The Idiot

First published in 1868, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoevsky has long been a favorite of Russian literature.

The novel seeks to expose the tragedy that occurs when a truly good and beautiful human being encounters the rudeness and cruelty of the real world. Its character portrayal is likened to another literary great, the 17th century Spanish classic, Don Quixote.


The Idiot gains its title from the central character, Prince Lyov Nikolaevich Myshkin [Myshkin], a young man troubled by epilepsy which was at the time equated with simplicity of mind, or idiocy.  His condition highlights his goodness and open-hearted simplicity and much of the novels tension is created by his interaction with characters who mistakenly assume that he lacks intelligence and insight.

Dostoevsky’s account of one man’s struggle with the conflicts, desires, passions and egoism of worldly society is according to philosopher A.C. Grayling, is: of the most excoriating, compelling and remarkable books ever written; and without question one of the greatest.

So, what happens when the ideal human being comes into the real world?

The world that Prince Myshkin enters is one of moral corruption and decay. With money as the principal object of importance, the value of human dignity and the source of human love are redefined in relationship to it. Beautiful, intelligent women such as Nastassya Filippovna, are objectified, dishonored and consequently destroyed by the people who supposedly love and desire them.

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This world of the novel is also full of drunks and rogues, even murderers,  and a high society full of superficial nothings who are surrounded by self serving underlings seeking a high position.

In contrast to this world, Prince Myshkin stands out with simple goodness.

In the midst of this world Dostoevsky depicts Myshkin as an almost Christ-like character, epitomised so by his immense compassion and love for others.  The novel contains an series of encounters between Myshkin and the other characters, many of whom have committed offenses against him. His attempts at assisting them even after their slights, emphasise his selfless compassion.

The novel is a tragic satire. Dosotoevksy used the novel to discuss and critique Russian Christianity. In it Prince Myshkin describes religion as an immensely strong feeling similar to joy, the joy God feels for his creation. For him, true religion is more akin to a feeling than a set of rules to follow.


This idiotic sentiment of his leads him only to suffering. Though he attempts to help those around him, he fails and this failure, finally drives him to insanity. The tragedy of the novel is that it would seem his effect on this world is ultimately zero.

Does Myshkin fail to bring good? Is his own goodness inverted and manipulated, leading to the destruction of both himself and his ideal?

Far from it.

The novel remains a classic for its embodiment of true religion, one of compassion and a quest to right injustice. It remains a timely warning against the vices of wealth and privilege and false morality. And it points beyond itself to the truest man, the one who suffered so that we might see inequalities redressed and true humanity valued.


What is truth?

In the west, we condone a liberal tolerance of all points of view – asserting there is no such thing as “ultimate truth.” This itself is a truth claim but is a valid truth claim because it supports freedom of thought. So we believe in individual freedom.

We don’t believe in any over arching system of ethics or system of truth,  until another culture contravenes our ideas of what is right and wrong. Case in point, what greater evil than the censorship of freedom of speech? right ?

In western nations,  we believe in the power of forgiveness but not in oppressive views or regulations about sexuality. Other cultures believe in conservative sexual values, but not necessarily in our liberal notions of forgiveness. Not an honour-shame society for example.

What is right and what is wrong ? Our bias tells us our ways are right and others are wrong. Other’s truth claims lead to violence and hate. Our truth claims are valid because they endorse freedom and life.

In western nations, we hold dearly to notions of liberal individualism, yet imposing such notions on developing communities, essentially divorcing the individual as an entity from their community, wreaks havoc both for the individual and for the community in question. So well meaning help, from the vantage point of what we value highly can  actually be a violence to a community.

This begs the question of whether there is an ultimate narrative to aspire to understanding – an ultimate hero-journey, an ultimate discovery of “what is” that will guide our way? Or do we simply impose order and narrative onto life? This quote caught my eye recently in the Huffington Post.

In 2009, Julianne Moore’s mother, Anne Smith, died suddenly of septic shock. She was 68, and Moore was devastated. After that, she stopped believing in God. “I learned when my mother died five years ago that there is no ‘there’ there,” Moore, 54, told the Hollywood Reporter.

“Structure, it’s all imposed. We impose order and narrative on everything in order to understand it. Otherwise, there’s nothing but chaos.”

Do we impose a narrative on life – or is there a narrative there to discover ? Ultimately, what is truth?

Interestingly, Pilate asked the same question of Christ. John 18 recounts:

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

38What is truth?” retorted Pilate.

With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him. 39 But it is your custom for me to release to you one prisoner at the time of the Passover. Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?”

40 They shouted back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!”

In John’s account, Jesus makes the startling claim to not “speak the truth” but the “be the truth” that all truth-tellers speak of.

In our understanding, the teachings of Christ are good and moral. He taught to forgive, to show mercy, to love our enemies. He gave up his life for these values. He was an iconoclast, a prophet not unlike Ghandi or Siddharta.

His audactious claims tell us a few things:

  1. He did not ever wish to be a good teacher pointing to the truth. He cannot be equated among good teachers for this claim.
  2. In the words of C S Lewis, “He is either a lunatic, a liar or …………….”

So, what do we do with his claim to BE the truth? If he claimed to embody the truth, this truth must be something like freedom or life, the only things that are of ultimate value and not relative worth.

Science makes truth claims, but science is a provable system of empirical tests. Science claims don’t seek to control us, but rather support our understanding of the reality we live in. Moreover, the claims of science are ultimately disprovable, and the next test or proof can totally shift our understanding of reality to a new and deeper truth claim.

C S Lewis explained his belief in God:

I believe Christianity just as I believe the sun rises, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

So Christ claimed to be the light by which we would see the world and reality.

In narrative terms, Christ claimed to be the ultimate narrative to aspire to, the ultimate meaning in the universe. He stated that we do not simply “impose order and narrative” onto everything, but his IS the grand narrative.









Joseph and Judah – the story of redemption

Since the very popular ‘Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat’ stage musical was released in the 1970s, the story of Joseph has held fascination for a new generation. A farmer boy is betrayed by his family and  brought into the heart of the Egyptian empire as a slave, he is imprisoned, he serves in two noble households rising to highest rank in the nation besides the King, there he encounters his murderous brothers again and saves them fulfilling the very dream they sought to murder him for. It’s high drama.



It’s a narrative that forms over 25% of the book of Genesis, yet some scholars and theologians assume it is  simply a transitional story between the patriarchs and the Exodus. Some questions its significance to the progression of ‘salvation history’. Others have written about Joseph as a story in relation to wisdom literature, outlining godly character and courage under fire.  However, this doesn’t accord with the fact that the story has more in common with tragedy or high drama and the characters of the narrative are profoundly flawed: Reuben is ineffectual, Joseph bratty and immature, Judah cold and spiritually insensitive.

In line with earlier posts, I want to examine the story of Joseph from a literary perspective. It’s evident to me that while the Bible shows historical interests, the interests of the text are presented in an artistic and theological way.


  • The cycles of the Pentateuch

Genesis is comprised of ten ‘toledoth’ sections which function as cycles marking the book’s major divisions. Each account is not in fact about the ‘ancestor’ but rather about his descendants [Gen 2:4]. These cycles recount God’s covenant dealings with the patriarchs and look forward to the establishment of His plans. Thus, the Joseph narrative is seen as part of the larger historical narrative of Genesis which “repeatedly and emphatically explains that Israel’s God, the God of creation and the Lord of history has called Israel to take possession of Canaan and from that basis to bless the nations [12:1-3, 15, 17].”

Since it connects the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-36 to the account of the Exodus and since the brothers enter Egypt “as an embryonic nation” and leave it as a powerful nation, scholars have labelled the narrative, in fact a story of the birth of the nation of Israel. While the story transitions us from the fracture between Jacob and Esau, and ends with the family united in Egypt looking towards Canaan, however, it also closes with a question mark over the nature of the ‘reconciliation’ achieved. Gen 50:15-21, after the death of Jacob, has the brothers again begging for mercy of Joseph and facing years of exile in Egypt. A British scholar called David Clines has argued that the theme of the Pentateuch is “the partial fulfilment – which implies the partial non-fulfilment – of the promise or blessing of the patriarchs’. The book of Genesis ends with a bit of a cliff hanger.

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  • Salvation through Judgment. 

Hamilton suggest another pattern emerging through the bible, that salvation comes to the nation of Israel through the form of judgment. Evident in the Flood Narrative and later exile, this pattern shows how Israel is in fact preserved through hardship. Early in the narrative, [Gen 38:1-30] Judah threatens the family by intermarrying with the Canaanites.  Some scholars believe that the Egyptian pilgrimage is brought about by God to prevent their assimilation with the Canaanites, lest they lose their purpose to bless the earth [12:3; 24:3, 26:34-35; 27:46; 34:2]. To achieve this, God sends Joseph ahead into segregated Egypt [43:32; 46:34] a place where Hebrew distinctives will be fostered and not removed. The protagonist is here both enslaved and exalted at the right time, to bring about salvation for the people. The subsequent years of exile and slavery that proceed, forges a national identity and upon return to Canaan, the Israelites number over a million people.


  • Salvation through ‘the lesser born”

The very potent image of Genesis is of the ‘seed’ or the emerging Royal dynasty promised through Eve, down to Abraham and ending Genesis with Perez, Judah’s son [Gen 49:8-12]. However, a nuance to the dynastic line  is the motif of the election of the ‘younger son’ or the reversal of seniority.  Without exception, this election creates jealousy, strife and even murder. This conflict’ first manifests itself when Cain kills Abel in Genesis 4:8. The conflict continues; Isaac, the son of promise is hated by his older sibling Ishmael; Esau hates Jacob and Joseph’s brothers want to kill him [Gen 37: 4-5, 18-19]. Within the Joseph narrative, his dreams and paternal favouritism elicit murderous intent within his brothers. What is of particular interest to the Joseph narrative is the fact not that he is not the literal promised ‘seed’ of the patriarchal promises, in fact Judah is and from thenceforth, the line is carried through the first born. I believe the significance of this motif is not capricious election on behalf of a sovereign God, but has more to do with the motif of ‘salvation through judgement’. The election of the lesser born in these narratives subverts convention and so draws attention to a particular points about the type of servant God chooses. This servant is consistently one who suffers at the hands of a dominant and threatened “older sibling”.


  •  Character change, reconciliation and chiastic structures 

A curious element of Hebrew literature is the prevalence of chiastic structures creating parallel stanzas in poems or narratives. Elements at the beginning and end reflect each other and do so in increasing frequency to a point on which the narrative pivots – revealing a significant theological or artistic point. Within the Joseph narrative pivots are identified around the double centre on verses [44:1-34] in which the brothers pass the test of love for their brother and  [45:1-28] in which Joseph gives up his power over his brother.  Further parallels exist between ch. 37 and 50 in the chiasmus: Joseph’s dream is fulfilled when his brothers bow before him, and he is able to assuage their fears that God “intended it for good” [50:20].

In addition, ch 38 which interrupts the Joseph narrative to show Judah’s failure as a father-in-law and consequent conception of twins stands in direct opposition to ch 49 which contains Jacob’s prophecy of the royal line to continue through Judah.  Ch 38, while placed out of step with the chronological nature of the narrative, contains Judah’s confession of wrong against Tamar which occurs at a similar time chronologically to when all the brothers confess their wrong against Joseph [38:26; 42:21]. “This scene provides an essential piece in the characterisation of Judah, whose greater Son will rule the universe.”  His confessions of wrongs against Tamar and Joseph [38:26; 42:21] begin his faith journey peaking when the once callous slave trader of his young half-brother, offers himself as a slave in the stead of his youngest half-brother [44:18-33].


  • Emergence of a king

The notion of ‘kingship’ is mentioned throughout Genesis in relation to the main line of descent, the ‘seed’. Both Abraham [17:6] and Sarah [17:16] are promised that kings will come from them. In the Joseph narrative the brothers interpret Joseph’s dream as implying he will be king over them [37:8-11] aggravating their already potent hatred. It is the ‘seed’ however of the main family lineage which is associated with the divine promises which feature in the patriarchal narratives and by Gen 50 it is clear the ‘seed’ descends through Judah. As noted above, character change is what Genesis is all about.” As noted above, Judah emerges as the hero of the tale. While at the outset of the narrative, Judah along with his brothers conspires to kill Joseph, his transformation by chapter 44 shows he now accepts the painful reality of Joseph’s role in saving their lives without rancour.  “Jacob will crown Judah with kingship because he demonstrates that he has become fit to rule according to God’s ideal of kingship – that the king serves the people, not vice versa.”  Judah is transformed from one who sought in hatred to kill the ‘lesser born’ for his prophesied ‘rule’ to one who sees with eyes of faith, one who exemplifies Israel’s kingship.


  • Contemporary Significance 

One of the most interesting sermons in the New Testament is given by Stephen at his execution. He neatly summarises stories from Joseph, Moses, the Prophets and the law to show the Jews how they are rejecting Christ [Acts 7:9; Acts 7:23-29].  Despite the persecution of their own people, both men brought deliverance for God’s people. Stephen’s argument is that the law typologically foreshadows Christ as the rejected prophet; thus those who reject him are also typologically foreshadowed by those who rejected Joseph, Moses and the prophets [Acts 17:2-3]. It’s a powerful case study.

In the same way, this pattern is fulfilled in Jesus, and it is a pattern of salvation that comes through judgement for God’s glory. God judged Joseph’s bothers [Gen 42:21-22;44:16], exalted Joseph [45:9] and through judgement brought the brothers to repentance [44:16, 18-34; 50:15-18] and all along what they meant for evil he meant for good [50:20]. Jesus is depicted as ‘Israel son-of-God,’ when as an infant he descends to Egypt, and back fulfils the words of the prophet Hosea 11:1. The events of Jesus’ life are the ‘recapitulation’ of Israel’s history.  Jesus and his family flee from Herod who is seeking to destroy him, a particularly potent example hatred on behalf of the “rightful ruler” to the “elect lesser born” prophesied to save and to rule. 



To sum up, the ‘Joseph narrative’ is rich with covenantal themes that resonate throughout Genesis and throughout the Pentateuch. From the ‘seed conflict’ established in Gen 3, to the patriarchal promises of Gen 12, the narrative does more than bridge to the Exodus, and more than simply preserving the nation of Israel from assimilation and destruction. The Joseph narrative sets up paradigmatic ‘salvation’ themes of ‘election of the lesser born’ and ‘salvation through judgement.’