Books: Pious Abbreviation

JOSEPH IN EGYPT—Thomas Mann—Knopf (2 vols. $5).

Four years ago the first volume of Thomas Mann's extraordinary Biblical novel, Joseph and His Brothers, made U. S. readers aware of the fuller meaning a great imagination could find in a bare, familiar legend. That subtle book of 428 pages retold the Old Testament story of the patriarch Jacob, his wife Rachel, and his sons, particularly his favorite. Joseph.

Woven into its simple narrative were speculations about the ancient world that gave readers a more immediate sense of what it was like than most volumes of historical inquiry. Why, asked the novelist, did stories like...