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.