- Joseph: Portraits through the Ages by Alan T. Levenson
The biblical story of Joseph, one of the gems of world literature, has been the subject of long and fascinating scholarly inquiry. Rabbis and other Jewish scholars have squeezed every letter and cantillation mark for interpretive clues and signposts. Christian commentators, working from Greek and Latin translations before the Renaissance and from Hebrew and modern languages ever since, as well as Muslims, who know the story from its retelling in the Qu'rān, have also contributed to this discussion, now in its third millennium. Lastly, modern scholars of literature and the ancient Near East have not been idle; books, commentaries, and articles on the Joseph story would fill many a shelf. This is an impressive body of work, one that can only be navigated through years of patient language study, wide reading, and indefatigable interest. Even the simplest survey of such a mass is beyond what most interested readers of biblical literature could seriously contemplate. Fortunately, there is now a guidebook that allows us a look at a few important paths through this literary labyrinth.
Alan T. Levenson, chair in Judaic history and director of the Schusterman Center for Judaic and Israel Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is the author of Joseph: Portraits through the Ages, almost too much of a good thing for those interested in the history of biblical interpretation. The original Joseph story, comprising most of the final thirteen chapters of Genesis, has long been recognized as a remarkable, weighty, and yet sometimes perplexing account of Joseph's trials and triumphs. He is no cardboard hero: the Hebrew account is nuanced and beautifully told but also challenging, perhaps not always intentionally so. The original author's use of Biblical Hebrew, the terse, economical, literary dialect of ancient Israel, is both provocative and enticing, inviting the reader to ponder each detail, a veritable feast for commentators. [End Page 438]
Levenson has set a place at the table for all interested readers, inviting all to listen in on significant questions in a conversation that has been going on for millennia. Before Levenson's book, the key to participation in this conversation was the hard-won ability to make one's way in Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, the fine print of the multivolume Rabbinic Bible, obscure tomes accessed only by a learned elite. Most Jewish readers have been on the outside looking in and all but a handful of non-Jews who have specialized in Hebraic studies scarcely know of their existence. Not only was a reading knowledge of the language hard to come by, but commentary Hebrew is a kind of code in itself, often difficult for fluent speakers of the modern language of Israel. The great contribution of Levenson's work is that, for this story at least, he offers the interested reader, even those with little or no Hebrew, a pleasant guided tour. I am reminded of the great private cars of nineteenth-century millionaires traveling on the newly opened railways of the American West. These cars conveyed their passengers in style but only where tracks had been laid down through the toil of thousands. The view was limited to what could be seen from their windows, but this was far more than they ever could have seen on their own. Readers who cannot navigate the complex terrain of rabbinic biblical scholarship might not be able to follow up on their own questions about the Joseph story, but Levenson's book still allows them to venture deeply into what might otherwise be terra incognita.
Over the past thousand years, learned rabbis have composed a host of biblical commentaries and treatises, usually available only to those with similar training. Levenson handles this difficult literature with an appealing enthusiasm. The reader is invited to listen in and ponder privately the views of scholars such as Rashi, Maimonides, Nachmanides, and many more, as well as anonymous, often legendary interpretations embedded in talmudic and haggadic literature. Levenson has also invited a good many moderns to...