Thursday, December 22, 2005

There in the way of Ephrath; the same is Bethlehem (Matthew 2)

Shoot. I looked back at my post on Genesis 1:14, and see that I didn't bother to really address the issue of astrology at that time. Honestly, I don't know what that verse is trying to say exactly, but there is some musing in the comments section, as well as an excellent (IMHO) mini-essay on the difficulty of translation, particularly prepositions. I'm hoping people will read that and reflect on it, although it doesn't have anything to do with the topic at hand, which I suppose I should address.

Although I addressed the issue of time frame in my first post on Luke 2, I'm finding it interesting to put this story in perspective. If Herod died in 4 B.C., and Jesus was born in 6 B.C., and the Magi came to Jerusalem about two years after Jesus' birth, then Herod didn't live too long after this story. Jesus' time in Egypt must have been very short.

So, astrology... In verses 2 and 9, there is mention of a "star" that the Magi were following to find Jesus. Oh, the issues this brings up... As far as astrology, a case might be able to be made that these men, not being Jews, were not prohibited from astrology, but that would surely go against conventional wisdom in Christian circles that astrology is just plain bad. I myself am not fond of the astrology column in the paper, think it's a load of crap and have thought so since before I was a Christian. Yet I don't think one can deny that the Bible is saying something here (and perhaps in Genesis 1:14 as well) to suggest that looking up to the sky can tell some people something about what happens on earth. What, though?

First of all, despite verse 9 (which I'm stumped on, as admittedly it doesn't make a whole lot of sense), I think it's sound to reject the notion of the "Star of Bethlehem" being a supernatural light in the sky that was hanging over the manger (or the house where Jesus lived) that could actually be literally "followed" to a specific spot. Aside from the fact that celestial objects don't act like that in general (although of course this could be another miracle), it begs the question: why didn't the Magi go straight to Bethlehem if they were following a "star" that could pinpoint the Messiah's location? No, they head to Jerusalem. If you're looking for a King in Judea, where else would you go? It's the capital. Whatever the signal was that these men had to go, it simply told them to go to Israel. When they got there, they were surprised to find Herod, and not a baby.

What did Genesis say? "Let there be lights...and let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years." The "signs" set apart for a moment, the plain meaning here is that the objects which light the sky serve as a sort of calendar; and of course, they do. In numerous sci-fi stories that I have read, it's been used as a plot device the fact that knowing the positions of the planets within the solar system can tell you what the date is, and this is true. As for the "signs", most calendars have important dates noted on them, and perhaps God's is no different. Some have suggested a significant planetary conjunction occurring at the time of Jesus' birth. I have heard it suggested on one hand that this conjunction may have occurred in a manner or location in the sky that suggested to the Magi a significant event in Israel. I have also heard it suggested that the Magi may have been familiar with the prophecies of Daniel, as Daniel lived east in Babylon during his life. If Daniel was well-versed in Babylonian astronomy, which is a reasonable assumption, and he had some special knowledge as to the time the Messiah would appear (which is believed very strongly by Christians, but is too complicated to go over here), then he might have told them to look out for this conjunction as a sign.

Anyway, Herod is worried by these men, who are probably not--as sometimes traditionally pictured--three kings riding alone on camels, but more likely a procession of prominent men with a military guard who have come from east of the Roman Empire, and are implying a challenge to Herod's authority. He goes to his advisors and asks them their perspective on where the Messiah ought to be, and they quote (inaccurately) Micah 5:2, which points to Bethlehem. The SAB has a lot to say about this, so I'll take it one point at a time.
"Bethlehem Ephratah" in Micah 5:2 refers not to a town, but to a clan: the clan of Bethlehem, who was the son of Caleb's second wife, Ephrathah.
Interesting catch, that bit of info, but there are problems with this claim. None of the verses linked to give definitive evidence as far as I can see that Bethlehem actually is a person. Knowing that Bethlehem is a location (and its name in Hebrew sure sounds like a location, and not a person), it is quite likely that the phrase "father of Bethlehem" means that Salma and Hur were co-founders of the city of Bethlehem. After all, despite the fact that there are verses that seem to be referring to Bethlehem as a person, this "person" never has any children, nor does anything else for that matter. Maybe I missed it, but "clan of Bethlehem" is not a phrase that I've seen anywhere in the Bible. Whether a person or not, there are certainly many places in the Bible that are named after people and vice-versa, including Ephrathah herself. Rachel was buried near "Ephrath, which is Bethlehem" hundreds of years before Ephrathah and/or Bethlehem were born.
The prophecy (if that is what it is) does not refer to the Messiah, but rather to a military leader, as can be seen from Micah 5:6. This leader is supposed to defeat the Assyrians, which, of course, Jesus never did.
True, and yet not true. The common Christian approach to Biblical prophecy is that any given prophecy may have different levels of interpretation and fulfillment. The most well-known of such prophecies is the one Jesus talks about in Matthew 24:15. The "abomination of desolation" spoken of by the prophet Daniel in various passages was believed by the Jews of Jesus' time to have been fulfilled in 168 B.C. when Antiochus Epiphanes slaughtered a pig and erected a statue of Zeus in the Jewish Temple. Jesus hints that this prophecy is not yet completely fulfilled, alluding to both the destruction of the Temple on 70 A.D. and an event still future from today that will supposedly happen when the Temple is rebuilt one more time. So Micah 5:2 is prophesying the birth of two important leaders. This explanation also applies to verses 15 and 17-18 of Matthew 2.
It should also be noted that Matthew altered the text of Micah 5:2...
Maybe; I'll grant it's a reasonable assumption. It may be that the scribes and priests misquoted it in the first place. It doesn't matter so much, though, because as I noted, both "Bethlehem" and "Ephratah" are place-names in the land of Judah.

Hopefully, I covered the issue of verse 14 in my last post, in which I essentially pointed out that despite the note in the SAB, the word "directly" does not appear in Luke 2:39, nor any synonym.

The massacre spoken of in verse 2:16 is indeed not recorded anywhere outside of the book of Matthew, which casts a question of authenticity upon it. The only possible explanation is that Bethlehem, being a fairly small town may have been small enough that this atrocity went largely unnoticed among many others committed by Herod.

The last verse refers to a non-existent prophecy that has pretty much stumped all scholars. Some have suggested a misunderstanding or misspelling of the Hebrew word for "branch" in some prophecies, while others have suggested that the fact that many prophecies refer to the Messiah as being rejected could be fulfilled by having him grow up in a place of ill-repute. I think both of these explanations are more than a little bit of a stretch, myself, but I present them just because they exist.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas, Chanukah Sameach, Prosperous Ramadan, and Happy Kwanzaa.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

All things must be fulfilled which were written in the law (Luke 2:21-52)

I'm a bit bummed because I started this post yesterday to get a head start, but my computer crashed, and I lost it. I always hate writing things twice; I don't even like making drafts and revisions. No matter...

So, after Mary's time of purification has passed--and yes, even in giving birth to the Son of God, she has to go through this as a law-abiding Jew--the family heads out to Jerusalem to present the boy at the Temple and have him dedicated. Luckily, Jerusalem is very close to Bethlehem. Now despite the claim in the SAB that "Males are holy to God, not females" I think there is a misunderstanding of this passage. It's a reference to Exodus 13, of course, and while I see that yes, it's a males-only thing, I don't think that means that females are not of use to God. Call it sexist if you will, but generally, the husband is the head of the household, and the firstborn son will be the chief heir. I don't believe that this means that all the females and other males are of no import, but rather in sanctifying the firstborn son, the parents are in a sense saying that they dedicate their whole family to God. It also has a lot to do with the last of the plagues of Egypt as one can see from reading the Exodus passage, but that's another issue I'll hopefully get to in a few weeks.

Note in verse 24 that Jesus' parents bring two birds as the offering of purification at the Temple. A small detail that tells us something when we look to the passage linked to in yesterday's post: Mary and Joseph were not wealthy.

At the Temple, they meet two interesting people. The first is Simeon, some sort of aged prophet, apparently. The SAB finds oddity in two points mentioned about this man. One, that he was "just", since the Bible says in Ecclesiastes that there is no "just" man. While this was discussed before back when I covered Genesis 6 and 9 in regards to the specific case of Noah, I'll restate it here so that extensive re-reading isn't necessary. There are some characteristics of individuals in the Bible that the Bible explains in ways that seem contradictory, but are summed up by Jesus' statement, "The things which are impossible with men are possible with God." No man is "just" or "righteous" by his own doing, but can be made so by the will of God.

Which leads to oddity number two: that "the Holy Ghost was upon" Simeon. If you ask me, the SAB page that notes the oddities of the appearance of the Holy Ghost is missing out on one of the more interesting happenings of this sort, namely 1Samuel 10:10, in which the Holy Ghost comes upon King Saul shortly after he is anointed King of Israel. Actually, this isn't even the first time, as this happens a few times in the book of Judges, to Moses and the elders of Israel and even to Balaam in the book of Numbers. Pharaoh also claims that the Spirit is upon Joseph, but this may not necessarily mean anything of the same sort. Of course, the Spirit of God goes all the way back to the very beginning of the Bible, but the operative question here is what does it mean for the Spirit of God/Holy Ghost to be "given to"/"upon"/"filling" a person. Admittedly, this is not 100% clearly explained in the Bible. However, it is something that is fairly well understood within basic Christian theology. While the Spirit did indeed come before Jesus' resurrection at certain times unto certain people, the idea here of the Spirit being "given" to Jesus' followers is that there will not be an occasional moment of the Spirit coming upon them and causing them to momentarily become more spiritual, but that the Spirit will "dwell in you [which are in Christ Jesus]." Once the Holy Ghost was "given" to the church, all believers supposedly have this Spirit living within them on a constant basis. That's the difference.

The other interesting character that they meet at the Temple is Anna, an aged prophetess. (See? Even women can be prophets. God does have use for women as well.) Anna is rather interesting as she is the only other woman besides Sarah whose age is mentioned. Both Simeon and Anna recognize the child Jesus as being the Messiah, and give praise to God for the chance to see Him.

And now we come to verse 39, a verse I didn't get to yesterday when I was writing my last post. Foolish, I should always remember context is important! Still, I don't think a revision is needed of yesterday's comments, only further commentary. The question is, what's the sequence of events and locations in the lives of Mary and Joseph shortly after Jesus' birth? Did they stay in Bethlehem for a while? Did they spend some time in Egypt, and when? Did they go right back to Nazareth as soon as possible? Were they actually in Nazareth before Jesus was born? There are actually numerous possible ways to answer these that fit in fine with the stories here and in Matthew. First, let me answer in a way that fits with my statements of my last post for continuity's sake. I claimed yesterday that this young couple remained in Bethlehem for a couple years, settling down in a house and living a normal life until the Magi came and God told them to flee to Egypt. The only reason that would contradict verse 39 is if you assume two things that are not explicitly stated there. One, that "all things according to the law of the Lord" refers only to the purification and Temple visit, and therefore represents a small number of actions that last a little over a month. Two, that the sentence overall implies an immediacy of action. On the first matter it may be pointed out that in Matthew's story he indicates several Old Testament passages that are taken to be prophetic of Jesus' childhood. That being the case, "all things according to the law of the Lord" may also refer to the brief sojourn on Egypt, both because it was supposedly prophesied and because it was directly commanded by God in a dream to Joseph. (Interesting parallels here to another Joseph who took his family into Egypt based on God's leading in dreams. That Joseph's family was brought back into the land of Canaan by a certain man named Joshua, who in Greek would be called "Jesus".) On the second matter, it's simply not there. Even if the first part is true and this verse is referring only to Mary's purification, two years later they still "had performed" those things. Luke has left out part of the story, but he's not outright contradicting Matthew. Another possibility that exists if you do make those two assumptions is that the Magi actually came to Nazareth! While one can and should assume that the Magi went to Bethlehem to find Jesus, if He wasn't there when they came, they surely wouldn't have quit after what was probably quite a long journey; they would ask where Jesus could be found, and perhaps someone could direct them to the Galilee region. That's iffy though, and I like my personal explanation better. Other possibilities probably exist.

The chapter ends with a story of Jesus at age 12. Being just short of coming of age, (at his 13th birthday according to Jewish tradition) He and His family are in Jerusalem for Passover. When the family leaves, they don't notice immediately that Jesus is not with them. They find Him at the Temple, talking with a number of scholars about the law. His parents scold Him for getting lost, but He replies "How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" At coming of age, many Jewish boys at the time apparently go into the family business. While Jesus' earthly father was a "carpenter", He of course was interested in being about the business of his Heavenly Father.

The final verse is indeed an odd one, as is noted in the SAB. "How could an omniscient being 'increase in wisdom?' And how could God increase 'in favour with God?' " Good questions! There are a couple aspects to this. On one hand, theologians are not in 100% agreement on whether Jesus was omniscient. There were apparently at least a few things that He didn't know, so it seems that He was not. How much did He know? Did He actually have things to learn? Maybe. The other aspect of this though is that while Jesus was supposedly born perfect, there was also a matter of Him continuing in His perfection throughout his life. One would assume that he had the ability to sin and do wrong, or else why would Satan have bothered to tempt Him? Even if Jesus is omniscient in knowing all facts, He may have had things to learn through personal experience, and He may have simply increased the wisdom of those he came in contact with, thus vicariously increasing in "wisdom and stature" through others. And thus, He would serve to please God the Father by His actions in addition to the internal goodness that was intrinsic to Him.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son (Luke 2:1-20)

Okay, what the heck. Here's the Christmas edition of the ASAB, as hinted.

So Luke chapter 2 opens with mention of the census tax in "all the world". While of course this is a clear hyperbole of a sort (surely there was not a Roman tax on people living in the Far East or southern Africa) it's not clear to what degree. One could assume that Luke means throughout the Roman Empire, as some translators have assumed (the NIV translates the phrase to "the entire Roman world", although I don't believe the word "Roman" is in the Greek text), but even with that assumption, I have heard that there is no historical record of a tax even of that magnitude. While that is not mentioned in the SAB, the perhaps more weighty matter of the timing of this tax is mentioned. While one might dismiss the above as hyperbole of a sort, Luke seems to be intent on being very specific with respect to the time frame, "when Cyrenius was governor of Syria." This is a well-known issue with this story, and there are various approaches to it that have been taken. The most convincing approach I have ever heard is that some scholars have suggested that Quirinius/Cyrenius actually served two terms as governor of Syria, the first being at the time of Jesus' birth.

(Note that as I think I said before--and if not, I say it now--I'm not highly familiar with the finer points of historical accuracy. This limits my abilities to respond to points such as the one above, but aside from the fact that I don't expect to be able to answer every issue in the SAB, it also presents an odd opportunity to go outside of my usual mode of response at times. That is to say, while most of the points I respond to that are not of an historical nature, and thus I respond to them using only logic and/or common sense, I am forced to respond to these (if I choose to) by doing outside research. I think that's fine, since in most cases, one would not know that these supposed errors exist without outside research to find them in the first place!)

For the purposes of the taxation, for some reason Joseph had to leave the town of Nazareth and come to Bethlehem. Supposedly Bethlehem was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah, so it's good this worked out, and also interesting that God's will is exercised by the decree of a pagan king. (I love to point out to fellow Christians of a conservative political bent that if God's will can be worked out in men like Caesar, Herod and Pharaoh, then surely God would have no problem working with a Democrat in the White House.) The SAB contends that there is a contradiction with Matthew 2. While I may do Matthew 2 after I finish this chapter, I think the response to this is simple. Mary and Joseph (or at least Joseph) lived in Nazareth before the census. The census called them to relocate to Bethlehem. After the census, they decided to stay there, and lived there for a couple years before another temporary move to Egypt. In any case, wherever this "house" that they lived in was that is mentioned during the story of the Magi, it clearly was a place they lived about two years after Jesus was born. While there was no place to stay when they first came to Bethlehem, that doesn't mean they had to stay in the stable for two years.

Of interesting note, the Bible never says that they were in a "stable" per se. Because Jesus lay in a manger, people assume that the surroundings were a barn of some sort, but the actual nature of the structure Jesus was born in is not really known. Some people think he was born in a cave on the outskirts of Bethlehem which may or may not have held livestock. Also of interesting cultural note, as is seen later in the passage and explained more fully in the Old Testament, a woman giving birth would be considered "unclean", and need to be purified. In addition, anything touched by an unclean thing or person tends to also be unclean. Thus, if the inn had given them a room, they would have had to throw out or purify everything in that room that Mary had touched. Contrary to the image of a crowded inn with a kindly innkeeper who says, "You poor young folks, if only I could put you up...Tell you what, I'll let you have my barn!" it's quite possible that there was specifically "no room" for a pregnant woman in labor.

The fact that there were shepherds watching sheep at night suggests that this is not likely to be late December at all, of course. Most likely, it was a time with favorable warm weather, such as spring. I once read a book that suggested there was a significant astrological event that happened in early October of 6 B.C., and perhaps that was the "star" the Magi talk about seeing, and the weather would have been good enough for grazing sheep at night. Who knows?

The shepherds get invited to the party, so to speak, when some angels appear to them and tell them what's going on. They sing a little chorus of praise that ends "...on earth peace, good will toward men." This little song and other verses elsewhere lead the SAB to pose the very apropos question, "Did Jesus come to bring peace?" Some passages seem to suggest yes, while others no. The answer is of course, "Yes and no." How can this be? Well, the important question to ask is, "Peace with whom?" Jesus came to give an offering of peace between man and God. That much is very clear, and I believe that is what is meant by all of the passages mentioning Jesus bringing peace. Perhaps there are some that are clearly saying otherwise, and if so I will eventually get to them when I come to the New Testament. However, there is an unfortunate side-effect due to the fact that the world as it was then and is today is not in general at peace with God. As James says,
...know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God.
You see, the problem is that once a person puts themselves on the side of God, then they're not on the side of all the people who are not on God's side. (This is a difficult Biblical issue regarding the many meanings of the word "world", in this case meaning the non-Christian culture around us.) Put that way, it seems rather obvious, but the idea here is that the majority are not on God's side. Even today, only about one-third of the world is Christian. So no contradiction as such, but simply two different sides of the same coin. When you find peace with God, you will find that you will lose a lot of your other peace. (My roommate at the time I became a Christian was very irritated at my conversion, despite the fact that I was never preachy at home.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

I will bring them again also out of the land of Egypt (Gen 50)

So, Jacob is dead, and his last request is to be buried back in the Promised Land. It's interesting that for so many of these forefathers, despite the fact that they had little or no ties to the land of Canaan personally, they wanted to be buried there, both to be with their forefathers and with their ancestors that they assumed God would bring back there sometime in the future. Joseph mourns for his father, but then he requests to Pharaoh that he and his family be allowed to take the body back to Canaan to be buried at Machpelah.

In much of this exchange, there are hints at an unsteady relationship between Joseph and Pharaoh that foreshadow what is to come. After all, Joseph was put into a position of prominence from out of prison precisely because he was useful to Pharaoh. Joseph must be very careful to promise Pharaoh that he will indeed come back and not stay in Canaan, the land of his birth. The accompaniment of Egyptian servants along the way may be partially out of respect for Joseph's high position, partially for the purpose of protection of the Israelites, and partially out of protection of Pharaoh's interests: to see to it that Joseph and his brothers (who are also on Pharaoh's payroll) return when they are done. Also, they leave their children behind.

Jacob is indeed buried at Machpelah, as the text says repeatedly. The SAB points out that Stephen claimed Jacob was buried in Shechem. Yeah, this is a contradiction, but I think there are a couple things that could be said about it. First of all, Stephen's speech in the book of Acts is a speech, and I don't know that the Bible would be required not only to be correct in every detail, but that every character in the Bible never make a mistake either. Surely there are many places in the Bible where prominent people say things that are quite mistaken. (Peter is famous for this, of course.) Secondly, Stephen is not so much making an outright error as telescoping the details of the story, since Joseph, and probably his brothers as well were buried in Shechem. This mixing of the two parts of the stories is no doubt the source of the error Stephen does appear to make about who bought the grave. In any case, this is not at all the first time we've run up against problems with Stephen's Acts 7 speech, nor will it be the last; just remember he's telling the condensed version of the Old Testament, and he's going to gloss over the details quickly.

After the funeral is over, Joseph's brothers get worried once again that he will take revenge on them, and they tell him that Jacob had commanded that they be forgiven. Jacob is never actually seen making this speech, so you might wonder whether they made it up. It doesn't matter, though, as once again, Joseph assures them that he believes it was all part of God's plan.

Joseph lives to be 110 years old (apparently not an absurd age for the SAB, whose threshold for absurd age lies somewhere between 123 and 137, I may do more research on this) and to see his great-grandchildren. I just realized that I misread an issue from chapter 48 that comes up here, but my response is the same: these prophecies about being brought back to the Promised Land (here, here and here) are not personal prophecies to be fulfilled in the lifetimes of these people, but point to the future Exodus centuries later. Jacob, Joseph, and the other patriarchs all died in Egypt, but God brought the twelve tribes of Israel back to the land in the end.

And the end this is. Genesis begins with the creation of life, and now ends with the death of this prominent patriarch of Israel. The Bible moves on to a new chapter in the history of that nation, and I will take a break.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Fathers of the tribes of the children of Israel (Gen 47-49)

I'm looking forward to finishing Genesis, which ought to be very soon, since there are only a few chapters, and not a lot of SAB comments. As I think I have commented before, I'm not sure where to go after finishing the book, since going straight through makes some sense, but it can also be tedious in some parts. Exodus is good, but there's no denying that the majority of the other three books of Moses don't have a whole lot going for them. I think what I'm going to do is, after finishing a longer book like this, I'll skip ahead somewhere and take a detour through a shorter and more "action-packed" book as a sort of palate cleanser if you will. So before hitting Exodus, I think I'll either do Ruth or Jonah, two of my personal favorites. (Or perhaps I might do Luke chapter 2, as a sort of Christmas special. [Edit to add links to parts 1, 2, and 3.] I'm hoping to put some Christmas stuff in my other blog today anyway.) Any opinions (or comments at all) are welcome.

Chapter 47 is pretty straightforward, both the content and the SAB objections are largely a repetition of stuff in previous chapters. As instructed, Joseph's family stands before Pharaoh and tells him that they are shepherds, and what they really need is some good pasture land, preferably Goshen. In verse 11, Goshen is referred to as "the land of Rameses", which some have suggested to be an anachronism, and it technically is, "Rameses" being a name not used until hundreds of years after this time in history. Most likely, this is a reference that was common in the time this story was committed to paper rather than the time it actually happened similar to the references to Philistines and possibly Amalekites and others. Since the SAB doesn't claim an issue with verse 11, it may not have one, but it does bring up an interesting point anyway. I've heard many skeptics insist that if God really "wrote" the Bible, He would be aware of scientific facts that were discovered long after the stories were written as well as future historical events, and the writing ought to reflect that. That is probably true to some extent, no doubt, but note that another objection that is often raised to the Bible is to point out anachronisms! Maybe somebody can explain to me what the Bible could do in this area (as well as others that I won't go into here) so that it could please everybody. But enough of that...

Jacob is asked by Pharaoh how old he is, and Jacob tells him that he's 130, but that he's just a youngster compared to many of his forefathers. You may recall that Jacob's father lived to be 180, his grandfather 175 and great-grandfather 205. The SAB finds the thought of Jacob living to 147 to be absurd, but I'd be curious as to what the threshold for absurdity in lifespans is, since no note is made about Sarah.

Much of the rest of the chapter is concerned with the playing out of the remainder of the famine, and Joseph using the stored food to squeeze every last bit of capital out of the citizens of Egypt, making Pharaoh more wealthy and powerful than ever.

Just before Jacob dies, one noteworthy thing he does is make Joseph swear to bury him back in the Promised Land. The fact that Jacob does die is, in my opinion, not an issue with respect to the promise made by God in the last chapter, as I explained in my last post. The custom of swearing in the manner described here is indeed odd, but apparently it was a cultural thing of the time. As I explained in response to a similar exchange between Abraham and his servant, there is nothing wrong with swearing an oath per se. While I went over it in an older post, the short version is this: the two New Testament verses linked to in the SAB note are taken out of context, both of them saying not merely "...swear not," but "swear not, neither by heaven..." The point is not that making promises or swearing is wrong, but that swearing by something because your word alone isn't good enough is a bad thing.

Chapters 48 and 49 are essentially a long list of blessings that Jacob gives to his family before he passes away. (Despite the note by the SAB concerning Jacob seeing God, it seems very unlikely that Jacob is referring to something new, but rather is more likely referring to what happened way back the first time he saw God.) It's notable that like previous generations, the greatest blessings don't necessarily go to the eldest. In fact, it seems that the biggest blessing is going to the youngest child of the second-youngest son.

Although they are not really called "tribes" yet (oh, wait, I guess they are in verse 28), the SAB takes this moment to note the inconsistency in the naming of the tribes of Israel. It seems like a reasonable enough moment, but a little disappointing, since most educated Christians know that the inconsistency goes farther than what is quoted here, and various lists throughout the Bible will list them differently. I was going to leave it at that, but apparently I can't seem to help assisting Steve Wells in his research, so a quick guess as to where I would find a third list was fruitful: Numbers 1:4. In this list, we see the tribes listed as Reuben, Simeon, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Ephraim, Manasseh, Benjamin, Dan, Asher, Gad and Naphtali, which one can see does not fit with the other lists given. If you go down further in that chapter, there's a bit of explanation, but I can't remember where the full explanation is, it may be spread throughout the law in various places. The short of it is that the tribe of Levi is chosen to be set aside as a priestly tribe, and they don't get an inheritance in the Promised Land in the same manner as the other tribes. However, the sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh, each form a tribe at that point. So the tribes of Levi and Joseph are special, and it can cause some confusion at times. As for the passage in Revelation that is referred to, there are some theories among scholars as to why Dan is not on the list. Of course, it's not considered to be an error, but rather something of hidden significance.

The last thing to be settled in this chapter is the strange prophecy given in verse 10. Honestly, I don't understand this well (nor much of the rest of this chapter, which uses some strange poetic stuff), but I do know that it is considered by many to be telling of the idea that the Messiah should come from the tribe of Judah. While "Shiloh" is a place, many scholars have favored a different translation here in which the phrase becomes "until he comes to whom it belongs". Whether it refers to King David, Jesus, or someone or something else, I'm not sure how to respond to the note here, because I don't really know what it means. Nonetheless, a lot of issues regarding the validity of Saul's kingship will come up once I get to 1Samuel, so I'll save the discussion for that time.

Almost done!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

O ye children of Benjamin, gather yourselves (Gen 45-46)

Ugh, sorry for not updating, my adoring fans (all three or four of you) but I've been down with a nasty stomach flu. Still, it probably beats spending several years in an Egyptian prison, I guess.

So Joseph is overcome with emotion, and he orders all of the Egyptians out of the room, beginning to weep so loudly that apparently a lot of people outside hear him. All alone with his brothers, he no doubt switches to speak to them in their own language, astonishing them with the proclamation "I am Joseph." Apparently, they say nothing, being completely dumbstruck. He repeats himself, and assures them that he is not going to take revenge on them, but that he believes it was all a part of God's plan to save the family from the famine. He invites them to come and live in the land of Goshen, and Pharaoh gives them some wagons to bring back all their belongings. Joseph gives them a lot of stuff to bring back with them, and tells them to be quick about it, and not stop to argue or get worried about their fate.

They go back to Jacob, and give him the news that not only is Joseph alive, but that he has a high position in the government of Egypt. This apparently causes Jacob to have something like a heart attack, but he revives, and agrees to come back to Egypt to see Joseph "...before I die," no doubt facing the fact that his life can't be too much longer (he's 130 years old, after all).

At the beginning of chapter 46, Jacob stops in Beersheba to give sacrifices to God, as his father and grandfather had done. There, God speaks to him in a similar manner that he had spoken to Abraham in chapter 22; in both cases, there is a difficult journey to be taken ahead that will have a happy ending. Yes, God calls Jacob "Jacob" rather than "Israel", and you can decide to take that as a serious problem and contradiction to earlier verses, but as I have said, I don't have a real problem with this personally. A new issue here, however is the promise God makes in verse 4 that he "will also surely bring [Jacob] up again." The SAB points out, quite obviously correctly, that Jacob dies in Egypt. Well, there are two possible explanations, and I personally would lean toward the latter myself. Firstly, it may simply be the fact that Jacob's body would eventually come to be buried back in Canaan. In the bodily sense, Jacob indeed came back up from Egypt. The other likely possibility is that when God claims immediately previous to this claim that He "will there make of [Jacob] a great nation", it should be clear that He's talking about the distant future, and when He says He will bring him up again, He's referring to his descendants. After all, it's a recurring literary method throughout the Bible to refer to a nation by the name of its king or patriarch. (A third option occurs to me as I finish this paragraph: it may be a spiritual concept that is being conveyed here, but it's hard to say. The fact that God promises to go into Egypt is very interesting, as most deities of that ancient period were considered to only have power within a limited geographical boundary.)

Most of the rest of chapter 46 is essentially a "roll call" of the family. The SAB points out some things that need some clarification. In verse 11, three sons of Levi are listed, but in Ezra 8:18, another son, Mahli, is mentioned. So who is Mahli? A peek at Numbers 3:20 verifies the answer to be the most likely one in such matters: Mahli is Levi's grandson, and any descendant of Levi could be called a "son of Levi" by Biblical conventions.

In verse 21, we have a long list of the sons of Benjamin, a list that does not agree with other lists given elsewhere. There are a lot of things that could be said about this, one of which, like the previous point, is that grandsons are sometimes called sons. That doesn't clear up the whole list by far, though. There's a lot of stuff to get into in 1 Chronicles, which is a rather daunting book to slog through. (I salute Steve Wells' perseverance in checking all this stuff out!) In any case, in addition to Ard and Naaman being grandsons, we can see that Shupham and Hupham (which can easily be transliterated from Hebrew into Shuppim and Huppim) are children of Ir, who himself is a son of Bela; this implies that these "sons" of Benjamin are actually great-grandsons! (It's slightly possible that the "Huppim" in the Genesis passage is the same, but that might be a bit of a stretch; Benjamin doesn't seem anywhere near old enough for great-grandchildren.) The KJV concordance notes that Jediael is "maybe the same as 'Ashbel'," but gives no explanation of this. Perhaps it's because Ashbel is only missing from 1Chr. 7, and that would be convenient, I don't know. Interestingly, "Aharah" means "a following brother", and may not be meant to be a name at all. Clearly, the whole matter of genealogies can be rather confusing, and various genealogies in the Bible can be edited in different ways for different purposes. For instance, the Numbers 26 passage probably refers particularly to families within the tribe of Benjamin that had a large number of fighting men within them. I really can't begin to make a whole lot of sense out of 1Chronicles, I admit. (As to Benjamin's supposed age, I addressed that in the last paragraph of yesterday's post.)

Summing up in verse 27, the author claims there were 70 people in Joseph's family (not counting women, I think?), but Stephen, in the book of Acts, claims there were 75. Not at all obvious this one, but there is an explanation for it. Stephen, as many in the days the New Testament was written did, quoted from the Septuagint, in which five more descendants of Joseph are named for some reason. Since Joseph didn't come with his family out of Canaan into Egypt, I suppose that technically, neither number is correct. (Also, without knowing the numbers of wives and/or get the picture.) Robert Alter points out that 70 is probably just a nice round number.

Jacob and Joseph are finally reunited, and Joseph tells his family to tell the Egyptians that they are cattlemen, "for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." This is an odd thing to tell them, as it's not quite clear what the purpose is, nor does there seem to be any extrabiblical collaboration for this statement. Perhaps due to the fact that the Egyptians are either agricultural or urban, they have a hard time accepting nomadic shepherds? In any case, it may help them to acquire the land of Goshen in some way.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

And his brethren also went and fell down before his face (Gen 42-44)

Once again, no commentary from the SAB on chapters 42 or 43, and I'm not sure I have much to say either. Basically, Joseph is now in a position of authority, and he has a run-in with his (half-)brothers, who don't recognize him. They bow down before him, and he remembers the dream he had had about his brothers' sheaves of wheat bowing before his sheaf; no doubt this is the fulfillment of that dream. For whatever reason, (perhaps to get even?) he pretends not to know them, and makes things difficult for them, accusing them of being spies, throwing them into jail, and sending them back to Canaan with Simeon locked up in prison. He tells them that Simeon will not be released, nor will they get more supplies until they bring back Benjamin. (Possibly, Joseph is worried that they have killed Benjamin as they tried to kill him.) On the way back, they discover that their money has been restored to their sacks, and their father refuses to let them go back with Benjamin. This refusal is actually rather oddly insensitive, as Jacob's wording of the refusal is such that he is suggesting Benjamin is his only son, and he cares not for the fate of Simeon rotting away in an Egyptian prison, nor the nine other sons standing before him.

Eventually, though, they run out of food (although apparently not all kinds of food), and they have no choice but to go back. They decide that they dare not go back to Egypt without Benjamin and double the money they had brought before. When they get there, Joseph invites them to his house for lunch, which makes them suspicious. Certainly it's not customary for every foreigner that comes to Egypt looking for food to be invited to a meal with the viceroy of Egypt? Thinking it might be a chance to pull them aside and accuse them of stealing, they make sure to point out that they have brought back the money from last time. They are assured the money is of no consequence, and Joseph seats them around the room in order of their age, which surprises them since they still don't know he knows them. The author notes that the Egyptians, Joseph, and the brothers all eat in separate groups, as Egyptians find Hebrews to be an "abomination", perhaps a hint of what is to become of the relationship between them in the future.

Finally in chapter 44, they are sent on their way with provisions, but once again, they are given back their money, and Benjamin is given a silver cup as well. Joseph lets them get a head start, and then sends his servants after them to accuse them of stealing, but only the cup, which they are to claim Joseph uses for purposes of divination. (In Robert Alter's notes on 44:1, he points out that there is a sort of nightmare logic in this repeated returning of their money to them. After all, the great burden of guilt they carry is that they sold their brother into slavery in Egypt for some silver, and now they find that try as they might, they can't give their silver back to Egypt!)

The servants catch up to them and insist that they have stolen the "magical" cup. The SAB has issue with divination, and I would too, but there's no indication that Joseph really does perform divination with the cup, only that he wants his brothers to believe he does. The brothers are indignant, and certain that they are innocent, so much so that they insist that whoever holds the cup can be put to death, and the rest can be slaves. (This is another interesting allusion to their guilt over Joseph.) Joseph's servant accepts their claim of innocence, but suggests a lesser sentence: that only the person with the cup should become a slave, and the rest go free. The cup is found in Benjamin's sack, and the brothers are very distressed, because they know they can't possibly go back to Canaan without Benjamin. (Once again, this may be a testing on Joseph's part to see if his half-brothers will show any loyalty to his full brother.)

When they return to Joseph, Judah pleads that all of them ought to be put into slavery. Perhaps this because he knows there's no use going back without Benjamin, but it may also be because he realizes that it's himself and the other nine older brothers who have the real guilt here. Finally, Judah pleads that he himself would be taken, rather than the youngest, explaining the whole story of how Benjamin is his father's favorite child (Yes, as the SAB notes, Benjamin is not a "little" child or "lad", but an adult, however I think Judah is emphasizing the fact that Benjamin is the youngest, and thus the most vulnerable of the lot of them. I'm well into my thirties, and my mother occasionally refers to me as her "baby", somewhat to my wife's distaste.), and to go back without him would cause him to die of a broken heart. Judah, the brother who first suggested selling Joseph into slavery out of jealousy, now suggests that he himself should go into slavery to save his brother. As we will see in the next chapter, all of this finally becomes too much for Joseph.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure (Gen 41)

No comments at all from the SAB on this next chapter, so once again, I guess they have no problem with someone having a dream that accurately predicts the future. Actually, if you have no problem with that, you'd probably have little problem with Joseph's interpretation in this instance, as these dreams seem almost obvious.

So, two years have passed since Joseph thought he might get a chance to get out of prison, and the big break comes when Pharaoh has two dreams that wake him up at night. (Another interesting theme that repeats itself throughout the Bible is something important happening when a king finds himself unable to sleep.) Although these dreams seem the most obvious of any dreams interpreted in the Bible, nobody among Pharaoh's staff can explain them. Perhaps God didn't let them, because the time had finally come for Joseph to be moved into prominence?

In any case, the butler remembers Joseph, and mentions him to Pharaoh, so he is sent for. When the situation is explained, Joseph (like Daniel later on) gives credit for the interpretation to God. There are going to be seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine. Joseph suggests that if food is stored up in the first seven years, the latter seven will go more smoothly for Egypt, so Pharaoh ought to find somebody who can oversee such a project. Pharaoh thinks this is a great idea, and chooses Joseph himself, and gives him some fancy clothes and a royal ring. (Interestingly, whenever Joseph changes his position in the world, he also changes his clothing!)

Joseph carries out his duties, gets married, has a couple of kids, and eventually, the predicted famine comes, and all the surrounding nations come to Egypt for provisions, of course including Canaan.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions (Gen 40)

The SAB doesn't have much to say about chapter 40, but let's see what we have here, because it's a bit of a turning point in Joseph's life. One of the things I find interesting here, as I mentioned back in chapter 37, is that Joseph, for being such a supposed expert at interpreting dreams, never bothered to interpret his own (or if he did, it's not mentioned).

While Joseph is spending his time working away in prison, two men come to be interred with him, both servants of Pharaoh. One is the royal baker, and the other, while called a "butler" in this translation is really more of a wine steward or cup bearer, which is clear enough from the context anyway. It's been interpreted by some, and it makes sense, that these two men may be suspects in a criminal matter, and they are being held in jail until the matter is cleared up. Thus they both go in together and come out together, being implicated for the same crime. This is another interesting moment which is often thought as being symbolic of the Eucharist, these two men representing bread and wine.

In any case, the two men each have a dream, and the two dreams are similar. They both involve the dreamer going back into service for Pharaoh in an odd, supernatural fashion, and also both involve the number three. (Note that in each instance of Joseph dealing with dreams, there are two dreams that have an important number (12, 3 and 7) which is the same in both.) The butler/cupbearer's dream is a pleasant one, and the interpretation is pleasant. The baker's dream is an unpleasant one, and the interpretation is rather unpleasant. In both instances, Joseph uses a variation of the phrase "Pharaoh shall lift up thy head"; in the butler's case, the idiom means "Pharaoh will show you favor" while in the baker's case, the addition of "from off thee" indicates that the baker is going to be executed by beheading. When the interpretations come true (which they do), Pharaoh "lifted up the head of the chief butler and of the chief baker", which in this case means that he singles them out for special treatment. I love the way the Bible plays with words, in this case showing the flexibility of a simple idiom.

The SAB apparently finds Pharaoh's treatment of the baker to be cruel and/or violent. Actually, the KJV understates it a bit, as it's likely that what is really going on here is not that the baker was put on a gallows, but rather that he was beheaded, and his body and/or head was impaled on a spike for the birds to eat. So yeah, it is a bit violent and cruel. I find it interesting that the SAB has no issue with the fact that Joseph was able to predict the future.

I want to add a final note here about a minor point in language that also covers an issue I have heard elsewhere, although don't see mentioned in the SAB. The butler/cupbearer fails to "remember" Joseph after he's restored to his position. This word for "remember" is used many times in reference to God, perhaps most well-known and notably in Genesis 8:1 and Exodus 2:24. Some people have wondered, "If God is 'remembering' Noah or the Israelites, does that mean he had 'forgotten' them?" Not at all. The word that the KJV prefers to translate as "remember" has different shades of meaning, one of which is the second-most preferred translation: "mention" (v. 14, same word in Hebrew). The general idea is that when one "remembers" something, it is brought to the full attention. Joseph is saying, "Make sure Pharaoh knows about me and gives some attention to my wrongful imprisonment!" In the many cases where the Bible says God "remembered" something, the idea is that God decided to turn his full attention to dealing with a specific problem, because its time had come. Joseph was forgotten for two years, but frankly, his time had not yet come.

Monday, November 21, 2005

For by means of a whorish woman a man is brought to a piece of bread (Gen 39)

Chapter 39, while also dealing with a topic of a sexual nature, is a much more common one to be read in children's Sunday school classes than the previous one, probably mostly due to the fact that Joseph is giving a much better example of model behavior than anyone in the previous chapter. (The most virtuous person in the previous chapter was Tamar, and I hardly think a Sunday-school teacher is going to tell kids, "So remember, girls, if your husband won't get you pregnant, dress up like a prostitute and fool him into doing it." Although of course, some husbands go for that sort of thing, no doubt. 'Nuff said...)

So Joseph is sold to Potiphar, a prominent politician in Egypt. (Who sold Joseph? As I said back in chapter 37, I believe "Ishmaelites" in this case is a case of technically inaccurate labeling.) It's a bit interesting to note that Potiphar is never labeled by name in this story other than in this first verse, perhaps the author's intent to highlight the relationship as Joseph's "master" to highlight further Joseph's position as a slave. Joseph quickly rises to a position of prominence in his master's house, because everything put into his hand prospers. (There's a very interesting facet of the whole story of Joseph and the prominent use of the word "hand". Joseph falls into the hand of his brothers, who give him over to the hand of the slave-traders, who sell him to an Egyptian who puts his household in Joseph's hand. Because he leaves his garment in the hand of his master's wife, he ends up in prison, where all matters are put in his hand there, as well. Of course, ultimately, all of this is in the hand of God.)

Eventually, perhaps in part because Joseph is a pretty good-looking guy (a possible translation of verse 6), his master's wife starts coming on to him. Joseph keeps saying no, giving as his primary reason that it would be "sin against God", but one day they end up alone. She grabs on to his clothes and insists that he come to bed with her, and he takes off, leaving his clothes behind. She apparently decides that she's been humiliated, and launches a smear campaign against Joseph as revenge. She tells all the servants, and her husband.

The odd thing about this story is that Joseph ends up in prison. Maybe there's something more to ancient Egyptian culture that I am unaware of, but you might imagine that in many cultures that had slavery, if a slave were to attempt to rape their master's wife, it simply would be the end of them. Potiphar gets angry, but he doesn't kill Joseph; he puts him in prison. I've heard it said that most likely, Potiphar knew that his wife was lying, or at least exaggerating, and what he was really angry about was that he lost a great servant in Joseph because he had to do something to save face in response to his wife's story.

Joseph may wonder why he keeps doing all the right and moral things, but he keeps having all this misfortune. But it turns out that God is still keeping watch over him, and the last few verses of this chapter are very similar to the first few; Joseph has a new master of a sort in the jailer, who once again puts him in a high position over his affairs. And of course, there's still more good to come.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Now these are the generations of Pharez (Gen 38)

To quote the SAB regarding chapter 38, "This lovely Bible story is seldom read in Sunday School, but it is the basis of many Christian doctrines, including the condemnation of both masturbation and birth control." On-the-mark assessment of this story as a whole, which is a very odd one that only has some of its issues explained through appeal to a better understanding of cultural customs of the time.

Now the first thing that the SAB has issue with in this story is verses 2-4. I really have no idea why. (Steve Wells makes his case in the comments below.) Those verses, along with verse 5, are a simple straightforward setup of the story in which all we see happening is Judah meets a woman and seems to fall in love with her and start a family. What's wrong with that? They have three children, and the eldest of the three marries a woman named Tamar. Up until now, there's not really anything noteworthy of this story.

This eldest son, whose name was Er, does something bad that causes his own death: the Lord kills him. (This may be a figure of speech, but probably not.) Since we don't know what he did to deserve death, I'm not sure we can judge God at all for striking him down. I mean, if you simply don't believe that evil should be punished, or more particularly that you don't believe in capital punishment, then that's more of a personal issue that's part of a larger debate than this passage.

Then comes the weird part, at least to people of more modern sensibilities. Onan, the second brother, is told to go and get his sister-in-law Tamar pregnant. This practice is explained more thoroughly in another part of the Bible later on, but essentially if a woman's husband dies and they have no son, then a near relative is required to impregnate the widow so that the male line is not ended. Telling Onan to do this was something that was supposedly fairly commonplace in that culture and time.

For whatever reason--and despite many people making suggestions such as Onan not wanting to be responsible for a child that would get his older brother's inheritance for instance, we don't really know specifically--Onan decides not to impregnate Tamar, and instead pulls out and "spills his seed". There's a lot of speculation as to what it was that was so particularly wrong with this action on Onan's part. As the SAB notes (and I quoted above) the common beliefs are that it was a matter of the evils of masturbation and/or this particular form of birth control (thus the coinage of the term "onanism" for either practice) or even birth control in general. I tend to think there are a few deeper issues at stake here. The slightly more obvious one is the whole concept of a man impregnating his brother's widow as being so important that it requires an action (sleeping with your sister-in-law) that no doubt would be quite taboo if the circumstances were any different. If it's this important for Onan to fulfill his duties, then refusing to fulfill them is probably a serious offense. On a more subtle note, Tamar is in the genetic line of King David, and therefore also Christ; God may have special reason beyond our understanding to want to see this woman have a child whose father is in the house of Judah. (In my mind, that's what the whole book of Ruth is about.)

So supposedly after Onan died, Tamar should have been married to Shelah, the third brother; but Judah says that he's too young, and Tamar ought to go back and live with her parents until Shelah is old enough. Apparently, though, Judah's just thinking that if he gives his third son to this woman, he's going to die, too. I can't say I fully blame him, it's the sort of thing a father-in-law probably would start to think about.

Eventually enough time passes that Shelah's old enough to get married, and Judah's wife dies, but nobody ever goes to get Tamar back from her parents. Tamar decides that it's time to take matters into her own hands, in a rather unusual manner. She finds out where Judah is going to be the next time he's out of town, and waits for him, dressed up in disguise like a prostitute. It works; Judah sees her, and propositions her for sex.

Now, what Judah is doing, unaware of who the "harlot" really is, is quite in the wrong. He shouldn't be sleeping with some random woman he meets in the road in return for livestock. The story is however quite full of delightful irony. While he is being tempted into doing what is wrong, Tamar is, in a sense, doing what is right, because either Judah or Shelah is supposed to be getting her pregnant so she can have a son as an inheritance for her husband Er. Note that she asks Judah to pledge to her as a deposit, "Thy signet, and thy bracelets, and thy staff," which were symbolic of Judah's authority and inheritance to eventually give to the first-born son of his first-born son. And of course, since Judah is eventually the tribe of Israel out of which the Davidic dynasty comes from, these items are, in a sense, the royal seal and scepter of Israel. Judah hardly seems to pause, though, and hands them over. He gets the sexual gratification he wants, and she gets the child she wants, along with proof that the father is exactly who it should be. (The other irony is the contrast of this story with the immediately following story of Joseph being tempted with sex, and responding very differently.)

I find it interesting that later, when Judah sends a friend to pay off the debt to the "harlot", it echoes some of the supposition that we've seen earlier that the surrounding nations have no moral scruples. Judah's friend seems to have no intent of being delicate about the matter, and simply asks something along the lines of, "Hey guys, where's the whore that used to hang out over there? I owe her something." The men reply that there is no prostitute in the town. Back home, upon hearing the news, Judah decides not to pursue the matter in case it brings him disgrace.

Shortly after, Judah hears that his daughter-in-law (whom he hardly treated as though she existed) was pregnant "by whoredom." Judah gets all indignant and insists that she should be burnt to death. Before this happens, though, Tamar says, "Oh, by the way, the father of the child gave me these," and shows the stuff that Judah gave her. I always love stories like this, of which there are a handful in the Bible, where one person gets all "righteously" angry about somebody else's sin, and is ready to rip them a new one, as they say, and then someone says, "Oh, by the way, what about your involvement?" Judah puts the whole story together and realizes that the only one who really did anything wrong was he himself. Suddenly all that righteous anger goes away, and everyone goes free.

At the birth, it turns out to be twins, so Tamar gets two sons even though Judah never sleeps with her again. Both these sons rise to some prominence in Israel, Pharez of course becoming the next in the royal line to David.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

It was not you that sent me hither, but God (Gen 37)

I'm sure the legions of regular readers (all three of them) have been wondering when I'm going to post again. Sorry, I've really been busy with a lot of stuff, and I hate the fact that I've gone from posting pretty much every day to about once a week. I'm going to try to be more regular in this, but no promises. After all, I should have been through Genesis by now at the rate I started, and I'd rather not take years and years to get to the relatively easy SAB notes on Revelation 22.

So, as I've been looking forward to, this is the story of Joseph, who is a major character in the Bible, a major player in Israelite history, and the person whose story will see us out of this book into Egypt to set up for the main event of the Torah, the Exodus.

Joseph has a few things going on with him that set him up for trouble. He's his father's favorite son which is no secret to his brothers at all, a bit of a tattletale which never makes for popularity, and he has what may or may not be an inflated sense of his own importance. Due to his dream and due to the way Joseph is generally treated in the midst of trouble, I think the SAB is right in saying that Joseph is also God's favorite among the brothers. Joseph is an interesting fellow, though, in that he is one of the few major characters in the Bible that the Bible never says anything bad about. Well, at least no outright sins are mentioned, we see later that he's a bit of trickster like his father, but he doesn't use it to his own advantage particularly. There seems to be good reason for him to be the favorite.

Joseph has some dreams that seem to be indicating that some day, all of his family will come to him and bow before him. This is pretty much the only time his father gets angry at him, rebuking, "Shall I and thy mother and thy brethren indeed come to bow down ourselves to thee to the earth?" (This actually brings up a point that the SAB probably should take notice of, at least for the sake of giving us food for thought. Joseph's mother is dead. One might wonder what Jacob means by this rebuke, and whether the dream is fully coherent in its symbolism. I always note, however that despite Joseph's reputation as a dream interpreter, he never attempts to explain these two dreams himself.)

So one day, Israel sends Joseph off to check out what his brothers are doing, and tell on them if they're doing anything they shouldn't be. Turns out they're not where they said they would be, so Joseph has to track them down.

When he approaches them, they see him coming, and get the idea that they should kill him. After all, they will hardly have to someday bow down to Joseph if he's dead, right? The original plan is to kill him, and then just toss the body into a hole in the ground so he won't even have the dignity of a proper funeral.

Reuben, the eldest, seems to have enough of his head about him to realize this is not a good idea, so he tells his brothers, "Let's just toss him in a pit without hurting him," implying that maybe they could just let him starve to death in a hole in the ground and not actually directly cause his death themselves. Of course, he's thinking he'll just come back and get Joseph out of the hole later, either out of pity, or perhaps in hopes that he'll gain some favor with his father indirectly through Joseph. So Joseph ends up in the pit, and the brothers take a lunch.

While they're lunching, some traveling merchants come by. They were either Ishmaelites or Midianites; the story is very garbled about it. In fact, this garbling is a bit of a problem, and part of the problem is that it's not clear exactly what type of problem it is. Is it a contradiction as the SAB says? Is it an anachronism, as any "Ishmaelites" at this time would be cousins, and probably wouldn't be referred to in that way? Or is it a technical inaccuracy due to a tendency to call people from a particular area by a certain name whether they're of that tribe or not? I'm inclined towards the latter, both because it's the least of the three errors (and therefore selfishly the most appealing to the apologist!) and because Judges 8:22, 24 suggests that "Ishmaelites" and "Midianites" were somewhat interchangeable terms even in times far removed to the future.

Judah suggests to his brothers that rather than killing Joseph, they could sell him to the merchants as a slave. Maybe he wants to make some money, or maybe he's thinking, "Well, sure, selling your half-brother into slavery isn't the best thing in the world, but it's not as bad as murder, right?" As a child, I always thought this was a bit of irony in that the brothers as a group wanted Joseph dead, but at least two of them as individuals didn't think he deserved it; failing to speak their minds, Judah's plan to save Joseph unwittingly messes up Reuben's much better plan that he didn't know about. Somehow Reuben is not present when this plan is carried out, an oddity that admittedly leaves the suggestion that some scholars no doubt favor that this story, with its confusion over Midianites/Ishmaelites and Reuben/Judah trying to save Joseph's life in a sneaky manner is actually two (or more) oral traditions woven together imperfectly. I'm willing to admit this is also a possibility, as I discussed way back at the beginning. The essential irony of the story in the end is, in Joseph's words to his brothers, " thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good..."

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives (Gen 36)

Before the Bible dives into the story of Joseph, which due to the amount of space and detail lavished on him is in my opinion the real focus of the book of Genesis, it takes a side-trip into the genealogy of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau. This genealogy, while yes, fairly boring to the modern reader, probably was of some interest to the people living in the time when Edom was a prominent nation neighboring Israel. It also serves as a sort of transition between the strories of Jacob and Joseph in the same way that Ishamel's genealogy in chapter 25 served as a transition from Abraham to Isaac. In both cases, there is the concept that even though this son was not the one given the special covenental promise, God had blessed them as well. (My comments on the avoidance of genealogies are here.)

There are a number of oddities in this genealogy, which makes me wonder if the boringness of these genealogies sometimes caused the scribes to be a bit more lax in copying them than in other places. Before we even get to Bashemath, there's the matter of Anah, which the SAB interestingly misses. There may be two people here named Anah, but if so, it's an uncle/niece, and I'm finding it hard to believe that someone would name their daughter after their brother even in modern times, much less in the ancient Middle East. In this chapter, Anah is referred to as: the parent of Aholibamah (vv. 2, 14, 18, 25), a "daughter" of Zibeon (vv. 2, 14), a son of Zibeon (v. 24), a son of Seir (v. 20), a Horite "duke" (v. 29). The only other place that the name Anah is mentioned is in 1Chronicles, where we also see mention of a son of Seir and a son of Zibeon by this name, which might lend credence to the idea that there were two of them, but I strongly suspect that the "daughter" references at least are a mistake in gender. (In verse 24, the translation "mules" is a bit suspect. In Robert Alter's translation of Genesis, he assumes that the Hebrew word "yemim" is an accidental transposition of the letters of "mayim", which means "waters". Finding water in a desert wilderness is something perhaps more noteworthy than finding mules.)

Another minor matter that I noticed in trying to sort out the names in this genealogy was that Korah was listed as a son of Eliphaz in verse 16, which seems to also be a mistake, as the only other use of that name in this chapter is in reference to a half-brother of Eliphaz. Sure, it's possible that Eliphaz had a son named Korah that the writer forgot to mention earlier in the chapter, but I'm inclined to see this as a copyist error somewhere. Oh, and then there's the issue of whether these people are Hittites, Hivites, or Horites; it appears that may be largely interchangeable terms.

Okay, Bashemath's father... I ducked this one before, let me take another look. I swear that the SAB had a page dedicated to the subject of Esau's wives, because this is indeed a touchy subject, and I know I read about it somewhere on the net. I thought it was there. Verses in question:
26:34 And Esau was forty years old when he took to wife Judith the daughter of Beeri the Hittite, and Bashemath the daughter of Elon the Hittite:

28:9 Then went Esau unto Ishmael, and took unto the wives which he had Mahalath the daughter of Ishmael Abraham's son, the sister of Nebajoth, to be his wife.

36:2-3 Esau took his wives of the daughters of Canaan; Adah the daughter of Elon the Hittite, and Aholibamah the daughter of Anah the daughter of Zibeon the Hivite; and Bashemath Ishmael's daughter, sister of Nebajoth.
It really seems that something is very mixed up here. I suppose it might be possible that Esau had more than three wives, although it would be very odd not only to have six wives, but to have among those six two sets of sisters and two wives with the same name. There may be an explanation for all of this, but I don't know what it might be.

Basically, I'm saying despite the fact I've addressed the issues of polygamy and the Amalekites, I don't think I can explain most of this chapter, as it's one of the stranger genealogies in the Bible in my opinion.

Friday, November 04, 2005

And he went on his journeys from the south even to Bethel (Gen 35)

Genesis 35 is a bit of a hodgepodge of tying up loose ends, telling of the death of Isaac and finishing the part of the story that focuses on Jacob/Israel. Let's see what we have here.

God tells Jacob to go to Bethel, the place where he had that vision back in chapter 28. At that time, Jacob called the place Bethel, and here he seems to be naming it that again. I commented on this a bit back in chapter 28, but something I failed to mention then (probably because I missed it) is that the name Bethel first comes up way back in chapter 12. I'm actually a bit surprised that the SAB fails to note this, as it did note some similar things elsewhere. Putting all of this together, there are a few things I can say in addition to the comment that this was a personal name only Jacob used until now. The fact that Bethel is referenced back in Abraham's early days suggests two things, one or both of which could be true. The author of Genesis may have referred to certain places at times by names they didn't have until some time later, simply for the purpose of making it familiar to the audience at the time it was written. Whatever Abraham called Bethel, the readers probably would not recognize that name. The other thing is that despite the fact Jacob apparently originally names Bethel, God, having omniscience, already knew that that was the name it would have, and had always called it that. In any case, it's clear at least God knows the name before this naming, as He refers to it by name both in the early part of this chapter and in chapter 31.

Before going to Bethel, Jacob persuades his family and perhaps servants as well to "Put away the strange gods that are among you..." This involves throwing out any idols (such as the ones that Rachel has hidden, perhaps) as well as a number of items of jewelry that apparently have some sort of pagan connotation to them. Jacob buries them, and then as they travel, the Bible tells us that "the terror of God was upon the cities that were round about them". The SAB marks this as "cruelty" and "injustice", but gives no explanation as to why. It seems to me that the simplest interpretation of this verse is that the people in the area are still aware of what happened to Shechem and his people in the previous chapter, and knowing that these people are apparently fully dedicated to God, they fear God indirectly through fear of them. Of course, it could also be some sort of supernatural intervention on the part of God, but it's hard to say, and I'm just not clear on what makes this cruel or unjust.

Once again, God appears to Jacob, and once again, the declaration is made that Jacob will be henceforth known as Israel. Both of these are issues for the SAB, and issues I've touched on before.

Shortly after this, Rachel goes into labor with her second and last son. She dies in childbirth. The SAB says that " the Bible, a woman is expected to die happily as long as she has a son." I'm not sure what this is supposed to imply (perhaps this comment is an allusion to a possible alternate phrasing of the translation which would mean the midwife is saying essentially, "I know you're dying, but on the bright side, it's going to be a boy!") but there is some truth to it I suppose. In the ancient Jewish culture, for a woman to have a son was indeed a matter of some prestige. Nonetheless, as she died, Rachel names her new son "Benoni", a name which means "son of my sorrow." Apparently, the name doesn't stick, as Jacob prefers "Benjamin", which is the only name he's referred by ever again.

A while after this, an episode occurs in which Reuben sleeps with Bilhah, his fathers concubine. It's not really too clear whether this counts as incest, as Reuben's mother is Leah, and Bilhah is even the handmaid that was having children to be credited towards Rachel. The fact that it was Bilhah and not Zilpah is probably significant, and apparently the Talmud suggests that Reuben is trying to do a favor for his mother in making sure Rachel will not be able to even have any more children through her handmaid, since Jacob would not be likely to sleep with her after this. Another idea which seems a bit more likely to me (partially because it's a bit more Biblically based) is that Reuben, being the firstborn, is hoping to exert some sort of power grab. Jacob has, in many ways, become the king of a new nation called "Israel", and Reuben is theoretically in line for the "throne". In those times, when a king conquered another king, the conqueror would take the old king's concubines for himself. Whatever the nature of this very wrong action on Reuben's part, Jacob, as in the story of Dinah, is not recorded as having a reaction (at this point in time, but see Gen. 49:3-4). Jacob doesn't seem to have any more children from any of his wives or concubines after this time anyway.

Finally, after all this, Isaac dies, at the age of 180. I'm still not at all clear what is so absurd about these advanced ages. Granted, they seem unlikely, but I don't even see that a miracle is needed to make someone live a long time.

Monday, October 31, 2005

What shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? (Gen 34)

The SAB has nothing to say about chapter 33, and I don't think I do either. It's a pretty straightforward and nice reunion story of Jacob and his brother Esau. Chapter 34, however, has a lot of scandal in it that a lot could be said about.

This chapter is the story of Dinah, Jacob's only mentioned daughter. A short time after moving back to the promised land, Dinah gets taken away by Shechem, a member of a local royal family, and he has sex with her. The story doesn't seem to make it particualrly clear whether or not it's consensual sex; he may have kidnapped and raped her, or it may have been something more like eloping. Given the fact that women weren't treated with too much respect in those days, and Dinah's brothers don't seem to be angry at her specifically, I'd venture to guess that it wasn't consensual sex. Also, the wording of verses three and four seem to me to indicate that his desire to have any sort of long-term relationship with her came after the sex.

The two families get together and try to work out the terms of whether and how the two should be married. Jacob seems to be trying his best to be quiet and calm about it, but his sons are pretty ticked off. They insist that Shechem and all of his people (the Hivites, I guess?) have to be circumcised in order to be acceptable. While indeed, as the SAB says, this may be a case of intolerance against gentiles, it may also be that they're setting demands on Shechem that they don't expect him to be able to fulfill, so that when he says "No," they can have an excuse to say, "See? He doesn't really love her! Let's kill him!" At least, the overall story seems to point to this as a strong possibility.

But they agree, and do it! It almost sounds like that very same afternoon, the whole city goes out to the gate and undergoes this rather uncomfortable procedure. Now if circumcision was what the sons of Israel really wanted, then this should have been a happy ending right here, pretty much. Instead, a couple days later, when all these men are lying around in pain, and perhaps drunk (I probably would be!), Simeon and Levi come and kill them all. They take all their possessions, livestock, and women, and go back home, taking their sister with them.

Now, this sounds like a terrible thing, and in fact, the Bible does very little to dissuade someone of that. Jacob rebukes them, and they seem to not care at all, because their sister's honor was damaged. I'm not sure why the SAB claims, "To the author of Genesis, rape is clearly a crime against the honor of men rather than against a woman." It may indeed be so that this is the case for Simeon and Levi, and for the author of Genesis, but frankly, I don't see that it's "clearly" the case. I could see this going either way.

In any case, a lot of people here have failed to make the right moral decision, and the Bible does not condone any of what happens in this chapter.

Friday, October 28, 2005

He had power over the angel, and prevailed (Gen 32)

More weirdness today in the life of Jacob; this guy just had some odd things happen to him, didn't he?

So when Jacob gets near home, he remembers that his brother wants him dead, and he starts to get nervous. He sends a few messengers ahead to tell his brother that he's coming back, and the messengers return with the news that Esau is riding out to meet Jacob with 400 men. Although the Bible doesn't say if Jacob said anything in response, I imagine if he did, it was something like, "Oh crap, I'm a dead man." He decides the thing to do is divide up everything he has (perhaps including his family) in to two equal groups, and if Esau starts attacking one of the groups, the other one is to run away quickly in hopes that they'd be spared.

Then he prays to God to save him from his brother's wrath, and comes up with another plan. He sends out a number of servants in groups with large amounts of livestock of various types, and he tells each group that when they meet Esau's party, they are to tell him that the livestock is a gift. Hoping that having these gifts go before him will make him more safe, he's willing to finally send his family at the rear, but he himself hesitates alone on the far side of the river. And here's where the really weird stuff starts.

It says Jacob is alone, but then it says, in the very same sentence, that he wrestles with another man. They fight to a standstill, and the man somehow manages to dislocate Jacob's hip, but Jacob still won't give in. The guy essentially says, "Look, we've been fighting all night, and we're not getting anywhere. Why don't you just give up?" Jacob insists on being blessed by this guy before letting go.

The guy (who may be God; Jacob seems to think so) asks Jacob his name. Whether God or not, I don't think this person is really asking for info, he's using the question as a segue into giving Jacob the new name of "Israel". Jacob asks for the man's name, but he refuses to give it. Weird.

Now, I'm not really clear on why it's a big issue (maybe it's just a little one?) but the SAB points out quite rightly that despite what verse 28 says, Jacob actually is still called Jacob by many people after this incident, including God. The reason I don't think it's an issue is because sometimes people change their names, and yet are still called by their old names. My mother, for instance, is known by many people as Mrs. Gardner because that was the surname of my stepfather, and she was married to him for a little over ten years. People who meet her for the first time after knowing me sometimes assume she is Mrs. Brucker, however, she goes by her maiden name. When she went back to her maiden name, she said she didn't want to be known as Mrs. Gardner anymore, but since so many people knew her by that name, she is still called that by many people to this day, and doesn't bother to correct them as far as I know. Jacob's name may have been changed, but it's not unreasonable to call him Jacob still, and not only do people call him that, but in the future, the nation of Israel would occasionally be called "Jacob" as well. Okay, yes, the verse actually says, "Thy name shall be called no more Jacob," but I'm just not clear on why this should disturb my confidence in the Bible.

Is this guy God, though? While Jacob says so according to the KJV and pretty much all the other translations I'm familiar with, there remains some ambiguity in this strange tale. The word translated "God" in these verses is elohim, a strange Hebrew word that, while often translated as "God", is actually plural in form. I may have mentioned it before, but here I think it's worth delving deeper into it. The KJV usually translates this word as "God", but also sometimes uses "god" or "goddess" if the context warrants it, a few times "judge", and once, "angels". Basically it's a word that expresses the concept of a powerful being. It may be possible that Jacob is wrestling with an angel, a prophet, or even some sort of demonic being. I think Jews tend to favor the idea that it's an angel, but I'm not at all certain about that. Many Christians do view this as being God, usually particularly an appearance of a pre-incarnate Christ. One might rightly wonder if indeed this is God, how is Jacob able to wrestle him to a standstill? It's a mystery to me.

Whatever the true nature of this confrontation, there is almost certainly a level at which this is all having symbolic significance. Jacob has spent his whole life, from before birth even, wrestling with his brother, his father, his father-in law, his wives, and even the occasional inanimate object, and now, he is wrestling with his fear and his faith in God. In the end, he is triumphant, and crosses the river to accept his fate and place his future in the hand of God.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

When he hath served thee six years, thou shalt let him go (Gen 31)

Did I ever make a commitment to do this blog each and every weekday? I can't remember, but I seem to recall thinking so at least in my mind. I certainly don't have to post constantly, but if I can't at least get out a couple a week, I'm likely to lose what little readership I have, not to mention being lax in the duty I set before myself to use this as a daily Bible study of sorts. In any case, after a very busy week, I'm dropping in today to do at least a short one. While chapter 31 isn't short itself, the SAB has little to say about it. It's another strange story in the saga that is Jacob's life, but nothing contradictory or supernaturally bizarre other than a retouching on items from the last few chapters.

Anyway, in this chapter, we see Jacob noticing that Laban's not as happy with having Jacob around as he used to be, so Jacob decides it's time to leave his father-in-law before something bad happens. Also, he apparently has a dream in which God confirms it's time to go, so he grabs all his stuff and all his family (the nature of which I discussed much previously), and takes off back home to Canaan.

For some reason that is never fully explained (especially since Laban seems to be a believer in the God of the Bible) Laban has some idols in the house that Rachel steals. Maybe she wants to take them away to worship them, maybe she thinks she's serving God by sort of purifying her father's house, maybe the things were worth some money, but we never really get told. There may be something symbolic in the fact that later Rachel hides them under her seat and keeps her saddlebags from being searched by claiming to be unclean due to her period. I couldn't say whether this is Rachel intentionally being ironic, or the author of the story being ironic, but the Bible is fond of mixing sexual and spiritual metaphors, and, well... These were things that God didn't want men to touch for his own reasons. There may also be a bit of comedy in the fact that Laban's "gods" are rendered powerless by a woman sitting on them.

Laban in any case is upset that Jacob tried to sneak away as though he were kidnapping his daughters, and in coming after Jacob, seems to hint that he wants to have harsh words with him, but doesn't feel he can since God told him not to in a dream. Of course, he still wants his household gods back, but can't seem to find them. Jacob, knowing nothing about it, probably feels he's being wrongfully accused.

Laban and Jacob make a covenant, so that they can depart on good terms, as neither of them fully trusts the other. They make a pile of stones to commemorate the event, which they each call "witness pile" in their own language. Yes, it's okay to make an oath, but I personally won't make an oath that I'll have new post tomorrow although I'll try.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Am not I better to thee than ten sons? (Gen 30)

So, the baby wars are on.

Leah's got four children, and Rachel has none, and Rachel's apparently flipping out about it. The SAB notes, "Rachel considers herself worthless if she cannot produce children for her husband." While it's unfortunate, I think it's clear that it's a cultural thing, perhaps particularly in the ancient Middle East, that a woman did indeed consider a great deal of her self- worth to be measured by the number of offspring she could produce for her husband, especially male offspring. In any case, she starts getting angry at Jacob because she doesn't have any children, and Jacob's technically true but perhaps more than a little insensitive response is, "Hey, it's not like it's my fault, is it?" (But then again, maybe it is his fault?)

So Rachel comes up with the same solution Sarah did; she offers her handmaiden Bilhah to her husband. As Rachel notes, culturally the child would be considered to be hers for however these sorts of things work. This makes me wonder sometimes why Sarah got so bent out of shape over the same arrangement, especially since it was her own idea. Rachel seems to have no problem with it.

So Rachel gets two sons out of this deal, but this just leads Leah to get jealous again, so she offers up her handmaid Zilpah, who proceeds to also have two sons. While the SAB says that daughters never seem to come out of these unions, there is of course a daughter born in verse 21. Perhaps the intention of this claim is that no daughters come of these surrogate mothering arrangements. Maybe, maybe not. I wonder at times whether there may have been daughters that simply are not mentioned. Call it sexist if you will (and I might not argue), but the Bible rarely mentions daughters unless they're important to the plot, and Dinah is central to a story that comes up a few chapters from now.

Back to the action, Reuben, Leah's oldest, finds some mandrakes and gives them to his mother. Mandrakes are herbs that apparently have been considered by some to be either an aphrodisiac or they magically make you fertile, I can't remember which it is, maybe both. Now neither of these women is having children right now, so they both want to get their hands on these things, but Leah has them. So Rachel makes a bargain and says that Leah gets to sleep with Jacob if she gives her the mandrakes. But so much for the power of mandrakes, because it's Leah who ends up having another son, two of them, actually, and the only mentioned daughter. Finally after all this, Rachel gives birth to Joseph herself.

Now Jacob decides enough time has passed, and he tells his uncle/father-in-law that he wants to go back home. Laban, however, seems somewhat unwilling to let him go, saying that he knows God is blessing him for the sake of Jacob. The SAB notes that the phrase used in verse 27 probably is referring to divination of some sort on Laban's part, and I think that's probably correct. The Hebrew word behind the phrase is almost never translated the same way twice in the KJV, and most other choices by the translators reflect a concept of discerning by a spiritual method. He could be speaking figuratively as many modern Christians do (although they may not mean to be speaking figuratively) when they say, "God was telling me..." when something goes their way. Whatever the case may be, I'm not sure what the problem is here.

Jacob apparently cuts a deal and says that he will stay a while longer, but he wants to have a share among the flocks. He says he will take the sheep and cattle and goats that have certain characteristics, and leave the rest. This sounds fine to Laban, so he grants it. Then, another one of the stranger parts of the Bible: Jacob proceeds to perform some weird trick with the sheep where he shows them certain colors when they come to drink water, and they conceive and have offspring that are the desired color Jacob wants. Why this works, I have no idea. It certainly isn't the case that an animal's colors will be determined by the colors its parents were looking at when they were conceived. Genetics just doesn't work that way. The only thing I can imagine is that somehow these colored poplar rods have an aphrodisiac effect on the livestock, and when Jacob sees the right ones together that will produce the offspring he wants...? Who knows? I've never heard of anyone explaining what this is supposed to mean, other than the possibility that Jacob has a stupid idea that God, since He wanted to bless Jacob, makes work through a miracle. If that were really the case, though, I think the Bible would tell, as most miracles are clearly indicated within the text.

You win this round, SAB... ; )