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Commentary on Genesis - Chapters 36-50

Chapter 36 | Chapter 37 | Chapter 38 | Chapter 39 | Chapters 40-41 | Chapters 42-45 | Chapter 46 | Chapter 47 | Chapters 48-50

Chapter 36 - The Descendants of Esau

Hae sunt autem generationes Esau, ipse est Edom. (36:1)

This genealogy of Esau's descendants reveals a familiarity with the land of Edom that suggests this may have been inserted much later, during Israel's monarchic period. The source text certainly seems to be independent of the patriarchal narratives, as indicated by some apparent contradictions with earlier statements in Genesis, which we will now examine.

Esau accepit uxores de filiabus Chanaan; Ada, filiam Elom Hetthei, et Oolibama, filiam Anae, filiae Sebeon Evei. (36:2)

When Esau's "Hittite wives" were first mentioned (27:34), they were identified as Judith, daughter of Beoch the Hittite, and Basemath, daughter of Helon the Hittite. (The Alexandrian version of the Septuagint identifies Helon as a Hivite.) Learning that his foreign wives were so displeasing to his father, Esau additionally married Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebajoth. (28:9)

Now we are told that Esau married Ada, daughter of Elom the Hittite, and Oholibamah, daughter of Ana and granddaughter of Sebeon the Hivite. Further, a third wife is Basemath, daughter of Ishmael and sister of Nebajoth.

Esau's Wives
Patriarchal Narrative (27:34, 28:9)Edomite Genealogy (36:2)
Judith, daughter of Beoch the Hittite
Basemath, daughter of Helon the HittiteAda, daughter of Elom the Hittite
Oholibamah, daughter of Ana,
granddaughter of Sebeon the Hivite
Mahalath, daughter of Ishmael,
sister of Nebajoth
Basemath, daughter of Ishmael,
sister of Nebajoth

First, the points of agreement: Esau married at least two foreign wives, and a daughter of Ishmael; and Ishmael had a son named Nebajoth. The differences are obvious, but why do they exist? In the first instance, Esau's Hittite wives were mentioned as part of a chronological narrative, to explain Rebecca and Isaac's actions. Now, we have a strict genealogical table, so the author is only concerned with those wives who bore children whose descendants persisted to the time of writing. Judith, for example, might have been omitted for lacking descendants. The names Elom and Helon are linguistically identical, so the first Basemath and Ada have the same father, and are possibly the same person. (Helon is therefore a Hittite, not a Hivite.) No similar equation can be drawn between Judith and Oholibamah, since the former is a Hittite, and the latter a Hivite. Mahalath and the second Basemath must also at least be sisters, since they have the same brother and father.

Problems still remain. Are we to infer that Esau married other foreign wives even after he knew they were displeasing to his father? Also, the two instances of the name Basemath is suggestive of transposition, or is this mere coincidence? Similarly, in both accounts, we have mention of two foreign wives and one daughter of Ishmael. Is this, too, coincidence?

An elegant solution arises from the notion that Basemath is a pet name for Esau's favorite wife, meaning "my fragrance." As in the case of Benjamin, people were often named different things by different people, since names were not simply labels, but actually described the person and his relation to the namer. Esau first married Judith and Ada. Ada was his favorite, as might be expected if Judith was infertile, so she was called Basemath by Esau. Oholibamah may have been a concubine or servant, appointed for child-bearing in place of Judith. When Esau found his wives were displeasing to Isaac, he then married Mahalath, the daughter of Ishmael. Naturally, she became his favorite, and was called Basemath, and it is this final designation which is used in the genealogy of the Edomites. The Samaritan manuscripts use Mahalath here as well, further justifying our identification.

Isti filii Seir Horrei habitatores terrae... (36:20)

When Esau moves his possessions to Mount Seir, that land is already inhabited by cave-dwelling Horites. Seir was not necessarily the personal name of the progenitor of these Horites (who were possibly Hurrians), in which case the origin of that name would remain a mystery. The Hivites are a specific tribe of Seir, from which Oholibamah is descended.

Reges autem qui regnaverunt in terra Edom, antequam haberent regem filii Israhel fuerunt hii. (36:31)

Certainly, the remainder of the chapter from this verse onward could not have been written earlier than the monarchic period. Nonetheless, there cannot have been too long a gap between the reigns of these Edomite kings and their incorporation into this history, as such information certainly would have been lost after the fall of the Edomite kingdom.

Chapter 37 - Joseph Sold into Slavery

Jacob's son Joseph is the central figure of the remainder of the book of Genesis, which again shifts in narrative style, this time to that of romance, though the style is to some extent dictated by content. Nonetheless, we would not be unjustified in postulating another source used by the inspired author for this final cycle of tales. We have seen a breadth of genres, ranging from the mystical contemplation of creation in Genesis 1, followed by the moral allegory of Chapters 2-3, the epic Flood narrative, the noble simplicity of Abraham, the agrarian cunning of Jacob, and finally leading to the romantic adventures of Joseph, setting a strangely glorious background for what would become centuries of slavery in Egypt. Interspersed between these narratives, we have seen meticulous genealogies, designed to bind the parts of Genesis into a coherent whole, showing the unity of the peoples of all times.

Israhel autem diligebat Ioseph super omnes filios suos eo quod in senctute genuisset eum; fecitque ei tunicam polymitam. (37:3)

Although Benjamin is actually the youngest child, Joseph is Israel's favorite, for he was the unexpected child of his old age. Joseph's birth was the fruit of the miraculous end to Rachel's sterility. There was no additional miracle in the birth of Benjamin, since Rachel was still of natural child-bearing age. Maidens typically married at the age of twelve or fourteen, so Rachel's age when entering Canaan was still in the mid-thirties. Further, she died while giving birth to Benjamin, a bitter tragedy that is inconsistent with a benevolent divine intervention. For similar reason, the Church will not recognize as miraculous such cures that are only partial or temporary. While the birth of Benjamin was a bittersweet event, Joseph was a supernatural gift.

Regarding Joseph's coat, the Hebrew pas has traditionally been interpreted as "of many colors;" this is the translation used in the Septuagint. Indeed, the only other instances of this word are found in the second book of Samuel, referring to such robes as the king's virgin daughters used. If the word were to be interpreted as designating a long tunic ("many palms" in length, rather than "many breadths" of color), the usage in 2 Samuel would be strange, since all maidens presumably wore long tunics, while only a king's daughter might have a multicolored robe. The traditional understanding of Joseph's "coat of many colors" is probably correct, especially since the purpose of Jacob's gift is to treat his son like a king's son.

The story of Joseph is a romantic adventure, so well crafted literarily that many have hesitated to ascribe historical value to it. In favor of the historicity of this narrative, we may point to the story's organic unity, in contrast to legendary cycles, which generally have multiple unrelated tales of a hero's feats. Only one life of Joseph is narrated, with no major discontinuities, and each part flows naturally from what precedes. Indeed, the objection to treating the Joseph story as history arises from the fact that the parts flow together too harmoniously. This can be accredited to the skill of the author, the wisdom and prudence of Joseph, and the providence of God. Apart from the details of Joseph's dreams, there is nothing properly fantastic in this narrative. If this were fiction, it would be a rather realistic human drama, written millennia before such a genre existed. The present shift in style, therefore, is not to be attributed to a change in genre, but rather the cultural situation of the author. The previous narratives were based on early Hebrew oral and written traditions, so the stories of Abraham and Jacob had a sort of rugged simplicity. The Joseph cycle, in contrast, is markedly Egyptian, showing a more sophisticated and fluid writing style. We will point out a few of the distinctively Egyptian details of the narrative, which should suffice to establish the antiquity of the text, since historical realism in fiction as we know it was non-existent in ancient times. An author writing in Palestine would not add incidental details of Egyptian culture even if he knew them. In contrast, the author of the Joseph cycle, and indeed the entire Pentateuch, gives many specifics about Egyptian culture, flora and fauna, but is rather vague about the details of Palestine.

Dixitque ad eos, "Audite somnium meum quod vidi." (37:5)

Joseph was already hated by his brothers out of envy. His motive for relating his dream to his brothers was probably quite innocent, as it was indeed a remarkable dream that included his brothers, so it was only natural to tell them about it, without worrying about the predictable consequences.

In confirmation of the first dream, Joseph is granted a second vision which allegorically depicts Jacob and Rachel and Jacob's sons doing homage to Joseph. Though Jacob rebukes his son, he takes the vision seriously.

Interestingly, Jacob's sons feed their father's flock in Shechem, which is thirty to forty miles away from Jacob's home in the valley of Hebron. Israel's sons have already spread over a large tract of land. This implies the area was sparsely populated at the time, and further indicates the antiquity of the narrative. Joseph looks for his brothers in Shechem, where he is directed further to Dothain, north of Samaria. Israel's sons are evidently full-grown men who do not live with their father, yet still work for him. Jacob and his sons are free to pasture their flocks throughout much of Judea and Samaria. It is possible that a long time has passed since Joseph last spoke of his dreams.

"Venite, occidamus eum et mittamus in cisternam veterem dicemusque fera pessima devoravit eum et tunc apparebit quid illi prosint somnia sua." (37:20)

Joseph's brothers are still vexed by his dreams, and wickedly plot to kill him, beyond all proportion to the perceived offense. They plan to kill him first, and then cast him into a pit, or "cistern," as the Vulgate has it, since Dothain means "two wells."

Audiens hoc Ruben nitebatur liberare eum de manibus eorum. (37:21)

Some modern critics have asserted that the intervention by Reuben to spare Joseph's life and throw him in the cistern (37:21-24) is in contradiction with the intervention by Judah (37:26-28), and try to account for this discrepancy by the editorial interweaving of disparate written traditions. The intervention by Reuben supposedly comes from the written tradition of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while the intervention by Judah would have come from the textual tradition of the Kingdom of Judah. This bizarre redaction theory ignores the fact that the northern or Samaritan Scriptures are still extant, and these do not deviate from the Jewish Scriptures except on minor points. The theory is also implausible on its face, as the Jews of the Babylonian exile expressed nothing but profound contempt for the Samaritans, rejecting their aid in rebuilding the Temple, even as they accepted the aid of pagans. It is therefore beyond credibility that the Jewish scribes of that period or later would incorporate into their Scriptures a Samaritan text which exalts Reuben over Judah. On the basis of external evidence, we have every reason to regard both the interventions of Reuben and Judah as original to the text, as they exist in both Jewish and Samaritan versions.

Moreover, Reuben's intervention cannot be excluded from the text without doing violence to narrative continuity. If we remove it, the mention of the cistern in verse 20 (and of Dothain) would come to nought. It would read that the brothers plotted to kill Joseph as they saw him coming, and suddenly they sat down to a meal. What happened with Joseph? Why the change of heart?

As the intervention by Reuben is indispensible to the narrative, modern critics have had to "restore" the text by rearranging verse 28, in contradicion with all ancient manuscripts, whose reading the Vulgate retains:

...et praeteruntibus Madianitis negotiatoribus extrahentes eum de cisterna vendiderunt Ismahelitis viginiti argenteis qui duxerunt eum in Aegyptum. (37:28)

According to modern critics espousing a two-source theory for this passage, the clause about the Midianites and extracting Joseph from the cistern must pertain to the Reuben narrative, as there would be no account of how Joseph ended up in the cistern in the "Judah" or "Yahwist" source. The second half of the verse, where Joseph is sold to the Ishmaelites is the main "Reuben" or "Elohist" narrative, as is the following verse.

This tortured verse-splitting analysis is unnecessary, once we recognize that "Midianites" and "Ishmaelites" refer to the same people. Both terms were used generically by the Israelites to refer to Arabs, particularly those between Palestine and Egypt. The verse, as it occurs in the original, makes clear by grammatical parallelism that the Midianites and Ishmaelites are one and the same. Israelites would not stop and ask an Arab nomad for his genealogy; they would call him a Midianite if he was from the land of Midian, and an Ishmaelite if he lived like an Arab. With this understanding, it is clear that it was Joseph's brothers who pulled him out of the pit, sensibly enough, as it would be strange to demand that the merchants pull him out. Verse 28 then reads, "Merchants of Midian went by, and they [Joseph's brothers] drew and lifted Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites." There is no difficulty to be resolved, so the critics must create a difficulty by rearranging the verse, contrary to all manuscript evidence. In this way, they have the brothers sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces, and then Midianites come and pull him out of the cistern. This is nonsensical, as no trader would buy a slave from a stranger without seeing him first. If we leave the text in its original form, however, and understand that the Midianites and Ishmaelites are the same people, there is no difficulty to resolve. We can simply read the text and it is perfectly clear what happened. Obviously, the sale to the Midianites was perpetrated without Reuben's knowledge, yet even he consents to deceiving Jacob after the fact.

Congregatis autem cunctis liberis eius, ut lenirent dolorem patris noluit consolationem recipere et ait, "Descendam ad filium meum lugens in infernum illo perseverante in fletu." (37:35)

As Jacob mourns the loss of Joseph, he is surrounded by "all his sons and his daughters," rendering the Hebrew literally. This possibly implies that Jacob had daughters other than Dinah (though bath can also mean granddaughter), who is mentioned only because of the battle that was fought over her. Hebrew narratives customarily name only the male offspring.

Jacob's lament that he will descend to the underworld in grief provides little insight into his perception of the afterlife. The imperfect verb form of "descend" denotes an action that has not yet begun, so the descent to Sheol only begins at death, implying there is something after death, though we cannot say what. Jacob believes that Joseph is there, yet nonetheless he will mourn as he descends. It is likely that Jacob's Sheol is as dim and gloomy as that of later Jews, and is much like the Greek Hades. There is only a shadowy existence, but nothing more is articulated.

Chapter 38 - Judah and Tamar

Eo tempore descendens Iudas a fratribus suis... (38:1)

This digression into the life of Judah is not part of the Joseph narrative, and undoubtedly comes from another source, inserted at the appropriate chronological point. The style is similar to that of the earlier patriarchal stories, and the content is also similar, exhibiting rustic cunning and frank attitudes toward marriage and childbearing.

Judah has moved away from his brothers, who had already ceased to live with their father. Judah's tribe would become by far the largest, and remain so in the time of Moses, so it is no surprise that the narrative should focus on this son of Israel from time to time.

Ille sciens non sibi nasci filios introiens ad uxorem fratris sui semen fundebat in terram ne liberi fraris nomine nascerentur. (38:9)

The sin of Onan is much discussed for its relevance to sexual morality in Judaism and Christianity. In recent times, it has become fashionable to claim that the only sin for which Onan was punished was his failure to perform his levirate duty to help his brother's widow conceive. This claim will not hold on exegetical grounds. When the later Mosaic law specifically demanded this duty, the penalty for failing to comply was to be disgraced before the elders, and to have one's family name become one of shame. It would be strange if the penalty for neglect of the levirate duty should be more severe in Judah's day, when no such explicit directive from God yet existed. Further, verse 10 says God punished Onan for something he did, not something he omitted. Also, if the means of avoiding levirate marriage were irrelevant, it is unintelligible why the Scripture should include the vulgar detail of Onan spilling his seed. Elsewhere in the Bible, such visceral detail is included when the author wishes to emphasize the wickedness of an illicit sex act; when the act is licit, the language is more tactful and modest. Lastly, all of the early Jewish and Christian commentators have understood this as condemning the act of wasting seed, not the omission of levirate marriage. When we study the historiography of this question, it becomes clear that the levirate theory is merely an attempt to anachronistically rationalize twentieth-century sexual mores into an ancient Biblical document. While the levirate marriage was a serious responsibility to be upheld, but it was not nearly sufficient cause for the severe judgment of death that God wrought.

In contrast with the rather modest penalty for failing to uphold the levirate custom, there are often death penalties attached to sexual sins in the Mosaic law, as for adultery, sodomy, incest, and other perversions. It would be strange, indeed, if a law so severe in matters of sexual purity should be lenient on matters of auto-eroticism.

This leads us to the factual question of whether Onan's act was masturbatory or a coitus interruptus. There has been much disparity of opinion on this matter, but the final answer is that Scripture does not reveal this detail. This in itself tells us something, since the Bible only gives as much sexual detail as is relevant. From this we can conclude, in accordance with the plain meaning of the text, that Onan's sin consisted in spilling his seed on the ground; it matters not how he was stimulated. A mortal sin must be deliberate, so involuntary emissions cannot here be considered. The sin is using the sexual act for a purpose opposed to procreation. Rabbis have historically taken a narrower view and, in ignorance of biology, supposed that the seed itself was something that should not be desecrated, in which case female masturbation would be licit. The act condemned, however, is a fully experienced sex act outside of procreative union. We should contrast the severity of this judgment with the relative tolerance of prostitution later in this chapter, in order to appreciate the gravity of the sin. Prostitution involves illicit intercourse, but at least is procreative, while the sin of Onan is a perversion of the sexual act itself.

It is not the task of the exegete to determine the propriety of this assessment of a sin's severity; Christians and Jews know their duty to obey. We only endeavor to show what is the intended meaning of the text, and the external evidence renders the meaning unequivocally in this case.

Quae depositis viduitatis vestibus adsumpsit theristrum et mutato habitu sedit in bivio itineris quod ducit Thamnam eo quod crevisset Sela et non eum accepisset maritum. (38:14)

Judah had promised his third son Shelah to his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar as soon as he was of age. Much time passes, during which Judah's wife dies. The Hebrew refers to her as "daughter of Shuah," and this is retained by the Vulgate, while the Septuagint names her "Saua, wife of Judah." This "Saua" would transliterate into Hebrew as "Shauah," suspiciously similar to "Shuah." The Greek translator might have overlooked the word bath ("daughter") preceding the name, or the error was introduced by a later scribe.

After learning that Shelah will not be given to her, Tamar decides to play the harlot. Even at the end of the tale, Tamar is not married to Shelah, who presumably was married to another. No contrived coincidences are necessary to account for the scheme's success; Tamar was advised in advance that Judah was approaching, and that he had just ended his period of mourning, so he was vulnerable to this form of temptation. The lapse of years can account for Judah's failure to recognize her behind the harlot's veil. From there the story is straightforward, except for the ending, which may puzzle the modern reader.

Qui agnitis muneribus ait, "Iustior me est non quia tradidi eam Sela filio meo," attamen ultra non cognovit illam. (38:26)

Judah is incensed that his daughter-in-law was playing the harlot, though he sees no grievous fault in his use of a prostitute. The social mores of his time prevented him from recognizing this double standard, but even in the context of those ethics, he is able to acknowledge that he has done the greater wrong, by failing to keep his original pledge. Tamar was only claiming her right to Judah's seed, so a strange sort of justice was worked by her ploy, poignantly emphasized by her insistence on a pledge. Nonetheless, this does not justify the intrinsically immoral act, so Judah does not have further relations with her.

Tamar gives birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. The account of their birth might be fanciful etymology. It might also be an allegory showing how both branches of Judah's line have equal claims to primacy.

Chapter 39 - Joseph and Potiphar's Wife

Igitur Ioseph ductus est in Aegyptum emitque eum Putiphar eunuchus Pharaonis princep exercitus vir Aegyptus de manu Ismahelitarum a quibus perductus erat. (39:1)

Returning to the story of Joseph in Egypt, we find Jacob's beloved son sold into the service of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard. Here he fulfills a role analogous to that of Jacob in the service of Laban. Joseph brings prosperity to Potiphar's household, and is truly a blessing to his master, continuing the theme that all the nations of the world will be blessed through Israel. Potiphar understands that Joseph is blessed by his God, and so he wisely entrusts all of that he owns to his faithful servant.

Et ait, "Ingressus est ad me servus hebraeus quem adduxisti ut inluderet mihi." (39:17)

Potiphar's wife, spurned by Joseph in her advances, falsely accuses him before her husband, and refers to him as "the Hebrew." Given the other touches of authenticity that occur throughout the Joseph narrative, which include transliteration of some Egyptian names and words, we have reason to believe that the Egyptians really did call Joseph's people "Hebrews." This would reinforce the identification of the 'Apiru or Habiru, such as those mentioned in the Amarna letters, with the Hebrews, though these groups are not necessarily coextensive.

Joseph is thrown into prison, which is attached to Potiphar's house, since he is captain of the guard. The captain of the prison is not Potiphar, but a subordinate. It may sound strange to modern ears that Joseph is put in charge of all the other prisoners. Evidently, in ancient Egypt, prisoners were put to work regularly, rather than being permitted to languish, so it was necessary for some prisoners to manage the work, as in the forced labor camps of the twentieth century.

Chapter 40-41 - Joseph Interprets Dreams

While in prison, Joseph interprets the dreams of the chief cupbearer and the chief baker, who had fallen into disgrace with Pharaoh. Pharaoh makes his decision to pardon one and execute the other without knowledge of Joseph's prediction, so there is no fatalism here, only foreknowledge of the future. These especially peculiar dreams are regarded as divine visions rather than ordinary dreams. Joseph's accuracy in interpreting the dreams and predicting the seemingly arbitrary decision of Pharaoh shows that his gift is genuine. The cupbearer fails to remember Joseph after he is freed, in an all too human example of weak gratitude.

Post duos annos vidit Pharao somnium putabat se stare super fluvium. (41:1)

After two full years ("years of days" in Greek) have passed, Pharaoh has a dream that demands interpretation. The cupbearer remorsefully remembers his debt to Joseph, who is summoned before Pharaoh.

The dream contains images of cattle grazing in a "meadow," as the Hebrew word 'achuw may be roughly translated. The Septuagint translators did not venture to propose a Greek word here, but merely transliterated the Hebrew phonetically. From this we might gather that there was no word in Greek that captured the meaning precisely, but this is unlikely since the Septuagint translators were always liberal in translating to a word that had an approximate meaning. It is more likely, therefore, that the Jewish translators themselves did not know the word, and this may actually be an Egyptian word transliterated to Hebrew, meaning "marshes," or some other type of terrain particular to Egypt among eastern Mediterranean nations.

The prophesied seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine cannot be used to date the Joseph narrative, since there were actually several extended famines in Egyptian history, as the flooding of the Nile was quite erratic. It may seem strange that Pharaoh would make Joseph, a foreigner, his vizier, so some have cited this fact as evidence that the Pharoah was actually one of the Semitic "Hyksos" kings of Egypt. This supposition is unnecessary, however, since the ability to interpret dreams was regarded by Egyptians as a divine gift, and would have sufficed to merit Joseph's exaltation. (See 41:39.) Pharaoh's repeated reference to "all the land of Egypt" does not preclude the possibility that this king only ruled Lower Egypt. Ancient monarchs were quite proficient at boasting beyond the facts. Nonetheless, "Egypt" without the Upper Nile was still a large nation, since it extended its domain into Palestine for much of the second millennium B.C.

Joseph is given an Egyptian wife; notably, the ancient Hebrews did not have nearly as much reservations about marrying Egyptians as they did with Canaanites. This is probably due to the relative absence of morally offensive religious practices. Joseph's wife has an authentically Egyptian name, Aseneth, which means "daughter of Neith" (a goddess, often identified with Isis). Her father is a priest of Heliopolis, which the Hebrew renders as Own. This is an accurate transliteration of the Egyptian name for the city, Onou, which was the center of the worship of the sun.

Joseph's newly assigned name, Psonthomphanech in Greek transliteration, was traditionally understood to have meant "savior of the world" in Egyptian; St. Jerome even used this translation in the Vulgate. Indeed, in Coptic, Psotem-phaneh has this meaning, from sot, which is salvation (the -em suffix denotes genitive case), and pheneh, "world." The Hebrew has Zaphenath-Paaneah, traditionally rendered as "revealer of secrets" by comparison with Coptic, but modern knowledge of ancient Egyptian has resulted in the translation, "the god speaks and he lives (is born)," though some alternative renderings have been suggested. The title "savior of the world" would be understood by Joseph's role in saving Egypt, which at the time, occupied much of the known world. It is not merely in virtue of this role that Joseph is seen as a precursor of the Messiah, but there are also various details of his life that prefigure the life of Christ.

Omnesque provinciae veniebant in Aegyptum ut emerent escas et malum inopiae temperarent. (41:57)

Famine gripped all the nations which, though not belonging to Egypt proper, were under its sphere of dominion. This includes the land of Canaan, so Jacob's sons are sent to Egypt to obtain grain.

Chapters 42-45 - Joseph Reunites with His Brothers

Ait, "Exploratores estis, ut videatis infirmiora terrae venistis." (42:9)

Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers, pretends to accuse Israel's sons of military espionage. In Hebrew, he literally says that they are seeing the "nakedness" of the land, and the Vulgate properly interprets the sense as "weakness." The use of this ruse seems to argue against the supposition that Egypt was ruled by the Semitic Hyksos at this time, though this is hardly definitive, since there was much mistrust even among the various Semitic peoples.

Joseph sells grain to his brothers, but secretly has their money returned to them, and pretends to accuse them of theft. In order to prove their innocence, the brothers are compelled to request permission to bring Benjamin back from Palestine.

Apertoque unus sacco ut daret iumento pabulum in diversorio contemplatus pecuniam in ore sacculi." (42:27)

At first, only one of the brothers discovered his moneybag in his sack of grain, as this was located in the mouth of the bag. The other brothers do not discover that their money has been returned until they arrive home and empty their sacks, since their moneybags were presumably situated further down. This is a sensible and rather ordinary sequence of events, but some text critics have sought to invent a discontinuity here, maintaining that verses 27-28 are an interpolation at odds with the main narrative. In support of this thesis, it is asserted that verses 27-28 use the Hebrew word for "bag," rather than "sack" as in verse 35. This is inaccurate, as the exact same Hebrew word saq is used both in verse 27 and verse 35. The synonym 'amtachath is also used toward the end of verse 27 and in verse 28, but this is hardly an argument for a different source. As noted, the word saq is also used in verse 27, and verse 25 says a moneybag was put into each man's saq. Thus the supposed verbal discontinuity is purely imaginary. This is not to mention the sheer improbability that an author would trouble to insert two verses of such little relevance from an alternate source, while neglecting to do so for the major events of the Joseph narrative. Here we see "higher criticism" at its most perverse and inept.

Respondit Iudas, "Denuntiavit nobis vir ille sub testificatione iurandi dicens, Non videbitis faciem meam nisi fratrem vestrum minimum adduxeritis vobsiscum." (43:3)

Reuben had requested previously that he be allowed to take Benjamin to Egypt, but Jacob would not allow it. Now that the famine has persisted, and the grain brought from Egypt has been exhausted, there is no choice but to return to Egypt for more food. However, as Judah points out, they will not be granted any food, unless they present their brother Benjamin, of whom they had solemnly testified. This is sufficient to account for Israel's change of mind. It may seem strange to the reader that Judah so often speaks for the brothers, as though he, not Reuben, were the firstborn. The preference for Judah is explained later in Jacob's last testament.

The brothers take Benjamin, a double amount of money in addition to what was returned to them, and numerous products characteristic of Palestine. (43:11) The narrative is self-explanatory at this point, so we only note some historically authentic touches, such as the Egyptian aversion to eating with Hebrews (Joseph ate separately due to his rank), and Joseph's practice of divination, which would later be forbidden by the law of Moses. Verses which explicitly explain Egyptian customs are likely to be later glosses. When Judah pleads before Joseph, he makes copious use of the expression "your servant(s)," in keeping with Egyptian courtly custom, and he regards Joseph as the equal of Pharaoh (44:18), a customary way of referring to a vizier, as is the phrase "father to Pharaoh." (45:8) Joseph at last ends the charade. He also mentions that two years of the famine have passed (45:6), so he has been in the service of Pharaoh for nine years.

"Haec mandat filius tuus Ioseph: Deus me fecit dominum universae terrae Aegypti; descende ad me ne moreris." (45:9)

It is already established that Joseph can invite his family to Egypt on his own authority, and he finally does so. He invites them to live in Goshen, east of the Nile delta, indicating that he resides near there. (45:10) The brothers do not depart immediately, for Pharaoh has time to send a message confirming Joseph's decision (a formality), and further urging that they take wagons from Egypt, and not to be concerned about taking any belongings, for they will have the best of the land of Egypt. This indicates that Pharaoh's approval was warm and enthusiastic.

Joseph sends "ten jackasses loaded with the finest products of Egypt." (45:23) These products are not enumerated as were the Palestinian goods. Given the emphasis elsewhere on Egyptian culture, this is most easily explained by noting that only the Palestinian goods would seem exotic to Hebrews residing in Egypt, so only these are named. The references to Egyptian culture, on the other hand, are incidental and unconscious, though in some instances an explanatory verse has been inserted for the benefit of later readers.

Chapter 46 - Israel Migrates to Egypt

Audivit eum per visionem nocte vocantem se et dicentem sibi, "Iacob, Iacob," cui respondit, "Ecce adsum." (46:2)

Jacob is granted one more "vision" of God. This manifestation is not merely some interior movement by the Spirit. God calls Jacob's name, awaits a response, and then presents Himself to Jacob, so we have a real dialogue, not an interior monologue. The Lord reassures Jacob that this sojourn in Egypt will not impede the fulfillment of His promise to Israel. The divine assurance, "I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes," (46:4) will have a double fulfillment, in the person of Jacob himself and in the nation of Israel returning from captivity.

Jacob prudently brings all his belongings with him to Egypt.

Haec sunt autem nomina filiorum Israhel qui ingressi sunt in Aegyptum ipse cum liberis suis primogenitus Ruben. (46:8)

The customary division of verses is misleading here, since the first instance of Reuben's name appears to be included in the prologue, which in fact ends with the word "Egypt." The enumeration of descendants begins in the middle of verse 8 and continues: "Reuben, Jacob's first born, and the sons of Reuben..." None of the other sons receive this double mention of their name; for example, of the Simeonites, it says only "the sons of Simeon". This double reference to Reuben is significant, since at the end we are told that Jacob's heirs through Leah, including Dinah, number thirty-three, when in fact we count thirty-two. This discrepancy is accounted for by the deliberate double counting of the firstborn, in accordance with the custom of granting a double share of property inheritance to the eldest son.

Additionally, Jacob had sixteen male descendants through Leah's concubine, eighteen through Rachel, and seven through Rachel's concubine. Rachel's descendants include Joseph and his seven male heirs. The total entering Egypt, therefore, is seventy-four (33 + 16 + 18 + 7) minus eight already in Egypt: sixty-six. (46:26) The Septuagint then adds nine of Joseph's household, apparently including Joseph's wife, who is named, though not counted, among the descendants of Rachel. This gives a figure of seventy-five, not counting Jacob. We recall that Reuben was double-counted, so the literal figure, including Jacob, is also seventy- five. This includes two women, Dinah and Aseneth. The wives of Jacob's sons are not counted among the sixty-six, and we have noted earlier that Jacob may have had other daughters.

Misit autem Iudam ante se ad Ioseph, ut nuntiaret ei et ille occurreret in Gessen. (46:28)

The Septuagint here uses the anachronistic name "Ramesses" in place of "Goshen," indicating that these are the same place. This location is almost undoubtedly the Wadi Tumilat, just east of the Nile delta. Thus Joseph most likely resided in the eastern delta, but it does not follow that the capital of Egypt was there. (The Septuagint also adds the phrase "city of heroes" to describe the meeting place of Joseph and Jacob.) Since Joseph greeted his father in a chariot, it is likely that he lived east of the delta, since this was the mode of transportation for short overland travel.

Goshen is recommended not only because of the quality of its land, but for its distance from the Egyptian populace, since "every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians." (46:34) This suggests a date prior to the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos "shepherd kings," and would argue against the presence of an Egyptian capital in the eastern delta at this time. The Septuagint version further specifies that Goshen is in Arabia, which would make it east of the delta, on the outskirts of Egypt.

Chapter 47 - Israel is Established in Goshen

Joseph tells Pharaoh that his family has arrived (47:1), and brings his brothers to explain themselves. The modern reader might not appreciate the necessity of this act, since Pharaoh has already given permission, but the receipt of a gift from a monarch does not abolish the ruler-subject relationship and the deference that entails, nor is such a gift to be taken for granted without giving an account of oneself.

Respondit dies, "Peregrationis vitae meae centum triginta annorum sunt parvi et mali..." (47:9)

Jacob says he is 130 years old, well beyond what is biologically natural, yet he speaks of his days as "few," which is hardly appropriate for one blessed with supernatural longevity. We would not find it odd if God had blessed Jacob with a supernaturally long lifespan, but note that extending Jacob's lifespan would also require a similarly long lifespan for Laban, who must be at least thirty years older than Jacob (and lived to the birth of Joseph, which would be 1700 B.C., making Laban at least 120-130). It is bizarre that Laban should also be so supernaturally blessed, and we now know, unlike ancient commentators, that people of that time did not live especially long as a rule. We have ample reason, therefore, to question whether this age ought to be interpreted literally.

One possible alternative can be constructed as follows. The Biblical chronology assigns twenty-five years to the interval between the Call of Abraham and the birth of Isaac, and Isaac is sixty years old when Jacob is born, so there are eighty-five years from the Call of Abraham to the birth of Jacob. Given these facts, we are left with 130 remaining years of the 215-year sojourn in Canaan, so this figure is artificially assigned as Jacob's age. If biology requires that Jacob's age should be much younger, then we must admit that the entry of Jacob into Egypt was significantly sooner than the completion of the 215 years. We continue our previous chronology from the birth of Isaac in 1860 B.C., fifteen years after the call of Abraham, with biological ages for Abraham and Sarah at 60 and 50 respectively. A biologically plausible table of ages for the patriarchs follows below.

1860Birth of Isaac600
1820Marriage of Isaac1004015
1800Birth of Jacob60035
1770Death of Isaac903065
1750Birth of Joseph5085
1710Sojourn in Egypt90

The Biblical text states that Isaac was married at the age of forty, though we should keep in mind that in ancient biographies (for example, in Greece) it was common practice to artificially ascribe the first major event of a man's life to his fortieth year, as a point of reference to base the rest of the biography's chronology, if the actual biological age was unknown. If this literary convention is employed in Genesis, it is possible that Isaac actually married at an earlier age, which would shift all subsequent dates in our table backwards by a similar amount. Using the given age of forty for Isaac would make Abraham a centenarian, and Sarah would have died in her late eighties - unusual but not impossible longevity for that era. Laban seems to have been a young man at the time of his sister's marriage to Isaac; the listed age of fifteen is a conjectural minimum.

We follow the literal Biblical chronology with the birth of Jacob and Esau, said to have occured twenty years later, but this is likely to be a rounded number, and not intended to be exact.

Due to the potential for considerable variance from rounded figures, we may regard Jacob's deception at Isaac's deathbed as more or less simultaneous with his employment by Laban, and Esau's marriage of Hittite wives. Esau is said to have married at age forty; again this is probably literary convention, and his biological age was much younger. Indeed, the Biblical narrative itself gives the impression that Jacob and Esau were rather immature at this time, and so could not have been much older than thirty when Isaac was about to die. We therefore place the death of Isaac around 1770 B.C. in our chronological scheme, or thirty years after Jacob's birth.

The birth of Joseph probably took place after about twenty years of service to Laban, and very near the time of departure to Canaan. This would make Laban at least an octogenarian. Joseph is said to have been thirty years old when he came into the service of Pharaoh, which would make him about forty at the time of Israel's migration to Egypt, which we date to 1710 B.C., noting the aforementioned potential variance due to rounding. Such rounding variance might cumulatively account for a decade or two, but that is not enough to bridge the gap between the 1710 B.C. date of migration and the 1660 B.C. date which completes the Biblical 215 years of the sojourn in Canaan.

The latter date marks the beginning of the sojourn in Egypt, and significantly coincides exactly with conventional dating of the Hyksos invasion of Egypt. The Israelite migration may be seen as one of many previous Semitic incursions into Egypt during the decades preceding this pivotal event, from which future chronology was reckoned. The Biblical chronologist was aware that the Call of Abraham preceded this major historical reference point by 215 years, and made sure this number was preserved in the chronology.

With this understanding of patriarchal chronology, Joseph may be placed in either the thirteenth dynasty of Egypt, which had its capital in Memphis, or the simultaneous fourteenth dynasty, which was based in Xois in the central delta. The latter possibility should be eliminated on the ground that the fourteenth dynasty controlled very limited territory, in contrast with the extensive claims of the Pharaoh Joseph served. The thirteenth dynasty has an ill-preserved chronology, so it is not possible to identify the Pharaoh of Joseph's time. The fifteenth dynasty, that of the Hyksos kings, was probably not the dynasty of Joseph, as indicated by the Biblical Egyptians' contemptuous treatment of Hebrews and shepherd peoples. Joseph's feigned accusation that his brothers were spies would make more sense in the period prior to the Hyksos invasion than immediately after it. It is also unlikely that the Egyptian capital would be right next to Goshen, a land inhabited by "abominable" Semites. The fifteenth dynasty would build its capital there at Avaris, and this would represent the completion of the migrations to Egypt. It is likely that the Hebrews mixed with these other Semites in Egypt, hence the starting point for the sojourn is marked as 1660 B.C. in Biblical chronology.

Ex eo tempore usque in praesentem diem in universa terra Aegypti regibus quinta pars solvitur et factum est qusi inlegem absque terra sacerdotali quae libera ab hac condicione fuit. (47:26)

Joseph developed a land policy that worked as follows. When the Egyptians had run out of money to buy grain from Pharaoh's stores, Joseph accepted nominal ownership of their livestock as payment. Once this title was handed over and the Egyptians were still in need, Joseph accepted their lands and persons as payment. Once this was done, he exercised this ownership by demanding a fifth of the produce of the land handed over to Pharaoh, which was all the land in Egypt, save that of the priests, who were paid on a stipend, so had no need to sell anything. The custom of regarding Pharaoh as the owner of all land extended for many centuries, so the above cited verse does little to specify time. Joseph's policy is not especially charitable, but it is equitable. There is no indication that he overcharges for grain, nor that he lends at interest. In the end he effectively claims only a fifth of the property that was sold to Pharaoh, so the grain was sold at one-fifth price. In the long run, of course, Pharaoh profits, since the ownership of land is in perpetuity.

Et vixit in ea decem et septem annis... (47:28)

Jacob lived for seventeen years in Egypt, making him 107 by our chronology, while Joseph would be aged fifty-seven. As Joseph would have been only forty at the time of Jacob's migration to Egypt, he was not old enough then to be a great-grandfather, even though two of his great- grandchildren are listed among the seventy-five Israelites in Egypt. From this we may infer that the later generations in this list of names refers to Israelites who were born later or possibly migrated later. This span of three generations matches well with the fifty-year period of migration (1710-1660 B.C.) that we hypothesized earlier. As further evidence that Joseph's grandchildren were born long after Jacob's initial migration to Egypt, we observe that, when Jacob is on his death bed, Joseph's sons Ephraim and Manasses are apparently still children, since they are never addressed directly, and have to be brought to Jacob from their place at Joseph's knees. We may deduce that their births were mentioned achronologically, and that in fact even they were born only after Jacob arrived in Egypt. This is apparently the first time that Jacob has seen the children. Jacob makes these children his own, to compensate for Rachel's premature death, and says that Ephraim, though younger, will be the greater nation.

Vocavit autem Iacob filios suos... (49:1)

The dying patriarch now imparts his blessing to his sons. In the process, we learn a distasteful fact about Reuben, who apparently lay with one of his father's concubines some time ago. It is unlikely that he shared one of Jacob's wives, as his punishment would have been considerably more severe. This act explains why Reuben is not treated with the honor of a firstborn. Simeon and Levi are condemned for their bloody assault on the men of Shechem, so their tribes will be scattered. Judah, therefore, is in line to receive the fatherly blessing. Since the offenses of his brothers occurred long ago, we finally understand why he has long been treated as the son of highest honor.

Non auferetur sceptrum de Iuda et dux de femoribus eius donec veniat qui mittendus est et ipse eri expectatio gentium. (49:10)

The translation difficulties in this verse are manifold. "The sceptre shall not be taken away from Judah:" St. Jerome translates the Hebrew shebet literally as sceptrum ("sceptre"), where the Greek has archon ("rule"), equivalently signifying that the rulership will never depart from Judah. The sense of the next phrase, "nor a ruler from his thigh," is more contested, for some modern editions render the Hebrew, "nor from the mace (or rod) between his feet." This translation is inaccurate, for nowhere else is chaqaq translated as "mace" or "rod," but always as "lawgiver," "decree," and other senses derivative of law. The Hebrew word for "feet" may also mean "legs;" the Vulgate and Septuagint both agree that the sense is "thighs." The Scriptures elsewhere speak of children being born on their father's knees, and sons must swear by their father's thigh, from which they were figuratively issued. Next comes the conjunction kiy, which the Vulgate translates as donec ("until"), though it may also mean "when", though only in a conditional sense, which is best expressed by the word "until." The best translation, then, remains that of the Vulgate: "The sceptre will not be removed from Judah, nor a ruler from his thigh, until..."

The most controversial part of the translation, "he shall be the expectation of nations," centers on the Hebrew word Shiloh. This word appears to be closely derivative of the Hebrew for "peace" or "prosperity," but elsewhere in the Bible other words are used for these concepts. This form of the word, Shiloh, exists only in this unique instance in the Bible; a reasonable explanation for this, in keeping with the context, is that "Shiloh" is some personification of peace and prosperity. St. Jerome does not attempt a translation of this obscure word, and leaves it as "he that is to be sent". There is no mention of any "sending" in the Greek or Hebrew; St. Jerome is not trying to add an interpretive translation here, but only to be as vague as possible. A person is referenced, but nothing is said about him. The very fact that it is a person makes the verse messianic. Shiloh is also the name of a city, but cities do not move. The Hebrew ad kiy yavo Shiloh literally means "until Shiloh come". "Come to Shiloh" would be ad hoo yavo Shiloh.

Nonetheless, the explicitness of the messianism should not be exaggerated. We have not proven that a person is referenced, nor is that the reading of the Septuagint, though the Aramaic Targums translate Shiloh as Messiah. Even if the term is interpreted more vaguely as "that which is to come," not specifying whether "that" is a person, the surrounding text still conveys a sense that the line of Judah will be ended by "that," so "that" is almost certainly a person. He (or Judah, figuratively) will command the obedience of the people (gentium). It would be an exaggeration to translate this as "nations," rather than "people," since goyim is not used here.

Et praecepit eis dicens, "Ego congregor ad populum meum, sepelite me cum patribus meis..." (49:28)

Having completed the blessings of all his sons, Jacob characterizes his impending death with the poetic expression: "I am added to my people." As his life approaches completion, it may be added to the lives of those who preceded him. This sense of palpable continuity is further expressed by his desire to be buried with his ancestors. We learn that Abraham's tomb also contains the body of Rebecca, as we might expect, and of Leah, who apparently died before the migration to Egypt.

We are still within the Joseph narrative, for only Joseph's reaction to his father's death is related. Jacob's testament is of a poetic style, and is necessarily distinct in composition if it endeavors to relate the patriarch's last words, rather than express the voice of the narrator. The testament contains a few references to the future geographical location of the tribes, but there is nothing that requires us to suppose that these are later interpolations. On the contrary, it is probably in light of Jacob's promises that the tribes were alloted certain areas even before they had conquered them. Naturally, we must not deny the possibility that Israel was granted some gift of prophecy on his deathbed; this would certainly seem to be the case with his prediction for Judah.

Joseph's preparations for his father's burial show more touches of Egyptian authenticity, such as the periods of embalming and mourning. More significantly, we see that Joseph does not approach Pharaoh personally to ask to bury his father. Some scholars had seen this as an incongruity with Joseph's previously demonstrated intimacy with Pharaoh, and cited this as evidence of multiple sources. On the contrary, Joseph's behavior is further evidence of the narrative's historical realism. By Egyptian custom, Joseph would have been considered unclean until his father was buried, so he could not dare approach Pharaoh in person until then. (It is also possible that this was no longer the same Pharaoh as seventeen years ago.)

Joseph is said to have lived 110 years, which was the ideal Egyptian age. He lived long enough to see his great-grandchildren. Since Ephraim and Manasseh were born to him in middle age, it is likely that his literal age at death was not far from the idealized figure of 110. He requests of his "brethren," which probably means his nephews, that his bones be carried out of Egypt when God will visit them, to bring them back to the land of their ancestors.

© 2007 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org

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