Bow and Arrow

Who is heroic? He who conquers his Yetzer.
Avot 4:1

A fascinating part of Thomas Mann’s extraordinary novel, “Joseph and His Brothers”, describes the non-consummated affair between the wife of “Pharaoh’s officer”, Potiphar, and his estate manager, Joseph. A wonderful scene is that of the “Ladies’ Party”. The crazed and helplessly love-sick woman invites the high-society women of Egypt for a gathering. Platters of fruits and sharpened knives are brought before the guests; while they are still pealing the fruits Joseph enters the hall to serve them wine. All the women gaze at the attractive young man, and at once they all carelessly cut their fingers. Potiphar’s wife orchestrates this scene to show her friends how the mere appearance of Joseph causes them injury. All the more so, how much injury does her heart endure upon seeing Joseph in her home on a daily basis, while the young servant rejects her love. This scene does not appear in the book of Genesis, and until I found it in the Midrash, I thought it to be a brilliant story made up by Mann. “It once happened that the Egyptian women gathered and came to see the beauty of Joseph. What did Potiphar’s wife do? She took citrons [etrogs] and gave them out to each and every woman, she also gave each and every woman a knife, then she called for Joseph and stood him before them. Because their eyes were fixated on Joseph’s beauty, they cut their hands. She said to them: This is the state you are in after only one hour, and I who sees him all the time, all the more so!’ Every day she would try to seduce him but he restrained himself ” (Tanchuma Vayeshev 5)1.

This episode is spread over seventeen pages of condensed text in Mann’s novel (1972, 362). The author cites the sources he used: the Koran, Djami, Firdousi, but he does not cite the Talmud or the Midrash. Mann makes use of several classic Jewish texts in his novel, not always in the form of cited quotes, for he was writing a novel and not a scientific study (though the Jewish Reform movement actually recognizes the scientific importance of Mann’s work).

The concise biblical story of Joseph and his brothers enticed many to retell what transpired and to embellish it with details2. The authors of the Gemara and the Midrash have not resisted the temptation. And thus a vast canonized apocrypha – a palimpsest3, has formed. One text is placed upon an earlier one, and the quotes are used as clips in places where the earlier and later texts are completely identical. A classic palimpsest is one of multiple layers of which a number are seen clearly. The Midrash takes on the role of master of the house, allowing much in regard to episodes and detail, but never changing the main paths of the plot or the endings – an act that would have changed the course of history. The narrative cannot be altered, but the string can be pulled on the bow of the story till the point of nearly snapping.

Let us see how this is done – before us is a “lover’s dialogue” between the audacious lady of the house and the refusing servant on her estate. It is not enough for her that: “By your life, I will persecute you in other ways too” (Genesis Rabbah 87:10). The remainder of the conversation feels like eavesdropping. The woman moves from sweet-talking to other methods of persuasion: “I will have your food rations cut down to which he replied: (Psalms 146:7) ‘He giveth bread to the hungry’. I will have you put in chains – (ibid.) ‘The Lord looseth those you have bound’. I will make you bent and bowed – (ibid. 8)‘The Lord raiseth up them that are bowed down’. I will blind you – (ibid.) ‘The Lord openeth the eyes of the blind’. How far did she go? Said R. Huna in R. Aha’s name: She went as far as to place an iron fork under his neck so that he should have to lift up his eyes and look at her. Yet in spite of that he would not look at her. Thus it is written: (Psalms 105:18) ‘His feet they hurt with fetters, his person was laid in iron’” (Genesis Rabbah 87:10). (This alludes to the moment when Joseph was sold into slavery)

Note that the aristocratic Egyptian woman (as the Rabbis refer to her) speaks as though she were in the marketplace, though Joseph maintains a high level of respectability and shoves her away with quotes from the Psalms.

The biblical Joseph couldn’t have been familiar with the Psalms, whose authorship is attributed to King David who ruled in Israel in a later period (10th century BCE). Moreover, modern biblical critics claim that the Psalms and Ecclesiastes were written under a strong Hellenic influence, which would date them sometime after the time of King David. The Sages, as we know, did not hold much regard for chronology, as they have stated: “There is no earlier or later in the Torah” (Pesachim 6b). The Sages create their own timeline in which they place the biblical heroes, endowing them with “modern” knowledge. Hence, “Our forefather Abraham observed the whole Torah” (Yoma 28b) long before it was given at Mount Sinai.

This phenomenon is somewhat analogous to the methods of Christian artists in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the following time periods, who clothed the biblical heroes in European garb and placed them in the architectural landscape of their times. Andrea di Bartolo, an artist from Siena at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, furnished Jerusalem with all the characteristics of an Italian city in the Middle Ages (“Jehoiakim Leaving the City”, The Christian Museum, Esztergom). The biblical characters painted by the Van Eyck brothers are dressed like Philippe Duke of Brabant, or Louis Duke of Savoy, and the Virgin Mary, like Arnolfini’s wife (“The Arnolfini Portrait”, The National Gallery, London). The Temple in Jerusalem as it appears in Rembrandt’s “The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple” looks no different from that of the interior of a Gothic cathedral (“The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple”, National Gallery, London). The front of the Temple is adorned with a half-nude statue of the Goddess of Justice, blind-folded and holding a set of scales, which historically speaking is not very plausible, but from an artistic viewpoint… well…would it not be out of place to question the artistic value of a Rembrandt?

Potiphar and his wife (our acquaintance) are dressed in Eastern garb from the age of geographic discoveries and colonization (“Joseph Accused by Potiphar’s Wife”, Rembrandt, Staatliche Museum, Berlin). Other biblical scenes are adorned with knights in armor, ladies in petticoats, and Flemish farmers wearing hats with drooping ears.

But let us return to Joseph. He rejects intimacy with the lady, but returns to the house knowing that there is not a living soul there but the lady of the house herself, pretending to have fallen ill. “R. Yudah said: On that day the banks of the Nile overflowed; everyone went to see it, but he did not go: (Genesis 39:11) ‘He went into the house to do his work’, [he intended to bed Potifar’s wife] to cast up his master’s accounts. R. Nehemaih said: It was a day of a theatrical performance, which all flocked to see, but he did not go; ‘He went into the house to do his work’, meaning to cast up his master’s accounts. R. Shmuel ben Nachman said: ‘To do his work’ is meant literally, but (ibid.) ‘and there was not a man’ – upon examination he did not find himself a man [suddenly he lost his erection], for R. Shmuel said: The bow was drawn but it relaxed [meaning that he was aroused and then lost his erection] , as it is written: (Genesis 49:24) ‘And his bow returned in strength’” (Genesis Rabbah 87:7). In Hebrew the word “keshet” means bow and the word “kashe” means hard, the Rabbis make use of this in their interpretation.

The rabbis further discuss the double meaning of the phrase: “And his bow returned in strength” (Sota 36). This is an idiomatic phrase that means to return to a previous state. The meaning of an idiom cannot be determined by the literal definition of each of its words, though in our example the word “eitan” – strength – adds intensity to the phrase. The word “eitan” can be used when speaking of a warrior who has recovered from injury, as in “He returned to his strength (eitano)”, but you cannot say this of a beggar whose luck changes for the better, temporarily, but is soon returned to his previous state of poverty. If so, then to which previous state did Joseph’s bow return?

Joseph enters the lady’s bedroom “armed”, though he continues preaching morals to her and shaming her for her promiscuous behavior. His body though contradicts his words (according to Mann). What happens next? According to the Midrash there is no knowing for certain, all that is left for us is to guess. “R. Isaac said: His seed was scattered and issued through his fingernails, as it is said: (Genesis 49:24) ‘And the seed of his hands was scattered’ [what caused him to loose his erection was that he planted his hands in the ground, made his body tremble, and by doing this his semen was scattered through his fingers”. In Hebrew the word “zroah” means arm and the word “zerah” means seed and the Rabbis make use of this in their interpretation. “R. Huna said in R. Mattena’s name: He saw his father’s face, at which his blood cooled, as it is written: (ibid.)‘By the hands of the mighty Jacob’. R. Menachma said in the name of R. Imi: He saw his mother’s face, at which his blood cooled” (Genesis Rabbah 87:7).

“And Jacob his father said to him: Joseph! It is in your brothers’ future that their names be written upon the stones of the Breastplate and you are amongst them4. Is it your will that your name be erased from amongst them? And that you will be called a man who keeps company with harlots? As it is written: (Proverbs 29:3) ‘He who keeps company with harlots wastes his substance’” (Sota 36b). The parental threat did its job: “Immediately (Genesis 49:24) ‘And his bow returned in strength’ – R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Meir: That his bow returned to its strength (ibid.“‘And the seed of his hands was scattered’ – he dug his hands into the ground and his seed was issued through his fingernails” (Sota 36b). According to the Midrash, Joseph was only seventeen years old when all this occurs; Mann raises his age to twenty-four.

Thus a more earthly Talmudic and Midrashic layer sets itself upon the epic biblical text. The uniqueness of the Midrashic palimpsest is that it sets the biblical story alongside the rabbinical figures who are discussing it, and by doing so transforms them into literary heroes. Their names are mentioned in the text, and every reading belongs to someone. An anonymous person documents the discussion on parchment – is he the author or just a scribe? “And he left his garment in her hand, and fled, and went outside” (Genesis 39:12). He avoided the transgression, thus earning the title of “Tzaddik” (a righteous man). King David did not pass this test, he was tricked.

Satan came in the form of a bird, a winged cupid with a tail, the Satan matchmaker. He caused mischief by shooting an arrow at the curtain behind which Bat Sheva was washing her hair in the nude, and David was defeated. “Rav Yudah said in Rab’s name: One should never bring himself to be tested, since David King of Israel did so, and failed. He said unto Him: ‘Sovereign of the Universe! Why do we say The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob,but not the God of David? He replied: They were tried by me, but thou was not.Then, replied he: Sovereign of the Universe, examine and try me – as it is written: (Psalms 26:2) ‘Examine me, O Lord, and try me’. He answered: I will test thee, and yet grant thee a special privilege; for I did not inform them yet, I inform thee that I will try thee in a matter of lust. Straightway: (Samuel II 11:2) ‘And it came to pass in an eveningtide, that David arose from off his bed’. R. Yudah said: He changed his night couch to a day couch, but he forgot the Halachah: there is a small organ in man which satisfies him in his hunger but makes him hunger when satisfied (ibid.). ‘And he walked upon the roof of the king’s house and from the roof he saw a woman washing herself; and the woman was very beautiful to look upon’. Now Bat Sheva was cleansing her hair behind a screen, when Satan came to him, appearing in the shape of a bird. He shot an arrow at him, which broke the screen, thus she stood revealed, and he saw her” (Sanhedrin 107a).

In both cases our heroes are in pursuit of honor, and in both cases the essence of the transgression is adultery. The wife of Potiphar and the wife of Uriah HaHiti are other men’s wives5. David is meant to commit this transgression, for if not Solomon wouldn’t have been brought into the world6.

The patterns of these games in the Jewish texts are almost identical to, and originate from the book of Job. The executor of the trial is Satan: first he seeks permission from the Creator to try the righteous man. The Creator voices his doubts as to the success of the trial, but nonetheless He gives His blessing. The Talmud is seasoned with stories of this sort.

In my search for scenes suitable for drawing, I once again became immersed in the texts and stumbled upon vast areas of interest that I had not set out to look for: analogies, associative connections, paradox. The abundance of written material does not cease to amaze me; all is intertwined, taken apart and placed together anew. And so I arrive at discoveries that have already been uncovered by those greater than I, as I write my own palimpsest. It is written on transparent scrolls that simultaneously reflect myriads of ancient texts. And in it, as in the depths of a lake, the overturned towers of Babel drown, their unfinished tops reaching down in a vain attempt to touch the bottom.

  1. In the ancient Middle East the citron (etrog) was considered an erotic symbol. In the Midrash the citron is compared to the People of Israel: (Leviticus 23:40) “‘The fruit of the Hadar tree’ symbolizes Israel; just as the citron has taste as well as fragrance, so Israel have among them men who possess learning and good deeds” (Leviticus Rabbah 30:12).
  2. In his lecture, “Joseph and his Brothers” (1942), Thomas Mann (1968, 899) cites Goethe saying that there is so much vitality in this forthright story; but that it seems too short and that it raises the temptation to expand on the descriptions and fill in the details.
  3. Palimpsest: An ancient manuscript written on the parchment of earlier material that has been erased. In most palimpsests the earlier writing is still somewhat legible. (Even Shushan, 1988, 1063 [Heb.]).
  4. Over his vest, the high priest wore a holy, square-shaped piece; this is the breastplate, the Hoshen. There were twelve precious stones set in four rows, representing the Twelve Tribes of Israel. Each tribe is considered to be descendent of one of Jacob’s sons.
  5. Sexual intercourse with another man’s wife is adultery, prohibited by the Ten Commandments, and subject to the death penalty of death by strangulation (Steinsaltz, 1989, 143).
  6. King David and Bat Sheva’s first child dies after seven days as a punishment for their sin. Their second son, “Solomon, was loved by God” (Samuel II 12:25).