December 31, 2006

Exodus 7-9: God made me do it

Today's reading is Exodus 7-9 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Moses and Aaron's meeting with Pharaoh and the first seven plagues (blood, frogs, lice, flies, cattle, boils, and hail).

You knew it was coming. Sooner or later, I was bound to do an essay about the Bible's take on free will vs. determinism. And, given the substance of today's readings, this seems like an ideal time for it. A brief caveat before I start, however: far wiser people than I have been discussing free will vs. determinism for thousands of years and have yet to arrive at a universal answer. I will not reach any conclusions today. Instead, I hope to expose some features of the text and their consequences.

The first thing we need to do in discussing this topic is to define our terms. For my readers not familiar with this debate, "free will" means that people have free choice in their actions, to choose one decision over another. "Determinism," on the other hand, means that our choices and actions are predetermined and we have no real choice in anything, no matter how it seems at the time.

Based on these definitions, today's passage strays firmly into the camp of determinism.

We must note, first of all, that God tells Moses beforehand that He will harden Pharaoh's heart to prevent the Israelites from leaving. (Ex. 4:21, 7:2-3) Pharaoh may truly want to allow the Israelites to leave, but God assures Moses that this will not happen. God intends to have an audience for his miracles and wonders, and the only way He can ensure this is by keeping the Israelites where they are. (Ex. 7:1-5) If Pharaoh gave in to his desires to let the Israelites leave, God would have no reason to perform the ten plagues.

Initially, Pharaoh wasn't too worried about the plagues. After all, his magicians were able to do many of the same things Aaron and Moses did: they turned their staves into snakes (Ex. 7:11-12), they turned water into blood (Ex. 7:22), and they brought forth frogs. (Ex. 8:7) It is only with the plague of lice, the third plague, that they are not able to replicate the miracle and declare that the plague is the work of God. (Ex. 8:18-19) The next time we hear from the magicians, they are as smitten as anyone else by the plague of boils and can no longer face Moses. (Ex. 9:11)

Beginning with the second plague, Pharaoh starts entreating Moses and Aaron to pray for him and his people, promising them that if they remove the plague, he will let them go pray in the desert. He does it during the plague of frogs (Ex. 8:8-10), during the plague of flies (Ex. 8:25-28), and during the plague of hail (Ex. 9:27-28). Each of these three times, Pharaoh promises that if the Moses and Aaron pray for him, he will allow the Israelites to leave to perform their sacrifice in the desert.

You know how this turns out, don't you? Every time Moses prays to God and stops the plague, Pharaoh changes his mind and refuses to let the Israelites leave. In fact, for every plague, Pharaoh's heart was hardened. What is interesting, however, is who hardened Pharaoh's heart. For most plagues, the text states either that Pharaoh's heart was hard, without saying who hardened it (Ex. 7:13, 7:22, 8:19), or else it says that Pharaoh hardened his heart (Ex. 8:15, 8:32, 9:34). However, with the plague of boils, the text tells us "The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh." (Ex. 9:12, KJV) Here we read specifically that it was not Pharaoh's choice to prevent the people from leaving, but God's. In a very direct way, God took an active part in Pharaoh's mind and made him stubborn.

But what about free will? What about Adam and Eve's choice to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil? What about Abraham's bargaining with God? What about the choices people have made throughout the Bible? We don't read that God had any hand in those choices, only in this particular decision of Pharaoh's. Pharaoh seems sincere enough when he makes the bargains with Moses and Aaron during the plagues; it is only afterwards that he renegs.

We must conclude, therefore, that God had a particularly special purpose in circumventing man's free will in this occasion. The text tells us, indeed, that this was so. It tells us this in two places, first in Ex. 7:3-5, and later in Ex. 9:16. The second passage reads as follows: "But I have raised you [Pharaoh and the Egyptians] up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." (Ex. 9:16, NIV) To recap: God has done this so that people will know that He is God. This is self-aggrandizing at its most obvious. By saying that God hardened Pharaoh's heart, he implies that he could have softened Pharaoh's heart just as easily. But if he had done this, he would not have had the chance to perform miracles and have the Egyptians worship him. So he sets up the situation to prove how mighty he is.

Usually this sort of behaviour is reserved for particularly whiney CEOs, and is hardly the sort of thing we'd expect to see in the greatest deity in the world. So, free will or determinism? The answer seems to be, "free will, unless God wants a chance to show off."

December 30, 2006

Breadcrumb: Uncircumcised lips

A number of times, Moses repeats the he is "slow of speech" (Ex. 4:10) or has "uncircumcised lips." (Ex. 6:12 and 6:30, KJV; "faltering lips" in NIV) The Jewish midrash, or story, surrounding this goes as follows: as a young child, Moses tried to grab Pharaoh's crown. Pharaoh's advisors claimed this was a sign, and that he should kill the child. However, one of them asked that Pharaoh place before baby Moses two plates, one of burning coals and one of gold and precious jewels. If Moses reached for the jewels, it would mean he knew what he was doing in grasping for the crown and should be killed. If he reached for the coals, it would mean he was just a foolish child and could be permitted to live. Though Moses wanted to reach for the jewels, at the last moment God intervened and caused him to grasp the coals instead. As he burnt his hand, he put his fingers in his mouth and burnt his tongue as well. Ever since, he was slow of speech and tongue.

Though the general outline is the same, details of the story differ. Here are a few links to variations:
- Jewish Fairy Tales and Legends
- (a more condensed version)

December 29, 2006

Breadcrumb: A strange episode

Ex. 4:24-26 presents an extremely strange episode, unconnected to anything else in the text: as Moses returns to Egypt, before he meets Aaron, God meets him and nearly kills him. He is only saved by his wife, Zipporah, immediately circumcising her son and putting the foreskin at Moses' feet. Because of this, God leaves Moses alone. Keep in mind that this episode takes place after the burning bush, after God has told Moses to free the Israelites. Would God have really killed Moses? What would He have done if He did? Would the Israelites ever be freed from bondage? The answers, of course, are unknowable. It is strange that this episode is almost never mentioned outside the most in-depth Bible courses.

December 28, 2006

Exodus 4-6: To believe, or not to believe

Today's reading is Exodus 4-6 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the end of the burning bush story; Moses' and Aaron's first encounter with the Israelites; their first encounter with Pharaoh; Pharaoh's command that the Israelites shall not receive straw for bricks; the Israelites' rejection of Moses and Aaron; and a genealogy of the houses of Reuben, Simeon, and Levi.

In today's readings, we begin Moses' and Aaron's actual dealings with the children of Israel. And, in a pattern that will repeat itself many times throughout Exodus and Numbers, the Israelites vary between extremes of trust and rejection. It might be beneficial, therefore, to take a few hundred words to consider their attitudes and how they might relate to us.

We read in Ex. 4:29-31 that Moses and Aaron meet the elders of the Israelites. He does not meet all the Israelites: they are far too numerous and, as we recall, enslaved. The elders presumably took the words and deeds performed by Aaron and Moses and related them to the rest of the Hebrews. We read in verse 31, "the people believed." This refers to all the Israelites, not merely the elders.

What did Moses and Aaron do to convince the people? They did exactly as God told Moses, almost verbatim. In Ex. 4:1-9, God gives Moses three signs to perform for the Israelites: he could transform his rod into a serpent and back again, he could turn his hand leprous and back, and he could spill water from the Nile onto the land and have it turn into blood. These feats are miracles. It is important to note, however, that later in Exodus we learn that Pharaoh's magicians could do the same feats. (Ex. 7:10-12) It is not merely the miracles that convinced them, therefore. It was also the words Moses spoke, that the God of their ancestors had heard their suffering and came to save them from their bondage.

This assertion, that God had returned to save them, was extremely comforting to the Israelites. It is likely that they wanted to believe Moses' message. They wanted to hear that they would be saved, and soon. We read in Ex. 4:31 that the people "bowed their heads and worshipped." Of course they would. Here was a glimmer of hope that they would soon be on the way to living a better life, free of servitude. I can imagine that Moses and Aaron didn't need to do much convincing, as the Israelites wanted to believe them.

Of course, good things cannot last. When Moses and Aaron speak to Pharaoh, they ask him to allow the Israelites to go to the desert for three days to perform a sacrifice to God. (Ex. 5:1-3) Pharaoh refuses. Moreover, he commands that the Israelites must continue to make the same amount of bricks as previously, but they will not be given the straw to do so. (Ex. 5:5-9) This greatly increases the work of the already-overworked Israelites, and they complain to Pharaoh. But, yet again, Pharaoh refuses to diminish the work. (Ex. 5:15-19)

Now the people turn away from Moses and Aaron. They say, "May the Lord look upon you and judge you! You have made us a stench to Pharaoh and his officials and have put a sword in their hand to kill us." (Ex. 5:21, NIV) Even after Moses brings their complaints to God and reasserts his promise that he will free them from bondage, the people don't listen to him. (Ex. 6:9)

How fickle, we might say. How fair-weathered is the Israelites' trust in Moses and Aaron. Didn't they know that Moses and Aaron were sent to save them? Didn't they understand that God would reduce their suffering?

The answer is, of course, "no." We in the twenty-first century have the benefit of a fully completed text before us, that informs us exactly what happens later in the story. It is incredibly difficult to look at the beginning of the story without thought to its ending, how Moses brings about the plagues upon the Egyptians, parts the Red Sea, calls down manna from the sky, and brings the Hebrews to Mount Sinai and then to Caanan. Because we know the ending, it is hard for us to look objectively at the beginning and understand how the Israelites were feeling as today's passage unfolds.

The children of Israel had absolutely no idea that Moses and Aaron were genuine. Yes, they spoke comforting words. Yes, they performed wondrous signs. But signs and words are not the same as concrete deeds. Moses and Aaron were not the only people performing signs and speaking words. Pharaoh's magicians could perform similar signs to Moses'. Furthermore, Moses and Aaron may not have been the first people to claim that they had been sent by God to free the Hebrews. False prophets abound later in the Bible, and it is certainly possible that self-proclaimed saviours existed, unrecorded, in the four hundred years before Aaron and Moses appeared on the scene. As far as the Israelites were concerned, these were just another two self-aggrandizing men bent on making a name for themselves.

Yet, at the first hint of true action, their first encounter with Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron fail to bring about any positive changes. Not only that, they actually make matters worse for the Israelites. Far from being the saviours they promised, Moses and Aaron hardened their lives. We can imagine the Israelites thinking, "you know, we thought you were on to something. We thought you were sincere. But you're not God's prophets, are you? If you were, we'd be free, not further enslaved!"

Yes, three thousand years after the fact, we can chide the Israelites for this behaviour. But they did not know the future, nor did they know the will of God. They did what was reasonable in the circumstances. It is a rare person who can believe without proof. Today, we call such believers either deeply spiritual or crazy. There is a fine line between the two. The Israelites, enslaved and grounded, were neither. Imagine yourself in their situation, and you may find yourself acting the exact same way.

December 26, 2006

Breadcrumb: What's that name?

In Ex. 3:14, God states that his name is "I am that I am." (KJV; "I am who I am" in the NIV) The Hebrew is "ahaya asher ahaya." (Apologies for not using a Hebrew script -- if someone knows where I can find one to use, please let me know.) Keeping in mind that this is an era when religions were traditionally polytheistic, with many named gods, this strikes us as an odd name. The Hebrew's religion is the only monotheistic one in the area, and the name of their god reflects that. He seems to be saying, "any name short of the one I have given you diminishes me, and I will be not diminished." Nevertheless, it would be a hard sell for Moses to convince the Hebrews that they should follow this apparently-nameless god.

December 25, 2006

Breadcrumb: Why the male children?

In Ex. 1:16, Pharaoh commands the Hebrew midwives to kill all the male children of the Hebrews, but to allow the female ones to live. This seems odd, given that Pharaoh's motivation is that the Hebrews are too numerous and too powerful. After all, if one man is allowed to slip through, he could impregnate many of the Hebrew women, but the opposite is not true. If Pharaoh wanted to decrease the numbers of the Hebrews, he would have been better off killing the women. On the other hand, women aren't as good at lifting heavy bricks to build cities like Pithom and Raamses (Ex. 1:11) and presumably don't fight in armies. So Pharaoh dealt with his immediate problem (Hebrew warriors rising up against him) at the expense of the long-term one (too many Hebrews).

December 24, 2006

Exodus 1-3: Don't blink or you'll miss it

Today's reading is Exodus 1-3 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the circumstances of the Hebrews when Moses is born; Pharaoh's command to kill the male Hebrews and the valiant efforts of the midwives; Moses' childhood; Moses' killing of an Eyptian and his flight to Midian; Moses' marriage to Zipporah and birth of his son Gershom; and the beginning of the Burning Bush episode.

You'll notice the many different stories that appear in the previous paragraph. In fact, everything but the burning bush episode happens in Exo. 1-2. The pace is, to say the least, quick. Some might even call it rushed. So let us take a moment to slow down and consider what all this rushed narrative means for us, the reader.

The first thing that appears in Exodus (1:1-5) is a brief recap of the sons of Jacob. We found this list, in far more detailed form, several times already in Genesis: Gen. 29-30 names the sons as they are born, Gen. 35:23-26 lists them again by mother; Gen. 46:8-27 gives an extended list of his sons and grandsons, and Gen. 49:1-27 lists the sons again as they receive their blessing. So anyone who has read the book of Genesis should be familiar with Jacob's sons already. Nevertheless, Exodus begins with their names, as a bridge between the two books.

But then things begin to speed up. Ex. 1:6-8 reads as follows in the KJV:
(6) And Joseph died, and all his brethren, and all that generation. (7) And the children of Israel were fruitful, and increased abundantly, and multiplied, and waxed exceedingly mighty; and the land was filled with them. (8) Now there arose a new king over Egypt, which knew not Joseph.

Though it is not listed in this particular passage, we learn later that the Israelites were in Egypt for 430 years. (Ex. 12:40-41) Even giving Moses a generous life-span, we're still dealing with over three hundred years that pass in the span of three verses. Hundreds of years! Given the excessive care Genesis took to record all the details of the first four generations of Hebrews (Abraham to Joseph), it is highly surprising that we don't read anything about the intervening time between Joseph and Moses. What have the Israelites been doing all this time? Who has led them?

We do know a few things. We know that they were very powerful, very rich, and very numerous. In fact, it is this precise reason that the new Pharaoh comes down so hard on the Hebrews when he decides to persecute them. Note his reasons: "the people of the children of Israel are more and mighter than we." (Ex. 1:9) He actually decides to enslave them because he doesn't want them to side with his enemies and turn the tide of fighting. (Ex. 1:10) In other words, all the wealth and good land that Joseph had originally given to his brothers in Genesis has paid off: after a few centuries, the Israelites are rich and powerful. Far from being a harsh taskmaster, Pharaoh seems more like an insecure tyrant who can't control the subjects living in his own land. He is not cruel for its own sake, but to protect his rule.

Of course, I do not mean to say that the Israelites' lives were easy after they were forced into slavery. Of course they lived a hard life. On the other hand, they lived quite well for several hundred years before that. It is only at the end of their time in Egypt that they were enslaved.

The beginning of Moses' story (Ex. 2) is also quick-paced. Moses is born, hidden, placed in a basket on the Nile, saved by Pharaoh's daughter, nursed, and raised. He grows up, slays and Egyptian, runs away to Midian, marries, and has a son. Moreover, all this occurs within the span of a single chapter.

Let us compare this chapter to another, Gen. 24. In that chapter, Abraham's servant is sent to find a wife for Isaac. The breakdown of the chapter looks something like this:
verses 1-9: Abraham charges his servant with fining a wife for Isaac
verses 10-14: the servant heads out and prays to God to show him, by a certain scenario, which woman should be the wife for Isaac
verses 15-27: the scenario happens (with Rebekah)
verses 28-49: the servant meets Rebekah's father and tells him everything that has happened since the beginning of the chapter, in great detail
verses 50-67: Rachel leaves with the servant and reaches Isaac, who marries her

Note: 67 verses for a single story. Not only that, but the narrative is actually repeated twice and sometimes even three times: the servant prays for the situation to happen, the situation happens, and the servant relates the situation to Laban. Each time the situation is explained in great detail.

Contrarily, Moses is born, grows up, marries, and has a son, all in the span of a single chapter, Exodus 2. Admittedly, the story does slow down in Ex. 3, with the beginning of the burning bush story. So what are we to make of the rapid pace through the beginning of Moses' life? Perhaps the text's pace implies that these events are not important, merely build-up and scene-setting for the main event, Moses' position as the liberator of the Hebrews. In the same way we don't need to hear about a hero's life-story in modern movies, the ancient Jews reading Exodus did not care about Moses' history beyond some of the pertinent details. Rather, they wanted to know about how he saved them from slavery in Egypt.

Apparently, unlike Sigmund Freud and his ilk, some people did not consider childhood to be particularly important.

December 21, 2006

Final Reflections on Genesis

With the last essay, we have finished our reading of Genesis and prepare to begin Exodus. First, I would like to thank all my readers who have been following along and occasionally posting comments. I hope I have been providing some thought-provoking ideas that allow you to re-examine your relationship with the text, whether for better or worse.

I thought that before we delve into the next text, it might behove us to spend a few minutes reflecting on what we have learned so far in our readings.

Genesis contains some of the best-known stories in the Bible, second only to the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The seven days of creation, Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, Noah's arc, the "sacrifice" of Isaac, and Joseph's "amazing technicolor dreamcoat" (thank you, Andrew Lloyd Weber)... all these stories appear within Genesis. Even children know these stories, at least if they were raised in Jewish or Christian households.

On the other hand, Genesis also contains stories that are rarely mentioned outside serious Bible scholarship circles. Reading through the text, we find examples of theft, deception, rape, incest, warmongering, and power politics. We find a whole dimension of the Biblical world that is rarely discussed in Sunday school. In my mind, these often-overlooked stories make the text more interesting and more real. They present to us a world that is not perfect, a world that is far closer to reality than that which is often described in sermons.

Furthermore, the people within Genesis are three-dimensional. The challenges they faced are similar to the challenges we need to face, even today. How do we deal with a rapid rise to power? How do we deal with people who have wronged us, especially if they are more powerful than we are? How should we act when we are rich? When we are afraid? Angry? The character in Genesis all needed to deal with these issues, much as we do.

We find that, in dealing with these problems, the people in Genesis were not perfect. They have goals, aspirations, and most importantly, flaws. Abraham was almost obsessive about not owing debts to anyone. He paid for his wife's burial cave, even though its owner wanted to gift it to him. He refused a share of the treasure after rescuing Lot from rival kings, even though he allowed his allies their fair share. Abraham could be timid, disguising his relationship with his wife when travelling in foreign lands. Yet, despite these character flaws, he was a rich, powerful man. He had hundreds of armed men at his command and dealt with kings as an equal.

We know much less about Isaac than we do his father or sons. In fact, he seems almost like a placeholder patriarch, rarely mentioned except in stories also containing Abraham or Jacob. And yet, even if a few short chapters, we find that he, too, followed the family tendency for deception. He imitated Abraham's attempt to convince foreign kings that his wife was his sister.

With Jacob, we come again to a sustained story. Jacob was tricky, but just as often was tricked or used as a pawn. The plot to gain Esau's blessing was not his, but his mother's. Laban extracted an extra seven years of service from him by giving him the wrong wife. Furthermore, Jacob had no problems playing favourites with his sons, to horrible results. And yet he, too, gained amazing wealth and power. He was so rich that he and Esau could not live in the same plain, because their cattle competed for grazing land.

Even Joseph, poor, poor Joseph, had a dark side. He was egocentric and vengeful, content to use his position of power to his own gain and the detriment of others. Yes, he had a hard life. But when the wheel of fortune turned in his favour, he was quick to inflict misfortune on others. He tormented his brothers and robbed his Egyptian subjects blind.

Nor were the women paragons of feminine virtue. The women in Genesis were among the most vindictive and the most sly. If there was a plot hatched, odds were good that a woman was behind it. The plots were numerous: Lot's daughters decided to get their father drunk and sleep with him; Rebekah conspired to give Esau's blessing to Joseph; to Rachel stole her father's gods; Tamar tricked her father-in-law Judah into sleeping with her; Potiphar's wife framed Joseph and had him thrown in prison... then as now, women could be crafty when they needed to be.

Though I point out all these negative features of Biblical characters, I do not mean to detract from their importance. They were the foundation of three major world faiths, and many of the positive characteristics ascribed to them in Sunday schools around the world hold true. Abraham did show great faith in God. Jacob did work hard to achieve his goals. Joseph was a skilled interpreter of dreams (with the help of God). But these qualities have been mentioned so many times before, in so many places, that I wanted to tip the scales back slightly to reality. Though they were important people, they were not perfect. They were human, and like all humans, they had bad qualities along with the good.

In my opinion, this is the most important message of Genesis. The progenitors of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic religions were not idealized. Nevertheless, they managed to begin some of the most important religious movements in history. To quote one of my favourite books, Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, "It may help to understand human affairs to be clear that most of the great triumphs and tragedies of history are caused, not by people being fundamentally good or fundamentally bad, but by people being fundamentally people." (32)

In Genesis, we see people being fundamentally people. I believe the text is richer for it.

December 20, 2006

Breadcrumb: The family plot

Gen. 49:29-33: On his deathbed, Jacob insisted on being buried with his family, in the cave at the field of Machpelah, which Abraham had bought from Ephron the Hittite. (Gen. 23) And, indeed, Joseph ensured it was done, bringing a huge procession of important Egyptians to accompany him to Canaan. (Gen. 50:1-14) As for Joseph himself, we see that he was too assimilated into Egyptian culture to care much about the family cave, and was instead buried in Egypt. (Gen. 50:26) This mark of assimilation began four hundred years of servitude for the Israelites, of which we hear almost nothing at all in the text.

December 19, 2006

Breadcrumb: He's at it again

Jacob was always one to prefer the younger brother over the elder. He himself was a younger son, who stole his older brother's blessing and birthright. But, in today's readings, it seems that he's not content with his own aggrandizement, but needs to pass it on to his younger grandsons as well. In Gen. 48, Jacob blesses Joseph's sons, but places the younger, Ephraim, before the elder, Manasseh. Even on his deathbed, Jacob believed in causing mischief.

December 18, 2006

Genesis 48-50: What did he say?

Today's reading is Genesis 48-50 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's blessing of Joseph's sons (Ephraim and Manasseh); his blessing of his twelve sons; his death and burial; and Joseph's death and burial.

Today's readings present one of the first instances of sustained poetry in the Bible. (Gen. 49:2-27) In it, Jacob blesses each of his twelve children in verse form, in generally prophetic language. This passage is probably one of the most difficult passages to translate and interpret in all of Genesis.

Unfortunately, my Hebrew is no longer good enough to read the original text. I am forced, therefore, to rely on translations. The poetry is rich in wordplay and cryptic phrasings that have made it particularly difficult to translate faithfully. Though I have only referred to two or three translations to prepare this essay, there are significant differences between the texts. For example, verse 6 in the KJV says that Simeon and Levii "digged down a well," while the NIV says they "hamstrung oxen." Verse 22 in the NIV says that Joseph is a "fruitful vine," while the Jewish Study Bible says he is a "wild ass." The differences can obviously cause a great deal of confusion in the interpretation.

But even if you're reading the original Hebrew, the verses are difficult to interpret. According to the Jewish Study Bible, "Jacob's tribal sayings have long provoked disagreements among interpreters." Some of the imagery is obscure, and even where it isn't, it is sometimes difficult to determine what, exactly, the text is referring to.

Let us take a few moments, therefore, to look at some general features of this passage and whether we can tease further information from it.

The blessings begin relatively specifically. The first, about Reuben, refers to the time he slept with his father's concubine in Gen. 35:22. I mentioned this episode in a previous essay. I said then that Jacob held a grudge, and here we see its fulfilment. Jacob tells Reuben that even though he is mighty and excellent, he will never excel because of this one youthful sin. (Gen. 49:2-3)

Simeon's and Levi's blessing also brings up an old grudge. (Gen. 49:5-7) In Gen. 34, their sister Dinah had been raped, so the two men slaughtered not only the rapist but also his entire village. Jacob now brings up the episode and tells them that because of it, they will be scattered among the other tribes. The Jewish Study Bible claims that this is a reference to Simeon's absorption into Judah and Levi's redefinition as a priestly tribe without land of its own (Deut. 18:1-2).

With Judah, we begin the bridge from specific to vague. (Gen. 49:8-12) The first part, verse 8, seems quite specific: Judah will be praised by his brothers and conquer his enemies. Even verse 10, which claims he will have the sceptre and ruler's staff (NIV, "lawgiver" in KJV), seems to foreshadow that Judah will rule the other tribes of Israel. However, verse 11-12 is cryptic. It mentions that he will wash his garments in wine, that his eyes will be red with wine, and that his teeth will be white from milk. What does this mean? I have no idea. Perhaps it is a reference to wealth, perhaps to something entirely different.

The other brothers get equally cryptic blessings, though generally shorter ones. Though verse 13 says Zebulun will live by the seashore, the Jewish Study Bible notes that the boundaries of the tribe of Zebulun in Josh. 19:10-15 suggest it was an inland tribe. Dan might be a judge over Israel (verse 16), but what does it mean that he is a "serpent by the roadside" (verse 17)?

All that we could say for some of the later prophecies is that they are tremendously general. Asher will provide rich food (verse 20), Naphtali is a doe set free with beautiful fawns (verse 21), and Gad attacks his attackers (verse 19). Even Joseph's blessing is vague: he is a fruitful vine near a spring (verse 22), who is shot at by archers but remains steady (verses 23-24), and receives very plentiful blessings (verses 25-26). What does all this mean? I have no idea.

There is a principle in divination called "subjective validation," also called the "Forer effect" or the "Barnum effect." This principle generally means that people will rank vague personality descriptions as highly accurate, even though the descriptions are deliberately vague and can apply to many people. The same principle has been used in many forms of divination, with the idea that a vague enough description will fit almost anyone.

Can we say that Jacob's blessings are using a variant of the Forer effect? Can we, in other words, say that some of the blessings are so vague, we are bound to find something matching them later in the Bible, if only we look hard enough? I don't think so.

I believe that, while the blessings are vague, this is more of a literary device than a deceptive one. After all, the redactors compiling the Bible knew the later texts, they knew what was going to happen to the twelve tribes. They didn't begin writing at Genesis and only later look to see what happened in Exodus, Numbers, Judges, and Kings. When compiling Jacob's blessings, they knew what they were referring to, even if later interpreters have had trouble matching the blessing to the event.

I believe the problem is one of viewpoints, rather than one of deliberate obfuscation. Presumably, if we were living when this text was written, we would understand what a "serpent by the roadside" meant, or the meaning of a "doe set free." In short, the text is certainly trying to tell us something, even if we have no idea what it is.

Berlin, Adele and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Study Bible. Oxford UP, 2004.

December 17, 2006

Breadcrumb: Bless you

When Jacob comes to Egypt, Joseph presents him to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:7-10) Pharaoh asks Jacob how old he is, and Jacob replies that he is 130 years old. He then blesses Pharaoh, and leaves. We have to ask ourselves here, why is Jacob blessing Pharaoh? Sure, he's an old man, but he doesn't follow the religion on the Egyptians. In his own right, he's not particularly powerful in any way. Why should it matter to Pharaoh whether Jacob blesses him or not? Perhaps Pharaoh believes in covering all his bases.

December 16, 2006

Breadcrumb: In your dreams

Whereas Adam, Noah, and Abraham all spoke to God face-to-face, it seems God has slowly withdrawn himself from the practice. By Gen. 46:1-4, he only speaks to Jacob in dreams and visions. (In this particular dream, he tells Jacob to go to Egypt without fear.) By the time we reach the age of Moses, we find out that any man who sees God face-to-face will die. I guess the "mysterious and elusive power" routine was more to God's liking than "personal guide and counsellor." Maybe he just got stage fright.

December 15, 2006

Genesis 46-47: Power corrupts

Today's reading is Genesis 46-47 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Jacob's arrival in Egypt; a brief genealogy of Jacob's sons and grandsons; the presentation of Jacob and his sons to the Pharaoh; and Joseph's behaviour during the years of famine.

As the musical sings, "poor, poor Joseph." It's easy to pity Joseph. After all, he was dealt a few bad hands in his life: he was nearly killed and then sold into slavery by his brothers, he was framed by his master's wife and imprisoned, he was left in prison for over two years, although innocent of any crime... it's a sad story.

Of course, it would be easy to feel bad for Joseph if he wasn't such a harsh man when he finally comes to power. Once he's securely Pharaoh's second-in-command, he seems to become twisted by his own importance.

I've already written about Joseph's treatment of his siblings. In short, he's not very nice. He deals harshly with them, frames them for theft, and throws them into prison. Surely this isn't the sort of familial behaviour the Bible wants to encourage, is it?

There are people who will defend Joseph's actions against his brothers. For one thing, they might say, Joseph's brothers started it. They were the ones that sold him into slavery. They were the ones that nearly murdered him. Joseph is just getting revenge on them for all the things they did to him. Furthermore, Joseph does eventually reveal himself to his brothers and forgive them. Indeed, he gives them some of the best land in all of Egypt.

These arguments are valid. We can probably forgive Joseph his treatment of his brothers. It is much more difficult, however, to forgive his treatment of his Egyptian subjects.

We remember that Joseph is in his position of high power because he predicted the years of famine would come after the years of plenty (Gen. 41:25-36). The years of famine weren't a surprise, they were the exact reason Joseph was in command in the first place. His sole job was to prepare for the famine.

Joseph did prepare during the years of plenty. In Gen. 41:48-49, we read that he stored the abundance of food during the seven plentiful years. He had so many stores of food that he stopped keeping records. There was just too much! And, initially, Egypt was well off during the famine (Gen. 41:56-57).

Here's where the trouble starts. We find out (Gen. 41:56) that Joseph was selling grain to the Egyptians. Not giving, but selling. We don't read whether Joseph bought that grain in the first place. If he did, and he was selling it back at the same price he bought it, perhaps we put the blame on the Egyptians for squandering their money in the intervening years. This is, of course, assuming Joseph told them the famine was coming. If he hadn't, they would have had no reason to save the money from their grain sales. Years will just continue to be plentiful, they may have thought.

If, however, Joseph did not buy the grain from the Egyptians, but took it from them, or if he sold the grain at higher prices than he bought it, he now begins upon a much darker path. If this is the case, he is effectively doing what many banks today do: charging people to use their own property.

It gets worse in today's reading, Gen. 47:13-26.

Here we learn that even Egypt is feeling the effects of the famine. Joseph, in selling back all the grain, effectively bankrupted the country. Gen. 47:14 tells us that there was no money left in all of Egypt, because Joseph had taken it all. No problem, says Joseph, give me your cattle instead of money. So Joseph proceeds to collect all the livestock in Egypt, as well as all the money. (Gen. 47:17)

Did I mention that all this occurred within one year?

The next year, the Egyptians find themselves in the same situation: hungry. Only this time, they don't have money or cattle. How are they going to buy grain now? Before Joseph has time to suggest anything, they offer him their land and their bodies. Essentially, they agree to become servants to Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:18-19) Joseph thinks this is perfectly acceptable. He buys up all the land in Egypt for Pharaoh, and places all the people in a state of servitude. (Gen. 47:20-1) To reflect the new ownership of the land, he exacts a 20% tax on all the grain that is grown throughout Egypt. (Gen. 47:23-26) The only people who escape Joseph's exploitation are the priests, because they received their allotment directly from Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:22, 26)

How do the people of Egypt react to these actions? After all, it's their grain in the storehouses: they put it there! And now they've sold everything, their money, their cattle, their land, and even their own lives, to Joseph. How do they react to this exploitation? They thank Joseph for saving their lives! (Gen. 47:25) Does this seem wrong to anyone but me?

Of course, Joseph's family is not subject to the famine. Joseph sets them up with the best land in all Egypt, Goshen, where they live very well. (Gen. 47:27) If I were the Egyptians, I'd be a bit annoyed at this situation, too. We can almost imagine that this spawned the first anti-semitic "Jews control everything" rumours, except this time the rumours were true. Jews (specifically Joseph) did control everything: all the grain, all the money, all the cattle, and all the land in Egypt. Pharaoh doesn't seem too concerned about Joseph's behaviour.

As for me, I sometimes wonder how the banks treat us today. They could probably learn a lot from Joseph.

December 14, 2006

Breadcrumb: Did you hear?

Every time Joseph met his brothers, he made sure to be far away from them and his servants before he started crying with joy. In these readings alone, he does it in Gen. 43:30, and he does it again in Gen. 45:1-2. But in the manner of high politics everywhere, word gets out. The servants find out, and eventually Pharaoh finds out (Gen. 45:16). Of course, despite all of Joseph's potential fears, Pharaoh is happy for him and gives the family all sorts of valuable gifts. But this is just a potent reminder of the universal fact: the truth will get out eventually; it's just a matter of time.

December 13, 2006

Breadcrumb: How did THAT get there?

In Gen. 44:1-14, Joseph has his steward plant a silver cup in Benjamin's sack, then when the brothers have left, he has the same steward run after them and accuse them of theft. You can do that sort of thing when you're one of the most powerful people in Egypt. Of course, things go poorly for the brothers for a while, as they sputter and ask recite the age-old mantra of framed criminals everywhere, "how did that get in there? I've never seen that before!"

It doesn't work now, and it didn't work then. Especially not when you're dealing with crooked officials. It's a good thing Joseph liked them.

December 12, 2006

Genesis 43-45: A gift for every occasion

Today's reading is Genesis 43-45 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the brothers' second trip to Egypt, with Benjamin; the episode with the silver cup in Benjamin's sack; and Joseph's revelation of his identity to his brothers.

Gift-giving has such a prominent place in the book of Genesis, I'm surprised I haven't done an essay about it already. In today's readings, we encounter two instances of gift-giving, coming essentially from the two economic ends of the spectrum. It might behove us, then, to take a few minutes to examine what sort of gifts were considered hot items in an age before Playstation and Wii, and why people might give them.

The first set of gifts comes in Gen. 43:11-13. In this case, Jacob is sending gifts to the overseer of Egypt. Keep in mind that Jacob comes from a princely family: Abraham had hundreds of men at command, and Jacob himself was forced to separate from his brother Esau because the land couldn't support the wealth of both men together. Jacob is obviously a man used to being in a position of plenty.

On the other hand, Jacob has evidently fallen on somewhat hard times, given the long famine, and thus needs to rely on the storehouses of Egypt. Further, he may have already angered the particular official who oversees the storehouses. On their first visit, his sons were accused of spying on Egypt, and Jacob has no reason to believe they will be treated any better on the second visit. This time, he's sending his youngest son, his favourite son, and so wants to ensure that things go extra-smoothly. So, regardless of the famine, he tells his sons to bring some gifts to Egypt's second-in-command. In some places, this would be called "greasing the palms," or perhaps even bribery. In other places, especially the ancient middle east, it's merely a way to do business.

So what does Jacob send with his sons to attract the goodwill of one of the most important men in Egypt? Here's what the text tells us:
- his best fruits
- a little balm
- a little honey
- spices
- myrrh
- nuts (NIV: pistachio nuts)
- almonds

He also has the brothers bring twice the money required, because they had mysteriously found their original payment returned to them the first time, and didn't want the official to believe they were cheating him. Finally, and at great urging, he sends Benjamin.

We notice that all the gifts Jacob sends are produce, some of them exotic produce. Some of them, such as the spices, may even have been luxury trade items. He seems to be saying, "even though I don't have corn, I still have other things which might interest you; I am not poor." Also, other than the fruits, the rest of the gifts are longer-lasting goods: spices and nuts can last a long time without spoiling, even in an age before refrigeration.

To make a long story very short, the brothers go to Egypt, face certain difficulties, and are eventually reconciled with their brother, Joseph, the second-in-command of all Egypt. Joseph urges them to come live with him, along with Jacob and the rest of their families. Pharaoh hears about the offer and is delighted. In fact, he tells Joseph to have the brothers send gifts to their father. (Gen. 45:16-24)

What does the most powerful man of one of the most powerful countries in the ancient world gift to the family of his second-in-command?
- the best land in all Egypt
- wagons to carry their families
- the "best of all Egypt," so that they need not worry about bringing their belongings (NIV, Gen. 45:20)

No small gift! Pharaoh here seems to be saying, "nothing is too good for the family of my most valuable officer." It would hardly be fitting to give Joseph's family anything but the best: it would seem that the Pharaoh was being cheap.

But wait, there's more! Joseph decides that he, too, should send some gifts back to his father. Or, as the text tells us, "some provisions for their journey." (NIV, Gen. 45:21) What does he give his brothers and father?
- a new set of clothes
- for Benjamin: five new sets of clothes and three hundred shekels of silver (about 7.5 pounds)
- ten donkeys laden with the best things in Egypt
- ten female donkeys laden with grain, bread, and meat

Here we see the portable wealth, as compared to the land gifted by Pharaoh. Clothes, silver, donkeys, and other valuable goods are all within the scope of Joseph's gift. Though we are not told what "the best things in Egypt" are, we can make the fairly safe assumption that they were expensive.

Obviously, the gifts from Pharaoh and Joseph are more valuable, in absolute terms, than the ones send from Jacob. This is to be expected: Pharaoh and Joseph are the two most powerful men in Egypt, while Jacob is a local prince fallen upon hard times. Of course they are in a better position to be doling out valuable presents to their friends and family.

Oddly enough, however, Joseph's gift is not as grand as it could have been. Years earlier, Jacob had sent a gift to his brother Esau, just before they were reunited after a twenty-year separation. (Gen. 32:13-16) At that time, Jacob sent two hundred female goats, twenty male goats, two hundred ewes, twenty rams, thirty female cattle, forty cows, ten bulls, twenty female donkeys, and ten male donkeys. By quick calculation, that's 550 animals! Joseph, here, is only sending twenty!

Of course, Jacob is getting more than just cattle. He's getting luxury goods and, more importantly, some of the best land in Egypt, which is theoretically far more valuable than even several hundred heads of cattle. Furthermore, the circumstances are different. Jacob wanted to ensure Esau wouldn't kill him. Joseph just wants to give a goodwill offering to his father, a way of saying, "look, dad, I've done well for myself."

So there you have it. What do you give to the ancient prince who has it all? Produce, cattle, silver, land, and luxuries. And, if you don't have that, get him a Playstation.

December 11, 2006

Breadcrumb: Playing favourites

Jacob had always shown favouritism. First, it was Joseph: Jacob doted on him, made him a special coat (Gen. 37:3), and generally made it clear that he loved Joseph above all his other sons. However, even after he believes Joseph has been killed, he doesn't learn his lesson, but instead begins to dote on his youngest son (and Joseph's only full brother) Benjamin. No matter how much his other sons try to convince him that only by bringing Benjamin to Egypt will they have their names cleared, Jacob refuses. Even when Reuben pledges the lives of his own two sons against Benjamin's safety (Gen. 42:37), Jacob refuses. Benjamin is staying at home, no matter what happens to his other sons.

It almost makes you wish there were self-help parenting books back then.

December 10, 2006

Breadcrumb: I'll take your word for it

Pharaoh appoints Joseph to be his second-in-command after Joseph's skilful interpretation of his dreams. (Gen. 41:37-41) Specifically, the interpretation is that seven years of famine will follow seven years of plenty. It is amazing to note, however, that Pharaoh appoints Joseph before his interpretations are proven true! Joseph might have been the biggest con-man in history, and had seven years of plum living before he'd need to devise another scheme! He was given power over all Egypt, answerable only to Pharaoh, for a prediction that would not be proven true for seven years!

Now that's a talent I'd like to have.

December 09, 2006

Genesis 41-42: Rags to Riches

Today's reading is Genesis 41-42 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers Pharaoh's dreams and Joseph's interpretations of them; Joseph's rise to second-in-command of Egypt; the seven years of plenty and seven years of famine; and Jacob's other sons going down to Egypt and dealing with Joseph for the first time.

I'd like to talk today about Joseph's meteoric rise to power. The first thing we must note is how massive a change it was: Joseph had been in prison for two more years after the butler was restored to his former position (Gen. 41:1). Though he was well-liked within the prison and given some measure of responsibility, he was still a prisoner. And yet, with one command from Pharaoh, he suddenly found himself second-in-command of an entire country. (Gen. 41:39-41) And not just any country, but Egypt: one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the region. One day, prison. Next day, luxury. That sort of thing doesn't often happen anymore. Although, I suppose it could be argued that it didn't happen much then, either.

It is important to remember that, despite the rapid change in fortunes, the decree was a long time in coming. Joseph had been in prison for an unspecified time before the arrival of the king's butler and baker. (Gen. 39-40) After the release of the butler and the execution of the baker, it was another two years before Joseph was given his chance to interpret Pharaoh's dream. Finally, there was no guarantee that Joseph would be the one Pharaoh appointed to oversee the collection of grain during the good years. Joseph merely says that Pharaoh should appoint someone (Gen. 41:33-36). It is Pharaoh who decides this someone should be the dream-interpreter, Joseph. (Gen. 41:37-41) Joseph was ready, but his moment of ascent took a long time to arrive.

Did I mention that Joseph was just thirty years old when he was granted this power? (Gen. 41:46)

How, then, is the second-in-command of all Egypt treated? The text tells us that Joseph received new linen clothes and a golden chain of office (Gen. 41:42) and the "second chariot" of Pharaoh (41:43). He was granted a procession in front of the people of Egypt, so they would know him and cheer him (41:43). He was also granted protection by Pharaoh that no one would attack him in all Egypt (41:44).

Furthermore, Pharaoh gave him a new, Egyptian name, Zaphnathpaaneah (41:45). Pharaoh chose him a wife, the daughter of one of his priests (41:46), by whom he had two sons (41:50-52). In other words, by the end of this, Joseph was completely assimilated into the Egyptian culture, at least by outward appearances.

As the comics say, "with great power comes great responsibility." However, to all intents and purposes, Pharaoh's trust in Joseph was not misplaced. He actually did a very good job at preparing for the seven years of famine. When other countries were in the midst of severe famine, Egypt had fully-stocked granaries. People from other lands came from afar to partake in Egypt's good fortune (or good planning). Among the petitioners were ten of Joseph's brothers, all but Benjamin, his only full brother (the rest had different mothers). This leads us to the second part of today's readings.

In Chapter 42, Joseph begins to show his family stripes. Just as his brothers, father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, Joseph shows his capacity for deceit. With his new name and trappings of power, none of his brothers recognized their long-lost sibling, though Joseph recognized them (Gen. 42:7, 9). They all believed he was an Egyptian governor, from Egypt. Joseph felt no need to correct their misconception. Instead of the brotherly love we might expect from siblings estranged for twenty years (Joseph is 17 when they sell him to slavery, Gen. 37:2), Joseph decides to toy with his brothers and make them feel truly sorry for what they did to him.

He begins by accusing his brothers, claiming that they were spies. No matter how much the brothers denied the accusations, Joseph remained resolute. (Gen. 42:9-14) He tells them the only way to clear their names is to have their youngest brother come down to Egypt. He then proceeds to throw them all in prison for three days. (Gen. 42:17)

After three days, Joseph appears to have a change of heart. He informs the brothers that they may take back food to their starving families, but one of them must stay behind to ensure that Benjamin come to Egypt and clear their names. (Gen. 42:18-20) The brothers are full of remorse, sure that they are being punished for their former treatment of Joseph, whom they believe to be dead. Through all this, Joseph is listening to their lamentations. But, again the successful deceiver, none of the brothers realize it, because Joseph had been using an interpreter to speak to them. At length, the brothers agree that Simeon will remain behind, and Joseph binds him before their eyes. Then the rest depart.

But Joseph is not finished toying with his brothers yet. In each sack of food, they find the money they used to buy the food. (Gen. 42:35) Instead of being pleased at their windfall, the brothers are afraid. After all, they've just been accused of spying against Egypt. Could this be another ruse? Should they tell the governor that they had regained the money they used to pay him? Would that make him even angrier? Would he accuse them of theft, as well as spying? (Indeed, Joseph does exactly this later, in Gen. 44, with his brother Benjamin.)

What do we learn about Joseph through these episodes? First, he has clearly settled into his power. He has no fear of reprisal from Pharaoh, or anyone else, at the way he treats these Hebrew brothers. He also has clearly picked up his family's penchant for deception: throughout their conversations, his brothers never recognized him. Finally, he shows that he has a vengeful streak in him. We can probably forgive him his anger at his brothers. After all, they nearly killed him and sold him into slavery, and he spent years in prison indirectly because of them. But Joseph plays a particular game with them, taking out his vengeance in a particularly cruel way, by making his brothers face what they did to him all those years ago.

In short, Joseph rose from pauper to prince in a day, and fully intended to take advantage of his position. Perhaps his story is not so different from one we'd read in the tabloids today.

December 08, 2006

Breadcrumb: Thanks for nothing!

Joseph knew from interpreting the butler's dream that the man would be restored to his former position of power. He asks, in the manner of social climbers everywhere, that the butler put in a good word with the king for poor Joseph. (Gen. 40:14) However, though the butler is restored to his former station, he forgets all about Joseph. (Gen. 40:23) Whether this is because he didn't want to be indebted to a Hebrew slave, or because he was in his own cups, we will never know. All we know is that then, as now, some men pay their debts better than others.

December 07, 2006

Breadcrumb: A butcher, a baker...

In prison, Joseph interprets the dreams of Pharaoh's butler and his baker, both imprisoned with him. The butler's dream is very favourable: within three days, the man will be restored to his former position of power. The baker, hearing this interpretation, rushes to tell Joseph his own dream. His, however, is an ill omen: within three days, he will be hanged. The dreams, on the surface, were similar, but the outcomes diametrically opposite. This proves the usefulness of a skilled interpreter... or at least an author with a sense of the dramatic.

December 06, 2006

Genesis 38-40: More crafty women

Today's reading is Genesis 38-40 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the story of Judah, his sons, and his daughter-in-law; Joseph in the house of Potiphar and his imprisonment; and Joseph's interpretation of the dreams of Pharaoh's imprisoned butler and baker.

In these readings, as in so many previous occasions in Genesis, we have examples of women being sneaky, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships. Today, we are faced with two wily women who, when snubbed, decide to get even rather than get mad.

First, we have Tamar, Judah's daughter-in-law. Judah, we recall, is Joseph's brother and Jacob's son. In chapter 38, he has gone away from his brothers, married a Canaanite, and begun to raise a family. He has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah, this last one a fair amount younger than the other two.

Judah finds a woman named Tamar to marry Er, and for a time all is well. But Er "was wicked in the sight of the lord" (Gen. 38:7), so God killed him. Judah, not wanting to waste the situation, marries Tamar to his next son, Onan. However, due to certain indiscretions, God killed Onan as well.

Here, Judah pauses. He knows a pattern when he sees one, and consequently tells Tamar to return home to her father as a widow until his youngest son, Shelah, is old enough to be married. The day never comes. Shelah grows up, but Tamar remains an unmarried widow. Here, she hatches her plan:

Tamar dresses as a prostitute and intercepts Judah when he's in the field. He, not recognizing her, asks to sleep with her. She agrees, at the price of one goat from Judah's flock. However, as a pledge that he will give her the goat, he lends her his signet ring, his bracelets, and his staff. They sleep together, and he departs. When he sends his friend Adullamite to find her, she is nowhere to be found. Judah shrugs and returns to his business.

In fact, Tamar has returned to her father's house and re-doned her widow's clothing. Time passes, and it turns out she is pregnant. Judah is enraged that his daughter-in-law played the prostitute and orders her to be burned. Instead, she produces the ring, bracelets, and staff. Judah acknowledges his indiscretion and sin in not allowing Shelah to marry her. Tamar goes on to give birth to twins, Pharez and Zarah.

Let us consider this episode. Tamar is a woman slighted: she knows that Judah will never give her his son to marry. Furthermore, she knows that as a widow, she is not nearly as valuable to marry as a virgin wife. Finally, she knows that her father-in-law is a rich man from a wealthy family, who presumably is not giving her a fair share of the family fortune. She is a woman who knows what she wants.

We might see Tamar as brave. After all, even though Judah didn't recognize her, she certainly knew who he was when she slept with him. It was, after all, the point. Furthermore, she was probably hoping to become pregnant, so that she could expose Judah before his men. If she were not pregnant, no one would accuse her, and she would not be able to present her evidence. Her own sacrifice allowed her to make the slight against her public.

A final note: we do not know whether Tamar ever married Shelah. We know she had twins by Judah, but we do not know what happened to her after. Judah never slept with her again (Gen. 38:26), so presumably he did not marry her. But we don't know whether she married anyone else or merely lived the rest of her days as a widow.

The second "hell hath no fury" episode takes place in the next chapter, Gen. 39:7-20. Joseph had been living as a servant in the house of Potiphar, Pharah's captain of the guard. In fact, he had done very well for himself, earning the trust of his master and rising in rank until he was second-in-command of the entire household. Such power naturally attracted Potiphar's wife, and she asked to sleep with Joseph. He, the dutiful servant, refused. No matter how often she asked, his answer was always "no."

Here, Potiphar's wife (whose name we never know) put her own plot into motion. One day, when none of the men were home, she went to Joseph and asked him to sleep with her. Again, as usual, he refused, and fled her presence. But this time, she managed to grab some of his clothes.

She called to the men of the household and accused Joseph, the Hebrew slave, of trying to rape her. She claimed that she shouted, and he fled without taking his clothing. They believed her. When her husband came home, she told her story again. He believed her, and had Joseph thrown into prison.

Some of us might consider Joseph a dupe. After all, he had a powerful woman asking to sleep with him, and refused. In his defence, it is certainly possible that if he had slept with her, she might have exposed the affair to her husband, and he may have found himself in prison regardless. To continue the hellish metaphor, "damned if you do, damned if you don't." She, on the other hand, played her cards masterfully and managed to punish the man who snubbed her.

It is interesting to note the actions that got Joseph and his brother Judah in trouble. Judah's initial mistake was that he did not marry Shelah to Tamar. His second mistake was to sleep with a woman he believed was a prostitute. Joseph, on the other hand, erred in not sleeping with someone, his master's wife. What message are these stories, so close after one another, trying to tell us about sexuality? Judah had sex outside marriage and was punished; Joseph didn't and was likewise punished.

Many Bible-thumpers would likely say that Joseph was in the right. Judah's behaviour, sleeping with a prostitute (his own daughter-in-law, no less!), is clearly not the sort of thing we want to condone in moral, right-wing society. They would therefore need to give a reason for Joseph, the morally upright man, to be punished. Some people might say that Joseph's imprisonment was for the greater good. After all, it was indirectly because of his time in jail that he rose so high in the ranks of Pharaoh's hierarchy.

I disagree. Joseph had no reason to know his time in jail would bring anything but misery. And we will never know if Joseph could have risen equally high in the ranks of Pharaoh's men without the time of imprisonment.

Perhaps the only conclusion we can draw from these instances is that Judah's way is more fun, so long as you don't get caught. Or perhaps the moral is, don't mess with smart women.

December 05, 2006

Breadcrumb: This town isn't big enough for the both of us

In Gen. 36:6-7, for the second time in Genesis, we learn that two rich men could not live in the same land. Esau and Jacob had both grown very rich over the years, and owned many possessions, including much cattle. Unfortunately, the land could not support so many men and so much cattle, so Esau was forced to leave. Unlike today, when the rich tend to cluster in small communities and keep the plebeians at arms' length, this was not possible when a man's riches were only as good as the land that supported them.

For the curious, the first instance was when Abraham and Lot separated ways in Gen. 13,

December 04, 2006

Breadcrumb: An unpleasant first

In Gen. 35:16-19, we have another Biblical first: the first death from childbirth. Rachel had hard labour with her second son, Benjamin, and in fact died. It is not surprising that a matriarch died in childbirth; it is more surprising that it took so long for the text to mention such an occurrence. After all, one of the leading causes of female death throughout history, until very recently, was childbirth. The text, here, is only pointing out the obvious to its readers: women, even important women, often died while giving birth.

December 03, 2006

Genesis 35-37: Supporting Cast - Reuben

Today's reading is Genesis 35-37 (read it in the KJV or NIV)

Today's passage covers the travels of Jacob and his family to Bethel, a second version of the renaming of Jacob to Israel, Rachel's death in childbirth, several more genealogical tables (of Esau and of the kings of Canaan before the Israelites), Joseph's first two dreams, and the sale of Joseph to Midianite traders by his brothers.

Featuring prominently in today's passage is Reuben, Jacob's firstborn son. Though each episode is short, together they form a cohesive picture of a man who learns and changes with circumstances. To demonstrate this, I will stray a little further afield from our limited readings, to point out some incidents before and after these three chapters.

Reuben was Leah's son, likely born within the first seven years of her marriage to Jacob. His name comes from the Hebrew, "He has seen my misery." (Gen. 29:32) The next time he is mentioned by name, he is a pawn in the power struggles between Rachel and Leah, discussed in the last essay. It is Reuben's mandrakes that Rachel and Leah bargain over. (Gen. 30:14) Since Reuben likely gave the roots directly to his mother, we can assume that he was still a boy during this episode. If he were older, he would probably have kept them for himself.

The next time we hear of Reuben is within the passages we read today. In Gen. 35:22, we find out "Reuben went and lay with Bilhah his father's concubine: and Israel heard it." (KJV) Here we find Reuben, likely a teenager or a young man, involved in an act of great rebellion, sleeping with his father's concubine. We know that he was caught, but not his punishment. In fact, we don't know of any consequences for this act until fourteen chapters later, which we will discuss in due time. However, it seems as though there must have been some punishment, because the next time we read about Reuben, he has mended his rebellious ways and has taken on a position of much more responsibility.

In Gen. 37, we learn there is great enmity between Joseph and his brothers, including his brother Reuben. Joseph has already had his first dreams, in which his brothers and even his parents bow down to him. (Gen. 37:6-11) Joseph was Jacob's favourite son, which also caused problems with his brothers.

One day, Joseph's brothers conspire to kill him. They've had enough of him and his dreams, and are ready to commit murder and lie about it to their father. But here Reuben steps in and saves Joseph's life. He tells his brothers not to kill him but instead to throw him into a pit (KJV) or cistern (NIV) in the desert. The text tells us that he intended to return Joseph to Jacob. (Gen. 37:21-22)

Indeed, things initially go according to Reuben's plan. The brothers strip off Joseph's many-coloured coat and toss him in the pit. But at some point, Reuben leaves, and the other brothers get greedy. Instead of merely keeping Joseph in the pit, they decide to sell him to Midianite merchants for 20 pieces (KJV) or shekels (NIV) of silver.

Shortly thereafter, Reuben returns and realizes Joseph is not in the pit where he left him. He immediately goes into deep mourning, tearing his clothes and bewailing his fate: "Where can I turn now?" he cries. (Gen. 37:29, NIV) In a hasty plan, he and his brothers kill a young goat, dip Joseph's coat in the blood, and show it to Jacob, who also goes into deep mourning, never knowing that Joseph has been sold a slave in Egypt.

Let's pause for a moment and consider this change in Reuben. This seems far from the man who slept with his father's mistress. Before, he was selfish and rebellious. Here, he is responsible. What happened in the intervening time?

Perhaps Jacob gave him particular responsibility over Joseph. This would explain why Reuben took such pains to save the boy's life, and why he was so distraught when Joseph had gone missing. Perhaps Jacob had not given him that responsibility, but Reuben was smart enough to know that if anything happened to his father's favourite son, heads would roll. Jacob, we know, was not a particularly bold man, but he may have been harsh with his own sons.

By the time we hear again from Reuben, many years later, he is an even more responsible man, whose past actions return to haunt him. In Gen. 42:22, Reuben and his brothers are in Egypt, speaking (though they don't know it) to Joseph. Reuben chides his brothers, saying that the ill treatment they receive at the hands of the Egyptians is just punishment for their crimes against Joseph.

Later in the same chapter, Reuben must bring Benjamin, his youngest brother and his father's new favourite, to Egypt to appease Joseph. Though Jacob is against the idea, Reuben finally convinces him by saying that if he does not bring Benjamin back, Jacob may execute his (Reuben's) two sons. (Gen. 42:37) Surely, this is a man who has learnt his lesson and takes responsibility for his actions. He has certainly come a long way from the carousing, rebellious teenager we encountered many chapters before.

And yet, when Jacob is near death and parcels out blessings to all his sons, what do we find? We read:
"Reuben, you are my firstborn,
my might, the first sign of my strength
excelling in honor, excelling in power.
Turbulent as the waters, you will no longer excel,
for you went up onto your father's bed,
onto my couch and defiled it." (Gen. 49:3-4, NIV)

That's right, Jacob apparently held a grudge all those years. Reuben certainly developed as a person, gained responsibility, and raised a family (in Gen. 46:9, we learn he had four sons). He saved Joseph from death at the hands of his brothers, led his siblings to Egypt and back again, and generally proved himself to be a decent person. Yet Jacob remembers the slight Reuben gave him as a youth, when he slept with Jacob's concubine.

I suppose all this shows is that while some people change, others never do.

December 02, 2006

Breadcrumb: You can't do that to my sister!

Genesis 34 discusses an incident with Jacob's daughter, Dinah. Dinah was "defiled" by Shechem, son of the prince of the country where Jacob was living. Shechem and his father were very gracious about the whole thing, offering to marry Dinah and give her as large a dowry as Jacob wanted. But Jacob's sons, following the family tradition of deception, told Shechem that they would accept if he and every other male in the city were circumcised. Shechem agreed, and when all his men were sore after the operation, Jacob's sons slaughtered them.

All this to say: when you decide to have your way with a girl, first make sure you know who her relatives are.

December 01, 2006

Breadcrumb: Wrestling with God

In Gen. 32:24-32, Jacob wrestles with a man he believes to be God, and is given a new name, Israel. It is interesting to note that, like the later Jesus stories, the man never identifies himself as God, but merely refuses to give his name. It is Jacob who names the location "Peniel," after the Hebrew for "face of God."

Also, this story reads like a classic myth or fairy tale, because of the ending: "Therefore the children of Israel eat not of the sinew which shrank, which is upon the hollow of the thigh, unto this day: because he [the man] touched the hollow of Jacob's thigh in the sinew that shrank." (Gen. 32:32, KJV) This is the first instance of such a moral ("this is why we do things today") in Genesis.