Posted online with permission of author;
Scanned by Jonah Winters; proofread by Ted Brownstein
published in World Order, 29:2 (Winter 1997-98), 25-42
THE first installment of the story of Joseph in five religious traditions
followed that story through its successive appearances as a mystical narrative
within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, showing how the story has been
repeatedly used to symbolize the life and mission of the Manifestations of
Godthe great and mysterious beings Who successively brought those religions
While all three faiths arose
uniquely in different times and historical situations, the story of Joseph,
when retold, seems to encapsulate a process that, while unique in its
particulars, is the same in its essential features. Guided by superior
spiritual knowledge, the new Manifestation always brings teachings that aim to
purify religion and revivify humanity. He is attacked by those who fear, envy,
or otherwise oppose Him, seeking His death and the death of His Cause. After
much suffering and apparent defeat, He and His followers prevail, and a new and
vital religion emerges that eventually changes the course of civilization. It
is a story and a process with numerous literary and historical analogues in
other cultures as well.
In Judaism, because of its antiquity, the story of Joseph survives as a
biblical narrative, the literal connection of which with a specific historical
figure is shrouded in the mists of time. In early Christianity, the story was
seen to parallel and prefigure the story of Christ. In Islam, Muhammad Himself
invested the story with special importance by personally identifying it with
His own spiritual mission. Today the story has taken on a new and contemporary
significance in that it also occupies a place of great importance in two
related religionsthe Bábí and Bahá'í faithsthat
appeared within a nineteen-year period in Persia (modern day Iran) during the
last century. In these two religions the extraordinarily resilient story of
Joseph retained its character as a mystical narrative, and, in the case of the
Bábí Faith, it also figured in historical events associated with
the very creation of that Faith.
To understand how the story of Joseph came to be so prominent in the
Bábí and Bahá'í religions requires some background,
especially concerning the question of spiritual authority within Shí'ah
Islam. As explained in the first installment of the story of Joseph,
Shí'ah Islam, the principal religion of Iran, differs from Sunni Islam
(the other major branch of Islam) in its belief that, after the death of
Muhammad, legitimate spiritual authority devolved not to the caliph (an elected
ruler), as the Sunnis believed, but to Muhammad's son-in-law 'Alí (the
first Imam) and thereafter successively to eleven other Imams chosen from
'Alí's lineal descendants.
Shí'ah Muslims believe that, to prevent his assassination, the Twelfth
Imam, while still a boy, was taken by God in the year A.H. 260 (874 C.E.) into
"occultation," a state of being alive but veiled from the world, and that he
would return as the Promised Qá'im after a thousand years had passed.
Words of Muhammad in the Súrá of
Adoration made similar reference to the importance of a date that Islamic
scholars had reckoned as A.H. 1260 (1844 C.E.). Thus during much of the
nineteenth century a millennial fervor pervaded some religious groups within
Iran, as it did in other religions throughout the world.
But there was also an historical conflict about spiritual authority and the
interpretation of reality within Shí'ah Islam itself, reflected in a
long struggle for dominance between two approaches known as the
Usúlís School and the Akhbárí School (or School of
Isfahán), a struggle essentially won by the Usúlís. Since
the seventeenth century, Shí'ah Islam in Iran has been dominated by
conservative `ulamá of the Ursula School, clerical classes of men
trained in philosophy, theology, and especially religious jurisprudence, whose
approach favors the scholarly use of reasoning and technical commentary to
adjudicate matters of religious law and interpretation.
The approach favored by the conservative `ulamá
tends to focus authority and status in the most learned among them and to make
deductive logic the dominant mode of thought (similar to the approach in the
scholastic Christianity of the European Middle Ages).
In contrast, the School of Isfahán, a movement with ancient roots in
Islam, was characterized by the belief that learning should combine both
rational and intuitive knowledge and that spiritual understanding could come to
one not just through analytical thought but also through a mystical quest or
search for illumination, preceded by a regimen of spiritual purification and
discipline. It is an approach similar to that of the Sufis but different in
that its goal is not so much to achieve ecstatic feelings of mystical union
with God as to uncover esoteric meanings that lead one toward spiritual
understanding of God's will.
Well before the
nineteenth century the Akhbárís had been effectively marginalized
by the Usúlís, who found some of their beliefs heretical.
But in the early nineteenth century Akhbárí beliefs gained new
prominence with the appearance of a movement called the Shaykhí School,
in which many of the millennial expectations of Shí'ah Islam began to
crystallize. The founder of the Shaykhí movement was Shaykh
Ahmad-i-Ahsá'í (1753-1825), a widely respected spiritual thinker.
Born in Bahrain (a center of Akhbárí belief), he eventually
settled in Iran where he attracted the intense devotion of numerous followers
and the opposition of important conservatives among the `ulamá. Shaykh
Ahmad appointed as his successor one of his distinguished followers, Siyyid
Kázim-i-Rashti (1793-1844), who promulgated the teachings of Shaykh
Ahmad but introduced an element of intensified urgency, arguing that with the
approach of the year 1844 the reappearance of the Hidden Imam was imminent and
that every soul should seek him by undertaking a mystical and a literal search.
The story of Joseph was to become central in that collective quest.
In the differing responses to the Shaykhí beliefs are crystallized the
most compelling religious questions of the age: Should one expect the literal
"return" of the Hidden Imam, or did the veiled prophecies of Muhammad and those
from tradition have a different meaning? Would the Hidden Imam return as his
former physical self or as an essential spirit manifested in a new physical
person? Most important, did the power to recognize Him and confirm His
legitimacy rest in the hands of the `ulamá as a class or within the
individual heart of every seeking soul to be discovered independently of
mediation by the clergy?
For conservative `ulamáthe Usúlísthe Shaykhí
response to these questions represented a great threat to their authority. For
the Akhbárís, who believed in the imminent return, the words and
traditions of the Prophet on that subject and related mysteries took on a
personal urgency. Prophecies concerning the date of the return were clear
enough: It would occur in 1844. And since Muhammad Himself had invested the
story of Joseph with uniquely important status, calling it the "fairest" of
stories, the Shaykhís assumed that it must bear upon that greatest of
mysteries, the reappearance of the Twelfth Imam.
But its precise relevance was profoundly unclear. Even
Siyyid Kázim, when asked for a commentary on the Súrá of
Joseph, could only say: "`This is, verily, beyond me. He, that great One, who
comes after me will, unasked, reveal it for you. That commentary will
constitute one of the weightiest testimonies of His truth, and one of the
clearest evidences of the loftiness of his position."'
It is obvious that Siyyid Kázim saw a direct link
between the story of Joseph and the return.
The Bábí Religion
THE Bábí religion emerged from the matrix of Shaykhí
thought with the story of Joseph being central to the events of its dramatic
birth. The Founder of the Bábí religionits Manifestationwas a
descendant of the prophet Muhammad, a young man named Siyyid
'Alí-Muhammad, born on 20 October 1819 in the city of Shiraz in Persia.
At the inception of His Faith on 22 May 1844, when He was twenty-five years
old, He assumed the title of the Báb (meaning the Gate) and announced to
His first follower His claim that He was the Qá'im, the Promised One of
But He also taught that He was the
forerunner of a second Manifestation with an even greater mission than His own,
Who, He said, would become known to the world shortly after the Báb's
own mission had been completed.
Several of the Báb's close relatives, as well as His tutor, were
disciples of Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kázim. Clearly the Báb
Himself was familiar with and sympathetic to this heterodox group of
millennialists who firmly rejected the belief of the orthodox Muslims that the
Hidden Imam would reappear as his former physical self (much as Christ Himself
was expected by some Christians to appear literally in the clouds). But most of
them believed just as firmly, with growing intensity, that the Promised
OneWho Siyyid Kázim had said was already present among themwould
soon be "made manifest."
incident related by Nabíl in The Dawn-Breakers
that for Siyyid Kázim and one of his followers the Báb arranged a
meeting purposefully intended to evoke images from the story of Joseph as a
veiled way of confirming His own station as the Promised One. According to the
follower, Siyyid Kázim unexpectedly summoned him one day at dawn and
asked him to accompany him to the dwelling of a visitorthe as yet undeclared
BábWho welcomed them into "a chamber bedecked with flowers and
redolent of the loveliest perfumes" and then presented them with a filled
silver cup, quoting from the Qur'án as he did so, "A drink of pure
beverage shall their Lord give them." Given the Jewish and Islamic tradition
associating Joseph with fragrant aromas metaphorically reflecting his moral
beauty, and recalling the moment when Joseph ushered his unsuspecting brothers
into His presence, the Báb appears to have been using the story of
Joseph to make an announcement in dramatic but veiled terms that Siyyid
Kázim would have understood and taken literally but that the follower
would understand once the Báb made a public declaration of His mission.
Three days later, when the Báb attended a class conducted by Siyyid
Kázim, Siyyid Kázim fell silent. When his students begged him to
resume his lecture, a ray of light fell upon the Báb's lap. Siyyid
Kázim pointed to it and said, "What more shall I say? Lo, the Truth is
more manifest than the ray of light that has fallen upon that lap!"
With increasing awareness that the time of the return was imminent, Siyyid
Kázim had exhorted his followers to prepare themselves to undertake a
literal and mystical search for that Promised One, a search that must begin, he
said, immediately upon his own passing, which occurred on 31 December 1843.
With the death of Siyyid Kázim, his followers fell into confusion and
inertia, but in late January 1844 one of the most distinguished of them, a
young scholar named Mullá Husayn Bushru'í, who had been absent at
the time of Siyyid Kázim's death, returned. After preparing himself with
forty days of prayer and fasting, he set out, in accordance with the commands
of his late master, upon a quest to find the Promised Qá'im. He traveled
(with two companions) first to Bushru'í, thence to Shiraz, where he was
met outside the city gates by the Báb Himself, Who welcomed him with an
embrace and an invitation to His home. It is clear from the reported words of
Mullá Husayn that he did not, at that point, know the Báb, though
the Báb certainly seems to have recognized him, indeed to have been
waiting for him. Mullá Husayn reports that, having accompanied the
Báb to His home, he was received with the utmost courtesy and
During the course of that
evening the Bábí Faith was born, and Mullá Husayn became
the first person to believe in the Báb. Not only was the story of Joseph
a factor in that event; it was the vehicle by which the Báb, having
inaugurated the new religion, offered proof of His claim.
About an hour after arriving at the house of the Báb, according to the
reported words of Mullá Husayn, the Báb revealed to His visitor
the station that He claimed. Thrown into confusion and doubt by this
overwhelming announcement, Mullá Husayn remembered having earlier vowed
to himself that, should he meet One Who claimed to be the Qá'im, he
"`would ask him to reveal, without the least hesitation or reflection, a
commentary on the Súrá of Joseph, in a style and language
entirely different from the prevailing standards of the time,"' a task that
Siyyid Kázim had been unable to perform. While Mullá Husayn was
silently pondering his vow, the Báb offered observations on several
other topics. Then, unbidden, He said, "`Now is the time to reveal the
commentary on the Súrá of Joseph,"' whereupon, in a short time,
without once stopping, He revealed the first chapterthe Súrá of
Mulkof His Qayyúmu'l-Asmá, His Commentary on the
Súrá of Joseph, a work that would eventually cause many Persians
to declare their belief that the Báb was, indeed, the Promised One for
whom they had been waiting.
The Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' is not a "commentary" in the academic sense
of the word, proceeding as a scholarly treatise in the manner of the Islamic
schools. Rather, as explained by Islamicist Todd Lawson, in his study of the
Qayyúmu'l-Asmá', it is unique in that "it purports to be both a
commentary on the Qur'án and a new Qur'án," rewriting and
reinterpreting the Qur'án in a way that is similar to Muhammad's
reinterpretation of biblical stories and Christ's reinterpretation of Jewish
law, as reported in the Gospel of Matthew.
In short, the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' is a new holy book, the first
revealed text of a new revelation. And it was received as one. Shoghi Effendi,
Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, observes that "It was this Book
which the Bábís universally regarded, during almost the entire
ministry of the Báb, as the Qur'án of the people of the
Bayán [the Bábís]." Bahá'u'lláh, the Founder
of the Bahá'í Faith, described it as "`the first, the
greatest, and mightiest
'" of the Báb's works. When
Bahá'u'lláh first read one of the Báb's writings (whether
it was the commentary or another tablet is unclear), He is reported to have
recognized what he read instantly as being divinely inspired.
Yet even today the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' remains
virtually unknown in the West, and only partial translations into English are
Structurally, the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' is composed of 111
súrás (chapters), each one a commentary on a successive verse of
the Súrá of Joseph in the Qur'án. Each chapter is composed
of forty-two verses of rhyming prose. The work is 234 pages long in the oldest
available manuscript. Every chapter begins with an invocation of God's name
followed by the relevant verse from the Súrá of Joseph in the
Qur'án; a series, in all but four chapters, of disconnected letters
chosen for their mystical meaning; and the text of the chapter itselfthe
commentary on a verse from the story of Joseph in the Qur'án. Using
language that echoes the style of the Qur'án, the Báb's work
paraphrases the Súrá of Joseph and other parts of the
Qur'án, altering words and emphases in the Qur'ánic verses in a
way that "reveals" the ultimate significance of the Qur'ánits
previously hidden allusions to the Báb's own prophetic mission.
The work has a variety of audiencesMullá Husayn (in the first
instance), the other followers of the Báb, the Shah and his officials,
the Muslim divines, and the people of Iran; but its ultimate audience clearly
is the peoples of the world. The opening sentence announces that this work has
been sent from God through the Báb to "serve as a shining light for all
mankind," making it obvious that from the very moment of His declaration, the
Bah perceived Himself to be a universal Manifestation and the Founder of a new
religion. In a subsequent sentence He describes the
Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' as "the Path which God hath laid out for all that
are in heaven and on earth." It is, He says, the same truth given to Moses, and
He describes it as "the Mother Book," the same words later used by
Bahá'u'lláh to describe the commentary.
Because the Báb so boldly enjoins all people to
use this work as a spiritual guide and to judge its truth for themselves, it is
not difficult to see why the Orthodox Shí'ah priesthood would have
considered it the greatest threat to their own authority.
The literary effect of the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' is also unique. As
Lawson observes, the Báb is "patently not presenting himself as a
systematic theologian," nor, one might add, as a mere poet.
He "saw `the best of stories' as the allegorical account
of his own prophecy," and in the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá'
the message of the commentary is proclaimed by an invocation
of images and symbols, which when combined, paint a kind of annunciation. The
absence of any discursive argumentation renders the work more a verbal
"painting" or "carpet," than a normal expository attempt at adducing proofs in
a structured manner for the Báb's spiritual rank.
Within the Báb's mystical narrative, references to the story of Joseph
are everywhere, some direct and obvious, many others subtle, allusive, and
indirect. The effect is that of a kaleidoscopic motif, present wherever one
turns in reading the Báb's words, as if the
Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' were both an analytical response to and a new
creative revelation of meanings about the story of Joseph. The Báb uses
verbal echoes that cause His own mission to resonate with that of earlier
Manifestations and to present entirely new meanings in episodes within the
story. For example, at one point the Báb refers to Himself and His words
as the same light that was "raised up from the midst of the Burning Bush."
The historical allusion is not used merely
to lend authority to His claim; rather, His wording has the effect of infusing
fresh and deeper metaphorical meaning into an old image: the Burning Bush (from
the story of Moses) becomes a symbol for the world of being, a world now
infused with the light (the revealed knowledge) of a new and contemporary
revelation. The boldness of the Báb in using this reinterpretive
technique shows both the artistic and the conceptual power of the Báb's
One of the Báb's most striking uses of the Joseph story, and one that
illustrates His technique, concerns Joseph's relationship with his brothers.
The problem in both the biblical and Qur'ánic versions of the story is
that the older brothers cannot accept that the younger one would be favored
(inspired) over them by God. Nor can the older brothers accept the mystical
standard of knowledge given to their younger brother. As the Báb
typically does in the commentary, He universalizes the meaning of that filial
relationship in the Joseph story and connects it with His own mission. Just as
Joseph's older brothers had challenged his innate knowledge and the station
given by his father, so does the Báb predict the future challenges that
will be directed at Him and the Manifestation Who will shortly follow Him. The
Báb is as Joseph, and all the people are as his brothers, a reality
presented as a psychospiritual drama in which the greatest challenge facing the
people will be in overcoming their own limited vision to recognize Him in spite
of His youth and "unlearned" learning. Since the Báb has been mystically
chosen as the Mouthpiece of God, everyone is accountable to God for his or her
response to Him.
The Báb's involvement with the world as His brothers (echoing the story
of Joseph), and His ascendancy as the Younger Brother over the older ones
through God's inscrutable Will, can be found everywhere in the
Qayyúmu'l-Asmá'. Speaking with the Voice of God in chapter 3, and
addressing the "children of men," He says, "We, of a truth, choose the
Messengers through the Potency of Our Word, and We exalt Their offspring, some
over others," in this case the unlearned knowledge of the Báb over the
learned mullás and other religious leaders and interpreters. Here the
Báb universalizes that problem so that all who hear His message should
be warned against acting as Joseph's brothers did by denying the Báb's
claim and, therefore, imposing human standards on the Manifestation. In chapter
58 He says, "Verily God hath inspired Thee with divine verses and wisdom while
still a child," just as Joseph the child had been inspired. In Chapter 9 He
warns them: "Do not say, `How can He speak of God while in truth His age is no
more than twenty-five?"' In chapter 17, again speaking in a divine voice, He
counsels the "peoples of the world" to bear allegiance to the Báb, Whose
"knowledge embraceth all things." In chapter 21 He cautions the "peoples of the
East and the West" to be "fearful of God concerning the Cause of the true
Joseph and barter Him not for a paltry price," as was done to the "martyred
Husayn, Our forefather" (the third Imam, who was a grandson of Muhammad and an
ancestor of the Báb). In chapter 25, an indirect allusion to Joseph's
brothers (Muslim divines and others who would later set out to destroy Him). He
"Are ye wickedly scheming, according to your selfish fancies, an evil plot
against Him Who is the Most Great Remembrance of God?" Since each chapter in
the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' is explicitly a commentary on a specific
verse of the story of Joseph in the Qur'án, any reference to scheming
must refer, however indirectly, to the similar scheming by the brothers and
other conspirators in the story of Joseph. It is important to remember that the
Báb was saying this at a time when His revelation was not yet known to
anyone except the first few of His followers and nearly ten months before He
was attacked by the very ones who claimed to be the most faithful to God and
the most knowledgeablethe 'úlamás. In chapter 96, in one of the
work's most stirring passages, the Báb summons the peoples to "Become as
true brethren in the one and indivisible religion of God, free from
distinction, for verily God desireth that your hearts should become mirrors
unto your brethren in the Faith..."
does so many times, the Báb universalizes and reinterprets the Joseph
story, reinforcing the point that He is as Joseph and all the people who
encounter His message are as Joseph's brothers. If they can overcome their
flawed, prideful preconceptions and character, they can attain the unity, love,
and peace that came to Joseph's brothers at the end of the story when they
recognized Joseph's true station and his love and knowledge.
In addition to the motif of Joseph's relationship with his brothers, the
Báb frequently uses another motifa combination of imagery from the
stories of Joseph and Moses to create the impression of a dual revelation or of
a revelation with dual aspects. That is, He consistently refers to Himself in
terms of Joseph and as a "shining light for all mankind." But it is the same
light "raised up from the midst of the Burning Bush." In chapter 24 the
Báb is "God's holy Voice proclaimed by this Arabian Youth," but He has
been "entrusted with this Mission from the midst of the Burning Bush."
In chapters 28, 31, and elsewhere the same
combination of imagery appears.
in chapter 53, speaking with a divine voice, the Báb says that God's
conversation with Moses from the Burning Bush merely "revealed an infinitesimal
glimmer of Thy [the Báb's] light upon the Mystic Mount...."
The effect is to suggest that all revelation
is part of a single unified theophanic process but also that an essential
spiritual duality exists in the present agethat Moses and Joseph are to be
understood in terms of each other. Indeed, in other places the Báb also
alludes to the ministry and trials of Muhammad, the Imam Husayn, and the Hidden
Imam in ways that associate their missions with His own as part of a larger,
unified divine process.
A third important motif from the story of Joseph, and one consistent with
Shaykhí doctrines, concerns the Báb's numerous allusions to
knowledge in its relationship to Himself and to humanity in general. Just as
Joseph's knowledge was innate, a power given to Him by God and expressed
through dreams, so is the Báb's. Consistently He refers to Himself as
the standard of truth, as a light or a flame burning within the world of being.
But it is a truth that is hidden or concealed in two senses: by God's command
until the appropriate time, and from people in general, until they exert effort
to find it. In one of His most striking images, the Báb is "God's Holy
Voice" Whom God has empowered to "Unravel... secrets" from an ocean that God
has now caused to be "surging high." In another passage, while counseling the
Báb to remain silent for a while longer, God says that He has "enabled
Thee to truly see in Thy dream a measure of Our Cause." This knowledge can only
be gradually unfolded, and it is a knowledge of "the very secrets of
hearts"that is, just as Joseph knew his brothers better than they knew
themselves, so does the Báb know the needs of human hearts in this age.
"0 peoples of the world," the Báb says, His "knowledge embraceth all
things." The Báb's own heart has been "dilated" (opened and made able to
convey knowledge forth from the spiritual realms). Angels circle around Him,
and His knowledge is as a "dawn." The ultimate purpose of His knowledge, as was
Joseph's, is that people should "Become as true brethren" and that their
"hearts should become mirrors unto your brethren in the Faith," thereby being
"guided aright to the ways of peace."
These few examples of the imagery that the Báb uses provide but a
sampling of the richly various ways in which the story of Joseph and the
teachings of the Báb are interwoven in His
Qayyúmu'l-Asmá'. The Báb completed the remainder of the
lengthy work in forty days during the few months following His declaration of
His mission. During this same period seventeen other individuals (including one
woman), most of them followers of Shaykhí teachings, declared themselves
followers of the Báb and were designated His "Letters of the Living."
Thereafter ensued six tumultuous years in
which the Báb's religion attracted both thousands of followers in Iran
and concerted attempts by orthodox `ulamá to destroy it and the
Báb Himself. On 9 July 1850, in the market square at Tabriz, the
Báb was put to death, but His fame and the influence of His teachings
continued to spread. The work that is inextricably linked with His declaration
of His missionHis Commentary on the Súrá of Josephcontinued
to inspire new followers. Even more extraordinary is the fact that for all its
greatness, the work, and the Báb's own dramatic ministry, were
ultimately the opening episode in a larger theophany in which the story of
Joseph continued to figure in a profound way.
The Bahá'í Faith
THE DEATH of the Báb in 1850 was a catastrophic loss that plunged the
besieged Bábí community into disarray. The Báb had written
and spoken repeatedly of a second Manifestation, cryptically referred to as "He
Who shall be made manifest," Who would emerge shortly after the Báb's
own mission to complete the unique appearance of twin Manifestations in a
single age. In the anxious period after the Báb's death, several
Bábís put themselves forward, claiming to be the Promised One,
but were quickly rejected when they proved to lack the essential qualities of
spiritual eloquence, the ability to unravel mysteries, and the power to unify
and revive the grievously wounded Bábí community. With the
passage of time it became increasingly clear that the one person among the
Bábís Who possessed these qualities was Mírzá
Husayn-'Alí (Who later took the title of Bahá'u'lláh,
meaning the Glory of God), the person to Whom the Báb had bequeathed His
writing implements and His seal and to whom the Bábís had
repeatedly turned for leadership during crises even when the Báb was
still alive. But not until 1863, nineteen years after the inception of the
Báb's Faith (thirteen since the Báb's death), did
Bahá'u'lláh feel that the time was appropriate to announce
publicly His own station and mission, which He did on 22 April 1863, thereby
bringing the Bahá'í Faith into being.
With the rise of the Bahá'í Faith the story of Joseph reached
its culmination in a way that is unique in historyas a defining mystical
narrative in two related but independent religions arising within nineteen
years of each other. Though the Báb was a Manifestation of God and the
founder of a great religion, He also perceived Himself to be a forerunner. He
wrote tablets addressed humbly to "Him Who Will Be Made Manifest" and
repeatedly cautioned His followers to recognize and accept that Figure when He
Though boldly identifying
Himself with Joseph in the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá, the Báb also
repeatedly used references to Moses and the Burning Bush (as discussed earlier)
in ways that made Him appear to be placing His own Revelation within a larger
theophanic context then unfolding in mysterious ways.
When Bahá'u'lláh declared His own mission in 1863, His
announcement was stupendous in its scope. Not only did He claim to be the One
promised by the Báb (the successor to the Báb and an independent
Manifestation of God) but, indeed, to be the Promised One of all Ages (that is,
the one expected in the millennial traditions of all major religions and the
Figure representing the culmination of a great cycle of religions).
Bahá'u'lláh refers to Himself as "the Divine Joseph" and, like
the Báb, uses that story as one of the metaphors by which He defines His
The motif recurs in many of
His major works.
Comparing Bahá'u'lláh's use of the story of Joseph with that of
the Báb's shows both the harmony and the nuanced differences between the
two dispensations. While the Báb addressed His message to all peoples,
much in His writing necessarily focuses on the conflict between Himself as the
Standard of Knowledge and the rulers and divines of Islam (with Himself as
Joseph and them as the wayward brothers). The writings of
Bahá'u'lláh, while addressing these same misguided leaders and,
indeed, all the rulers of the earth, are more generally the voice of the later
Joseph, the universal teacher, Who is speaking to, guiding, and counseling all
people as wandering Jacobs searching for the True Joseph. The immediate
audience in many of Bahá'u'lláh's writings is the human heart
itselfits condition, its needs, its knowledge of itself (or lack thereof),
its ultimate goal as a spiritual entity. Often He writes to a universal
audience in terms that are intimate, personal, and loving, offering counsel,
guidance, warnings, admonitions, and reassurances. He is the Brother of
infinitely greater capacity Who is glimpsed in the Old Testament, filled with
compassion for His brothers and determined after His ascendancy in Egypt to
guide them to reunion in spite of themselves. The world in which people wander
is often presented as a desert, and they are portrayed as spiritually parched
and malnourished in an age of spiritual famine. Their collective experience is
the anguish of spiritual separation and, though He refers to them as brothers,
the spiritual suffering of individuals is more often likened to the natural
grief of Jacob.
Bahá'u'lláh uses metaphors drawn from the story of Joseph (some
explicit, some in the form of subtle allusions) as ways of expressing the
gravity and meaning of His mission and its power to revivify the deadened
hearts of modern humanity. In The Kitáb-i-Aqdas,
His book of
laws, Bahá'u'lláh describes the laws and ordinances revealed by a
Manifestation as the greatest source of protection and order for peoples and
says that from them, if followed, "the sweet-smelling savor of My garment can
be smelled." One who follows His laws out of love for Him will have "inhaled
the divine fragrance of his Best-Beloved from these words, laden with the
perfume of a grace which no tongue can describe," an allusion, according to the
note on the verse in The Kitáb-i-Aqdas,
"to the story of Joseph
in the Qur'án and the Old Testament, in which Joseph's garment, brought
by his brothers to Jacob, their father, enabled Jacob to identify his beloved
long-lost son. In another verse in The Kitáb-i-Aqdas
Bahá'u'lláh refers to "the fragrance of inner meanings from the
traces of this Pen through whose movement the breezes of God are wafted over
the entire creation. . . ."
Joseph with a fragrance is a frequent theme in Jewish and subsequent traditions
and one that Bahá'u'lláh's readers would instantly have
associated with Joseph. Biblical scholar Alan Jacobs explains that rabbinical
commentators emphasize Joseph's status as an ideal of humanity, in which his
physical beauty matched his moral beauty. Moreover, "Talmudists report that the
odor emanating from Joseph's body was so fragrant as to overwhelm the exotic
spices carried by the Midianites."
story of Joseph in Genesis the merchants are carrying spices and balms. In the
Qur'án, Jacob perceives Joseph's scent just as the caravan ordered by
Joseph to bring his father to him leaves Egypt.
Thus fragrance associated with Joseph is a metaphor for
In Kitáb-i-Íqán, The Book of Certitude,
demonstrate the unity of religions and the common mystical symbolism used by
the Manifestations, Bahá'u'lláh compares the brothers' refusal to
recognize Joseph to denials made against the Báb and Himself by people
attempting to judge the Manifestation by their own limited standard of
In the same work
Bahá'u'lláh cites an Islamic tradition that the Qá'im (the
Báb) would reflect four signsthose of Moses, Jesus, Joseph, and
Muhammad: "The sign from Moses, is fear and expectation; from Jesus, that which
was spoken of Him; from Joseph, imprisonment and dissimulation; from Muhammad,
the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur'án."
In one selection in Gleanings, a collection of His
writings, Bahá'u'lláh, echoing phrasing by the Báb,
admonishes those who attack His Cause
for having bartered away
the Divine Joseph for the most paltry of prices. Oh, the misery that resteth
upon you, ye that are far astray! Have ye imagined in your hearts that ye
possess the power to outstrip Him and His Cause?
In a tablet to Mírzá Muhammad-Husayn, a young man known as "the
Beloved of Martyrs," Bahá'u'lláh describes betrayals by His own
half-brother in terms of the story of Joseph and, according to Adib Taherzadeh,
author of a four-volume study of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh,
"refers to Himself allegorically as the One who has been thrown into a deep
well by reason of the envy of those who had been among his servants."
In His Epistle to the Son of the
Bahá'u'lláh, in much the same way that the Báb
associates His ministry with that of Moses, describes the mysterious way in
which Manifestations are inspired with references to the Word that Moses heard
coming from the Burning Busha form of knowledge unlike the limited knowledge
of those who opposed Himmost frequently the `ulamá.
Clearly the story of Joseph is a recurring metaphor in
the writings of Bahá'u'lláh used as one way of describing aspects
of His reality. While specific references to the Joseph story do not appear on
every page of His writings, Bahá'u'lláh says that Joseph is one
of the four signs reflected in the promised One. Hence, to understand
Bahá'u'lláh's station and mission, it is important to look for
both obvious and subtle references to the story of Joseph, both of which
provide insights into Bahá'u'lláh's revelation.
The most sustained references to the story occur in a mystical treatise by
Bahá'u'lláh entitled The Seven Valleys,
a work long
recognized as a masterpiece of spiritual composition, indeed as "the summit of
achievement in the realm of mystical composition." Bahá'u'lláh
wrote it before His public declaration of His mission, during the period of His
exile in Baghdad and after His return from the mountains of Kurdistan where He
had been living as a hermit, having temporarily absented Himself from the
Bábí community. Bahá'u'lláh composed it in response
to a letter from a Kurdish judge who was "a student of Sufi philosophy" and a
seeker, though its ultimate audience is universal.
The Seven Valleys
is a classic description of the stages of the soul's
progress as it undertakes a journey seeking reunion with God. As
Bahá'u'lláh Himself says, the use of stages or cities or valleys
is a frequent metaphor in Persian mystical literature used to describe such a
Sufis often used it as part of
their belief that the soul could make its way to reunion with God unaided by
anything but its own conscience and effort. With immense subtlety and
magnificent poetry, Bahá'u'lláh transforms this motif to show how
the only true and sure path to God comes from recognizing the Manifestation for
the age and following His teachings.
What has not been generally noted is that The Seven Valleys
is also a
profound meditation on the mystical content of the story of Joseph, which
appears to be one of the work's central metaphors. As an exposition of the
hidden meanings of the Joseph story, The Seven Valleys
moves beyond even the Báb's Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' in its
spiritual originality and insights, thereby completing the two Manifestations'
mystical elucidation of the contemporary significance of the story.
Addressing the Kurdish judge in the Prologue as "friend" and "My Brother," and
saying that because He [Bahá'u'lláh] has "inhaled the pure
fragrances of the garment of thy [the judge's] love," Bahá'u'lláh
promises to "reveal" to him "sacred and resplendent tokens from the planes of
glory." They shall, He says, "draw thee to a station wherein thou shalt see
nothing in creation save the Face of thy Beloved One" and that "there shall
appear upon the tablet of thine heart a writing of the subtle mysteries; . . .
and the bird of thy soul shall recall the holy sanctuaries of preexistence."
Bahá'u'lláh's persona here is of a Brother giving a loving gift,
but it is also that of a Universal Teacher offering guidance so that in this
age "every man may testify, in himself, by himself, in the station of the
Manifestation." In this respect Bahá'u'lláh takes the Joseph
story far beyond the Old Testament or the Qur'án, saying, in effect,
that not only will He interpret the dreams butas he eventually does in the
Valley of Wondermentthat He will teach every soul a spiritual vocabulary that
will enable it to recover its ability to dream, to envision a higher spiritual
In so doing He takes the spiritual
enfranchisement of humankind (and the implications of the Joseph story) to an
entirely new level.
References to the story of Joseph become more explicit as the work moves into
the valleys themselves in the way that Bahá'u'lláh portrays the
universal seeker's quest. In the first valley, the Valley of Search, the seeker
(every heart attempting to return to its spiritual home) seeks "the beauty of
the Friend." The seeker in this valley is as a traveler, wandering in a desert,
and is surrounded by other equally lost and disoriented wanderers: "How many a
Jacob will he see, hunting after his Joseph?" Though seeking even in the dust,
he must cleanse the heart and turn away from imitation if he is "to drink of
the honey of reunion with Him." If persistent and true in his quest, he will
inhale "the fragrance of the long-lost Joseph from the heavenly messenger,"
and, revivified, step into the Valley of Love.
The landscape of the Valley of Love continues that described in the first
valley; it is as a desert of existence, in which the lover is caught between
two worldsthe world of the spirit and the world of beingand filled with
yearning for "the Friend." This valley is filled with pain and torments but,
"My Brother," Bahá'u'lláh says, addressing the traveler, "Until
thou enter the Egypt of love, thou shalt never come to the Joseph of the Beauty
of the Friend." The seeker cannot escape this valley, Bahá'u'lláh
counsels, "until, like Jacob, thou forsake thine outward eyes" and "open the
eye of thine inward being" and "commune" with the object of his longingGod
through the Manifestation.The Seven
it bears repeating, is a treatise on how to make one's way back to
God. The longing to do that (and the sense of painful separation) is like being
in an emotional and spiritual desert. Bahá'u'lláh appears to be
using the several literal journeys across the desert in the biblical
storynotably Jacob's painful search for Josephas a metaphor for every
soul's painful quest for reunion with the Source of truth, the Holy
Manifestation Who is the path to God. The struggle of the traveler in the
Valley of Love seems to be about giving up (departing from) the love of one
thing for another, higher, one. The idea of being caught between two worlds (an
opening and closing of different eyes) seems to be a metaphor for two kinds of
love and knowledgethe one of this world, the other of the higher world.
Egypt, then, becomes a symbol for the landscape of longing, the place where the
spiritual traveler (everyone) seeks a higher harmony and understanding (as it
was for both Joseph and his family); Jacob's blindness is given new meaning as
a symbol not of infirmity or age or vanity, but of wisdom (as it was for Greek
poets and seers).
If the seeking lover persists and the fires of love burn away "the veils of
the satanic self," he or she can enter the Valley of Knowledge. This
paradoxical valley, the lengthiest in the work, subtly alludes to the story of
Joseph. The seeker in this valley is presented as standing at the door of a
dwelling, a place of reunion and certitude: "His inner eyes will open and he
will privily converse with his Beloved; he will set ajar the gate of truth and
piety, and shut the doors of vain imaginings."
In this valley his perception of the world and its
mysteries has been utterly changed, infused, as his heart now begins to be with
the divine wisdoms. In another Mosaic symbol, his certitude is described as an
ark, seemingly an allusion to the ark of the covenant that the Jews carried
with them during their forty years of wandering in the desert and a symbol of
fidelity to their covenant with God.
agonies and fear remind one of the terrors that Joseph's brothers experienced
as they entered his house in Egypt, followed by a new ability to perceive
providential design behind Joseph's ordered pursuit and accusations as they had
attempted to leave Egypt.
This valley is
also described as "the last plane of limitation"; beyond it are worlds, now
available, that had been inaccessible even to Moses:
from this was Moses
Though all strength and light;
Then thou who hast no wings at all,
Attempt not flight.
Bahá'u'lláh appears to be saying that an infinitely greater
degree of spiritual knowledge is now available than was present in the time of
Moses. But He also says, in effect, that the reunited seeker (the human heart)
can be taught to see with new eyes, the eyes of Onenesssomething that is
spiritually revolutionary. Bahá'u'lláh is the divine Joseph not
only revealing and interpreting dreams but inviting the traveler into the world
of the dream, teaching the recipient how to dream too; He is opening the door
to an order of knowledge hitherto inaccessible except to "the Friend"and "the
Loved One"traditional references to Muhammad and, by extension, to other
Manifestations of God. But the ultimate Friend, of course, is God, attained
through recognition (Bahá'u'lláh seems to be saying) of the
Manifestation in our own ageas Rumi's poem about Moses makes clear. It is
important to keep in mind that Bahá'u'lláh is conveying
information in veiled terms, since He has not yet declared His own mission.
Indeed, the final four valleys of this work are presented not as stages in a
search but as explorations of a new world and, beyond it, other worlds. All of
this occurs within an immensely subtle fabric of allusion to the story of
Joseph, each element of which reveals new meanings in the details of that
Having approached the "gate of truth and piety" in the Valley of Knowledge,
the traveler now steps into the Valley of Unity"the sanctuary of the Friend,
and shareth as an intimate the pavilion of the Loved One. He stretcheth out the
hand of truth from the sleeve of the Absolute; he revealeth the secrets of
power." In this valley, having been given new eyes, the traveler is being
taught how to use them, how to look "on all things with the eye of oneness."
In addition to the motif of loving reunion,
two other motifs in this valley also seem to evoke the story of
Josephallusions to fragrance and to many-colored objects, both of which evoke
the limitations of the senses (sight and smell), suggesting the limited
perceptions of Joseph's brothers and the high perceptions of Jacob. In
cautioning the traveler, Bahá'u'lláh says that what one sees is
determined by the quality of his or her own vision. Those enclosed "within the
wall of self and passion" see only "many-colored globes" (symbols for any
object capable of catching and reflecting light), just as (one could argue) the
brothers of Joseph could see only the many colors of his coat rather than the
oneness of the light falling upon the coat. Likewise, "the man sick of a rheum"
cannot smell the "sweet fragrance" of the Word of God. This valley also
expresses a paradox relating to authority as presented in the story of Joseph.
It describes the human heart as a "throne" in which, when the traveler has
spiritually prepared it, "the Master of the house hath appeared," causing it to
be "ashine with His light."
Of the final three of the seven valleys, Bahá'u'lláh says that
"The tongue faileth in describing" them and "speech falleth short." Their
reality (since it is about meaning) can be properly expressed only if whispered
"from heart to heart." But Bahá'u'lláh does describe them and, in
so doing, finishes revealing the inner significance of the Joseph story. The
Valley of Contentment is short, differing from the Valley of Unity in that the
experience of a transforming vision is intensified, "For on this plane the
traveler witnesseth the beauty of the Friend in everything. Even in fire, he
seeth the face of the Beloved."
In the Valley of Wonderment, Bahá'u'lláh focuses on the
importance of the dream. If one recalls that the story of Joseph in Genesis is
built upon three sets of dreams as higher knowledgethe child Joseph's dreams
of his father and brothers, the dreams of the two prisoners in Egypt, and the
Pharaoh's dreams of famine and plentyit appears that
Bahá'u'lláh is alluding implicitly in this valley to the Joseph
story. Addressing the travelerthe Sufi judgeas "Brother," He describes the
nature and importance of the dream as a mode of knowledge and as "One of the
created phenomena" in which secrets, wisdoms, and even many worlds are
deposited, accessible to everyone, yet freed from space and time. Only people
who have entered this valley are capable of comprehending the truths conveyed
in those dreams. God has placed the faculty of the dream within people,
Bahá'u'lláh says, to protect them from those philosophers who
would "deny the mysteries of the life beyond" and who would try to define
reality within the narrow limits of their own reason.
In so doing, He asserts an important place for the
mystical dream as a universal mode of knowledge in a world that wants to
disregard it in favor of materialistic and rationalistic ways of investigating
In the Valley of Wonderment, Bahá'u'lláh makes no explicit
references to the Joseph story, but the contentits focus on the
dreaminvites comparison with the uses of the dream in the story of Joseph,
leading one to think that Bahá'u'lláh is subtly and indirectly
continuing his allusive reinterpretation of the spiritual meaning of the Joseph
story as a way of giving spiritual insight to the Sufi judge. In the Joseph
story, whether in Genesis, the Qur'án, or the Báb's commentary,
the importance of the motif of dreams is obvious; Joseph's ability to interpret
his dreams and those of others is the proof of his spiritual knowledge and
authority. The judge, who was the first audience of The Seven Valleys,
would have been steeped in the Sufi traditions of the mystical journey and the
mystical dimension of the Joseph story. For him the allusions in
Bahá'u'lláh's work would have been obvious because
Bahá'u'lláh had ended the previous valley by saying that the
mystical traveler would see the beauty of the Friend in everything. Since He
had already likened the universal traveler to a wandering Jacob, the Joseph
story was already part of this valley. In addressing the judge (and all his
future audiences) as "Brother" (in other writings Bahá'u'lláh
refers to Himself as "the divine Joseph") He appears to be drawing a connection
between himself as Mystical Dreamer and his readers as potential dreamers, who
are endowed by God with the capacity to commune with and learn from the higher
spiritual realm, as guided by the Manifestation, if only they will abandon
their own limited and error-inducing standards of knowledge. He is, in effect,
teaching them a new spiritual vocabulary and opening the door to a higher level
or degree of spiritual awareness than was available to people in previous ages.
Without overtly mentioning Joseph and the dreams of that story, he is enacting
the same process of spiritual education as did Joseph to his brothers; but in
this case it is a different and higher standard of knowledge offered to the
entire world-as-family embodied in the teachings of the new Manifestation. It
is a spiritual enfranchisement far beyond that offered by Joseph or any other
of the earlier Manifestations. The effect and the content of the Valley of
Wonderment are, therefore, extraordinary. Bahá'u'lláh is teaching
humanity how to dream again, ennobling people by teaching them about their own
nature, and how to recognize and comprehend the meaning of spiritual dreams. In
so doing, He takes the meaning of the Joseph story to an even higher level than
He has already done.
In the final valley, the Valley of True Poverty and Absolute Nothingness,
Bahá'u'lláh guides the traveler to the summit of mystical
communion with God. This valley describes a condition in which all "save the
Friend" is burned away by the fires of love. Again Bahá'u'lláh
quotes Rumi: "`Then the qualities of earthly things did Moses burn away."' But
at the heart of this valley is a series of metaphors about time, seasonal
change, and bounty giving way to loss that, together with a caution to the
traveler, seems clearly to be built on an allusion to the pharaoh's dreams of
the cattle and the ears of corn, which Joseph had interpreted as seven years of
plenty followed by seven years of famine. In this valley
Bahá'u'lláh likens the years of plenty to the time when the
Manifestation walks upon the earth and reveals the verses of God, and "the
clouds of spring" rain down "heavenly wisdom.., on the earth of men's hearts."
Quoting the Qur'án, He says, "`no one thing is there, but with Us are
its storehouses; and We send it not down but in settled measure."' But "The
other seasons have no share and barren lands no portion of this favor." Thus,
in the context of our own age, Bahá'u'lláh offers an entirely new
interpretation of the real meaning of the pharaoh's dreams. The seven valleys
themselves are like the seven years of bounty, and He cautions the Sufi judge
to listen carefully to their full import. Should the judge (and by implication
all readers) do so and be obedient to divine law, Bahá'u'lláh
says, he (and they) will glimpse and catch the fragrance of an everlasting
city. The judge will have come to "the sea of the Life-Bestower"; in ecstasy he
will enter a mystic "garden land." But even this state,
Bahá'u'lláh cautions, is but "the first gate of the heart's
citadel, that is, man's first entrance to the city of the heart."
Many readers consider The Seven Valleys
to be the summit of mystical
composition of the kind that describes the stages of the soul's journey toward
God. But, together with the Báb's Qayyúmu'l-Asmá', it is
also a sublime reinterpretation of the meaning of the story of Joseph: the
mystical journey of the soul in this luminous and special age toward discovery
of and reunion with the true Joseph, the Manifestation of God. As such, it also
completes an unfolding series of interpretations of the story that were
collectively more than seven thousand years in the making.
TRACING the story of Joseph through its life as a recurring mystical narrative
within five great religionsJudaism, Christianity, Islam, and the
Bábí and Bahá'í Faithsthat span nearly four
millennia (and with analogues in other literary and religious tradition) shows
it to be one of the most resilient, meaningful stories in the canon of the
world's religious literature. As a symbolic narrative it appears to encapsulate
a series of events, originally tragic but ultimately transcendent, that
inevitably play themselves out each time a new religion appears in the world.
The founders of those religions certainly saw the meaning of the story in that
way. In addition, the story's perpetual appeal also illustrates the common
heritage shared by a family of religions, the followers of which all too often
dedicate themselves to emphasizing the differences between them but which
collectively represent an incrementally unfolding force for good of
incalculable worth to humanity. Part of the compelling quality of the story of
Joseph is that it describes the eternal process by which the most profound kind
of new knowledge comes into the world, simultaneously describing, in story
form, its interrelated human, physical, and metaphysical dimensions. In so
doing, it dramatizes humankind's most fundamental dreams, hopes, and beliefs
and gives continuing meaning to human history.
JIM STOKES is a professor of English at the University of
Wisconsin, Stevens Point. In 1996 the University of Toronto Press published his
Somerset, a two-volume work including records of early English drama. In
preparation are Lincolnshire, records of early English drama (also with the
University of Toronto Press) and "The Effects of the Reformation on Traditional
Culture in Somerset, 15321642." His examination of the story of Joseph, the
first installment of which appeared in the Spring 1997 issue of World
Order, grew, in part, from teaching comparative literature and literature
of the ancient world.
Copyright (c) 1998 by Jim Stokes. For their generous assistance in suggesting
sources and offering encouragement in this project, I would like to thank B.
Todd Lawson, Ahang Rabbani, and Habib Riazari.
 See Jim Stokes, "The Story of Joseph in Five
Religious Traditions," World Order 28.3 (Spring 1997): 35-46.
See Stokes, "Story of Joseph" 45-46.
 C.E. (of the common era) is an alternative
designation equivalent to A.D. (Anno Domini, in the year of the Lord). Moojan
Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver
Shi'ism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985) 161-71.
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam
112-13, 216- 19, 222-25. In its attempt to harmonize Islamic texts, deductive
reasoning, and intuitive spiritual illumination, the School of
Isfáhán "drew upon several interrelated strands: the revival of
Zoroastrian angelology, Neo-Platonic cosmology, and in particular the
metaphysical works of Ibn Sina" as well as gnostic mysticism and the writings
of the great Sufi poets Rumi and Jami (Momen, Introduction to Shi'i
 Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam
225-31; for a discussion of the ministries of Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid
Kázim, see Nabíl-i-A'zam [Muhammad-i-Zarandí], The
Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the
Bahá'í Revelation, trans. and ed. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette,
Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) 1-46, and B. Todd Lawson,
"The Qur'án Commentary of Siyyid 'Alí Muhammad, the Báb,"
unpublished diss. (Montreal: Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill U, 1987) esp.
chapter 3, "The Shaykhí School," which summarizes that school and cites
numerous useful sources for its study. As summarized by Bahá'í
scholar and Islamicist Moojan Momen, in An Introduction to Shi'i Islam,
226-28, 231, the essential beliefs of the Shaykhí movement (those
relevant to this discussion) are: that God's essence is unknowable but that His
Will, as encoded in the Manifestation's teachings, can be learned through
mystical communion with the Imams; that an intermediary world" (227), "a world
of archetypal images" (227), exists "between the physical world and the
spiritual world" and is inhabited by the spiritual or subtle body of everyone,
including the Hidden Imam who is capable of "initiating the seeker into the
divine mysteries"; that the interworld is real (227), "preserving all the
richness and diversity of the sensible world but in a spiritual state" (Henri
Corbin, "Visionary Dreams," 406-07, quoted in Lawson, "Qur'án
Commentary" 35) and is called "imaginal" because it is accessible only through
the "faculty of imagination" (Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary" 35); that
Muhammad's ascension or night journey was by His spiritual not His physical
body and that, similarly, the spirit (rather than the corporeal body) of the
Twelfth Imam would return (that is, the Qá'im would return as a new
person). Both Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kázim asserted that much of their
own spiritual understanding had come to them via dreams or visions from that
higher world, thereby elevating and reaffirming the status and legitimacy of
the dream as a form of knowledge (Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary" 36;
Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers 42-45). Moreover, as the year 1844
approached, Siyyid Kázim stressed that the return of the Hidden Imam was
 A. J. Arberry, trans., The Koran
Interpreted (New York: Macmillan, 1955) 266.
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers 59.
 Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, intro.
George Townshend, new ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing
Trust, 1974) 4.
 For a detailed description of events
surrounding the inception of the Bábí Faith, see Nabíl,
Dawn-Breakers, chapter 3, "The Declaration of the Báb's Mission."
The description of the events in the paragraphs below draw on this chapter. For
a biography of the Báb, see H. M. Balyuzi, The Báb: The Herald
of the Day of Days (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973).
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers,
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers,
25-30. For a fuller discussion of Joseph and fragrances, see page 34, column 2,
and page 35. I would like to thank Dr. Betty J. Fisher for the observations
about this episode.
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers,
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers,
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers, 59,
61; for another description of this opening episode of the Bábí
Dispensation, see Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the
Bábí Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Ithaca, New York: Cornell
UP, 1989) 166-70.
 Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary" 250;
see also Moojan Momen, ed. Selections From the Writings of E. G. Browne on
the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions (Oxford: George
Ronald, 1987) 210-17.
 Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 23;
for another assessment of the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá', see Amanat,
Resurrection and Renewal 201-07. For Bahá'u'lláh's initial
reaction to the Báb's writings, see Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers
106-07. The Báb had directed Mullá Husayn to share epistles and
tablets with those who were receptive. Surely that must have included the
commentary, which was consciously modeled on the revelatory style of the
Qur'án (Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers 85).
 Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary" xiv,
262, 273- 76, 251.
 The Báb, Selections from the
Writings of the Báb, comp. Research Department of the Universal
House of Justice, trans. Habib Taherzadeh et al. (Haifa: Bahá'í
World Centre, 1976) 45.
 Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary"
 Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal
202; Lawson, "Qur'án Commentary" 281-82.
 The Báb, Selections 41; see
also Stephen N. Lambden, "The Sinaitic Mysteries: Notes on Moses. Sinai Motifs
in Bábí and Bahá'í Scripture," in Studies in
Honor of the Late Hasan M Balyuzi, ed. by Moojan Momen, Studies in the
Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, 5 (Los Angeles:
Kalimat, 1988) 65-183.
 The Báb, Selections 45, 64,
47, 48, 49, 51, 56.
 The Báb, Selections 41,
 The Báb, Selections 52,
 The Báb, Selections 72.
 The Báb, Selections 46, 49,
 The Báb, Selections 50-51,
48, 49, 50, 56, 61.
 Nabíl, Dawn-Breakers
 See Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By
28-34; for a biography of Bahá'u'lláh, see H. M. Balyuzi,
Bahá'u'lláh: The King of Glory, (Oxford: George Ronald,
 The Báb, Selections 3-8;
Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 29-31.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings
from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi
(Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983) 208.
 Bahá'u'lláh, The
Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book, ps ed. (Wilmette, Ill:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1993) para.4, n1, para.158.
 Alan Jacobs, "Joseph the Patriarch," in
A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature, ed. D. L.
Jeffrey (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992) 415.
 Gen. 37:25; Arberry, Koran
Kitáb-i-Íqán, 1st ps ed. (Wilmette:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983) 212-14, 254-55.
 Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of
Bahá'u'lláh: Mazra'ih & Bahji 1877-92 (Oxford: George
Ronald, 1987) 80-81. See also Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 163.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to
the Son of the Wolf trans. Shoghi Effendi, 1st ps ed. (Wilmette:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988) 41-42.
 Robert L. Gulick, preface, The Seven
Valleys by Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1952) xi-xiii.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
 For discussion of the idea of the path or
steps in the mystical journey toward reunion with God in Persian literature and
of the history of Sufism, see Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of
Islam (Chapel Hill, North Carolina: U of North Carolina P, 1975),
especially chapter 3, "The Path"; and Leonard Lewisohn, ed., Classical
Persian Sufism: From Its Origins to Rumi (New York: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi,
1993). Schimmel explains in Mystical Dimensions of Islam (98) that the
idea of steps or stages in the mystical path or journey toward God is common to
every religious tradition and that its origins (and the origins of Sufism) come
from the Qur'án and from Muhammad Himself, Whose knowledge came not from
book learning but from mystical communion with God. But the tradition of stages
in the journey toward God goes back further to Neo-Platonism and to the Old
Testament (the story of Jacob's ladder) and even earlier to Babylonian
literature. It is central to the great early Persian poets. Throughout The
Seven Valleys Bahá'u'lláh cites Persian poets from the
eleventh and twelfth centuries.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 3, 9, 2-3.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 1, 32.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 5, 6, 7, 7-8.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 8, 9.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
 Bahá'u1láh, Seven
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 12-13; Gen. 43:18, 45:5-8.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 17. Bahá'u'lláh quotes JaIálu'd-Din Rumi, the
greatest of the Persian Sufi poets.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 11, 17-18.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 19, 20, 21-22.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 30, 31.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 32, 33.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Seven
Valleys 36, 37, 38, 39, 41. Images of food as spiritual sustenance and the
Manifestation of God as the Being empowered to distribute that spiritual food
recurs in versions of the Joseph story and elsewhere, emphasizing the real
meaning of food imagery. Joseph's brothers come to him during the famine in
Canaan (Gen. 42:5, 7-12; see also Amos 8:11). Christ referred to Himself as
"the bread of life," promising that "he that cometh to me shall never hunger"
(John 6:35). Other references to spiritual food in the New Testament include
Luke 24:13-31, 39-44, and Mark 14:22. The Bahá'í writings stress
the metaphorical nature of belief as attendance at a spiritual banquet (See
`'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, comp. and trans. Laura
Clifford Barney, 1st ps ed. (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing
Trust, 1984) 98, and on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, in High Endeavors:
Messages to Alaska, comp. National Spiritual Assembly of the
Bahá'ís of Alaska (np.: National Spiritual Assembly of the
Bahá'ís of Alaska, 1976) 69-70. For these references I would like
to thank Brent Poirier. The story of Joseph contains a rich array of symbolic
imagery, only a fraction of which is discussed in this article.