There’s a long Prelude to the tetralogy — called “Descent into Hell” — which I may discuss later on. After the Prelude we enter the first of the four parts of the tetralogy, The Stories of Jacob. And while the main character of this book is (theoretically) Jacob, we don’t get his story in chronological order: we begin with a scene between Jacob and Joseph, his teenage son — indeed, we see Joseph before we see his father. This scene strikes certain notes which then resonate, sometimes harmoniously and sometimes discordantly, throughout the rest of the tetralogy.
The first substantive thing that we learn about Joseph is that he is widely and deeply aware of the religious practices of what the Israelites called the nations, the peoples that surround his little familial world. (“Nations” = Latin gentes = our word “gentiles.”) He sits, at evening, in a contemplative pose, and intently contemplates the moon. Or does he worship the moon? Moreover, the whole scene takes place under the influence, one might even say the patronage, of the goddess Ishtar, who gives her name to the first section of this first chapter. (Here, as is traditional, she is associated with the planet Venus.) Mann also tells us that there is something indefinably Egyptian about Joseph’s appearance.
Above I wrote of “Israelites,” but really there are no Israelites yet, just the family of the man born as Jacob and later re-named Israel — Yiśrā’ēl, “strives with God.” He is the son of Isaac, who is the son of Abraham; so we are just three generations into this new adventure in human history — and, Mann says, a new adventure in the life of God. For one of the points that he makes at several points in the story is that Abraham was the man who invented God.
Mann doesn’t think that Jacob is literally the grandson of Abraham — he believes that many generations separate them — but he accepts that Jacob is in some … other sense Abraham’s grandson. Mann has a notion, often referred to in the narrative, that certain personalities recur generation after generation: people as it were imagine themselves into the lives of their ancestors, so that they become their own ancestors: they inhabit the stories they have inherited. So for instance, when Jacob comes upon the contemplative Joseph, the boy is naked, and Jacob tells him put to put some clothes on — and as he does he finds himself recalling the mirror image of his experience, the moment when Noah’s sons saw his nakedness, and Jacob fells that he is in some way entering into that story, a story he had been told by his father and grandfather. That’s what happens, in this narrative, to old stories: through inhabitation they are revivified, generation after generation. (This is the beginning of typology.)
So Abraham learned certain essential stories which he then passed them down to his descendants, one of whom is Jacob. And the central story is that of Abraham himself having been called from his old life by God, a God who is jealous and singular — so much so that Abraham, reflecting on his encounters with this strange disembodied presence, comes to think that he is not encountered merely another god among the many gods, but Something more extreme, Something that can’t be classed with anything else. And this is the sense in which Abraham invents God: he discovers — or imagines; Mann allows the reader to judge, though he sometimes hints that this God really does exist, though perhaps only because Abraham imagined Him — a universal Deity, the Creator of all things visible and invisible, Lord of all the nations, even the nations who do not recognize him. That’s the God Abraham invented, and that’s the God that that Jacob has inherited, and Jacob is fierce in his monotheism. He thinks always of his God and imitates Him. “El-Elyon’s choice and preference of some individuals, absent, or at least beyond, any merit on their part was absolute and splendid; by any human measure, it was hard to comprehend and unjust, a sublime emotional reality that was not to be quibbled with, but to be honored with trembling and rapture in the dust. And Jacob, himself aware – though in all humility and fear — that he was the object of such favor, imitated God by existing exuberantly on his own predilection and giving it free rein” (63).
But Joseph doesn’t think this way. Joseph is, as I said earlier, highly aware of the gods of the peoples whom the children of Abraham regularly encounter. The children of Abraham, these herdsman and wanderers, don’t occupy the cities where the gentes dwell, with their temples and priests. They may visit such places to trade goods, but they don’t live there. They live, rather, in the places between, in the fields and on the hills. They take their herds with them wherever they go, and when their herds flourish, they become people of real substance. They buy and trade, and that become substantial figures in the economy of their world, but they remain always nomadic, and have no need for a city, a city with a temple in the midst of it and statues of God to bow down before. The God they worship, and whose voice in the fields and on the hills they can hear, is the one who has called them out of a dead life and has accompanied them; is also the one with whom Jacob wrestled on the banks of a river. He is the Fear (Gen. 31:42). But Joseph may not be as fearful as his ancestors.