Prophet Joseph — episodes five and six

Prophet Joseph — episodes five and six May 6, 2016


Synopsis. Jacob has a nightmare in which ten wolves chase Joseph to his death. He describes the dream to Leah, who passes it on to their family, and soon everyone assumes that the wolves are a metaphor for Joseph’s ten older brothers. Satan himself appears to the brothers, claiming to be a resident of one of the nearby villages, and describes a dream of his own that stokes their jealousy even more. A Canaanite accuses the older brothers of mistreating him, and Jacob admonishes his sons to live in harmony with the “Palestinians” who were living in Canaan before they were. Joseph dreams that the sun, moon and eleven stars will one day bow down to him, and Jacob tells him to keep this dream to himself. But Bilhah overhears them and tells Joseph’s brothers about the dream, and they agree that they should kill Joseph.

In the sixth episode, the brothers try to persuade Jacob to let Joseph tag along as they tend the flocks, and Jacob resists until Joseph himself says he wants to go with his brothers. Before they all leave home, Jacob gives Joseph a special robe that their ancestor Abraham received from Heaven and passed on to the prophets who came after him. Alas, once the brothers are far from home, they turn on Joseph and beat him up before letting him down into a well. Joseph, unconscious, rises from the water at the bottom of the well and has a vision of a man who heard about him from an ancient prophet and has been waiting 1,200 years to see him with his own eyes. As the brothers leave Joseph behind in the well, Levi, the one brother who prevented Judah from killing Joseph outright, promises to come back with food for Joseph.

Differences from Genesis. The biblical Joseph was 17 years old when his brothers turned against him, but the Joseph of this series is only ten or twelve years old.1

The biblical Jacob really did love Joseph more than all his other sons and didn’t try to hide it, but the Jacob of this series insists repeatedly that he loves all his children, and he cautions people not to behave in ways that would encourage the jealousy of others.

The biblical Jacob “rebuked” Joseph for describing the dream that prophesied the family would bow down to him, but the Jacob of this series kneels before Joseph upon hearing of the dream and assures Joseph the dream will come true one day.

The biblical Joseph snitched on his brothers and was sent by his father to check on them, but the Joseph of this series consciously avoids doing anything that might upset his brothers, and his father doesn’t want to let him out of his sight.

In the biblical story, it is Reuben who intervenes to prevent the brothers from killing Joseph outright, and it is Judah who suggests selling Joseph to the slave traders instead of killing him — but in the series, it is Judah who tries to kill Joseph with a knife, and it is Levi who prevents Judah from killing Joseph outright.2

The supernatural. Aside from the prophetic dreams — which are, of course, open to interpretation — there isn’t anything particularly supernatural about the biblical version of Joseph’s story. These episodes are full of the supernatural, however: Satan is a recurring presence; the robe that Jacob gives Joseph isn’t just decorative but is said to have come down from Heaven, and it automatically adjusts to fit whoever is wearing it; a small windstorm carries Joseph’s voice back home to his father when the brothers turn against him; the water in the well is fresh and not salty, apparently miraculously; and the sixth episode culminates in Joseph’s vision of a man who does not appear to be a prophet himself but passes on messages from those who are.

Satan. The ancient Hebrew understanding of the Devil evolved very slowly over the centuries, and in fact Satan is never even mentioned in the book of Genesis.3 The Koran, however, was written after Jewish and Christian ideas about Satan had become quite developed, so it is much more explicit about the role that Satan played behind the scenes during familiar Old Testament stories such as this one — and so, in the 100th verse of sura 12 (i.e. the sura that tells the story of Joseph), Joseph states that “Satan had incited ill feeling between me and my brothers,” and in the fifth episode of this series, the role of Satan is depicted quite literally and explicitly: he appears as a shadow on the wall, as a stranger who stokes the brothers’ jealousy and then vanishes, and finally as a face that appears in a flame while the brothers plot to kill Joseph.

Jacob also has a few lessons to impart about Satan. After he has his nightmare about the wolves, he points to his sons, who are still asleep, and calls them “the servants who follow the Satan and deceive each other!” And when Joseph wonders how it is possible that the sons of Jacob — one of God’s “messengers” — could plot against him, Jacob tells Joseph not to underestimate Satan’s power. (Despite these premonitions, Joseph still wants to leave home with his brothers, and Jacob still lets him go with them.)

Pious Joseph. Jacob and Joseph continue to seem holier in this series than they do in the book of Genesis. Jacob is not offended by Joseph’s dream, but kneels before Joseph and submits to the dream as soon as he hears about it — and Joseph, far from letting these dreams go to his head, tries to avoid causing offense to his brothers. When his brothers finally turn against him, Joseph tells Levi not to tell their father what happened, lest their father curse the brothers and damn them forever — and he also uses the occasion to do a little preaching, for lack of a better word; e.g., recalling how he enjoyed his brothers’ kindness as they were leaving home, he declares, “Poor is the man who turns to others rather than God!” Joseph also makes a quasi-prophetic statement about the way the Israelites will treat other prophets in the future.

I do wonder if Jacob commits a small sin here, though. When the brothers say they heard about the dream with the ten wolves, Jacob demurs and says he didn’t count the wolves — but we did see him tell Leah that there were ten wolves in the dream. This might be a translation issue, but assuming it isn’t: did Jacob just lie to his sons?

Believably human. It’s a genuinely shocking moment when Judah pulls Joseph off his horse and throws him to the ground, and Joseph looks up and realizes that he has been betrayed. It’s also genuinely disturbing to see these men beat him up.

Family dynamics. I like the way Jacob and his family keep going back to the final resting places of their loved ones. We learn that Jacob prays once a week in the cave where his ancestors are buried, and in one scene Jacob takes Joseph and Benjamin to visit their mother’s grave (and to tell Rachel that their son is a prophet).

Leah continues to remain faithful to her husband Jacob and to her late sister Rachel, while the concubine Bilhah (who was once Rachel’s servant) continues to stir up trouble in the family. When Jacob learns that Bilhah has been going out of her way to make Joseph’s brothers jealous, he threatens to send her back to her family.

Interestingly, one of the arguments Judah makes in favour of Jacob letting Joseph go with his brothers is that their neighbours have been gossiping that the sons of Jacob aren’t trusted by their dad. So Jacob — who really doesn’t trust his sons! — feels obliged to let Joseph go with the brothers, to earn the brothers’ trust.

Canaanites. The idea that the Canaanites were “Palestinians” is an anachronism on multiple levels. For one thing, the word “Palestine” is derived from the Philistines who arrived in Canaan centuries after Jacob’s lifetime. (The Philistines basically invaded Canaan from the Mediterranean around the same time the Israelites under Joshua invaded Canaan from the Jordan River.) Also, Jacob says the “Palestinians” were living in Canaan centuries before Abraham, but modern-day Palestinians are typically identified as Arabs and thus, traditionally, as descendants of Abraham himself.

Jacob tells his sons that they and the Canaanites “should be friends with each other”, but the weight of the series’ criticism seems directed at the Israelites (and thus, by extension, at modern-day Israelis and perhaps even Jews as a whole). Not only does Jacob admonish his children for failing to recognize that the “Palestinians” are the “real owners” of Canaan, but when Joseph says future Israelites will treat the prophets the way Joseph’s brothers are treating him, Levi replies, “May God curse us! May God curse ruthless people!” There may or may not be an element of anti-Semitism here, similar to what we see in other Iranian Bible films like Jesus, the Spirit of God.

Geography. The brothers say they are tossing Joseph into a well where a trading caravan from the Hejaz will pass by, presumably on its way to Egypt. This is problematic, because the Hejaz and Egypt are both south of Canaan, on opposite sides of the Red Sea, whereas both biblical and Muslim tradition place the betrayal of Joseph somewhere in the north, either in or near the Galilee region.

Timeline issues. The man who appears to Joseph claims to have been waiting to see him for 1,200 years, and to have heard the words of many prophets who came and went in that time — but at least some of these prophets, such as Jonah, actually lived many years after Joseph. Does the man in the vision transcend time and see the future as well as the past? It’s worth noting that he does not refer to Mohammed by name here but simply refers to “the last prophet” as someone who is still to come.

Visuals. Joseph’s dream with the sun, moon and stars ushering him to his throne is easily the most elaborate special-effects sequence in the series so far.

Theological issues. When the other brothers resist the idea of killing Joseph — because, y’know, it’s a sin to kill — Judah tells them, “We can repent a few days after we kill him! God will forgive us!” Hands up, anyone who has never made a similar argument — albeit presumably with regard to a much smaller sort of sin.

When Bilhah hears about Jacob’s dream with the ten wolves, she says the ten older brothers should kill Joseph. This raises an interesting question: Does Jacob’s dream cause what it prophesies, or does it merely predict what it prophesies? This is a question that comes up repeatedly in the Greek myths, and attentive viewers of this series might ask the question too, but the series itself doesn’t dwell on it at all.

Ties to other traditions. Levi tells his brothers that their act of fratricide, however incomplete it might be, is even worse than the murder committed by Cain, because Cain and Abel were more or less the same age, whereas Joseph is only a child.

The man who appears to Joseph in the well tells him to count the fingers and knuckles on his hand, and he says that these numbers — five and fourteen — hold “the secret of life,” which will be revealed “once the last prophet emerges.” I’m guessing this is a reference to the Five Pillars of Islam, which are accepted by all major Muslim sects, and the Fourteen Infallibles, which is particular to a branch of Shi’ite Islam.

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 runs from about 17:10 to 1:47:40 in this video:

And here are the English-dubbed versions of these episodes:

1. Joseph’s age is not specified in the Koran, but according to Wikipedia, some Muslim scholars have suggested “that Joseph was fairly young when he was thrown into the well, as young as twelve.”

2. Interestingly, the Koran (12.10) does not name the brother who said Joseph should be put in a well. So the filmmakers — or the tradition they are borrowing from — might not be consciously deviating from Genesis. Rather, they had to specify which brother intervened to keep Joseph alive, and since the Koran didn’t specify it for them, they picked one, and he happened to be different from the one in Genesis.

3. The serpent in Eden is often associated with Satan, but the text itself never makes this connection.

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