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Back to the Bible - Revisiting the Old Testament
With Genesis 12 the story of what would eventually be the nation of Israel begins with God’s call of Abram, instructing him to “go to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation.” So Abram left Haran for Canaan which God told him would be given to his descendants despite the fact that other people were already living there.
In Canaan Abram, his wife, his nephew Lot, along with their various herdsmen and servants lived as semi-nomadic herders moving about the land to pasture their sheep and cattle. Everywhere Abram stopped for a while he built an altar to “the Lord who had appeared to him” (12:6-9), establishing sites sacred to his God which would continue to be noted by his descendants as such.
A famine in Canaan caused Abram to go to Egypt where an incident occurred that would be twice repeated with variations (substituting the king of Gerar for Pharaoh) by Abram and then by his son Issac (12:10; 20; 26:1-11). Fearing that the Egyptians would lust after his wife, Sarai, and harm him, Abram instructed her to say she was his sister. Pharaoh learned of her beauty, and she “was taken into Pharaoh’s house. And for her sake he dealt well with Abram,” rewarding him with many animals to add to his flocks. “But the Lord afflicted Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai.” Pharaoh confronted Abram with having deceived him and “set him on his way, with his wife and all that he had.”
That this scenario is repeated two more times, the last with Issac rather than Abram, is likely due to there being slightly different traditional versions of the incident which were incorporated into Genesis. What is remarkable to me is that there is no real acknowledgement that there was any moral problem with Abram, and latter Issac, basically offering up his wife as a virtual prostitute to ensure his personal safety. Only Pharaoh, and the king of Gerar in the other versions of the story, both of whom presumably did not worship Abram’s God, seemed to view Abram’s deception as wrong. Even God seemed to have had no problem with it, intervening not by punishing Abram but Pharaoh. There are a number of other instances in which Genesis seems to take an almost amoral view in describing the actions of Abram and his descendants. Only in the story of Joseph does there appear a clearly developed ethical sense in Joseph’s resisting the attempted seduction by his master’s wife and his dealings with his brothers. This is definitely not a point of view that I got in the SDA version of the lives of the patriarchs of Israel! If the issues raised by these accounts were ever addressed, or even noted, I don’t remember it.
Genesis presents a series of loosely connected episodes involving Abram. After defeating four invading kings from the east who kidnapped his nephew lot, Abram gives a tithe to the mysterious figure of Melchizedek who is described as the king-priest of Salem which many years later became Jerusalem. Melchizedek’s god is titled “God Most High (El Elyon in Hebrew), Maker of Heaven and Earth,” one of several instances in Genesis in which the title of what would seem to have been a Canaanite god appears, perhaps indicating a gradual attribution of the traits of other gods to the deity who would emerge in Exodus as the God of Israel.
In Genesis 15 God comes to Abram in a vision. Although Abram and his wife are aging and childless God promises that he will have a son and his descendants will be as numberless as the stars. While Abram has been led from Ur to the land destined to be the home of his heirs, before they take possession they will be “sojourners in a land that is not theirs” for four hundred years (16:13). The covenant between God and Abram was sealed by a ritual in which the Lord, in the form of a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch in the darkness of night, passed between the severed halves of sacrificial animals.
Abram and Sarai decided to try to fulfill the promise of a son by making Sarai’s maid, Hagar, Abram’s second wife. She conceived, and “looked with contempt on her mistress.” Sarai “dealt harshly with her, and she fled.” But an angel found Hagar by a spring in the wilderness and told her to return and submit to her mistress. The angel also said that Hagar would bear a son called Ishmael whose descendants would be more than could be numbered (16). The story was repeated with some variation several years later after the son born to (by then renamed) Abraham and Sarah displaced Ishmael. The second time Hagar and Ishmael were sent away for good and again saved by an angel (21:9-21). After the death of Sarah, Abraham had other children by a third wife and several concubines, but only Sarah’s son was heir to the promise of the covenant. Genesis briefly notes the others along with Ismael as ancestors of various foreign tribes and nations.
Another account, believed to be from a later tradition, of the covenant appears in Genesis 17. Here God is titled El Shaddai, “God, the One of the Mountain,” another divine name absorbed by Abraham’s deity. In this appearance, the Lord changed the names of Abram and Sarai to Abraham and Sarah. It may be that these dialectical variants of their former names are from a source in which they were so-named all along. There is again a promise that Abraham will be “the father of a multitude of nations.” The divine covenant with Abraham and his descendants will last forever as will their possession of Canaan. All the males in the households of Abraham and his descendants were to be circumcised, a common practice among Semitic peoples, as an external sign of the covenant “in your flesh.”
The Lord and two other beings, all three described as men, visited Abraham and promised that Sarah would have a son in the spring. The “men” were on their way to see for themselves the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah and destroy the cities and all their inhabitants. But Lot, Abraham’s nephew, lived in Sodom and Abraham bargained with the Lord to save the city. After agreeing to spare the city if as few as ten righteous people could be found there, “the Lord went on his way” (18).
The other two “men,” now described as angels, went on to Sodom where they were welcomed by Lot, but a mob gathered and demanded that the strangers be handed over to them to sexually abuse. Lot offered his daughters instead of his guests (another instance of a morally questionable attitude), but the mob only relented when struck blind by the angels. Warned by the divine messengers of the impending doom, Lot, his wife, and two daughters fled the city. Famously Lot’s wife looked back despite having been forbidden to do so and, in a folkloric explanation of the salt pillars of the Dead Sea, became a pillar of salt. Less famously, Lot’s daughters, thinking that they had no other hope of having children, made their father drunk and seduced him. The resulting sons were the ancestors of Israel’s enemies, the Moabites and Ammonites.
The promised son, Issac, doesn’t have a very large part in the Genesis account. There is the well known story of God testing Abraham by demanding he offer up Issac as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham followed instructions right up to the point when an “angel of the Lord” told him, “Do not lay your hand on the lad. . . for now I know that you fear God” (22:12). Over the centuries since it became part of sacred scripture, the “binding of Issac,” as it is known in Judaism, has been the subject of innumerable speculations. The simplest maintains that it is an artifact of an ancient transition from human to animal sacrifice; the more complex range from devout interpretation of it as a test of Abraham’s faith to horrified revulsion. Whatever its origins, the near sacrifice of Issac is a troubling and fascinating piece of Judeo-Christian tradition.
Abraham dispatched his servant to Haran to find a wife among kinsfolk still there for the forty year old Issac. The servant arrived in Haran at a well where “the daughters of the city” came to draw water, and asked for a sign to indicate who he should select as Issac’s bride. Rebekah, Issac’s cousin, unknowingly fulfilled the sign. Only after the servant had bargained with her male relatives was Rebekah consulted. She agreed, but I can’t help but wonder how much choice a woman in that time and place would have had in such a situation.
Twin sons were born to Rebekah and Issac. Jacob and Esau struggled together in the womb, and continued to do so after their birth. Esau emerged first from the womb, but his brother caught hold of his heel (an impossible feat for a new-born infant!), causing him to be named Jacob, “he supplants.”
Whereas Jacob resembles the classic folkloric figure of a clever trickster, Esau seems to have been somewhat of a simpleton - another folklore motif - who was easily convinced by Jacob to exchange his firstborn birthright for food. Jacob, “a quiet man, dwelling in tents,” was favored by his mother while Esau, a rough, hairy hunter was the favorite of Issac. In what seems to be another version of the transferred birthright, Rebecca overheard the aged blind Issac arranging to give his blessing, which was believed to determine the character and destiny of the blessed individual, to Esau. She instructed Jacob to disguise himself as Esau to obtain the blessing for himself. When Esau discovered Jacob’s deception, he made plans to kill his brother after their father’s death.
Jacob fled from his brother to his uncle in Haran where his mother, who had been driven to suicidal thoughts by Esau’s Canaanite wives (27:46), hoped he would find a wife among her kin. On the way to Haran, Jacob stopped for the night and had the well-known dream of a ladder reaching to heaven on which angels ascended and descended. Above the ladder stood the Lord, who extended to Jacob the promise made to Abraham. Here Jacob is not “the supplanter” trickster but the patriarch whose descendants would become the nation of Israel.
Upon Jacob's arrival in Haran there was a virtual repeat with his cousin, Rachel, of the encounter of Abraham’s servant with Rebecca. But Jacob’s uncle, Laban, was also a trickster who promised Rachel to Jacob on condition of seven year’s servitude. At the end of the seven years Jacob was deceived by Laban and unknowingly spent his marriage night with Rachel’s older sister, Leah. After promising to serve his uncle for seven more years, Jacob was given Rachel as his second wife. Leah was fertile while the beloved Rachel was barren. Both wives, like Sarah with Hagar, also gave their maids to Jacob to conceive children who were regarded as the offspring of their mistresses. Eventually Rachel conceived and gave birth to Joseph. Later in Canaan she died giving birth to a second son.
After several more years of labor beyond the fourteen served for his wives, Jacob decided to leave for home. But first he persuaded Laban to give him sheep and goats from his flocks that had a certain marking. Through a (biologically impossible!) trick Jacob caused a great increase in animals bearing those marks, then gathered his wives, eleven sons and one daughter, servants, and flocks and secretly set off for Canaan. Rachel, a bit of a trickster herself, also stole her father’s household gods which she concealed under her camel’s saddle. When Laban caught up with the fugitives and searched them for the stolen images, Rachel said that she could not arise from her seat on the camel because she had her period.
There is no indication that the writer of Genesis saw anything amiss in the deceptions which repeatedly occur in the story of Jacob. As he fled from his brother’s anger, Jacob was in fact rewarded with a divine ratification of the blessing which he at the urging of his mother had stolen from his brother. There is no apparent condemnation of Rachel in taking her father’s household gods, which she presumably worshipped, although in preparing to revisit the site of his ladder dream Jacob later disposed of them.
As he neared home, Jacob became very anxious about how Esau would receive him. The night before the brothers’ meeting Jacob spent “alone; and a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day” (32:24). As dawn broke the apparently divine figure implored Jacob to release him. Jacob, from who “the man” was unable to break free, demanded a blessing. “The man” responded by telling Jacob his name henceforth would be Israel - “He who strives with God” - but refused to reveal his own name. The trickster became the man who had wrestled to a draw with God. The change of name along with assurance of the covenant made with Abraham and Issac is repeated (35:9-15) in a later account of divine blessing.
The meeting with Esau, who no longer bore Jacob any ill will, went well. Jacob and his band moved into Canaan to follow his father’s and grandfather’s semi-nomadic pastoral life. There was a troubling incident involving the seduction or rape (the account isn’t very clear) of Jacob’s daughter Dinah and a horrifying act of revenge by two of Jacob’s sons. Jacob feared attack by the Canaanites but “a terror from God fell upon the cities that were round about them” (35:5) to keep Jacob and company safe. Rachael died giving birth to his twelfth son near the place that would later be known as Bethlehem.
After a list of Jacob’s twelve sons from Leah, Rachael and their maids, is a lengthy description of Esau’s descendants who became the Edomites who were the subject of curse after curse by the prophets. So the brother’s quarrel continued for many generations.
Genesis 37 begins one of the finest stories in the Bible, composed by a master story teller. With a well developed plot and characters, it is the equivalent of a modern short story or novella. We are introduced to Joseph at age seventeen, a callow and spoiled young man who, as the first born of Rachael, was beloved by Jacob/Israel and resented by his older brothers. Narcissistic and naive, Joseph innocently related dreams in which his brothers bowed down to him, increasing their hatred for him. They plotted to kill him but instead sold him as a slave to some passing traders. He was taken to Egypt where he was sold to Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh. Evidently Joseph, thrown into a life far removed from the pampering he knew in father’s house, matured quickly: “The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man. . . . (Potiphar) made him overseer in his house and over all that he had” (39:2-4).
“Now Joseph was handsome and good-looking” (39:6) and his master’s wife sought to seduce him. Joseph, in a clearer statement of morality than appears in the stories of his forefathers, refused to “do this great wickedness and sin against God” (39:9). In her frustrated rage Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph of attempted rape. Joseph was thrown into prison (realistically a slave accused of attacking his master’s wife probably would have been executed on the spot).
In prison Joseph once again was blessed by God and gained favor in the eyes of the keeper of the prison. As in Potiphar’s household, Joseph was given charge of “whatever was in the prison. . . . and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (39:22, 23). He met two imprisoned officers of Pharaoh who related troubling dreams which Joseph correctly interpreted.
Pharaoh had a troubling dream which his magicians and wise men could not interpret. One of the men whose dream Joseph had explained had meanwhile been released from prison and returned to Pharaoh’s court. Remembering Joseph’s skill in dream interpretation, the former prisoner recommended him to Pharaoh. Joseph was brought “hastily out of the dungeon” and, after making himself presentable (an example of the detail in this well developed story), appeared before Pharaoh to hear his dream. Joseph told Pharaoh that the dream predicted seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine. He also recommended a course of action to prepare for the famine. Pharaoh was impressed and, noting that the “Spirit of God” was in Joseph, put him in charge of “all the land of Egypt.” So Joseph, by virtue of his faithfulness to God, progressed from spoiled teenager to slave to prisoner to a position second only to that of Pharaoh (41).
During the seven years of bountiful harvests Joseph diligently stored up the surplus food. Then, as foretold, “famine was severe over all the earth” and “all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain” (41:57). To deal with the ongoing famine Joseph established a feudal system wherein everything in Egypt belonged to Pharaoh; Egyptian sources record such a change as occurring between 1700-1500 BCE (Oxford Bible footnote 47:20-26). Other details in the story of Joseph correspond with known aspects of ancient Egyptian history and culture. But it is important to remember that such a correspondence doesn’t “prove” that the story itself is actual history, no more than factual Civil War details in Gone With the Wind establish the historical existence of Scarlett O’Hara.
Among those who came to Egypt seeking relief were Joseph’s older brothers whom he recognized though they did not recognize him since he was living as an Egyptian with an Egyptian wife and children (no mention is made of how he may have dealt with the gods of ancient Egypt). Joseph put them through a series of demanding tests which caused much anxiety along with renewed guilt as they recalled what they had done to their little brother. The brothers departed with the grain they sought, but one remained behind as a hostage against Joseph’s demand that they return with their youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph’s full brother who his father refused to let out of his sight for fear that he would suffer a fate like that of Joseph.
Jacob/Israel (in perhaps another indication of interwoven sources the text alternates the names seemingly at random) initially refused to let Benjamin go to Egypt. But famine continued with the necessity of obtaining food from Egypt. So the brothers returned. In another example of the personal details in the Joseph saga, Genesis describes how Joseph upon seeing Benjamin was so emotionally overcome that “he sought a place to weep” (43:30). After yet another test of his brothers, who proved to themselves changed men, Joseph, loudly weeping, revealed himself to them. They returned to their father with the good news. God reassured the disbelieving Israel/Jacob “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt; for I will make of you a great nation” (46:3). So Israel and all his children came to Egypt.
After an extended, rather confusing poem (49) in which Jacob/Israel blessed his twelve sons, who “are the twelve tribes of Israel,” he died and received a royal Egyptian mourning ritual (Oxford Bible note 50:2-3). His body was taken by his sons back to Canaan to be buried in either (the text is contradictory) the family tomb purchased by Abraham (49:29-32; 50:13)) or another tomb he prepared for himself (50:5). His brothers feared, that with their father gone, Joseph would take revenge on them. “But Joseph said to them, ‘Fear not, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good, to bring about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today’ ” (50:19-20), verses that an Oxford Bible footnote describes as “the heart and climax of the Joseph story.” After burying their father, the children of Israel returned to Egypt where Pharaoh had given them a place in the land of Goshen. Genesis ends with the death of Joseph at the age of one hundred and ten. His body was embalmed and “put in a coffin in Egypt” (50:26) to await the return of Israel as a nation to the land promised to their forefathers.
© 2021 James Moyers