Uncovering the story inside the Biblical narrative
The Bible is not written as a novel. Most narratives in the Bible go over the events needed to comprehend the message or information in bare-bones, rapid-fire succession. No fluff involved, no discussion of motives, internal conflict, or thought processes. The Joseph account in Genesis is unique in that it is one of the longest continuous narratives in the Bible, but even it gives very little in the way of discussing these storytelling necessities.
As I mentioned in my first post, it was important to me not to deviate from any point recorded in Genesis (the book of the Bible the story appears in). This became my biggest challenge – to come up with consistent character traits and motivations that would lead characters to take the recorded actions. I felt like an archaeologist, piecing together ancient clues that could lead me to a bigger, more complete picture of the story.
What I found was nothing short of some extraordinary opportunities for true character-based conflict and drama.
The Joseph story is many people’s favorite Bible story (and one of the most retold) for many reasons. But I’d bet most people would point to the rags-to-riches story or the fact that Joseph gets to play mind games with his unsuspecting brothers (who don’t recognize him) after he’s become the uber-rich second in command to the Pharaoh, if pressed to give an exact reason. And those are good reasons. That’s excellent drama. But digging through the events and actions to find the character moments that went alongside them led me to some incredibly raw realizations about the story of this man’s life. Realizations that made the story I had grown up with both richer and more heartwrenching.
Realizations such as:
Joseph was a smart guy. If you read the account, you see this immediately. He keeps getting put in charge of things – and people don’t put incapable people in charge of their stuff. Especially not incapable foreigners (remember, Joseph was sold into Egypt, a foreign country) during the Bronze Age, a time when cultural exchange could be very minimal.
One of the biggest “huh?” moments for me as I grew up with the story was the bit where Joseph tells his brothers he’s having dreams of greatness, where he will be in charge of all of them. Obviously, his much older (and dangerous, read Genesis 34) brothers, who already disliked him for being the favorite, hate this.
My question was then: “Why is the smart guy telling this to his brothers like an idiot?” Please note, in the narrative he does it twice, meaning it was not a slip of tongue. Seems like a pretty dumb thing to do.
I wracked my brain, trying to come up with the motivation behind the idiocy of the smart guy.
Then it came to me. What if he said those things to spite them?
Remember, the narrative records important actions. We know that his brothers were being jerks to him for years before it gets to this point. I’d say a fed-up seventeen-year-old, smart or not, would definitely tell his jerk brothers he was having prophetic dreams where he would be in charge of them, if push came to shove.
The story of Joseph that we’ve all heard for years paints him as this perfect guy. I’d say – not so.
Not by a long shot.
You may recall that Joseph ends up in an Egyptian prison for a time. You may also recall why. If you don’t:
His Egyptian master’s wife thought that he was pretty cute and things spiraled from there – to the point where she accused him of attempted rape as revenge for his repeated resistance to her demands that she sleep with him.
Now, being in prison for a false rape accusation is enough to mentally destroy any decent person. However:
Remember when I mentioned Genesis 34? It’s not a story you would have been told in Sunday school.
Joseph’s sister was raped when they were growing up. Some of his brothers took it upon themselves to murder every man in the town where she was raped. Then the brothers forced all the women and the children from the town to follow Joseph’s (nomadic) family around.
Imagine how those people treated Joseph’s sister, the young woman who would work beside them every day.
Would it be unjust of them to blame the victim?
Would it be a common human reaction?
Imagine his sister’s torment. Imagine being unjustly imprisoned for rape when your sister’s life had been destroyed by it.
These are challengingly horrible, raw concepts.
Joseph lived in Egypt for 22 years before he saw hide or hair of anyone from his family again.
When I started researching the Bronze Age, it became very clear that there was no way that Joseph and the Egyptians would speak the same language. This led to some very interesting storytelling opportunities throughout the novel.
Think of it this way:
Welcome to Egypt. No one understands you and you don’t understand anyone either.
Learn Egyptian fast!
You can only speak this foreign language for 22 years.
You can also only hear this foreign language for 22 years.
Whoops! 22 years have passed and your family is back.
Speak your original language now.
Good luck and have fun!
To top everything off in Joseph’s life, even after he got let out of prison and was made second-in-command and got everything that came with that sort of cushy job, there was one more curveball to be thrown at the poor guy.
Yes, you read right.
We get one verse on Joseph’s marriage. Genesis 41:45. “…and [Pharaoh] gave him as a wife Asenath, daughter of Potiphera priest of On.”
Phraraoh gave him. Not “Joseph eventually met a cute rich girl and they dated for a while and then got married.”
Nope. This, folks, has all the hallmarks of an arranged marriage. Pharaoh did this on purpose to legitimize his foreign second-in-command who didn’t follow the Egyptian religion.
I pity them both, but I have to say – put yourself in Asenath’s head for a minute:
Here’s your husband. Foreigner from a shepherding family from Nowheresville, Canaan. Former slave, former prisoner, and formerly accused of rape.
Lady and gentleman: Good luck.
I hope this gives everyone a taste of the opportunities to show raw moments of humanity in this story, and just how richly woven its textures are, if you look beyond the actions to find the motives behind them, and the ripple effects they cause amongst the characters. I’ll have individual posts coming up on these story topics and their connections to my historical research in the upcoming days and weeks, as while as other research and storytelling topics. I look forward to sharing this incredible story with you all!
See you soon!
(Do you have any questions you want me to answer? Topics you want me to cover? Comment below, and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook and Twitter @headdeskliz .)