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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Joseph and the Way of Forgiveness

A Story About Letting Go

Stephen Mitchell

St. Martin's Essentials


Why Jacob Loved Joseph Best

JACOB LOVED JOSEPH FAR MORE than his other children. This partiality was obvious to everyone, especially to the other sons. It could be considered Jacob’s tragic flaw, if our story weren’t a comedy—that is, if it didn’t have a happy ending.

Jacob loved him because Joseph was the child of Rachel, the beloved. The boy looked just like his mother, except that his beauty was male, like a melody transposed into another key. His large dark-brown eyes sparkled with intelligence and mischief, as hers once had. He smiled with the same full, elegantly curved lips. He laughed the way she used to laugh. (When Jacob said something that greatly amused her, laughter would take over her whole body; she would rock back and forth with it; tears would pour down her cheeks.) Everything about the boy reminded Jacob of her. Joseph was her memorial, her incarnation, the only remnant of her left in the physical world.

Yes, there was Benjamin, but he didn’t resemble her as closely. Besides, despite Jacob’s many heartfelt prayers not to, he still resented the boy for causing her death.


JACOB LIVED IN THE HEBRON VALLEY, surrounded by the Judean Mountains, three thousand feet above sea level and twenty miles southwest of Jerusalem, which even then, almost thirty-seven hundred years ago, was a city unfathomably ancient. Hebron is where Abraham had entertained angels unawares, near the great oaks of Mamre. The three unearthly visitors had arrived from nowhere, looking like men, and only after they had finished the meal had Abraham noticed their luminescence.

Since Jacob’s livelihood depended on his flocks and herds, he and his remaining wife, Leah, with the two concubines, the thirteen children, and the wives of the married sons, would pitch their tents in one spot for a while and then move on. He was a rich man, rich enough so that years before, on his journey back from Mesopotamia, he had been able to make his brother, Esau (not out of brotherly love, but out of terror and residual guilt), the gift of two hundred twenty sheep, two hundred twenty goats, thirty milch camels with their calves, forty cows, ten bulls, and thirty donkeys—a gift he could easily afford.

If we were to visit the camp, you and I, we might find Jacob sitting before his tent in the cool of the day. As soon as he saw strangers approaching, he would, in his great courtesy, run out to meet us, unconcerned with his patriarchal dignity, which required movement at a slow and stately pace. He would bring water for us to wash our feet, and he would invite us to stretch out under one of the oak trees while he prepared dinner. Then he would slaughter a calf or a lamb and have it roasted, tell the women to bake bread, and serve us the meat and bread, along with a generous supply of milk and yogurt, and we would sit and eat and talk and laugh in good fellowship under the oak tree, as he sat with us, taking pleasure in our pleasure.

But it’s better not to disturb him. So let us go as invisible presences. Come. I’ll guide you.

Jacob has camped in one of the lush valleys around the city. It is a warm day in springtime. The grass is thick. The hills are red and yellow with poppies and mustard flowers. You can see flocks and herds everywhere, in the valley or on the slopes, grazing or lying in the shadow of the oak trees, accompanied by a few men and boys carrying slingshots and shepherd’s crooks and clothed in tan-colored woolen robes fastened at the waist by broad leather belts. As we approach them, you can smell the fat odor of sheep and the more pungent odor of the goats. Look, there’s Benjamin, nine years old, sitting on a log and playing a reed pipe, repeating the same tune over and over. The shrubs on the hill to our right are mastic, myrtle, kermes oak, and buckthorn, which the goats love. There are other varieties of oak here in the valley, some of them with ancient, gnarled trunks, along with cedars and almond trees. Over there, three cypresses point to the sky. Behind them is an olive grove, whose leaves the wind blows green and gray.

Now we’re coming to the tents. This large one in front is Jacob’s, where Joseph sleeps. Surrounding it, in a ragged half circle, are Leah’s tent, the tents of the ten grown-up sons, the tent of Dinah, Jacob’s only daughter, and the tents of the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah, who are sitting outside now, chatting and carding wool. They are in their mid-thirties, Bilhah still thin and placid, Zilpah almost as energetic as in the days when, at Leah’s insistence, Jacob slept with her and was astounded at the girl’s sexual boldness. Young children, the boys and girls of the older sons, run around them barefoot or play in the shadows of the trees.

The sun is low. Soon it will be time to retire for the evening. Some of the brothers are pasturing their flocks in meadows a day’s journey away; they won’t come home tonight. Most are nearby, and if we stay, we will see them walking back to their wives and children.

Where is Joseph? He is in Jacob’s tent, stretched out on two embroidered pillows, waiting for his father to return.

In Jacob’s Tent

AFTER RACHEL DIED, JOSEPH BECAME Jacob’s talisman and his almost exclusive focus. Joseph softened the old man’s grief with his brilliance, charm, and constant good humor. Jacob could hardly bear to be without him; when he was by himself, he often felt overwhelmed by despair. So he kept Joseph close during the day, and at night he granted him the privilege of sleeping beside him. Joseph was the only child who spent the evenings with his father.

Jacob felt his heart ease a bit in the boy’s presence. He loved to tell him the ancient stories, and Joseph loved to listen: about the Garden of Delight, where Yahweh* walked in the cool of the day and where he planted two trees, the Tree of Life first and then the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which he compassionately forbade to Adam, and the talking serpent tempted Eve, and she was beguiled and ate, and Adam too was beguiled, and he too ate, for love of her, and they were banished from the Garden, and only when we eat of the fruit of the Tree of Wisdom, which is the Tree of Life, can we return to our original innocence; about Abel and his elder brother, Cain, who thought he had lost everything when Yahweh rejected his offering, and he turned his anger against his brother and slew him, and when Yahweh asked where Abel was, he said, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”; about Lamech, who married two women, Adah and Zillah, and Adah gave birth to Jabal, the ancestor of those who live in tents, and to Jubal, the ancestor of those who play the lyre and the flute, while Zillah gave birth to Tubal, the ancestor of those who forge copper and iron tools; about the sons of God, who came down to earth, and when they saw how beautiful were the daughters of men, they had sex with as many of them as they wanted, and of their embraces were the giants born; about the call to Noah, and the ark, and the animals, two by two, and the great flood, and the rainbow’s promise, and the time Noah got drunk in his tent, and Ham went in and cut off his father’s genitals; about Nimrod, whom the Gentiles call Gilgamesh, a king powerful beyond all others, violent, splendid, who strutted through the great city of Uruk, trampling its citizens like a wild bull; about the Tower of Babel, which the stupid Babylonians built because they wanted to reach the heavens, in the days when the whole earth was one language. After his father’s voice had grown silent in the darkness, Joseph would turn the stories over in his mind as he waited for sleep to carry him off into other realms.

But it was especially about Abraham that Jacob loved to speak—his esteemed grandfather, whom he had never met. Joseph would listen with awe, wide-eyed, to the stories of that great man, who heard God speak to him in the vast stillness of his mind. It was not a voice from the outside. The voice had no words at first. Abraham listened to it with all his attention, and eventually he bowed his head to what the voice was telling him, excruciatingly difficult though it was. The voice was telling him to leave everything behind, everything he loved most: mother and father, home and country, his beloved wife, the children he had not yet begotten, his own life—even his own life. If you love God, Jacob said, you must be ready to lose everything, gratefully, as Abraham had understood. “And you too will understand someday,” Jacob would say to the boy, with tears in his eyes.

Being Beautiful

JOSEPH HAD BEEN SPOILED FROM the beginning, not by his parents’ adoration (there can never be too much of a good thing), but by their lack of discernment. There is an aura around those who are physically beautiful, and when beauty is combined with extraordinary intelligence, it seems as if some kind of divine being has descended to earth, who can do no wrong and whose every whim cries out to be indulged. From an early age Joseph realized his effect on his parents. He acted toward them with the benevolent condescension that a great lord shows to his faithful retainers.

By the time he was thirteen, his beauty was on the tongues of women in the villages for miles around; they would jostle at the market to catch a glimpse of him. In addition to Hebrew, he spoke three languages fluently, and he had mastered the sciences of geometry, astronomy, and accounting. His father depended on him in all business matters, never bothering to consult his other sons.

Joseph treated his brothers with an easy neglect. All his life it had been obvious that he was the chosen one. He had nothing against the sons of Leah and the concubines’ sons; they were decent men, in their own crude, ignorant way. But they were clearly inferiors, supporting players in the high drama that he knew would be his own life. Their dull eyes were like the dull eyes of their mothers—sheep eyes, goat eyes—and their sensibilities, adequate enough for shepherds, were unfit to keep up with a superior intelligence like his. He was friendly, and as respectful as he could manage to be, but he looked through them. He walked across the surface of their attention without pausing, like someone on his way to an important meeting, who has no time to linger.


YAHWEH FAVORS ABEL OVER CAIN, Sarah favors Isaac over Ishmael, Isaac favors Esau while Rebecca favors Jacob, Jacob favors Joseph over all his other sons. What’s wrong with this picture? Furthermore, does congenital favoritism belong only to the archetypal Jewish family, or is it simply the way of the world?

There’s a big difference, of course, between having favorites and playing favorites. I’m not very interested in a world without preferences. Even a buddha, when asked if she’d like vanilla or chocolate for her ice-cream cone, might say vanilla, though on a different day she might give a different answer. “The Great Way* isn’t difficult,” says an old Zen poem, “for those who are unattached to their preferences.” Some of us can’t help feeling more affinity with one child than with another, but we can help turning that affinity into preferential treatment. We can, and we do.

Jacob, though, didn’t. He couldn’t. He could never find a way to be a good father to his twelve other children. He himself had grown up without a father’s love, in a state of constant craving for Isaac’s approval, until the craving led him, under his mother’s influence, to fraud, theft, and a guilt that lasted for decades. He had never learned impartiality; his parents’ favoritism had seeped into the very organs of his perception. Moreover, Leah had been forced on him by his cheating father-in-law, and though he was kind to her, he had never loved her. Her children and the handmaids’ children didn’t feel like his, because their mothers weren’t Rachel, the true wife. And though he did his best to love them, there was little warmth in it.

Can you see how this will play out? It has to play out, since there is nothing hidden that won’t eventually be revealed. Whatever blind spots we refuse to acknowledge will burst into external reality at some point, to be seen, to be heard, to be either suffered or understood. Thus, in the closed system of the family, the momentum of Jacob’s favoritism was conserved in all interactions, through all collisions and separations. It transformed itself into arrogance and entitlement in Joseph, and in the brothers into a toxic resentment.

Copyright © 2019 by Stephen Mitchell