Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Sunday Sermonette: The rules of commerce

Today we'll finish Genesis 37, which ends at another cliffhanger so that's in keeping with the usual strategy of serial publication. Again, keep in mind that this story is most likely entirely fictitious. We need to keep in mind the actual intent of the author. Note that there is no point of view. This is what's called the Omniscient Author form of fiction. Unlike, say, Moby Dick, where we observe events from the point of view of a narrator, this author knows what is happening to people in various places, who have no knowledge of what is happening to each other. In order to reconstruct a true story in this way, the writer would have to interview various people and piece their stories together. Okay, here goes.

25 As they sat down to eat their meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were loaded with spices, balm and myrrh, and they were on their way to take them down to Egypt.
 I've noted this a few times but just to remind you, camels had not been domesticated at the time these events supposedly happened.
26 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain if we kill our brother and cover up his blood? 27 Come, let’s sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him; after all, he is our brother, our own flesh and blood.” His brothers agreed.
28 So when the Midianite merchants came by, his brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels[b] of silver to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt.
An obvious continuity problem here, maybe a transcription error or a conflation of two versions of the story. The Midianites and the Ishmaelites are completely different people. Which is it? It is also kind of interesting that a few guys sitting around eating lunch can offer to sell a person into slavery to passing strangers. The rules of commerce here are not the ones we observe today.
29 When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. 30 He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?”
31 Then they got Joseph’s robe, slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. 32 They took the ornate robe back to their father and said, “We found this. Examine it to see whether it is your son’s robe.”
33 He recognized it and said, “It is my son’s robe! Some ferocious animal has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces.”
34 Then Jacob tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and mourned for his son many days. 35 All his sons and daughters came to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted. “No,” he said, “I will continue to mourn until I join my son in the grave.” So his father wept for him.
36 Meanwhile, the Midianites[c] sold Joseph in Egypt to Potiphar, one of Pharaoh’s officials, the captain of the guard.
Again, the brothers sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites but the Midianites sold him to Potiphar. But this writer probably doesn't have an editor. Also, too, note that God renaming the guy Israel still hasn't stuck. He stubbornly remains Jacob.

Note that the overland journey from Bethlehem to Cairo is quite substantial, even for people who actually do have camels. It's about 200 miles, mostly across the Sinai desert, so Joseph is probably done with the sackcloth by the time Joseph gets there. We'll learn more of his fate next week.


  1. Genesis 37:3 The meaning of the Hebrew for this word is uncertain; also in verses 23 and 32.
  2. Genesis 37:28 That is, about 8 ounces or about 230 grams
  3. Genesis 37:36 Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Vulgate and Syriac (see also verse 28); Masoretic Text Medanites
New International Version (NIV)


Don Quixote said...

While we're talking about the overland journey from Bethlehem to Cairo, I've also been puzzled by the 30 years the Israelites spent in the desert while traveling from Egypt to Palestine. I've read it can be done in eleven years. The explanation I was always given by people who knew more about these things than I was that Moses wanted the older folks with the "slave mentality" (those who wanted to return to security in Egypt, albeit enslaved security) to die off so a younger, freer generation could have time to develop.

Cervantes said...

Well, again, the return trip is also only 200 miles so it wouldn't take 11 years, it would only take a couple of months even if you're moving a huge crowd of people and only traveling a few miles a day. Actually the Exodus trip was even shorter since they took a short cut through the Red Sea. The explanation you were given is of course entirely made up, so the people didn't know more than you they just had an imagination. But in fact there is no historical evidence that the Egyptian captivity ever happened at all and it is highly unlikely that it has any basis in fact.

Clipping Path said...

Simply wish to say the frankness in your article is surprising.

John Colin said...

Judah said to his brothers,
“What will we obtain if we destroy our close friend and protect up his body? Let’s offer him to the Ishmaelites and not put our arms on him; following all, he is our brother, our own skin and bloodstream".

Cervantes said...

John, your comment is rather obscure. Can you explain it?