Alan T. Levenson is the Schusterman/Josey Professor of Jewish History at the University of Oklahoma. He is the author or editor of numerous essays and books, including The Making of the Modern Jewish Bible: How Scholars in Germany, Israel, and America Transformed an Ancient Text; An Introduction to Modern Jewish Thinkers; and Between Philosemitism and Antisemitism: Defenses of Jews and Judaism in Germany, 1871–1932 (Nebraska, 2013).
Who doesn’t love the story of Joseph? On an individual level, we have history’s first-rags-to riches tale, a seventeen-year-old braggart transformed into the consummate administrator. On a familial level, a murderous sibling rivalry gives way to sincere repentance and even reconciliation. On the national level, we see a classic court Jew serving his king but looking after his own family, too. On the theological level, God neither speaks nor overtly directs the hero, but the narrator understands that Joseph finds success in fulfillment of divine goals. Questions emerge everywhere and not because the narrative is chiseled or episodic like much of Genesis. Rather, as Goethe wrote, the story is too good to be so short and one wishes to fill in the details. Readers always have. What was Joseph like as a husband to the Egyptian Asenat and as a father to Ephraim and Manasseh? Did Joseph really forgive his brothers—did they really accept him? Was Joseph savvy or did he serve the Pharaoh too well—leaving a serf-like native population willing to enslave foreigners? Joseph understood that God made him the instrument of his family’s salvation, but did he grasp that his brother Judah’s descendants, not his own, would eventually rule the nation?
Joseph: Portraits through the Ages began as a study guide: my questions, with answers provided by readers from the Midrash and modern Bible scholars and my own students. Joseph has no thesis except the conviction that good readers in every era identify characters and incidents that cry out for elaboration. Sometimes a rabbinic moralizer like Rashi seems to offer the most satisfying response (Who was the nameless wanderer that met Joseph and directed him to his brothers?); sometimes a hard-headed biblical historian can best answer the question: who sold Joseph to whom? At times, when the biblical text just does not say, we need a creative leap, whether from the anonymous author of “Joseph and Asenat” or from the German novelist Thomas Mann (1875–1955), author of a 1200-page novel on the subject.
The plan of Joseph: Portraits through the Ages is very simple: retelling Genesis 37–50 selectively focusing on both the well known. . . Mrs. Potiphar. . .and the obscure. . .Jacob’s Valedictory Address; major characters (to name only the “Js”: Joseph, Jacob, and Judah) and “minor” ones (Tamar, Benjamin, Asenat); and incidents that have prompted the most contested responses. I believe Joseph’s story has only gotten richer in the retelling. If you appreciate Joseph’s interpreters even more, my book has succeeded.