. There’s another shirt of Joseph in the Quran besides the five that Potiphar’s wife grabbed. And that is the shirt which Joseph sent to his father in Canaan, which contains the perfume of Joseph. And Jacob, having cried so much, had gone blind. And when this cloth, which had this perfume was put on his eyes, he began to see the light. This very, very profound a beautiful story presents actually our plight in nostalgia. That as a person who has a yearning for the spirit feels in exile in this world no matter how much he serves it.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: The experience of being from somewhere else, it raises a different kind of consciousness, it seems to me. For this country, particularly, than for any other country in the world. Because we always feel like we have the roots in an idealized place. I’ve never been to Ireland, but I bet it’s nowhere near as beautiful as Irish Americans paint it. Because I know that Cuba is not as idyllic as my friends in the Cayocha, Miami paint it. If you want to go to Old Havana, go to Miami. They’ve sort of tried to reconstruct there. So you always have on the one hand this nostalgia. On the other, the flip side is you are now somewhere else that you have to deal with and where you sometimes feel very much alienated.
NORMAN COHEN: The rabbis tell a wonderful story about Joseph. As he goes back to Canaan, carrying Jacob’s bones back with him to bury his father in Canaan, he passes the pit, the “Boer”, into which he was thrown by his brothers. And he stops to make a blessing over that pit. It’s just so astounding to bless the pit, that places downtroddenness, of his ignominy. And then you begin to understand that that pit was really the place that on some level saved his life. Had he not been thrown into the pit, maybe they would have murdered him. But more than that. The pit, which seemingly stands for otherness, for his alienation, where’s forgotten. He’s no longer seen at the bottom of the pit. Can that pit be transformed into a place that’s ultimately salvific for him? And redemptional for him.
And ultimately the question then becomes, I think, can Egypt, the narrow places, in Hebrew, Egypt is “MITZRAYIM” in the narrow places. Can the places that we are situating now, the place of confinement, the places where ultimately we feel persecuted and alone — can those places really be a canal that births us into more of ourselves?
DIANNE BERGANT: It’s very significant in the entire biblical corpus how the Israelite storytellers identify and characterize Egypt. And it is usually not positive. Sometimes it is, but usually not positive. Egypt is frequently the mythological monster. Egypt is the enemy. And that’s not the case in the story. This is one of the places where Egypt is not — not just by Joseph, but by the storyteller — Joseph becomes an Egyptian.
Now why he becomes an Egyptian if his father thinks he’s dead, his brother’s want to kill him. His father thinks he’s dead. One might interpret that to a certain extent, he is dead to his people. That’s an interpretation. The text doesn’t say that, but the text does say he is given an Egyptian name after he has proven himself, and he’s given an Egyptian wife, and he does not go back to the land of his ancestors. He stays as an Egyptian. And storytelling does not find fault with that. And I think that is very interesting because generally Egypt is the enemy. And now here is one of our heroes, who in a certain sense is what the people of the tradition would consider an enemy.
NORMAN COHEN: You have to be fair to the story though. When his brothers come, he’s not perceived, and he’s not described by the narrator as an Egyptian. He knows Hebrew still. That’s implied in the text. He seems to be — even though they don’t recognize him because of the change of all of the external things — the change of clothing, the change of the hair and all the rest. He has an Egyptian name. Nevertheless, the implication in the text is he’s still Joseph their brother. The narrative points out when he refers to his brother’s, not as Jacob’s sons, they’re Joseph’s brothers. Almost as if to say he remains their brother.
DIANNE BERGANT: But you go back to what Francisco said. That’s precisely it. He is of another nation now, but he never loses his roots.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: This is the whole question of the ambivalence that I was referring to. Two sides of being in exile. Of precisely being successful in exile in this world, which certainly the story of Joseph depicts. At the same time, never forgetting where he comes from. You ask the question of Francisco. I’m the only other person here who is really in exile. Because of political circumstances somewhat different from his, but nevertheless the results have been similar, although I came later in life to this country.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: And if I were to be asked this question that you posed to me, how do I fair as a person in exile? A person very deeply attached to Persian culture. A person who was at the center of activities of that culture. I was not simply a businessman or someone who was not serious interest in it. The answer is always the remembrance of the first meaning of exile. That is the spiritual meaning of exile. That we are all in a sense exiled in this world. Is that which permits me to function in exile — I hope somewhat successfully as a teacher, and a writer, and everything in this country. And participate in the life of this country without losing my identity of where I really come from. And that is why the story of Joseph speaks so deeply to me by having both of these aspects there at the same time.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: The good thing about that — about being an exile, about being of two cultures — is that it allows you to realize that one of the most outrageous and harmful besets that we perpetrate upon ourselves is the fact that there are separate cultures, separate races, separate ethnicities that can be the source then of discrimination, and so on. One of the things you know when you become an Egyptian, as it were, is you begin to look at yourself, look at others, from the point of view of the Egyptians. And you begin to realize, A, how much you have in common, B, how much of what this society affirms about the other is not so. Well that’s true if you’re lucky like Joseph was. Or gifted, graced like Joseph was, and you rise to power —
NORMAN COHEN: Even for one who rises to power, if who spoke to Hossein or to Frank and ask them, for Joseph himself, he might be able to hold on to that Israelite identity of his. But what about his grandchildren and their children beyond him in terms of living in exile? And that speaks on some level to every one of us who comes from a different cultural pattern. In the story itself, when Jacob is about the bless these two grandchildren, the words that ring are “MI ALAH”, who are these? As if he doesn’t recognize them. Their two generations removed from who he is. He’s saying, who are these? They look Egyptian, they smell Egyptian, they taste Egyptian, they can’t be my children. And the irony, of course, is not only are they his, he makes them his in the text, he blesses them by his name. But ironically, they become the paradigm a blessing for every Jewish, every Israelite, then Jewish child that follows. Because it says “YASIM CH’ELOHIM K’EPHRAIM CHIMANASHAME”, may God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh. And that’s the blessing that every Jewish parent uses on his or her children before the Sabbath every week.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Yeah, I still do that to my son. And, I mean, it’s really ironic. When Joseph names his son Manasseh, it says, Manasseh, he who forgets. And then the Bible — in case you didn’t get it — the Bible itself says, “meaning God has made me forget my hardships, all my father’s house.” Now the fact that Joseph even says that tells you he hasn’t forgotten his father’s house. But he is just caught in that dilemma. He wants to be a good Egyptian. He wants to forget that sorrow, but it is so deeply inside him.
I think in the American Jewish community, we went through that. We went through a long period of time that we wanted to be Americans. And it took us a couple generations to realize that what being a good American meant was being a good Jew. That was OK in America. That’s how it worked.
DIANNE BERGANT: You look at the names of those two sons though, it’s interesting. Both of them have some notion of affliction in it. One of them is affliction in my father’s house. And the other one, the land of affliction.
BILL MOYERS: What do you make of that?
DIANNE BERGANT: I don’t know. Is it part of what happens when you really leave home and make up a home someplace else? Which, while we’re talking about how he belongs to both places, ask anyone. They don’t belong either place. So if you’re a Cuban American, you go to Cuba, you’re an American. You stay in America, you’re a Cuban. So in a certain sense, you’re afflicted both ways.
BILL MOYERS: How much accommodation can one accept and still be true to oneself in exile?
DIANNE BERGANT: I think that there are many different levels of that. I mean, I think that there are religious — we’re talking about ethnic. In my situation, as a member of a religious community, one of the most difficult things that we are facing is how can one be faithful to the vows — poverty, chastity, and obedience — in a society — and this is not just civic society, but church society as well — that doesn’t understand these vows in the same way? And we don’t. And don’t even value — I mean, who values poverty? Who values chastity in a society in which — and obedience — in a society where we are to be self-directed?
So I don’t have any answer, but I can tell you that’s the crux as far as I’m concerned. How does one live in the world and not of it? Especially it’s not that the world is outside, or the society is outside, or Egypt is outside. It’s inside. I mean, I’m a product of my culture. And how can I also be faithful to my religious tradition?
BILL MOYERS: How do you take a vow of poverty in a society that is so materialistic, so affluent. Where advertising is always, no matter whether you’re looking at it not, beating the message into you.
DIANNE BERGANT: It is a constant struggle. I mean, it’s not merely how much money do I have? That’s not the problem. And it’s not how many books do I have? For me, the problem is how much contemporary electronic information do I need? Do I have to get into internet? And on the one hand, I’m a professor. Of course I need that information. Do I need a laser printer? I mean, those are real issues for me.
BILL MOYERS: Have you reconciled this?
DIANNE BERGANT: No, I haven’t.
BILL MOYERS: Is it just an ongoing struggle?
DIANNE BERGANT: You want to ask if I have that? Is that what you’re asking?
BILL MOYERS: Well I will, actually. Which model?
DIANNE BERGANT: No, I don’t have a laser printer. But that doesn’t make me poor. I mean, and I don’t want to resolve them. Because I think the time we resolve it, we have either moved to one side or the other. And in this world, I don’t know if we can. I don’t know if —
BILL MOYERS: We’re in permanent exile then?
DIANNE BERGANT: Yes. Struggling constantly as Joseph was.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: Listen, this is a good example. I come from a culture that’s very much family oriented where you would expect, not the nuclear family, but the extended family to be your context throughout your whole life. I think the real question is, how do you express the values that you hold dear out of your culture in this new context in ways that make sense. How do you remain faithful to those values in a situation where you really can’t live in an extended family anymore.
BILL MOYERS: Phyllis, do you — you’re sitting over there as silent as God is in the story of Joseph. I mean it.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Yes.
BILL MOYERS: God speaks to all the other patriarchs.
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: And the Joseph story does not speak to me in any deep ways. Though the theme of exiles speaks to me in some deep, deep ways, I don’t derive it from the Joseph story.
BILL MOYERS: Do you still feel an exile in this world?
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: Oh, yes. The mystical spiritual sense that anyone who is rooted in transcendence and understands creation as the work of a transcendent God is in the world but not of it.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Of it, yeah. Could I add one point the exile story also? America is one of the very few places where, in fact, a Joseph can be successful. I mean, it’s not certain if Francisco had migrated to Poland, or to Egypt, or to Japan even, he would have become a successful professor. So you have now the added problem, which poses, first of all for Judaism, a new challenge, which is very severe and very important. Perhaps, I heard a Jewish friend say this is among the greatest challenges that Judaism has ever faced — precisely of success in the world.
And secondly, for other communities, for example, as Islam grows in this country, there are now six million Muslims. All this growing fast as people still hold on very much of their faith is a major challenge for the younger generation. Of simply being too successful in a society, which by its over absorbing power makes the life of an exile even more difficult. And that’s, I think, why the Joseph story’s so powerful for the American experience.
DIANNE BERGANT: I’d like to get back to something that he said, and you also refer to. And that is, it’s not merely reinterpreting that one’s religious traditions in a new context. That’s important. But it’s also recognizing the values in that new context that your take on. And I think what we find in the Joseph story is he took on the Egyptian culture. It’s not merely that he lived as a Jew in Egypt, which we have enough stories showing that. He took on the Egyptian culture.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: It’s like the American experience.
DIANNE BERGANT: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Well how do you explain that he was able to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh when the rest of the official court could not?
DIANNE BERGANT: Because God was with him.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: Because he was a prophet.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: I think when tradition speaks to this, I think that probably he is in a situation of being the outsider. The Egyptian dream interpreters are so committed to pleasing Pharaoh that they are not about to say to a pharaoh who represented the power of fertility in his very person, this country is going to go through the worst famine ever. They’re not about to give bad news to Pharaoh. Joseph is looking at this situation from an outsider. Remember, he just came out of prison. He came out of Canaan. He knows famine firsthand because it’s a fact of life in Canaan. And he sees it for what it is. And I think that that’s one the things —
BILL MOYERS: Because he was an outsider.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: Yeah.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: There’s another element that is involved here. That’s the whole art of interpreting dreams. I would not connect it only with the fact that he was an outsider, but with the fact that he was given by God the science of dream interpretation.
P.K. MCCARY:And he was given this gift early.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: He was given this gift early.
P.K. MCCARY: He didn’t know what to do with it. He didn’t recognize the importance of it. Or how divine it really was.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: He was an outsider already in a way. His dreams were saying, through Joseph, you are destined for something that is beyond here. What he had was a very, very, very bad sense of timing.
DIANNE BERGANT: That’s right. And it’s a wisdom issue.
NORMAN COHEN: That’s the wisdom of the sermon that we’re talking about.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: Going around bragging about that when you are the kid, amidst your brothers is what got him in the pit in the first place.
DIANNE BERGANT: That’s the discerning part of now you are a man of wisdom and discernment. Timing is all.
NORMAN COHEN: There’s one other aspect that comes in here that I think is very quiet, but it’s important. When Joseph is confronted in the first set of dreams by the cup bearer and the baker, he sees them and he says, why are you so downtrodden today? He looks at their faces, “VA-YAR”, He sees who they are. And he comes to know them, Thomas Mann in his magnum opus says the test of Joseph is to learn to read the faces of other people. And I think this nuance here is very important. He can gain a sense of who these people are. And that’s the discernment I hear. The “RUE LOCH ELOHIM”, the spirit of God is in him in the sense that he sees it through the eyes and the hearts of other people that he now can see and can hear. I think that as a model kind of speaks to us. We learn about the nature of life as we listen and hear other people.
BURTON VISOTZKY: Anybody could say, oh boy, there’s going to be seven years of plenty. That’s easy to say to Pharaoh. The genius is in saying, of that plenty, we must put aside. And that takes courage too. That takes enormous courage. To be able to say, no, there has to be, in the midst of all of this wonderful productivity, there has to be really, a very serious tax. Because without putting this aside, we have no future.
NORMAN COHEN: On some level of, understanding the fragility of life, the seven years of abundance are followed by the seven years of famine. And preparing oneself for it on some level, I think is a message that can speak to every single one of us in terms of our own life cycles. Especially in America today.
BILL MOYERS: As we come to the end of the Joseph story, there is just an inescapable irony here. That Joseph’s success in Egypt leads ultimately to the enslavement of his people. What do you make of that?
PHYLLIS TRIBLE: So success and bondage are two sides of a coin.
P.K. MCCARY: Right, right. And I think some people see it that way. That doing the right thing will get me anywhere, so I might as well do what it takes not to have to deal with being in bondage, or being hurt, or being used. I think that that’s the call of the younger generation sometimes, is that, I’ve got to make money. I’ve got to have a high title. I’ve got to have a car. Part of it, I think, is this need not to have to go to the pit. I talk about exploring the possibilities, but there’s also a process that you go through. And the process sometimes has the pitfalls. The process sometimes is painful. The process sometimes hurts like nothing else. But if you miss going through the process, you miss learning what the lesson is so that you don’t repeat that. And what Joseph did was learn not to repeat some of the same mistakes.
SEYYED HOSSEIN NASR: But the question which you posed has a very, very clear answer. And also an extremely important lesson for the modern world today. That is too much success in the world will lead to enslavement. I mean, the very success of Western civilization and dominating over nature, and not destroyed the whole natural environment. That’s one of its lessons. In a sense, you could apply to the enslavement of the rest of nature. And the fact that Joseph is successful. The fact that he became viceroy. The fact that he brought plenty back to Egypt — that the Egyptians don’t all starve, later in the other stories of the Bible leads to the enslavement of his people. And I think that’s a very profound story for modern civilization.
FRANCISCO GARCIA-TRETO: Let’s go beyond becoming an Egyptian. The Joseph story ends with two of the major tribes of Israel — the two largest tribes of central Israel — having an Egyptian mother. And Egyptian roots. And in a way to saying, look we’re all in this together. We’re one people. I mean, the Egyptian sometimes have been really oppressive. But on the other hand, at some level, they are us and we are them. We have to solve it together.
This transcript was entered on April 15, 2015.