In his four Joseph novels, Thomas Mann explores the roots of Western civilization by elaborating on the stories of Abraham’s descendants, which are recorded in the last half of the book of Genesis. The first novel in the tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, explains how Joseph’s ancestors developed and bequeathed to him a profound desire to serve only the Highest, the One, the Living God. In obedience to his God, Abraham had nearly sacrificed his son Isaac before God told him to put a ram on the altar instead. When Isaac, old and almost blind, bestows the divine blessing, he is tricked into giving it to Jacob, his smooth son, rather than Esau, the hairy one, after their mother dresses her favorite in goatskins.
Jacob leaves home to herd sheep for Laban, with whose lovely daughter Rachel he soon falls deeply in love. For seven years he labors for the right to marry her. Then, on the wedding night, Laban pulls a trick by sending his older daughter Leah to Jacob’s bed instead. Before daylight reveals the substitution, they have consummated the nuptials nine times, conceiving a son, Reuben. Leah bears Jacob several more children before Jacob’s subsequent union with Rachel produces Joseph and later Benjamin, whose birth proves fatal to Rachel.
One of Jacob’s tales concerns his famous dream of a stairway to Heaven, where he wrestles from an angel a blessing that his numerous posterity will be called Israel after him. By two wives and two concubines he begets twelve sons, whose descendants form the tribes of Israel. He also has a daughter, Dinah, who is wooed and kidnapped by and then married to the Prince of Shechem. Her brothers devise a gruesome revenge. In negotiations with her abductor, they secure a promise that Shechemites will adopt certain Hebrew customs, including circumcision. Then, while all the men of Shechem are recovering from their wounds, Joseph’s brothers fall upon the city and massacre them. The shepherd king is horrified by his sons’ violence, especially the excesses of Simeon and Levi.
In the second novel, The Young Joseph, Joseph’s brothers turn on him. More beautiful, imaginative, and virtuous than they, Joseph faces problems with self-absorption and the envy of others. His brothers’ resentment is exacerbated by Jacob’s favoritism, particularly evidenced by his giving to Joseph the coat of many colors, an elaborately embroidered garment worn by Leah on her wedding night. Joseph further chafes them by reporting his dreams of angels, heavenly bodies, and sheaves of wheat bowing down to him. In chagrin, the brothers withdraw from Jacob’s tents and pitch camp a few miles away, until Jacob sends Joseph to retrieve them. When he arrives, they beat him and dump him into a pit. Reuben saves his life by deflecting the brothers’ blows and later returns in secret to pull him out of the pit. He finds it empty: Joseph has been rescued by...
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