Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni.

Joseph is put to the test (several times), but he remains loyal.

‘Nekhludoff awoke next morning feeling as if he had been guilty of some iniquity the day before. He began considering. He could not remember having done anything wrong; he had committed no evil act, but he had had evil thoughts. (…) An evil action may not be repeated, and can be repented of; but evil thoughts generate all evil actions.’ (Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection. English translation by Mrs. Louise Maude).

20 - The story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar

The story of Joseph in the house of Potiphar, the Egyptian official, is a great lesson on the grammar of loyalty. Loyalty is not a virtue of our time. For centuries, companies and institutions have resorted to living with a legacy of loyalty that was generated by the values??, hard work and practices of families, churches, communities, and fuelled by the grand narratives, by art and literature. For some decades we have stopped intentionally creating these values ??and practices, but the need for loyalty still remains and grows. So a few decades ago we thought we could replace loyalty with incentives, paying and controlling workers and managers, hoping to make them “loyal” also in the cases when ‘none of the men of the house was there in the house’ (39:13) to see them and control them. Too bad that now we have to be realizing that this substitution only works for simple things but it is harmful when handling important or crucial situations. The radical fragility of our economic and social system derives from a severe deficiency of the virtue of loyalty – it would already be a great gift if we all became aware of it.

Joseph arrives in Egypt, sold as a slave to Potiphar, an officer of the Pharaoh. Genesis shows us Joseph as a person of great value: he is no longer the naive boy who narrated his dreams/prophecies to his envious brothers, but a perfect administrator, who did everything well: ‘The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master.’ (39:2) Joseph wins the esteem and unconditional trust of Potiphar, who ‘left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate’ (39:6). And so ‘the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field’ (39:5). The blessing of Joseph, the heir of the first great blessing of Abraham, extends to the whole of the house where he lived and for which he worked. Good things exceed the goodness of the person performing them. If there is a just and good person working in a community or a business, the goodness-blessing infects everything he or she touches, and so this person becomes a common good. The first blessing of every human enterprise is the people in it, sometimes only one person: ‘you [Abraham] will be a blessing’ (12:2).

The loyalty of Joseph that is at the heart of this story emerges in full strength in the way he handles the conflict with his master’s wife (Genesis leaves her nameless). Joseph is presented as a young man who is ‘handsome in form and appearance’ (39:6), just like his mother Rachel was (29:17). He is also a display of the moral beauty typical of righteous and honest people, which is not less fascinating than physical beauty. The wife of Potiphar ‘cast her eyes’ on him ‘and said: »Lie with me«‘ (39:7). Joseph answered: ‘Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. … [he] has [not] kept back anything from me except you… How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?’ (39:9) Potiphar, in fact, had asked him to account only for ‘the food he ate’ and in that culture the ‘food’ was also an image or euphemism for spousal intimacy. And so even though ‘she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her’ (39:10).

The “test” Joseph is put to is the paradigm of all those situations in which a person is given the chance to become loyal. In loyalty, in fact, a typical dimension of all the virtues can be seen in its pure form; of the virtues that are, in fact, not a matter of preference or values, but of actions. Therefore they constitute experiential goods, because the only way to become loyal (just, prudent, strong …) is when our principles translate into concrete action. You can sincerely believe in the value of loyalty, but to be loyal it is necessary to prove it in the field. Good intentions or good thoughts are not enough – even if the person who manages to be loyal cultivates good thoughts and drives out bad ones before and during the action itself. And as for all the experiential goods, we cannot know if this “good” is really in our “basket” until we are inside a concrete experience where we find out whether we only thought to be loyal or we really are. Therefore you can only become loyal, even after being disloyal for some time. How can it happen that in the face of new experiences we discover – and are surprised and moved to do so – to have a moral force in us that we thought we did not possess.  Martyrdom must be something like this, and therefore before becoming a gift given for others there is a gift you receive. Joseph, who was already righteous, did not know that he was also loyal until that gaze of his master’s wife found him. Not even a single moment before.

Here then we find an essential feature of loyalty. Its existence and its value is measured on the basis of an actual cost that the person who wants to be loyal must pay saying no to one (or more) unfair action(s) that would have saved the cost. Therefore loyalty always costs a lot and often results in a “don’t” – and it is also because of this that it is difficult to see. Without this costly alternative that comes ‘one day’ when ‘none of the men of the house was there in the house’, loyalty does not make an appearance. The price that Joseph had to pay in order to be loyal to Potiphar was not so much the rejection of sexual pleasure as the likely consequences associated with the rejection, given the radical asymmetry of power that existed between him and his master’s wife. It was a cost that manifested itself soon.

In the aftermath of this episode of the great cycle of Joseph, there is a lesson taught to us on another dimension of loyalty that is not a necessary one, but very common. If he wants to be loyal, Joseph should say no to an offer that comes from the same part where the person-institution with which he wants to be loyal stands. ‘But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, »Lie with me«. But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house.’ After that the woman ‘called to the men of her household and said to them, »See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice«‘ (39:11-14). The woman then told the same false and upturned version of the story to her husband (39:17) who took Joseph and ‘put him into the prison’ (39:19).

Yet another time his “coat” is taken from him, once again he is thrown violently into a “pit” (40:15). And Joseph is “quiet as a lamb”; he does not defend himself. The Bible tells us nothing about the reasons for his silence. That unsaid word can reveal to us another fundamental dimension of loyalty, perhaps the most typical one. Loyalty should be lived, not told about, especially when in order to stay loyal one had to say a big “no” to someone of the same intimate “home”. Even these silences can be an expression of loyalty, but only when those who remain quiet take upon themselves the costly consequences of that loyal silence (sometimes it may happen that this loyalty enters into conflict with other virtues, such as justice: it is in conflicts between virtues that we exercise our moral responsibility).

Loyalty is a silent and invisible virtue in its most profound and true form; consequently, you cannot rely on the typical awards and gratitude that support and reinforce many of the ‘public’ virtues. The reward for the price paid to be and to remain loyal is completely intrinsic, and therefore those who have no inner life from where this sole reward flows may not become or remain loyal. If we want the world and the institutions of tomorrow to be more loyal, we need to give life to a new era of inner life and spirituality. Without loyalty you cannot remain faithful to the pacts and primary promises of life, and neither to the contracts that follow right after these.

Finally, if loyalty by its nature is difficult to observe, then there is much more loyalty in the world and the people who love us than we are able to see. If we were able to see deeper into our friends, our wives, our husbands, we would realize that behind their faithful love and their good eyes, invisibly and silently, there are many acts of loyalty hiding that are the very foundation of these strong relationships. Some of these decisive instances of loyalty/faithfulness are shared with our beloved in the final moments of life, as our most precious inheritance; others, perhaps even more beautiful and certainly more painful ones, we cannot or do not manage to tell and so these die with us; but they all bear much fruit, and make our world more beautiful and more worthy. ‘And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison… But the Lord was with Joseph’ (39:21).

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 29/06/2014