Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni.
To Find Their Sons Again,
Fathers Become Sons Again.
“Who is the fairly thickset man,” asked Jacob, “arrayed in all the splendor of this world… …”That is your son Joseph, Father,” replied Judah. …he peered and searched with his tired old eyes…with love and sorrow painted on his own, and did not recognize his son. But it came to pass that Joseph`s eyes slowly filled with tears under Jacob`s gaze. Their blackness swam in moisture, they overflowed; and lo they were Rachel`s eyes…” (Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. English translation: Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter).
The best point of observation of existence is the last one. The true and full sense of an entire life is revealed at the end when the vocation is fulfilled and the original plan is revealed. Old age, for those who have the gift to reach it, is therefore a crucial stage of life because it is there that we can find, in the bright light of the sunset, the plot of our story.
So when our earthly life seems to be nearing the end, it may happen that your spiritual life goes through a new, decisive time of spring (there are many springs in the autumn of life, but we do not always have the eyes to recognize them even in people who live beside us). And the journey starts over, the adventure of the soul takes a new start, with the same initial enthusiasm of the child. This was the life of the patriarchs, this is the life of Jacob, who, as an old man, starts out on a journey to Egypt, following the same voice that had called him as a young man, at Bethel.
After the reconciliation with his brothers, Joseph sends them back to Canaan to bring Jacob and all the family clan to Egypt ‘for there are yet five years of famine to come’ (45:11). He gives each of them ‘a change of clothes’. To Benjamin, the brother of the same mother, Rachel, he gives ‘three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes’ (45:22).
The colourful royal robe with long sleeves, that his father Jacob gave him (37:3), was at the centre of the conflict between young Joseph and his brothers. The robe that was taken from him before throwing him into the pit in the desert (37:23) and then returned to his father stained with the blood of a slaughtered goat (37:31), now becomes Joseph’s gift to his brothers. Everyone gets new clothes; eleven spotless garments take the place of the one stained by their envy. Where blame abounded one day, charis abounds now.
‘Joseph is still alive’ (45:26), his sons bring the message to Jacob-Israel. Unlike them, Jacob (perhaps with Benjamin and the women of the family) was convinced that the blood on the dress was that of Joseph who had been killed by a wild beast. For many years he had lived with that pain in his heart. Having received the news of the “resurrection” of his son, after an initial moment of disbelief (‘his heart became numb’, 45:26), Jacob-Israel exclaims: ‘Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die’ (45:28).
He wants to go, but before his departure he must do something important: ‘So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac’ (46:1). Jacob leaves Hebron, the land of the promise, and goes to stay in the house where his father Isaac and his mother Rebekah had lived, when they were still migrants, in the desert of Beersheba, where Hagar, the servant-mother of Ishmael had fled. There, during a famine, Isaac had met YWHW in one of the decisive moments of his life. He had spoken to him, announced the promise and told him: ‘Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you.’ (26:2). This time, however, because of another famine, Jacob is to leave the land of Canaan and go right to that Egypt that the Lord had forbidden for Isaac. Egypt had been forbidden to his father because the land promised by YHWH was another one, that of Canaan, now inhabited by Jacob. The first voice that had spoken to Isaac, promising a land that was other than Egypt, could not have the same strength of the voice of his fatherly heart that now wants to see his son again, who has been believed dead for decades. Voices are not all equal in biblical humanism, and salvation lies in identifying and following the truest voice which is not the most convenient one, nor that of the false prophets or the gods of wood, not even the simple voice of the heart. That is how Jacob returns to the land of Isaac – in the world of the Bible even places can have vocations – to understand, to pray, to listen, to discern the voices, to choose from them. And once again, ‘God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, »Jacob, Jacob.« And he said, »Here I am.« Then he said, »I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt … Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.«‘ (46:2-4)
Jacob now knows that the voice that speaks to him and calls him again and again (‘Jacob, Jacob’) is that of the God of his father, that of YHWH; and if it is the same voice to send him to that Egypt that had been denied from Isaac, then he can and he should go.
To listen to the voice and to understand what it says, Jacob did not go to Bethel, the place where he had received his first vocation and where he had seen the angels and heaven (28:13-22).
Instead, he returns to the land of his fathers and wants to listen to the same God of Isaac, at his father and mother’s place. He wants to hear being called by his name by the same true voice, the one that never cheated on him, the one of the Alliance and the promise.
It often happens, very often, that those who try to live in truth return to the “fathers”, on their land, in their places before they make an important and decisive choice. It is good to make a return, especially when you are about to make a choice that goes in the opposite direction of that which once formed the first covenant, the promise, the vocation. He returns to his mother’s house for signs, hoping to hear a deeper voice again, in order to get truer certainties, to find the meaning of life, vocation and the promise. To hear himself called by his name again.
The family business was going through a long period of difficulties. Then there came the offer of a corporation that would have relieved it by paying a large sum. ‘Am I to sell the company founded by my grandfather, which later became the life of my parents, the great story of the family, the most beautiful story that we could tell each other? Do I have to be the one to write the last word of this story?’ As the expiration date is approaching, nights become long and tough. Luigi feels the urge to return to the first building that is now abandoned but where the pieces of history are still alive and real, and so are the relationships, words, pain, heart and flesh. And it was in that building that he had learned the trade from his dad. From there he goes up to the old farm of his grandfather, where, in the workshop, he had learned to work with wood, and where he had heard the stories, glorious ones, from the early days of the founding of the company, after their emigration to America, after the war, famine, hunger, the frontline, the terrible deaths of their children that can never be forgotten. And in that “inhabited” silence he tries to capture those age-old voices and identify those of his youth among them, when everything was clear and easy to see through, the voice that made him give up the fix work place to continue that story. To find out if the voice that now seems to tell him ‘sell it’ is the same good voice that one day had told him to ‘stay’. The authentic pilgrimages are those where we seek, perhaps without being aware of it, the blessing of the fathers for the difficult choices of today. Maybe we should do more, and not stop begging for blessings, especially when the good voices do not speak any more to us in our homes, in the time of the reforms of social pacts, during the seven lean years (2008-2015).
In the house of the fathers Jacob listened to the same voice again, and he realized that he had to leave, and so he took off. He will close his eyes in Egypt, not in the land of Canaan. As an old man (‘The days of the years of my sojourning are 130 years’, he will say to Pharaoh: 47:9) he was called to leave the promised land, and start on a journey again to a foreign land (47:4), and die there in exile. And the ‘yes’ he said in his old age was the decisive one, no less decisive than the first, because it was the fulfilment of his vocation.
To read the end of the story of Jacob is important because it is there that one of the most precious treasures of the whole Bible is revealed: the promised land is not a territory to occupy – it is the following of a voice. And so every land, even the promised one, is foreign land, because the land is a gift, you live on it only temporarily, you do not possess it. Any man who follows a “voice” is a stranger over all the earth and for all life. The right house for the human is the nomadic tent.
‘…and they came into the land of Goshen. Then Joseph prepared his chariot and went up to meet Israel his father in Goshen. He presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. Israel said to Joseph, »Now let me die, since I have seen your face (…).«‘ (46:29-30)
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 27/07/2014