...except for me and my monkey! "Everything we see hides another thing. We always want to see what is hidden by what we see." -Rene Magritte

Friday, January 21, 2005

Historical inaccuracies in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat

This may come as a shock, but the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, based on the Biblical ancestral narrative found in Genesis 37-50, contains many historical anachronisms and inaccuracies. For instance, we know from archaelogical evidence that Pharoah actually preferred a zoot suit to the sparkly Elvis costume he wears in the musical, and it is historically unlikely that the famine in Canaan would have caused Joseph's eleven brothers to doff berets and musically complain about the lack of joie de vivre.

When I listed to Joseph this afternoon, though, I caught two other Biblical anachronisms which proved to me that I learned something in my Old Testament class last semester. To wit:

1. In the song "Joseph's Dreams," in which Joseph tells his eleven older brothers about his dreams that he will surpass them in greatness, the brothers sing, "The dreams are more than crystal clear /
The writing's on the wall / Means that Joseph some day soon / Will rise above us all."
Even if the brothers did historically sing...in meter...in rhyme...in English, they wouldn't have said "the writing's on the wall," because that didn't become a phrase until after the composition of the Book of Daniel, hundreds of years later. "The writing's on the wall" has its origins in the Babylonian courtly tales that make up the first half of Daniel (the second half is comprised of apocalyptic visions). According the story in Daniel 5, King Belshazzar is giving a great feast, drinking wine from golden goblets that had been looted from the temple in Jerusalem (Dan. 5:3), when "Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale and he was so frightened that his knees knocked together and his legs gave way" (Dan. 5:5-6 NIV). The king calls in all his astrologers and wise men, and offers riches and power to whoever can read the writing on the wall (Dan. 5:7). Of course, no one can read it, until finally Daniel, a young Hebrew man, is called in. He rejects the reward and proclaims woe to Belshazzar, who has disregarded the God of Israel in favor of pagan idols: "Therefore he sent the hand that wrote the inscription. This is the inscription that was written: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN. This is what these words mean: Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians" (Dan. 5:24-28 NIV).

2. In the song "Close Every Door", which according to Ryan was based on Chopin's fourth ballade, after being imprisoned, Joseph sings "Close every door to me / Keep those I love from me / Children of Israel / Are never alone." In a literal sense, Joseph was a child of Israel, because his father Jacob was also known as Israel. But in the Biblical storyline, the first time the phrase "Children of Israel" is used to address the Israelite people isn't until Moses goes up to Pharoah, all "Let my people GOOOOOOOOO!" That happens in the Book of Exodus, after the Israelites have been enslaved in Egypt for hundreds of years. That doesn't happen until after Joseph is released from jail, enters the service of the Pharoah (different Pharaoh, obviously, although the lack of specific names makes Hebrew Bible scholars suspicious about the historical reliability of these stories), predicts the famine, and runs into his brothers, who have migrated down to Egypt from Canaan. Genesis 50 basically ends with Jacob's twelve sons, the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel (and again, scholars doubt there were exactly twelve, much less the specific twelve named) in Egypt, and Exodus, the next book, begins with them all enslaved. In the words of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, "Poor, poor Joseph, sold to be a slave / Situation's grave, hey, sold to be a slave." Yes, situation's grave, indeed. Pretty fucking grave, once you've been sold to be a slave.