From time to time Jacob instructed Joseph to report on his ten half-brothers. Joseph enjoyed the job; he felt like one of God's recording angels. When he told on them, it wasn't out of malice. He was always frank with his father. He had no sense of discretion, and he gave no thought to the consequences his brothers might face from these reports. It never even occurred to him to put himself in their place.
In contrast to his brothers, he was usually free to come and go as he wished. Sometimes he served as assistant to Bilhah's and Zilpah's four sons, who put up with the boy's chatter and even let themselves be charmed by his flights of fancy. After he tattled on them, though, they knew better than to let their guard down again.
What could the men have been doing? Slacking off on the job? But isn't "slacking off" the definition of being a shepherd? "A god has given us this leisure," as Virgil's shepherd Tityrus sings. You keep one eye on the flock, and for the rest, you idle your time away, singing love songs to your raven-haired, cherry-lipped, almond-eyed, amorous shepherdess sweetheart or improvising on your flute or harp, a spiritual descendant of Jubal (or is it Jabal?). In the fifth-century Midrash on Genesis, two of our rabbis, convinced that the virtuous Joseph was obligated to report the brothers' misdemeanors, guessed at something more nefarious. Rabbi Meïr said, "The brothers must have been eating limbs from living animals"—one of the heinous sins that automatically excluded someone from the rabbinic heaven. Rabbi Shimon, on the other hand, said, "They were having sex with Canaanite girls." He was right.
One fine day, Joseph wandered out to a distant meadow where he thought the four men might be. As he descended from the top of a knoll, he saw Asher behind a clump of bushes, naked, with a naked Kenite girl in his arms. (Joseph recognized her; she lived in a nearby village.) Asher was feeding her from a bunch of grapes, in a moment of obviously postcoital intimacy. As soon as the girl saw Joseph, she screamed and covered herself. Asher, looking sheepish, said, "We're just having our fun. Please don't tell Father." Joseph snorted, turned on his heels, and walked home. He had learned a contempt for sexual promiscuity from his monogamous-at-heart father. When Jacob heard of the incident, he called all four men to his tent and berated them. Bilhah and Zilpah looked on in shame.
Four months later, Joseph happened on Naphtali in flagrante delicto behind a bush in a different meadow, with a girl from a different Kenite village.
He also brought his father several reports of Simeon and Levi getting drunk and brawling with the men of neighboring towns.
But the most serious instance of his talebearing concerned big Reuben, the firstborn. One afternoon when Joseph was fourteen—it was a mild March day; the meadows were ablaze with poppies, anemones, mustard, iris, lupine—he was walking past the women's tents when he heard the sound of moaning from the tent of Bilhah, his dead mother's slave. He hesitated, but then he couldn't help coming closer and peeping in through the tent's front flap. Bilhah was lying there, naked, in Reuben's embrace. Joseph gasped. It was as if Reuben had taken his father's dignity and smeared it with feces. How could he have dared to do such a thing? Bilhah was his father's concubine; it was, symbolically, like sleeping with his own mother. Had he forced her? Had she given her consent? Both options were unthinkable. Joseph ran to Jacob's tent frightened, enraged, weeping with shame for his father, compelled to report what he had just, horribly, seen.
IN THE GREATER SCHEME OF THINGS
"The words of a talebearer are like wounds," says the Book of Proverbs.
The brothers were deeply offended by Joseph's tattling. They resented him not only as their father's darling, but also as his spy. Joseph's very presence made them feel uncomfortable. It felt like a judgment, an attack. When they saw him approaching on his nasty little missions, they hardened their hearts and drew back into themselves. Their usual mode of speech to him was sarcasm, though when their father was present they mustered enough self-control to act with civility. Joseph, for his part, was oblivious of his brothers' resentment. He interpreted their sarcasm as churlishness and ill-temper, and he couldn't imagine that it had anything to do with him.
At what point does innocence turn into willful blindness, trust into naïveté, appropriate self-esteem into narcissism? But if Joseph hadn't been so obtuse, he would never have been able to arouse his brothers' hatred, and thus he would never be sold into Egypt, and thus the whole family would die of starvation in the coming famine. So in the greater scheme of things, his failure of empathy was everyone's salvation. And his moral flaws—the arrogance and insensitivity that resulted in such apparent mistakes as talebearing and flaunting his father's preference—were really blessings, woven into a deeper texture of reality. The very notion of mistakes is questionable here; later on, our storyteller shows that he sees it as self-centered short-term thinking. What seems to be a mistake in our lives may actually be a step forward that leads to the Great Way, though we had no way of recognizing that at the time.
THE COAT OF MANY COLORS
When Joseph was seventeen, his father bought him a coat of many colors. It was the pièce de résistance of a Midianite caravan headed southwest. Jacob spent a whole morning bargaining for it, and in the end, he had to pay through the nose, so brightly had desire glittered from his eyes. The coat had been woven of the finest wool, dyed scarlet, crimson, maroon, yellow, green, royal blue, turquoise, and Tyrian purple. Its collar and the ends of its sleeves were threaded with gold and silver, and on its front was embroidered a scene of the earthly paradise: at the top shone the sun, moon, and stars, and underneath them was a garden of brilliant flowers, in the middle of which, on either side of the Tree of Life, two curlicue-bearded angels, with large furled eagle's wings, stood facing each other. Both were grinning, as if Yahweh had just told them an excellent joke.
What had Jacob been thinking when he bought this coat? Certainly not about the consequences, and in that blindness he resembled his favorite son. He saw only what he wanted to see: an occasion for lavishing his affection on Joseph by expressing it in the most material of ways, like a rich man who buys a diamond ring for his young mistress while skimping with his wife and children. There was a desperate, an almost demented quality to his passion for Joseph; you might even say that it was a form of idol worship. But the genius of the unconscious mind, which functions as a mode of providence, was clearly at work here. It is Jacob's very unwisdom that forces the plot of our story to its tipping point.
This excerpt is from the paperback edition.