After his unexpected defeat in the Republican primary, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor opened a press conference by saying, “In the Jewish faith, you know, I grew up, went to Hebrew school, read a lot in the Old Testament, and you learn a lot about individual setbacks.”
This is not mere piety, and the King James Version of the Bible, made up of the Old Testament and the New, is a terrific book. The heroes of these stories do not lead the race wire to wire. Those who are elevated are tested and taught by disaster.
To the reader of Genesis the pattern is inescapable. Joseph, Jacob’s favorite son, who knew the secret of interpreting dreams 2 millennia before Sigmund Freud, is sold into slavery and ends up in Egypt. His brothers bloody the boy’s coat of many colors and bring it home to break their old father’s heart — Jacob, who had wrestled an angel to a standstill and was rewarded with a new and blessed name (Israel) and penalized with a wound (an injured leg).
Joseph becomes his Egyptian master’s favorite, but then is falsely accused of sexual harassment and goes to prison, where he makes his reputation as an interpreter of dreams. When he translates the dreams that trouble Pharaoh and gives the monarch wise counsel, he becomes viceroy of all the land.
This story is epic poetry of the highest order — written with strict economy and bold directness. Here’s what Jacob says when he learns of his son’s ascendancy: “It is enough; Joseph my son is yet alive; I will go and see him before I die.” The eloquence is in the simplicity.
Cantor, the man who was a step away from high glory, may well take some pensive consolation from the story of Joseph — or from “Election Day, November 1884,” Walt Whitman’s Bible-quoting poem in which the “the still, small voice” of the divine rests in “America’s choosing day.” The determination of that “peaceful choice” is more powerful “than all Rome’s wars of old.”
David Lehman’s New and Selected Poems came out in November 2013 from Scribner.