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Helpful Reading for the Season of Holy Amnesia

May 10, 2009 by Reader's Connection

The Beginning of Wisdom

Apologies in advance for recommending a book that I’ve already recommended. I’m in the midst of a difficult seven-week stretch, and I have needs.

Between Easter and Pentecost, my church does not include in its Sunday services any readings from what we call the Old Testament. This gives me the willies. Have we forgotten who we are? Has the church forgotten that it’s a Jewish sect? Waves of light-headedness & giddiness beset me. My singing voice has jumped a half-octave. I feel that I’m liable to levitate, and not in a good way.

To sustain myself, I’m once again reading Leon R. Kass’s The Beginning of Wisdom: Reading Genesis. I featured the book in a Staff Recommends column, three-some years ago, and here’s what I said:

Kass is a scientist who has written elsewhere about biology and bioethics. He was raised in a secular household, and waited almost forty years before commencing his deep involvement with Genesis. “The Bible, I freely acknowledge, is not a work of philosophy,” Kass tells us; but that doesn’t prevent his attempting, in these pages, to read about Adam and Eve and Noah “in the same spirit in which I read Plato’s Republic… indeed, any great book-seeking wisdom regarding human life lived well in relation to the whole.”

Genesis: A Living Conversation

That still applies, but truth be told, I hadn’t finished the book when I wrote that paragraph; and I’m now reading the last chapters, which examine the story of Joseph. 

I first encountered Kass while watching the Bill Moyers videos, Genesis: A Living Conversation. Kass was a participant in segments of that conversation, but reading these chapters makes me wish he had been included in the segment about Joseph, which was called “Exile.”

Let’s pick one of the most salacious elements in the Joseph saga, and imagine how Kass might have been able to help with the conversation about Potiphar’s wife. Do you remember that part of the story? Joseph’s jealous brothers have plotted to kill him, but have left him in a pit in the desert, instead. They have led their father Jacob to believe that Joseph has been killed by a wild beast. Joseph has been picked up and sold into slavery in Egypt. His master Potiphar, impressed by Joseph’s shrewdness and incredible good looks, has put Joseph “in charge over his house.” Enter Potiphar’s wife.


And it happened after these things that his master’s wife raised her eyes to Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” And he refused. Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis.

Potiphar’s wife persists, Joseph continues to deny her. Strange things happen, and Joseph ends up in jail.

Kass comments: According to the most common reading, very unfriendly to Potiphar’s wife, what we have here is an oversexed, lustful woman, the unsatisfied wife of Pharaoh’s chief steward (who may have been a eunuch), propositioning an innocent and beautiful boy, a servant in her house who cannot escape because he is owned by her husband and who must therefore do her sexual bidding.

The panelists on the Bill Moyers program adopted this view, more or less, and feminist scholar Phyllis Trible really smoked: Look, I just can’t take any more of this story. It’s misogynist. Outright misogynist. Where shall I start? . . . It’s clear from this conversation that very few people here are at the level of seeing the misogyny in the story.

But Leon Kass loves to turn the text around and look at it from different angles, incorporating the work of those who have turned the text in the past. Here he quotes the French rabbi Rashi (1040 – 1105) and the Romanian-born writer Maurice Samuel (1895 – 1972). To make sense of the Rashi quotation, you have to remember that Joseph’s father Jacob is at home in Canaan, grief-stricken because he believes that his precious son Joseph has been killed. Here are Kass and his quotations:

The Beginning of Wisdom But other commentators are not so quick to blame the woman. 
Rashi links the woman’s sexual advance to his interpretation of the remark about Joseph’s beauty:

As soon as he saw that he was ruler (in the house) he began to eat and drink and curl his hair. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him, “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair! I will let a bear loose against you!” Immediately his lord’s wife lifted up her eyes, etc.

Maurice Samuel, endorsing Thomas Mann’s interpretation of the woman and her behavior “after these things” insists that Potiphar’s wife

was no wanton and no nymphomaniac driven helplessly to snatch at every man within reach. She was a great lady. She was a dedicated person, even as her husband, the eunuch, was. Her passion for Joseph was not a sudden and furious flare-up of lust . . . It grew slowly, and it came into the open only “after these things.” . . . And long before it came into the open Joseph was aware of it, and went through the gesture of discouraging it.

On this reading, Potiphar’s wife, no longer capable of restraining herself, issues not so much an imperious command to a slave but a desperate plea to a man she has fallen madly in love with.

Kass then looks at Joseph’s behavior during this episode (“Joseph says things that make us suspect that there might have been something haughty, self-righteous and even provocative in his tone and manner”) and works that into his examination of Joseph’s character, and his questions about Joseph’s abilities as a leader. I may have picked the Joseph-fragment with the greatest soap-operatic interest, but I wanted to give an idea of how Kass moves through Genesis, trying to throw new light on what it has to tell us.

And thanks to Kass, I’m not feeling so lite, now.


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