Today's Reading

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.

* Yahweh is a name for the "God" character, often translated into English as "the Lord."


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?

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