Fortunately Unfortunately

Genesis 41:1-44:17

By Lore Segal

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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Joseph dreams and interprets dreams that are understood to be communications from God. They foretell God’s intention and move God’s narrative forward. If we want to look for human motive, we had better do it in the form of suppositions: Was it innocence, was it a phenomenal lack of tact, or was it testosterone that made young Joseph communicate his dreams to the family: Mother, father, brothers, you are, all of you, destined to bow down to me?

Joseph’s father “kept these things in his mind.” What do we suppose Jacob to have been thinking? Jacob was a father who had to have his favorite. He had already distinguished Joseph from his brothers with the coat of many colors; in the time of famine to come, he would keep Benjamin at home while he sent the brothers on the dangerous mission to fetch lifesaving provisions from the Egyptian storehouse. The brothers, too, kept these things — that coat and their obnoxious brother’s dreams of glory — in their minds. Nothing surprising about fraternal irritations. Observe the little boys in your family. What urges them to want to lord it one over the other? They won’t sell each other into Egyptian bondage, but one imagines them dreaming it.

This reminds me of a children’s book called “Fortunately Unfortunately.” (Unfortunately I fall out of an airplane, fortunately I land on a haystack, unfortunately there’s a pitchfork sticking out….) Joseph, sold so unfortunately into Egypt, fortunately finds favor with his master and, unfortunately, also with his master’s wife….

Aristotle pointed out the pleasures of mimesis. We like recognizing ourselves and our world in the drama. In interpreting the parallel dreams of Pharaoh’s two imprisoned servants, Joseph foretells the cup bearer’s return to royal favor. The inertia of the baker’s — and the reader’s — imagination finds itself pleasantly balked when Joseph foretells the baker’s hanging. That’s right! That’s just the kind of thing life does. And we recognize memory’s egotism: It’s not till Pharaoh’s magicians are unable to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams that the pardoned cup bearer claps his hand to his temple and remembers with that little shock of regret that he quite forgot what he promised Joseph.

And now Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s two dreams. They reinforce each other in the prophecy of what God will do. There will be seven fortunate years of plenty, whose benefits will unfortunately be totally wiped out by the subsequent seven years of dearth. Joseph, appointed to the role of super administrator, takes what, in our day, would be the vote-losing long view. Today’s Joseph would spoil the fun of our good times in order to save the future from calamity. He would have shored up the Louisiana levies, would do what it takes to supply the flu shots against a pandemic to come, and enforce radio communication between firefighters and police in time for the next terror. True, Pharaoh gave Joseph absolute power: “Without thee shall no man lift up his hand or foot in all the land.” Joseph did not have to bully his way through democratic procedures and legalities.

The ancient famine spread throughout the region. Jacob had to send the brothers into Egypt, where they bowed down; the brothers fell on their faces before Joseph, a boy’s dream come true.

And there is yet another kind of dream. The Joseph cycle is the storyteller’s and the reader’s daydream — the Diaspora dream of being smarter and better than those in whose lands we live. Except for the cousins back in Haran, Abraham’s people are everywhere foreigners. In Canaan they have to buy the bit of land to bury their dead in and to argue for their sources of water. Every time they venture into Egypt, they are frightened for their wives and their lives. Even in peaceful times of good will toward them, foreigners know that power can turn on them without notice. While Israel dreams its dream of a promised land of its own, it comforts itself in the belief that none of these Egyptians, none of their wisest men, no, not a single one of their magicians, is able to interpret dreams, a thing that’s so easy for our own Joseph, whom God loves.

Everybody loves Joseph — his fellow prisoners, the warden, the Pharaoh. Joseph wears Pharaoh’s ring, rides immediately behind the royal coach, arrayed in vestures of fine linen, and marries a classy Egyptian wife, but all this time Joseph remains a foreigner. Joseph eats alone at table, for to eat with him is anathema to the Egyptians. He lives day in, day out in the foreign language behind which he disguises his identity from his brothers. Can we imagine Joseph’s bliss when he relaxes into his own tongue and says, I am Joseph! And does my father still live? He has asked this before, has been answered before. Now he speaks his own name and the word “father” in his true tongue.

Joseph will tell the terrified brothers that it was all God’s plan from the first. Everything has happened fortunately in order to give Joseph the power to bring the family of Israel out of famine into the plenty of Egypt. Unfortunately, of course, a couple of generations later, power does indeed turn on them and presses them into four centuries of slavery. Fortunately, the dream comes true at last. Israel has become a people and inherits that land of its own in which, unfortunately, there lives another people that persists in dreaming its dream of a land of its own.

Lore Segal is a novelist, translator and essayist. Her latest children’s book is “More Mole Stories and Little Gopher, Too” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

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