With each new wave of sordid and shocking allegations against Michael Jackson, the superstar’s child molestation trial seems increasingly like the final chapter in the most improbable and unprecedented celebrity tale of modern times. But the King of Pop actually has a literary antecedent — one who can be found in the Bible, of all places, dream walking through the final chapters of the Book of Genesis.
In many ways, both significant and superficial, Jackson resembles the biblical character of Joseph, interpreter of dreams, viceroy of Egypt and favorite son of the Israelite patriarch Jacob.
Like Jackson, who first achieved fame as the youngest and most talented member of The Jackson 5, Joseph was imbued with natural gifts that allowed him to tower over his older brothers. In both cases the golden child’s superiority was marked by the acquisition of a jacket. Jackson took to wearing his trademark red coat after the release of “Thriller,” the record-smashing 1982 solo album that propelled the performer into a stratosphere of superstardom beyond the reach of his siblings. Joseph’s father gave him a multi-colored tunic, underscoring his elevated status as Jacob’s favorite son and chosen successor.
And both fought famine in Africa. Jackson used his superstar power to line up dozens of celebrities to record the hit song “We Are the World,” a successful effort to raise millions of dollars to fight hunger. Joseph used his dream-reading power to warn Pharaoh of an impending famine, successfully fending off starvation in Egypt.
Despite their respective good works, both Jackson and Joseph were plagued by a rising insecurity over their personal appearance. For both men, physical change became a vehicle for assimilating into the wider culture.
Jackson and his brothers hit it big after signing with Motown, the country’s dominant black record label during much of the 1960s and ’70s. Jackson now appears in public with white skin, his African-American facial features transformed through repeated plastic surgeries into cartoon versions of Caucasian characteristics. As for Joseph, he was the emerging leader of the nascent Israelite nation before being sold into slavery by his jealous brothers in Canaan. But upon becoming Pharaoh’s right-hand man, Joseph assumed the trappings of an Egyptian — to the point where his siblings could not recognize him after years of separation.
Even Jackson’s current predicament — standing trial for allegations of sexual abuse — reads like a plotline adapted from Genesis. Joseph, before ascending to the highest circles of Egyptian power, spent years in prison after being falsely accused of making advances toward the wife of his first master, Potiphar.
A final parallel between the two stories emerged in recent weeks, when prosecution witnesses in Jackson’s trial claimed that the singer plied his alleged victim with alcohol to lower his defenses and inhibitions. In the biblical narrative, Joseph used a royal goblet — a symbol for drink — to test whether his brothers had shed destructive sibling rivalries and their hatred of him. Joseph framed Benjamin, the youngest son in the family and Joseph’s only full brother, by clandestinely placing the goblet into his bag and then having him arrested.
The ostensible goal of the ruse was to see whether the same half-brothers who sold Joseph into slavery would, decades later, step forward to save Benjamin. Yet the reader also can detect a longing on Joseph’s part to reconnect to his lost youth, a faint echo of Jackson’s pathological desire to create a virtual childhood at his Neverland Valley Ranch.
But for all the parallels, the most important lessons emerge from the differences in the two stories.
Jackson has seemed often to be riding the ultimate roller coaster of fame without a spiritual center to anchor him. Over the years, he conducted a highly public serial religious search that has included flirtations with self-described paranormalist Uri Geller, Orthodox rabbi and “Kosher Sex” author Shmuley Boteach, members of the Nation of Islam and, now, the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
In contrast, Joseph maintained his faith in the God of his forefathers. As a result, the ancient and medieval rabbinic tradition generally insists, Joseph never actually succumbed to the worst of the spiritual and sexual temptations that he faced as an Israelite climbing the ladder of Egyptian power. He never lost an understanding of his ultimate place in the universe.
Spared the ravages of seven years of famine, Egyptians might have viewed Joseph as a God-like figure, but he always made clear that he had been divinely blessed with the ability to interpret dreams. Jackson, on the other hand, has spent years cultivating an image as a celebrity who can make dreams come true.
The distinction is a vital one that serves as a harsh condemnation of our celebrity culture. It also helps to explain how one favorite son worked his way out of jail to become the viceroy of Egypt, while another was anointed the King of Pop only to find himself facing a possible trip to the slammer.