There’s a lot in common between William Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, and John Steinbeck. All three lived in the twentieth century. All three were American citizens. All three wrote great works of literature. All three won Pulitzer Prizes. And, all three incorporated scriptural allusions into at least one major play or novel. Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! draws its title from the book of Samuel; Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth, from the book of Job; and Steinbeck’s East of Eden, from the book of Genesis. These are but three instances of many in which prominent authors, playwrights, philosophers and poets refer obliquely to the Bible in their own writings.
Actually, the authors of the Tanach played this game themselves. When we study the Bible from a bird’s eye view, we walk away with what seems to read as a single, forward-moving narrative. If we look carefully, though, we notice something fascinating: most of the chapters in our cannon contain cleverly concealed clues which, put together, point us to passages we’d never have thought to connect. Leaving aside the controversial Bible codes, there’s no question that the Bible has been “coded,” so to speak, with all sorts of intertextual parallels. It’s as if our text is having a conversation with itself.
Take this week’s Torah portion, for example. We’re about to begin the section of the Pentateuch which recounts the story of Joseph and his brothers–a story which, most people assume, ends with Jacob’s death and the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt. But that’s not all He wrote. Over a hundred chapters later we find another episode, seemingly unrelated, which reintroduces almost all of the significant motifs from the Joseph narrative. This is the story of Tamar’s rape. In a nutshell, the story goes like this:
Amnon, the son of King David, covets his sister Tamar. Following the advice of his friend, Yonadav, Amnon feigns sick and insists that Tamar attend upon him. Once he lures Tamar into his bedroom, Amnon overpowers her and forces her to sleep with him. Avshalom, Tamar’s brother, finds out what has happened. He invites all of the kings’ sons to join him in the countryside where he is shearing his sheep. It is here where Avshalom takes his revenge on Amnon, murdering him and fleeing from the country.
With that introduction, let’s focus on some of the uncanny parallels between the story of Joseph and the story of Tamar:
- Joseph and Tamar both wear “linen tunics” (commonly called “multicolored coats).”
- Jacob is “agitated” over Joseph’s dreams and David is “enraged” over Tamar’s rape–though both do nothing to rectify the situation.
- Joseph’s brothers “hate” Joseph and Avshalom “hates” Amnon.
- The hatred is so strong that Joseph’s brothers “could not speak peacefully to Joseph,” while Avshalom “did not speak to Amnon, neither meanly nor nicely.”
- Jacob originally tries to keep Joseph, and later Benjamin, away and protected from the rest of the brothers. David acts the same way with Amnon, refusing to let him attend Avshalom’s party along with the rest of his brothers.
- In the end, however, both Jacob and David give in.
- As a result, both Joseph and Amnon are drawn out to the site of their brothers’ shepherding, and it is here where they come to harm (Joseph is thrown into a pit, and later sold to slavery; Amnon is murdered).
- Both Joseph’s brothers and Avshalom plot to harm their brother upon his arrival, announcing these intentions out loud to those around them just moments before their brother arrives.
- Joseph is abducted in the presence of his brothers, just like Amnon is murdered in the presence of his. Both boys’ fathers, however, are conspicuously absent, for they are back at home
- Joseph pleads for mercy but his brothers “did not heed him,” just like Tamar pleads for mercy, and Amnon “did not elect to heed her cries.”
- Jacob mourns Joseph by “renting his garment” and “crying;” David, too, mourns Amnon by “renting his garment” and “crying.”
- Joseph’s brothers attempt to comfort Jacob for his loss, just like Yonadav attempts to comfort David.
- However, neither Jacob nor David are consoled by these efforts.
- Pharaoh frees Joseph from prison “after two years,” whereas Avshalom avenges Tamar “after two years.”
- Pharaoh calls Joseph “an understanding and intelligent man;” Yonadav, for his part, is described as a “very intelligent man” as well.
- In Egypt, Joseph invites his brothers to a meal at which he gets them drunk, just as Absalom invites his brothers to a meal in which he tries to get them drunk.
- Before revealing himself to his brothers, Joseph declares “remove all men from my presence.” Before attacking Tamar, Amnon delivers the same order using the exact same words: “remove all men from my presence.”
- Moreover, Joseph invites his brothers to “draw close” before he reveals himself, just like Amnon invites his sister to “draw close” before revealing his own (sordid) intentions.
- At the end of the respective stories, Joseph’s brothers and Amnon’s brothers each “weep” together.
- In the aftermath of the Tamar story, Absalom tries to usurp his father and claim the throne for himself. Of course, this reflects the beginning of the Joseph story, at which time Joseph had dreamed that his father would “bow down to him.”
Without a doubt, the story of Tamar is intended to evoke the story of Joseph. But why?
In 2009, Judy Klitsner’s Subversive Sequels in the Bible won the National Jewish Book Award for “best scholarly work.” In her introduction, Klitsner – who spoke at Yeshiva University just this week – suggests a fascinating approach to understanding parallels such as these:
“As if aware of its own problematics, the Bible contains a lively interaction between its passages that allows for a widening of perspective and a sense of dynamic development throughout the canon. If certain gnawing theological or philosophical questions remain after studying one narrative, a later passage may revisit those questions, subjecting them to a complex process of inquiry, revision, and examination of alternative possibilities. I call these reworkings “subversive sequels.” Like all sequels, they continue and complete earlier stories. But they do so in ways that often undermine the very assumptions upon which the earlier stories were built, as well as the conclusions these stories have etched.”
Can we apply Klitsner’s idea to our texts?
Nobody acts the way they should in the Joseph story. Jacob picks favorites among his children; Joseph slanders his brothers and boasts that he is destined to rule over them; they, in turn envy Joseph and give him the silent treatment. When the brothers cast Joseph into a pit, and then sell him into slavery, the saga draws to the tragic ending which we as readers have been expecting.
Except, of course, that it doesn’t. Through a series of unbelievably fortunate events, Joseph becomes the viceroy of Egypt, rescues the world from famine, and ends up saving the lives of the very brothers who sought to take his. Indeed, Joseph observes: “Although you intended harm, God intended good.”
In literary terms, we call this type of “happy” ending a deus ex machina – Latin for “God coming out of the machine” (i.e. coming out of nowhere) to save the day. William Golding used this device in Lord of the Flies, as did Sophocles in Philoctetes. Yet with the possible exception of Walt Disney enthusiasts, most critics dislike the deus ex machina, finding it artificial and forced. As Aristotle puts it in his Poetics, “the solutions to a plot should come from the plot itself, and not from contrivance.”
What’s wrong with the Joseph story is that everything goes right. As readers, we are tempted to walk away from this text believing that we can treat each other however we please, since God will always be there to clean up our messes. In fact, R. Akiva Tatz points out, some even cite this text as a proof that nobody can harm anybody else unless heaven accedes in the scheme. To think this way is to deny that we are responsible for our actions, convincing ourselves instead that whoever we have hurt must have “had it coming” anyways.
That’s why we needed a sequel to the Joseph story – a sequel which, like the story of Tamar, is far more realistic and far less perfect. It’s also why the chapter which recounts Tamar’s story is the only chapter in all of II Samuel in which the name of God does not appear even once. Sometimes, God isn’t standing right there behind us, isn’t holding us by the hand every step of the way. The very same actions taken by Joseph and his brothers, repeated in a context in which God has chosen to give human beings the freedom to shape their own destinies, this time ends in disaster.
If God wants our successes to be ours then He must let our failures be ours, too. That means we often make mistakes – sometimes very big ones, which impact negatively on those around us. It also means we have the power and the responsibility to be the agents of good, and not only its conduits. Such is the lot of the human being, who has been designated not as God’s puppet, but His partner, in creation.