“Joseph, Adversity, and Autism” – new review of Was Yosef on the Spectrum

Adam Read ● ACEs Connection

Here’s an interesting book….

…Not because it has anything to do with what you’re doing today, but precisely because it doesn’t. Sometimes we have to take a trip to somewhere else… a detour… a backroad…. or an excursion to get our minds out of our daily COVID funk to give us a different perspective on life.

I don’t know about your upbringing, but I spent enough time in church to hear the story of Joseph’s coat of colors many times and how his brothers sold him into slavery. Never, though, have I seen this story through the lens that Joseph may have been Autistic until now. This exploration shows how disabilities and diversity can chemically react with the heat of adversity to create the powerful energy that saved two ancient adversarial cultures from starvation and famine.

Samuel Levine makes a very compelling argument in his book “Was Yosef on the Spectrum?” that the social awkwardness and difficulty Joseph has in interacting with others combined with a highly focused skill set has many of the traits common to Autism. While this hypothesis obviously can’t be fully confirmed thousands of years later, Levine dives into a number of historical Jewish commentaries, probes ancient Hebrew semantics, and presents an intriguing perspective of his own.

What is salient about this perspective is the idea that both disabilities and diversity present powerful assets to the cultures willing to embrace them, and this adaptability can drive its ability to survive, evolve, and thrive. The challenge, of course, is that these “gifts” often show up in members of the community that appear on the outside to be fragile, disruptive, or even just downright annoying because of their differences, and it’s this simultaneous perception of both weakness and strength that really throws us off as humans.

For those that know me, they know that Autism and neurodiversity is an important subject, but it’s not only because one of my sons is Autistic. I was one of the kids that never fit in growing up, and I was always the outsider.  Like Jospeh, I was socially awkward until at least middle school and even then, it was like starting from Square 1 when so many others were much more socially advanced than I was.  This was the outward expression of my own childhood adversity that expressed itself in social and emotional delays.  It’s not unlike the symptoms of Autism in a number of ways, and it has taken decades to recognize and address this.

Levine’s ability to point out the intricacies of Joseph’s social inadequacies as a backdrop for perceptive leadership development really hit home. In fact, I was most of the way through the book before I realized how personal it became. What the author didn’t know was that I’ve spent over a decade interpreting the narrative of the Bible from a very neurodiverse lens, and it was refreshing to finally find an author that sees something different than what everyone else has seen.

I am hoping this is an indicator of a trend towards more transparent discussions of faith and permission to search for more of what’s missing from traditional interpretations.  Levine’s insight is rare…and much appreciated.

For those in the ACEs Faith Based community, it might be worth a conversation to discuss how childhood traumas might, in some ways, impact the mind in ways that are similar to Autism. I read an presentation by a younger psychologist a while back that compared some Autistic traits to those in PTSD and it makes the case for understanding human behavior through the baseline of the nervous system first rather than the mind first. It’s a subtle but important distinction that could come with theological implications that I’m not sure have been really explored.  I’d be interested in your thoughts on this.


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