Reflections on the Book of Genesis by Luigino Bruni.
The gift of Genesis and a wish:
to dream of God again.
‘So he spoke to them and they were laughing and crying at the same time, and they all stretched out their hands toward him who stood between them, kissed him, and he caressed them. And so endeth the beautiful story and God-invention of Joseph and His Brothers.’ (Thomas Mann, Joseph and His Brothers. English translation: Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter).
‘What is your occupation?’, Pharaoh asked Joseph’s brothers. ‘Your servants are shepherds…’, they replied (47:3). The question about profession is the first one in adulthood. And if we do not have an answer to that first question, the one that suffers it most is not just our job but our place in the world. Our profession is the syntax we use in composing our social discourse.
So when a young person is not given a profession (which is a gift before being talent and effort: a profession is always learned from someone), he or she lacks the words to talk about themselves, to others and to themselves. The extreme lack of jobs in our times is also a consequence of a profound crisis of professions. Those generated by the artisan, maritime and farming culture, by the professions, from the factories to the offices, are rapidly diminishing, many have disappeared; and we, living in the time of this famine of promises and dreams, cannot generate enough of them.
Jacob ‘lived in the land of Egypt seventeen years. So the days of Jacob, the years of his life, were 147 years.’ (47:28) Feeling his nearing death, Jacob-Israel re-reads and re-summarizes his long life: ‘God Almighty [El Shaddai] appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, »Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, (…)« As for me, when I came from Paddan, to my sorrow Rachel died in the land of Canaan…, and I buried her there on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem).’ (48:3-7) Vocation, the voice and Rachel. The Alliance, the promise, the struggles, the hugs, faithfulness. The people in this story are the loved ones, the places, God; everyone always present, always all protagonists. When you have the gift of living the last precious moments of life consciously (which is a true gift), the faces return and the places of love and pain, of good choices made and missed chances at the decisive intersections all come back to life; and it is not uncommon that the last look on a face or a place is that of full reconciliation with life, where we grab the final blessing from the angel of death. We are space and we are time, which eventually fade into one another: Rachel and Bethlehem, El Shaddai and Luz, Paola and the G. Leopardi High School where we met: they all come back to life and together they tell our last-first words.
Then Jacob laid his hands on the heads of his grandchildren Manasseh and Ephraim, and blessed them with the words of heaven (48:15-16). Then he called his sons and said, ‘Gather yourselves together…Assemble and listen, O sons of Jacob’ (49:1-2). And so he says his last words to each of his sons, ‘blessing each with the blessing suitable to him’ (49:28), without hiding the errors and faults (of Reuben, Simeon and Levi). But once again the most beautiful blessing is the one that is given to Joseph, like in a psalm:
‘Joseph is a fruitful bough, a fruitful bough by a spring; his branches run over the wall. The archers bitterly attacked him, shot at him, and harassed him severely, yet his bow remained unmoved; (…) blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that crouches beneath, blessings of the breasts and of the womb…’ (49:22-26).
As a last will he asks his children to bury him in the cave of Machpelah (49:31), the one that Abraham bought for Sara from the Hittites, purchased ‘to possess’ (49:30), with a regular contract (50:13). And when he finished speaking to his sons, Jacob ‘drew up his feet into the bed and breathed his last and was gathered to his people.’ (49:33). He dies in Egypt, but will rest in the land of Canaan.
The wonderful death of Jacob – in these times of enmity with death, and so with limits, we should re-read the beautiful deaths of the patriarchs many times, to feel loved though them – generated a new crisis in the fraternity: ‘When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, »It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.« (50:15) Taken from this fear, they get a message to Joseph that (probably) contains a lie: ‘Your father gave this command before he died: »Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”«‘ (50:16-17) But Joseph ‘wept when they spoke to him’ and he said once more: ‘As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, (…) So do not fear’ (50:19-21). And as in the first time of forgiving, Joseph uses the best words for all instances of reconciliation: ‘It wasn’t you, but God’.
In the curing of the wounded brotherhood, and when, just like in the case of Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness is not to forget the past but to invest in a new, “resurrected” relationship, the forgiveness of the victim is not enough: it is necessary that those who have committed the crime really believe in the forgiveness they have just received. The brothers, upon being given the first pardon, could have thought: ‘Is he doing it for us, or for our father?’. The death of Jacob reactivates that doubt and it makes it evolve into a new crisis: a new lie, new tears and a new forgiveness.
It is not uncommon that the death of a parent generates a crisis in the relationship of brotherhood or sisterhood. And not only, nor mainly, for reasons of heritage and interests. The death of the last parent, even when it occurs late in life (for the parent and the children alike) is always a decisive step in the relationship between brothers and sisters. It is then that they return, really, into a situation of orphanhood, and they feel that some deep roots are drying out inside them. The principle of unity of the family – that was also a “place”, the mother’s house that was the venue of meetings, celebrations and reconciliations – no longer exists, or it does but in a different way, and a new or renovated form of it has to be found. And if the relationship was deeply wounded, sometimes it is necessary to forgive again, in order to give the forgiven one the time and space necessary to receive and accommodate our forgiveness:
‘Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.’ (50:21) Forgiveness is not an act, it is a process: you forgive and forgive again, once, twice, seven times or seventy times seven. Then ‘Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.’
Therefore, this commentary on the Book of Genesis reaches its end. We started this difficult and wonderful adventure of the soul aiming to look for new words for the economy. We found much more: travelling to the ‘end of the night’ we glimpsed the tree of life.
We woke up, called into existence, in the garden of creation, and there, amazed by our being, we talked with God in the cool of the day, and witnessed the first crossing of two human eyes, seeing each other ‘eye to eye’. Then, in the fields, we witnessed the first fratricide/homicide and the smell of the blood of the first brother/man killed came down to us; and we also saw Lamech murder a child. Time was stopped, we all died with Abel and the children killed in all the wars in the world, and we still die these deaths today (it was painful to write commentaries on these last chapters while rockets were falling on the ‘land of Canaan’). We got into an ark built by the only righteous man, and we were saved, men, women and animals.
After the flood we stopped at Babel: there we felt the temptation of communitarianism, we overcame it, and we set off, dispersed and saved in the course of history.
And so we came to Ur of the Chaldeans where we met a wandering Aramean who had departed believing in a different voice that was truer than that of the gods of wood. We paid our respect to him and thanked him for having believed also for us, and we wished to be like him. We smiled to a son born to his parents in their old age, and then we fled, chased by Sara, in the desert along with Hagar and Ishmael. We climbed up Mount Moriah with Abraham and Isaac; and on that mountain, and in many other places, we lost and regained a son, but most importantly, we met the first voice again, listened to it and believed in its promise again. We fell in love with Rachel at a well, and then we died with her giving birth to Ben-Omi.
We forded a stream to return to our cheated brother, and there we were attacked, fought, wounded, blessed, and along with Jacob we became Israel. We saw heaven, dreamed of angels and God, the dream of dreams. Finally we ended up in a pit/tomb with Joseph, and we rose from it to arrive in Egypt and become interpreters of dreams. There, accompanied by Thomas Mann, we re-learned fraternity, we realized that the promised land is the land of all, and we discovered the importance of dreams. But first and above all we were flooded, inundated, overwhelmed and loved by the blessings that surpassed the many instances of ambiguity and malice and that come alive in our flesh when we hear them, even if we had met them before. Blessings that we have communicated to us a thousand times in a thousand ways that the last word on the world and man is not that of Cain, even if that is the one heard most all over the earth, yesterday, today and maybe tomorrow, too. Genesis has given us ears to hear other voices that are less noisy but more true: our first task is to try to detect them among the many noises of history if we want to remain human, spiritual beings capable of infinity. But most of all it left us with a question inside, which is also a commitment, a cry, a desire: when will we start to dream of God again?
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 03/08/2014