- Stories of Joseph: Narrative Migrations between Judaism and Islam
A century ago, the Bollandist monk Hippolyte Delehaye wrote Les Légendes hagiographiques and put the study of spiritual biography on a firm scholarly footing. He noted that the legends of the saints were not history or even biography in any modern sense. Rather, Father Delehaye argued, such stories were religious didactic literature. He defined these legends as fictional narratives told about historic persons. Through their "lives" they provided examples of pious behavior for the faithful to emulate.
Joseph, son of the Old Testament patriarch Jacob, was one of those saints of yore about whom legends were spun for millennia, into the modern era. Although this biblical character is not found on the calendar of Christian saints, he holds a precious place in the sacred literatures of Jews and Muslims. There he is referred to as Joseph the Righteous and even as a prophet. The long, intertwined, literary history of these Joseph legends in Judaism and Islam, from the Bible through the nineteenth and even twentieth century, is the subject of Marc S. Bernstein's study.
The earliest legends of Joseph were recorded more than three millennia ago, in the book of Genesis. His story covers one-fourth of the chapters of that first biblical book. Modern scholars detect two separate strands in the biblical Joseph narrative. A still visible seam in the weaving of the legends is discernable in Genesis 37:27–28, where both Ishmaelites and Midianites appear to buy Joseph from the pit where his brothers had cast him. The two sources that feed the biblical narrative may also account for not one, but two dreams of mastery (sheaves vs. heavenly bodies bowing to him) which Joseph foolishly and fatefully recounts to his family.
Even before the canonization of Scripture was complete, new retellings of the story of Joseph abounded. These may be found in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. In the early centuries of the Common Era (CE), Aramaic translations of Genesis helped spread the story and, as with all translation, subtly commented upon it. By the fifth through eighth centuries CE, rabbinic exegesis of Genesis adumbrated Joseph's erstwhile biography further. [End Page 295] Every place there was a gap in the biblical narrative the rabbis imaginatively filled it in, adding details to Joseph's life that shifted him from the spoiled and un-self-aware pretty boy of the Bible, to a rabbinic exemplar, Joseph the Righteous.
Bernstein charts this and more as he seeks to explore what he calls "narrative migrations between Judaism and Islam." He omits the Christian materials on Joseph found in the sermons and commentaries of the Church Fathers from the second through sixth centuries. But Bernstein extensively explores Joseph's honored place in Islam. Beginning with "the finest of tales" (Quran 12:3), Bernstein cites Quranic commentaries and Islamic traditions about Yusuf. While the book does not cover every Islamic or rabbinic tradition on Joseph, it does a reasonably credible job of covering the vast territory made up of the innumerable retellings of the legend of Joseph the Righteous.
Common among these expansive narratives is the same gap-filling phenomenon found in the earliest rabbinic commentaries. Anonymous figures in the tale are given names, character, even story-lines. Thus the temptress, who in the Bible is merely called "the wife of Potiphar," is named Zulaykha in Muslim (and later Jewish) sources. Delightful tales are spun about her obsessive passion for the boy and her sterile marriage to her husband. Stern moralizing yields a picture of Joseph dedicated to God and therefore impervious to her blandishments. Bernstein traces four major narrative motifs in the literatures: tales introducing Joseph, his dysfunctional relationship with his family, his resistance to Zulaykha, and the nature of these legends as symbolic of Jewish Diaspora mentality. In limiting his selections, Bernstein overlooks other equally strong strands of the Joseph cycle, most notably the story of Joseph's marriage to Asenath, a favorite Hellenistic romance-tale of...