Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: More family values

With Genesis 37 and the story of Joseph we enter new literary territory. Scholars now generally agree -- and it makes sense to me -- that this is essentially the artful creation of a single author. In other words, unlike what we have seen so far, generally crudely rendered transcriptions of what was originally oral tradition and vital records, pieced together from various sources by scribes, this is a novella. It has vivid characters whose emotional lives are visible to us; strong plot elements including suspense, reversals of fortune, foreshadowing, theme and variation, changing affections and character development.

However, it also has a political agenda, or agendas. This is about the origin of the 12 tribes and an argument for their relative standing. So think of it like Shakespeare's histories, which reflect his loyalty to the Tudor monarchs. Also, perhaps because of sloppy editing, it does have a couple of continuity errors and ambiguities. There is no evidence that any of this is based on historical fact. Its rather a founding myth of the Israeli nation. It will take a while to get through it. Here goes.

Jacob lived in the land where his father had stayed, the land of Canaan.
This is the account of Jacob’s family line.
Joseph, a young man of seventeen, was tending the flocks with his brothers, the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives, and he brought their father a bad report about them.
Here's a continuity error, not internally but with other material. Bilhah and Zilpah were concubines -- handmaids to Rachel and Leah, given to Jacob as sex slaves, not wives. Also, we still have Jacob rather than Israel.

Joseph is obnoxious the first time we see him, tattling on his half brothers about some unspecified misbehavior.
Now Israel loved Joseph more than any of his other sons, because he had been born to him in his old age; and he made an ornate[a] robe for him. When his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of them, they hated him and could not speak a kind word to him.
The footnote says that the meaning of the Hebrew word translated as ornate is uncertain. KJV has "a coat of many colours" which is the familiar phrase. 
Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him all the more. He said to them, “Listen to this dream I had: We were binding sheaves of grain out in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered around mine and bowed down to it.”
His brothers said to him, “Do you intend to reign over us? Will you actually rule us?” And they hated him all the more because of his dream and what he had said.
Then he had another dream, and he told it to his brothers. “Listen,” he said, “I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.”
10 When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, “What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you?” 11 His brothers were jealous of him, but his father kept the matter in mind.
KJV has "his father observed the saying." I'm not sure what it means either way.  I'm also not clear about the "eleven stars."  Joseph is certainly obnoxious and I can't blame his brothers for disliking him, but they do seem to take things a bit far . . .

12 Now his brothers had gone to graze their father’s flocks near Shechem, 13 and Israel said to Joseph, “As you know, your brothers are grazing the flocks near Shechem. Come, I am going to send you to them.”
“Very well,” he replied.
14 So he said to him, “Go and see if all is well with your brothers and with the flocks, and bring word back to me.” Then he sent him off from the Valley of Hebron.
When Joseph arrived at Shechem, 15 a man found him wandering around in the fields and asked him, “What are you looking for?”
16 He replied, “I’m looking for my brothers. Can you tell me where they are grazing their flocks?”
17 “They have moved on from here,” the man answered. “I heard them say, ‘Let’s go to Dothan.’”
You should know that these are long journeys. It's about 50 miles from Hebron to Shechem, and another 13 to Dothan. So this must have taken him a week or more.
So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. 18 But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.
19 “Here comes that dreamer!” they said to each other. 20 “Come now, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns and say that a ferocious animal devoured him. Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.”
21 When Reuben heard this, he tried to rescue him from their hands. “Let’s not take his life,” he said. 22 “Don’t shed any blood. Throw him into this cistern here in the wilderness, but don’t lay a hand on him.” Reuben said this to rescue him from them and take him back to his father.
23 So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe—the ornate robe he was wearing— 24 and they took him and threw him into the cistern. The cistern was empty; there was no water in it.
We'll pause here till next week. You know, cliffhanger. As I say, Joseph is obnoxious but killing him is probably taking things too far. But as you probably know, they end up with a plan B.


Don Quixote said...

The story of Jacob and Joseph must be rich literary material indeed for Thomas Mann to have mined it for his tetralogy, Joseph and his Brothers (Joseph und seine BrĂ¼der). I only read the first book, and may not get to the others. But it was wonderful.

Cervantes said...

Also of course the Broadway musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I agree it's among the oldest extant works of respectable creative writing. That said, obviously, is not to be confused with literal truth. As a morality tale, like most, it's essentially ambiguous.