Friday, December 19, 2008

The Trail of Joseph

I had an idea once for a play about the brothers of Joseph discussing his fate, holding a “trial.” It would be Twelve Angry Men meets the Bible. Taking a leaf from rabbinic literature I do not view the brothers as simply hateful jealous people. On the contrary they are decent rational individuals and I take their side, at least up to a point.

The play would be in two acts. The first act would center on the brothers expecting Joseph’s arrival and finding themselves contemplating what to do about what they all agree is a real menace. This conversation takes the frightful turn toward murder as the brothers find themselves faced with the indisputable logic that if all they believe about Joseph is true than killing him because something reasonable and maybe the only reasonable thing. The act would end with the capture of Joseph and Reuben’s stop gap measure to have him simply thrown into a pit. The second act would be the brothers continuing their debate, which has now moved from simple theory to the real practical world and they are going to have to make a decision. The end being that Judah proposes that they sell Joseph into slavery in Egypt and trick their father Jacob into thinking he was eaten by a wild animal.

While the figure of Joseph looms over the play, he would hardly, if at all, be physically on stage and would not be the main character. Joseph simply is the big other out there that the characters on set, the brothers, are faced with; the one thing that unites them and makes them a community is that they are all in opposition to Joseph. The main characters of the play would be Reuben, Simon, Levi and Judah. They represent different power structures and different religious visions that come into conflict.

Reuben is the establishment figure. He is the eldest and naturally expects to be the leader. And why not: he is a decent person, who no one has any real cause to dislike. The problem is that he has no real plan beyond the status quo. As the situation with Joseph will make painfully obvious to everyone, he is incapable of offering a vision to follow or of solving the practical problem they are faced with. This puts his position at risk as others see him as vulnerable and begin to contemplate other solutions, particularly as represented by Simon and Levi and Judah.

Simon and Levi mark the second major position. They are allied in their opposition to Reuben and are the ones pushing for Joseph to be killed. While they are very different characters, they represent two sides of the same coin. Simon is a man of action. He is physically very imposing. Though he is not an intellectual, and often appears to his brothers to be rather crude, he is a lot more aware than he lets on. The brains and, maybe more importantly, the mouth in this alliance is Levi. He is an imposing intellectual force with a golden tongue that none of the other brothers can match. His world is undergirded by a firmly held belief that they are the chosen ones to build the Kingdom of God. Considering the cosmic importance of the task, anything or anyone that becomes an obstacle most be eliminated. To falter or show mercy is to demonstrate a lack of faith and commit an act of heresy. Despite Levi’s seemingly rigid worldview, he is willing to make some accommodations to practicality. For example in order to remove his least favorite person, Joseph, Levi will gladly deal with his second least favorite person, Judah.

Judah is the most worldly of the brothers. Levi might accuse him of abandoning the faith for his willingness to work with Canaanite merchants, but Judah sees himself as simply pursuing Abraham’s religious vision to its logical conclusion. This may all seem to be a power struggle between Reuben and Levi with Reuben being completely outmatched. Levi may think that he is simply getting Judah’s help to eliminate Joseph and take power from Reuben, but Judah knows better. In the end it will be shown that only he has what it takes to keep this family together.

I never got around to doing this project; maybe someday I will give it a shot.

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