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Auditing Trauma: How Ancient Israel Heard Joseph’s Story
In this two-part article I draw a connection between the healing effect for war veterans reading The Odyssey and The Iliad and the healing effect for Israel hearing/reading Joseph’s story in Genesis 37-50.
In order to heal from trauma, survivors must find ways to safely tell their stories. The “safely” part is the most critical, and part of that safety is the survivor seeing and feeling that those listening are supportive, empathic, and without judgment. People are being trained in how to listen well to these stories, and I commend that work. Whether as a friend, family member, church leader, etc., learning how to create safety for people recounting experiences of wounding is both possible and necessary.
As important as it is for trauma survivors to tell their stories, it is also therapeutic to hear stories of other survivors, especially those who have engaged the healing process. That it would be healing to find shared experience, to no longer feel alone, to know at the deepest level that another understands, is something all people can relate with. Since this is a universal human reality - healing through listening to stories of trauma and growth - we should not be surprised to see this dynamic in ancient works like Homer’s epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey.
In the early 2000s, and without any connection as far as I can tell, psychiatrist Jonathan Shay and classicist Roberta Stewart both began using the Iliad and Odyssey to help military veterans recover from war.1 Shay used the vivid descriptions of war encountered by Odysseus and other characters to both help his own understanding of what veterans experience during and after war, and also give veterans the experience of being understood. Stewart took that a step further and started reading groups with 8-12 vets where they would read through and discuss the texts. In these groups the vets identify with Odysseus’ experience as they “respond to the text from the perspective of their own experience.”2 “It is a book group where we put the text in the middle of the room and allow its meanings to resonate.” Here is Stewart’s explanation of the power of these groups:
“I think that Homer enables the veterans to create a self-narrative about war experience and so construct a narrative about their own return. Evidence for the power of authoring narratives to recover from trauma and create a sense of self is ubiquitous and hence perhaps unremarkable, but it should be remarked…In creating narratives, veterans - individually and compositely - may come to a shared truth about their experience and an ever-deeper understanding of their individual experience.”
Or as one friend, a combat vet and clinical psychologist, explained to her, “Homer offers veterans a map for coming home. The reading groups provide the opportunity to read the map.”
The subtitle of this article is “How Israel Heard Joseph’s Story”. I believe that Stewart’s and Shay’s work with the Odyssey and Iliad provide helpful comparisons to how Genesis functioned for the original audience of Israel.
I recently taught an adult Sunday School on the book of Genesis, slowly working through each section, about a chapter per class. Over the many weeks we retold these stories with an emphasis on the literary context, believing that Moses composed the book for the people of Israel in the wilderness after leaving Egypt and before entering Canaan. Almost every narrative is chalk full of similarities that enabled Israel to bridge the gap between their present experience and the ancient stories of their ancestors and the ancient world of primeval history.
One of the more apparent episodes with these similarities is when Abraham travels to Egypt in Genesis 12. Like Jacob’s family (Israel), Abraham went to Egypt because of a famine. While in Egypt, God afflicts Pharaoh, and then Pharaoh sends Abraham away from Pharaoh with greater wealth than when he entered. Virtually every individual narrative in Genesis contains these intentional points of connection. However, the Joseph saga of Genesis 37-50 is unique. Unlike the previous sagas of the primeval history, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the story of Joseph highlights the painful difficulties of suffering and injustice. When Genesis was read to Israel, and the people started hearing Joseph’s story, they would have been struck by the similarities.
Like Joseph, they were enslaved in Egypt. Like Joseph, they were blessed in Egypt, but that very blessing was the pretext for later oppression. Like Joseph, God at times appeared to be silently absent in the midst of their pain. Israel would hear of Joseph’s near-death experience in Dotham and remember how their sons were almost killed in Egypt. They would hear of the providential arrival of the Ishmaelites to purchase Joseph from his brothers and think of how God used the midwives to protect their sons’ lives. Just like the Israelites flourished despite Pharaoh’s attempt at population control, they would resonate with Joseph’s success despite being sold as a slave to Potiphar. Joseph was forgotten by the chief cupbearer and surely felt forgotten by God, a feeling Israel would have known deep in their bones after 400 years of cruel slave labor. Just as the future safety of Joseph’s family was threatened by conflict, jealousy, deceit and immorality, Israel’s welfare in the wilderness and in Canaan was jeopardized by sin in the camp. When Israel heard Joseph’s explanations for the names of his sons, they would resonate with “hardship” and “the land of my affliction” as a banner over their wounded past (Genesis 41:50-52).
Next week we will further explore how these stories of Joseph were healing for the people of Israel. For now, consider how all of these resonances between the respective suffering of Israel and Joseph would have comforted God’s people in the wilderness. I first discovered this angle on Homer through Timothy Patitsas’ astounding book The Ethics of Beauty (which I have previously discussed here and here). Patitsas captures Shay’s work on the Odyssey and Iliad and the pain of feeling like no one knows your suffering:
Quote from Timothy Patitsas3
Although Shay is very respectful of the uniqueness of the combat experience, he believes that when trauma victims insist that their own brand of trauma was uniquely horrible, that this itself is a result of the trauma. One way of excommunicating ourselves is to show that we have suffered as no other person ever has; if no one can understand or share my suffering, then my godlike aloneness is total. There is a danger, in trauma, of being seduced by this forbidden fruit, this access to ultimate isolation, that promises me an almost godlike knowledge of good and evil. We could even become proud of having suffered some evil in complete and divine aloneness.
The Ethics of Beauty, by Timothy Patitsas.
What do you think is worse, being traumatized, or going through the trauma alone? Maybe an un-nuanced question, but I’m reminded of how Bonnie Badenoch says that “The essence of trauma isn’t events, but aloneness within them.” What aloneness are you facing that God addresses in his Word?
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Shay, Jonathan. Odysseus in America: Combat Trauma and the Trials of Homecoming. Scribner, 2002.
Stewart, Roberta. Amphora: Ancient Narratives and Modern War Stories: Reading Homer with Combat Veterans, August 8, 2015.
All quotes are from Stewart, Amphora.
Ethics of Beauty, p. 19.