Thursday, January 13, 2011

Genesis 36-37 Joseph Has a Dream, His Brothers Are Not Amused

Genesis 36

Sorry for the delay and the lack of comments.  Work is keeping me busy.

I will mention that this is the start of the story of Joseph, one of the great stories in Genesis.


  1. First, Bruce, thanks for starting this blog. Reading the bible isn't something I've ever done nor thought I'd ever do. Due to a temporary, decadal lapse in my mom's catholicism when I was younger, I've been an atheist since high school (a little bit older now, but not too much). For Christmas I bought myself a nook, rooted it, and, because of this blog, installed the "Bible" app from It comes with a lot of different options for reading the bible, including plans/agendas for reading the entire thing over a year. The front-to-back plan I set up puts me a few chapters ahead of this blog, but then I always wait a couple of days before checking a post's comments so I can see the entire discussion after the dust has settled.

    This whole effort also inspired me to read Jack Miles's "God: A Biography." For those who don't know, it treats the OT as a patchwork novel and does a close reading to explore God as a literary character. It breaks the OT down into smaller bite-sized sections based on biblical chapters. I'm only up to Genesis 4-11, so I've still got some catching up to do there, as well.

    I highly recommend this book just for the first chapter alone. There, in something that is a little off-topic right now but will be very important in a few months, Miles points out that the ordering of some of the chapters is different between the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. He says:

    "[T]hey are not quite the same work. The distincive, broad movement of the Hebrew Bible from [God's] action to speech to silence is not matched in the Old Testament, whose movement is from [God's] action to silence to speech. The contents in either case are the same, but the arrangement is not. The Old Testament shifts the great prophetic collections--Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the twelve minor prophets--from the middle to the end, leaving the middle what we called earlier the books of silence, including Job, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther. For the special purposes of a biography of God, the difference between the two arrangements is crucial."

    I had no idea this was even the case, but it's fascinating. The Hebrew Bible seems to answer the question before it's even asked: "Where is God today?" As for the Christian Bible, I don't know. Anyway, something to think about as we move forward: the chapter ordering will affect our interpretation of God, especially after God's action phase.

  2. What's all this stuff about dukes? I'm guessing it's a KJV thing; the translators of that era figured the patriarchs named in the genealogies somehow equate to the social rank of 'duke,' whatever that was in Jacobian England.

  3. Lorraine,when I read about all the dukes, I thought I must have a defective translation.
    It would seem that the sons of Esau were important in the country where they lived.
    I am mystified by the mention-in-passing that Reuben slept with his father's concubine and nothing more is said. Reuben was the only brother who didn't want to kill Joseph, and was distressed to think him dead. The other brothers didn't mind letting Reuben and their father grieve, either. Why is there no affection in these families?

  4. I know that there is more to come from Joseph's story, but couldn't help be struck by how easily his brothers decide to throw him in a pit, and then sell him into slavery. I realize Joseph was a spoiled brat at the time, but sheesh! The punishment doesn't seem to commensurate to the crime at all.

  5. Chapter 37 is a dense mixture of J and E; my annotated bible points out that the contradictions "suggest that diverse accounts have been combined". Indeed.

    In the E text, it is Reuben that spares Joseph's life (v. 21). In J, it is Judah (v. 26)

    In E, it is a Midianite caravan they sell him to. In J, it is Ishmaelites.

    You can argue "what if Ishmaelites is just another word for Midianites?" And I would have to say "uh... maybe?"

    Midianites were a group of people to the south of Israel, in the Sinai Peninsula. Moses (in one tradition) had a Midianite wife. The burning bush episode happens in Midian. Gideon/Jerubbaal fights Midianites in Judges. As far as I can tell, they were considered a different "race" than the Israelites.

    Ishmaelites are a bit fuzzier. They are, the story goes, descendants of Abraham's son Ishmael. Making them, like Edomites, relatives of Israelites and presumably semitic. I can't find much information on them. They peter out of the story after Judges.

    There is another Midianite/Ishmaelite connection in Judges 8- there is a throwaway reference to Ishmaelites wearing gold earrings- in a story about Midianites.

    From the Book of Jubilees:

    Book of Jubilees 20:13 And Ishmael and his sons, and the sons of Keturah and their sons, went together and dwelt from Paran to the entering in of Babylon in all the land which is towards the East facing the desert. And these mingled with each other, and their name was called Arabs, and Ishmaelites.

    Also notice that the brothers deceive their father Jacob, using a coat dipped in goat blood; earlier, Jacob used a coat and goat hide to deceive HIS father.

  6. I am mystified by the mention-in-passing that Reuben slept with his father's concubine and nothing more is said.

    This event is mentioned in The Blessing of Jacob (Genesis 49.) There's gotta be more to the story; sadly, it's lost to us.

    Lorraine,when I read about all the dukes, I thought I must have a defective translation.

    My translation (New English Bible) says "chiefs". (The Hebrew word is אַלּוּפֵי.) It also hints that this material (which contradicts other Esau genealogy, e.g. 26:34) may be actually Edomite in origin, which could explain the novel terminology.

  7. Does Joseph seem a bit like a chip off the old block with the dreams about his superiority over the brothers? Sibling rivalry can be a very strong and divisive emotion; When a younger child seems to be favoured the anger can boil over. These brothers were from various mothers so the filial loyalty to Joseph was more easily overcome. It is intriguing to have those 2 snippets of info about Reuben. I wonder if a more rounded out story about him has been lost. It is like that obscure reference to Deborah's death: why just that little bit?

  8. @Lorraine from MHC:
    That these sons and grandsons of Esau are called dukes, v.15-19. Probably they were military commanders, dukes, or captains, that had soldiers under them; for Esau and his family lived by the sword, ch. 27:40.

    Not much more is said.

  9. Uggghhhhh.... These lists of names are starting to get to me. Does this crap slow down after Genesis?

  10. @esdras: I like that bit of symmetry with Jacob deceiving with goat skin and being deceived by goat blood. Prof. Amy-Jill Levine points out that while Isaac was a bit suspicious and asked for proof, it turns out to be quite easy to put one over on Jacob. You'd think that being such a con artist himself, he'd be a tougher one to con.

  11. @Alex Russelburg: The genealogical trivia is probably thickest in the Book of Numbers (possibly the most boring book in the Bible) with long stretches in Exodus, I and II Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemia, and the beginning of Matthew and Luke.

    Also, about two thirds of Exodus is essentially a 'verbal blueprint' of the Tabernacle, and a poignant reminder that a picture is worth a lot more than a thousand words. Fast forward to I Kings and we have an even more elaborate 'verbal blueprint' of the Temple.

  12. @momofatheists: Joseph is indeed quite a chip off the old block. He and Jacob were both born to barren mothers who had difficult pregnancies, and as you pointed out both struggled with their respective brothers and eventually ended up triumphant. Archetypal character?

  13. @Alex, Sorry man, Genesis is just the beginning of lists. Stay strong!

  14. The genealogical trivia is probably thickest in the Book of Numbers (possibly the most boring book in the Bible)

    I respectfully disagree! Leviticus is CLEARLY the most boringest book in the Bible. Numbers at least had a *small* amount of narrative. Leviticus is entirely comprised of dense, imponderable priestly law.

    P basically ruins the Torah, IMHO. The JE stories are wonderful. P eats your soul.

  15. I agree that the genealogies are draining. My eyes tend to glaze over slightly when I see a long section of 'begats'. To be perfectly honest - I tend to skim them. I'm sure some would disagree, but they add nothing to the narrative, and I don't think that my understanding of the bible will be hindered if I forget that, in Genesis, Ishmael begat blah blah blah.

    I'm not looking forward to Leviticus, or any of the P texts either @esdras, but I'm in this for the duration. Right now I'm just enjoying the Joseph story (I've been reading ahead). Perhaps the minimal role god seems to be playing is helping! :)

    Everyone hang in there! It's a marathon, not a sprint. We can do this!!

  16. Just want to say how very much I am enjoying this project! I'm learning so much. I'm also reading a day or two behind so I can read the discussion. It's pretty awesome to see both Atheist & Christian perspectives--& everyone is being so respectful!

    Only thing...I missed what J and E and P texts refer to...embarrassing,but can someone enlighten me?

    Thank you all for giving me something so interesting to read during those middle of the night baby feedings!

  17. @Abigail
    been meaning to ask that myself....

    Long lists of names are there to be skimmed. You can always look it up later!

  18. Only thing...I missed what J and E and P texts refer to...embarrassing,but can someone enlighten me?

    These are theoretical sources that were combined to produce the final text of the Torah.

    J and E are the oldest sources. They date from when the Davidic monarchy split, giving us the Northern and Southern Kingdoms (Israel and Judah). E is from the north, J from the south. These two documents were combined into one entity- JE- by an editor who liberally excised portions of both.

    P is the "Priestly source", which was written as a polemical reply to JE. It contains a lot of boring law and is obsessed with numbers.

    D, the Deuteronomist, takes up all of Deuteronomy and forms a framework for Joshua through Kings.

    Eventually somebody cut up JE and P and placed them next to each other, capping the story with D.

    These sources are all hypothetical, we don't actually have a JE manuscript. It does sound a bit far-fetched, but the evidence is in the stories themselves. All the contradictions and story doublets are neatly explained by the four-source hypothesis. The running narratives of JE and P can be fairly neatly distinguished, and each is internally consistent. J is focused on the ark; E is focused on the Tabernacle; P is pro-Aaron and focused on priestly matters, including the centralization of worship. J anthropomorphises God, in P God is abstract. J and E enjoy Hebrew puns; P was written by a humorless asshole. Etc.