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Erich Auerbach describes a model for a hero from the Hebrew bible that he believes is nearly all inclusive. Joseph and the story of his journey through slavery and imprisonment up to royalty exemplifies the journey from the deepest humiliation to exaltation, aided by God’s personal inspiration, that is described by Erich Auerbach’s model. God seems to demand absolute unquestioning faith as Joseph’s life is patterned in such a way that his humiliation turns out to be instrumental in his eventual exaltation. The journey of Odysseus, on the other hand, follows a similar pattern but doesn’t seem to have the same demands for humiliation or faith that Joseph is subject to. While Joseph’s works and faith are a journey through hardships that lead him to save an entire civilization and become a greater man than anyone could have predicted, Odysseus merely fights his way back home against the consequences of his own actions. The fact that these texts served as moral and spiritual guides for the ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures allows for the generalization of these moral teachings and standards as exemplary to each culture as a whole. While the stories were produced by their respective cultures; they, in turn, shaped the very cultures that had generated them.
In commenting on the “heroes” of the Hebrew Bible, Erich Auerbach argues that:
“There is hardly one of them who does not, like Adam, undergo the deepest humiliation–and hardly one who is not deemed worthy of God’s personal intervention and inspiration.” (Mimesis 18)
Joseph fits perfectly into the mold for a “hero” of the Hebrew Bible as laid out by Erich Auerbach. In Joseph’s childhood, “his father loved him more than all his brethren,” (Genesis 37:3) and because of his honesty his father trusted him to report to back about his brother’s evil doings; consequently placing Joseph in a position of superiority. This proved detrimental for Joseph, as his brothers felt that the older sons should receive favor and position of birthright in the family as was tradition. Later we see similar occurrences in slavery, imprisonment, and service to Pharaoh as he finds favor with his overseers and his status is elevated to nearly equal to that of his superiors just as when he served as his father’s eyes and ears in the fields with his brothers. Joseph never credits this tendency towards favoritism to himself, his own personality, wit, or skill and in the case of Joseph’s first encounter with Pharaoh he actually denies any personal credit saying, “It is not in me: God shall give Pharaoh an answer.” (Genesis 41:16) This personal interest that God takes in all that Joseph does is concisely summed up in the last verse of the thirty-ninth chapter of the book of Genesis that states, “…the Lord was with him and that which he did, the Lord made it to prosper.” (Genesis 39:23)
As we pick up the story of Joseph at his first serious misfortune it is safe to assume that at this time an average seventeen year old boy would wish to be left to die in the pit according his brothers’ original plan. However, there is no mention made that Joseph ever complained or asked God for any favors as he is thrown into the pit or sold into slavery by his brothers. Joseph’s next plunge into humiliation is when he is falsely accused of attempting to sleep with Potiphar’s wife and imprisoned. Yet even in prison his status is elevated beyond that of the other prisoner’s, “And the keeper of the prison committed to Joseph’s hand all the prisoners that were in the prison; and whatsoever they did there, he was the doer of it.” (Genesis 39:22) So we see that even in his humiliation he experiences the best possible situation within his given circumstances. Auerbach’s analysis of Hebrew heroes is most obvious in several such situations with Joseph. While Joseph does experience extreme humiliation, he is never abandoned by God.
Throughout Joseph’s trials it seems that each consecutive misfortune plunges him deeper into a humiliation from which there seems little escape. However, this proves not to be the case as every successive incident proves to be to Joseph’s advantage in the long run. For example, if Joseph had not been sold into slavery by his brothers they would not be able to go to Egypt to buy grain because the Pharaoh would not have consulted Joseph about his dream and not received instruction to store food for the seven years of famine. Additionally if Joseph had not served in the house of Potiphar and been falsely accused of attempting to sleep with his wife he would never have been thrown into, “the prison, a place where the kings prisoners were bound.” (Genesis 39:20) This is in an important distinction in that is recognized that among Egyptian prisons this particular prison is distinguishable from other prisons because it is where the king’s prisoners are housed. If Joseph had not served a man of such high standing such as Potiphar it is highly unlikely that he would have been sent to this particular prison. This may seem inconsequential at first but as the story continues we see that it is actually the mention of Joseph’s dream interpreting abilities to the Pharaoh by his head butler, and Joseph’s former prison mate, that facilitates Joseph’s rise from head prisoner to head of Egypt. There is no way that Joseph could have foreseen the way these events would interact to his eventual exaltation and even if he could he would be unable to control them. He merely trusts in the doctrinal teachings of his father and exhibits absolute faith in God. This is all that God seems to require of Joseph in order to receive His favor and blessings. This is unique in that while other patriarchs from the bible are asked to give sacrifice it seems that in the story of Joseph he is the sacrifice. He gives up a good 13 years of his life to slavery and imprisonment so that Egypt and his family can be saved from the seven year famine.
Throughout most of Joseph’s story it seems that God rewards Joseph for his faith only with favor in the eyes of his superiors but later God’s hand can be seen in each and every new development in Joseph’s life, not only pertaining to circumstances, but also pertaining to his ability to help others with his God-given management and dream interpreting skills. He is rewarded with an ability to interpret dreams which leads to his ability to interpret the dreams of both the head baker and head butler while in prison. The pharaoh hears of this and it is through the interpretation of the pharaoh’s dream that Joseph is made a ruler in Egypt and is able to store food and save the nation of Egypt from famine. Eventually he is rewarded with an opportunity to face his brothers and his childhood vision of the eleven sheaves and the sun, moon, and eleven stars bowing down to him is fulfilled as his brothers bow down and beg for their food. The absolute dependence of the brother’s survival on the actions of Joseph reflects the full cycle of Erich Auerbach’s observation of a journey from humiliation to exaltation and success like the journey of Adam.
In contrast Odysseus seems to bring all his trials upon himself. He begins with disrespecting the gods by failing to make the correct sacrifices before beginning his voyage home. The gods in turn cause a storm to blow him off course which results in a series of events that leave Odysseus stranded with Calypso, all his men dead, his house trashed, and his wife being constantly petitioned by suitors. One could see the similarities between the story of Joseph and Odysseus but the major character differences are too significant to ignore. Odysseus is proud and it is this pride that repeatedly angers the gods, specifically Poseidon. Also Odysseus sleeps with multiple women on his way home to his wife while Joseph flees from Potiphar’s wife. Here we see a major difference in the moral code of the ancient Greeks and Hebrews as evidenced by their religious texts. The Hebrew hero and role model, Joseph, is sexually pure and refuses to sleep with his master’s wife and perceives that to do so would be a sin while the Greek hero and role model, Odysseus, is happy to sleep with both Circe and Calypso on his way home to prove to his wife Penelope how valiant and faithful he has been.
Both the story of Joseph and the story of Odysseus served as a moral and spiritual guide to their respective cultures. We can then assume that Joseph and Odysseus would be considered as an exemplary Hebrew or Greek and that their actions would be emulated by their cultures. Following in Joseph’s example the early Hebrews believed that they had to be humiliated before they could be exalted as well as following a moral code which, while not specifically stated, is implied by the example of their heroes. The Greeks seem to have no such beliefs; at least none are exhibited by Odysseus’ story. Odysseus ends his story as not much greater of a man than he began it while Joseph is a very dynamic character. The Hebrews beliefs in faith and sacrifice allowed them to live their modest lives, generally as poor herdsmen, and feel quite fulfilled. They believed that God had a plan for them and their trials were merely Gods way of molding them. They hoped that, like Joseph, if they remained faithful and endured well they would be lifted up at the end and rewarded for their hard work by a God who had been working behind the scenes the entire time.
The Greeks, on the other hand, believed in a much more hands off approach to handling a deity. They paid their dues with burnt sacrifices and in turn received favors such as good crops or a safe journey home. This relationship is more like a business partnership than actual worship. There is however one striking similarity between Odysseus’ relationship with Athena and Joseph’s relationship with God. Both deities exhibit favoritism towards those after their own heart. Odysseus is a wise, cunning, master of war, just like Athena. Joseph is kind and benevolent without compromising his sense of justice. He demonstrates this when he is reunited with his brothers and forces them to jump through several hoops to prove themselves before he will reveal himself and reward them with the food they sought. This is very similar to God’s requirement that Joseph go through slavery and imprisonment before he is rewarded with a position rivaled only by Pharaoh.
In conclusion, it is apparent that Joseph does fit the mold for a biblical hero as laid out by Auerbach and the differences do outweigh the similarities between the stories of Odysseus and Joseph. Joseph’s humiliation gives him an edge over Odysseus in eventual exaltation. The Hebrew God seems to demand absolute unquestioning faith in contrast to the Greek gods, who demand only tokens of loyalty. While Joseph’s works and faith are a journey through hardships that lead him to save an entire civilization and become a greater man than anyone could have predicted, Odysseus merely fights his way back home against the consequences of his own actions. The two texts performed the same purpose for the ancient Greek and Hebrew cultures in shaping the moral teachings and standards of each culture. While the stories were produced by their respective cultures, they in turn shaped the very cultures that had generated them.
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