Prophet Joseph — episodes three and four

Prophet Joseph — episodes three and four April 26, 2016

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Synopsis. Jacob and his son Joseph are sitting outside the tent where Rachel has died giving birth to Benjamin, and they are mourning the death of their wife and mother when Jacob’s sister Faegheh arrives. After burying Rachel, the clan proceeds to the town where Abraham and Isaac are buried, and Jacob pays a visit to his ancestors’ graves. Joseph’s brothers — and Jacob’s surviving wife and concubines — begin to murmur jealously that Jacob favours Joseph above all the other children, so Faegheh, who is childless, offers to raise Joseph herself. But then one day Joseph goes missing while he and the other children are playing a game of hide-and-seek.

As the fourth episode begins, Joseph is still missing, but he is soon found hiding inside an oven. Jacob, concerned that Faegheh isn’t looking after Joseph properly, insists that Joseph live with him and Leah again — so Faegheh conspires to trick Jacob into letting Joseph stay with her: she accuses Joseph of stealing a belt from her that had belonged to Isaac, and because Canaanite law says thieves must serve their victims for four years, Jacob has to let Joseph live with her. Soon afterward, Joseph has his first prophetic dream, and Jacob worries that it will make the other brothers even more jealous. The episode ends a few years later with the death and burial of Faegheh, who confesses on her deathbed that Joseph did not, in fact, steal Isaac’s belt.

Differences from Genesis. The biggest difference between the Jewish and Muslim traditions here is that Genesis gives Jacob a twin brother, Esau, with whom Jacob needed to be reconciled, whereas Muslim tradition gives him a sister instead (who I believe is not named in the tradition, though she has a name in the film).

This difference serves to protect or enhance Jacob’s reputation in at least two ways.

First, as I noted last week, this series paints a positive, pious portrait of Jacob as one of the great Muslim prophets — he is repeatedly addressed by his neighbours and even his own family members as “the messenger of God” — so the series has none of those bits in Genesis where Jacob acts deceptively or tricks people into giving him what he wants. Thus, there is no trace in this film of the rivalry between Jacob and Esau — no trace of Jacob tricking their father into blessing him rather than his twin brother — and the easiest way to erase that rivalry is apparently to erase Esau altogether.

Second, because Joseph is raised by Jacob’s sister rather than by Jacob himself, all the favoritism that Jacob bestows on Joseph in the biblical story is now bestowed on Joseph by someone else — and by someone who, because she is childless, can’t really be blamed for doting on the boy. A few films based on the biblical tradition have suggested that Jacob was partly responsible for the jealousy within his clan because he treated Joseph better than the rest; but in this film, based on the Muslim tradition, Jacob wants to avoid any friction, so he regularly cautions Joseph to keep his thoughts to himself, and he tells Faegheh not to praise Joseph so openly, etc., etc.1

In addition to eliminating the Esau subplot, the series omits a few other bits from the Genesis version of Jacob’s journey home: Jacob does not wrestle with an angel, and his daughter Dinah (who is still quite young in this series) is not raped by a Canaanite prince, and his sons do not slaughter the men of that prince’s town in revenge, and Jacob’s firstborn son Reuben does not sleep with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah.

Interestingly, Genesis says Rachel wanted to name her second son Ben-Oni, meaning “son of my trouble,” and Jacob gave him the name Benjamin, meaning “son of my right hand,” instead — but in the series, it is Leah who declares that the boy should be called a “child of misery,” because the boy is responsible for her sister’s death.

Pious Joseph. These are the first episodes that give us a good look at the character of Joseph himself, who is five years old when the third episode begins and about nine when the fourth episode ends. Faegheh repeatedly extols the boy’s innocence and his ability to ask deep questions about God and Heaven, and Jacob tells Faegheh she needs to take better care of Joseph because he is not an ordinary child. (He also says, when Joseph goes missing during the hide-and-seek game, that Joseph is so clever he would have figured out a way to avoid being found.) While some films have made the point that Joseph was himself partly to blame for his brothers’ jealousy, the Joseph of this film says repeatedly that he doesn’t want his brothers to be upset, and he asks his aunt Faegheh to tell his father to stop being so kind to him. It is not clear whether Joseph is a willing participant in Faegheh’s deception when she accuses him of stealing Isaac’s belt, but Faegheh makes it very clear on her deathbed that Joseph was never a thief — and so his reputation is allowed to go untarnished once more.2

Believably human. The children play games that pretty much any child watching this series would recognize, regardless of cultural background: hide-and-seek, running in circles and tagging each other, etc. All very relatable, as the kids say these days.

Family dynamics. According to Wikipedia, this series is controversial in its native Iran because some have accused it of promoting polygamy. I have to say, I don’t get that vibe here. Jacob’s concubines Bilhah and Zilpah were jealous of Rachel in the first two episodes, and now that she’s dead, they are actively encouraging their sons to be jealous of Rachel’s children — which doesn’t exactly make polygamous family life look ideal or anything like that. (Has any other film about Joseph given Jacob’s surviving wife and/or concubines such an active role in stoking the brothers’ jealousy?)3

Leah, interestingly, seems to resent Benjamin’s existence at first, simply because his birth led to the death of her sister, but she ends up obsessing over Rachel’s children so much (because she promised her sister she’d look after them) that she neglects her own — and she is offended when Faeghe offers to take the boys off of her hands.

Canaanites. In the book of Genesis, Abraham and his immediate descendants live among the Canaanites fairly peacefully but don’t have a very strong connection to them. In this series, on the other hand, the people of Canaan pledge their allegiance to Jacob because he is “the messenger”, and the son of Isaac the messenger. And then, later on, when Faegheh publicly accuses Joseph of stealing Isaac’s belt, Jacob is obliged to let her take the boy as her slave, because the Canaanites are watching and it would be unseemly for an upright prophet of God to ignore the traditions that govern such matters. This makes me curious about the traditions within Islam regarding the relationship between the Canaanites and the Israelites in, say, Joshua’s day.

Themes. Jacob preaches against jealousy, and says the jealous get rewards neither in this life nor the next. (Not surprisingly, his sons and spouses begin murmuring jealously among themselves about Joseph even as Jacob is preaching.)

Power vs Nobility. The older sons of Jacob continue to compete with one another and to make displays of their physical strength. In one scene they find a big rock on the ground and compete to see who can lift it. In another, Jacob watches as his sons beat to death a wolf that was about to attack their flock. The brothers assume that Jacob’s prophetic successor — the one who inherits the heirlooms that Jacob has inherited from Isaac — will be whichever one of them is the strongest, but Faegheh, correcting them, says it will be whichever son has the “strongest belief”.

Foreshadowing. When Joseph goes missing while playing hide-and-seek, Faegheh at one point looks into a well and yells Joseph’s name; this foreshadows how Joseph will eventually be thrown into a well by his brothers. And when Faegheh plants the belt on Joseph and accuses him of stealing it, this foreshadows how Joseph will one day plant a royal cup among Benjamin’s belongings when he comes to Egypt.

Visuals. The series so far has had a fairly objective visual aesthetic — for the most part, the camera captures what anyone would have seen if they had gone back in time and lived with these characters — but these episodes introduce a few subjective elements as well, including a visualization of Joseph’s dream (in which a CGI tree casts a shadow over Joseph’s brothers) and a scene in which one of Jacob’s sons visualizes himself, rather than Jacob, receiving the Canaanites’ pledge of allegiance. This latter element is meant to symbolize how Jacob’s sons covet the prophetic role that currently belongs to Jacob and will eventually be passed on to Joseph.

Theological issues. Last week I wondered if the series would address why Rachel was spared miraculously when she gave birth to Joseph but not when she gave birth to Benjamin. In the end, the series doesn’t. Instead, Jacob says things like, “Life and death are in God’s hands. And we are surrendered to God’s will,” and there is a lot of talk about praying for the “patience” to accept God’s will. But the characters here don’t seem to raise a lot of questions. Instead, there are people who follow the truth and people who don’t, but not the sort of bargaining with God that one finds in the Genesis stories about Abraham, let alone the aggrieved complaints that Job makes.

The series does feature a scene in which Joseph says his father told him that God takes the people he loves more — but this explanation for Rachel’s death is never juxtaposed with the miracle that saved her before. This explanation also reflects how the series (and the Muslim tradition as a whole) makes certain characters seem holier than they do in the Bible. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is sometimes held that Rachel died as a form of divine punishment, because she stole her father’s household gods and Jacob himself proclaimed death for whoever might have them. But in this series, the theft never happens, so there is never any reason for Rachel to be punished.

Finally, at Faegheh’s funeral, Jacob tells everyone to prepare their souls for Judgment Day the way his sister did — which is almost certainly anachronistic, as ideas about the afterlife were still in a very early stage of development during this period.

Episodes: 1-2 | 3-4 | 5-6 | 7-8 | 9-10 | 11-12 | 13-14 | 15-16 | 17-18 | 19-20 | 21-22 | 23-24 | 25-26 | 27-28 | 29-30 | 31-32 | 33-34 | 35-36 | 37-38 | 39-40 | 41-42 | 43-45

The subtitled version of these episodes starts at the 95-minute mark in this video…

…and concludes in the first 17 minutes of this video:

Here are the English-dubbed versions of these episodes:

1. Films that have depicted Jacob as partly responsible for the brothers’ jealousy include The Story of Jacob and Joseph (1974), in which Joseph protests that his brothers hate him because Jacob makes him report on their activities, and the animated Joseph, King of Dreams (2000), in which Joseph’s older brothers are initially eager to look after their little sibling until Jacob sets him apart.

2. The business with the belt does not come up in the sura on Joseph in the Koran, but as per Wikipedia it can be traced back at least as far as the writings of Muhammad Tabari, who lived AD 839-923.

3. If you want a rosy depiction of the relationship between Jacob and his wives, go see The Red Tent.

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