Reading the Bible as Literature
Week Three: Genesis 43-Exodus 12
This week’s reading brought us to the end of Genesis, the first book of Moses, and into the second book, Exodus. In the conclusion of Genesis, we see the decline of the tribe of Joseph (or the death of Joseph the person, depending on how you’re reading the book). We learn some important information about the relationship between the Hebrews (Canaanites) and the Egyptians, most importantly the extreme prejudice that the Egyptians have against Israelites (43:32 tells us that Egyptians will not eat with Hebrews, “for that is an abomination” and that the Egyptians look down on farmers/ranchers, which is the primary occupation for the Hebrews). That said, alongside this prejudice, we see that this particular Egyptian pharaoh is willing to bend traditional prejudices because he relies so much on Joseph and appreciates what Joseph (or the tribe of Joseph) has done for his land and people, including keeping them fed during the 7-year drought, and keeping the pharaoh rich.
Egypt and Israel: Historically, the end of Genesis and this beginning part of Exodus are interesting in that they illustrate some of the history between the Egyptians and the Israelites. A caution, though: unlike many of the major historical events described in Genesis, which can be corroborated with historical documents from other cultures, most of what happens in Exodus is documented only in the Bible. Still, we learn that, around the time that the tribe of Joseph falls, there is also a transition in Egyptian leadership. A new dynasty seems to rise with Ramses II (there is about 400 years between the end of Genesis, when Joseph dies, and the beginning of Exodus, when Moses is born) and the Egyptians, battling numerous insurrections and attacks from surrounding areas while simultaneously expanding their empire, are charged with being less and less “tolerant” of the presence of Hebrews in their lands. The close relationship between the tribe of Joseph and the earlier Egyptian king(s) has been long forgotten. As such, the bible suggests the Hebrews were enslaved in order to prevent them from rising up against Egyptian leadership. Again, it is only in the bible that the record of this slavery exists (and it should be noted: it was not the Hebrew slaves who built the pyramids. I have heard this suggestion many times and often took it for granted, but the pyramids were actually built about 1,000 years before Joseph entered Egypt).
Repeating Patterns: When Jacob and Joseph reunite, Jacob asks Joseph to bring his own sons so that he (Jacob) might bless them. Joseph brings Manasseh and Ephraim before their grandfather and places Manasseh on the right (to be blessed first, as the elder brother) and Ephraim on the left (to be blessed second, as the younger brother). But Jacob crosses his arms and reverses the order. We’ve seen this before! In the culture of ancient Israel, the firstborn is supposed to be the most important, but just as we saw Isaac blessed above Ishmael, and Jacob before Esau, and even Joseph favored above his many older brothers, here we see Jacob actively raise Ephraim above his elder and declare that his will be the blessed life. Why? Some say this is an example that these traditions are man’s, whereas god is not constrained by or concerned with them. I would also suggest that, again, these narratives are being written after history has happened, so the priests had the benefit of knowing which tribes did actually succeed. If historically the tribe of Ephraim was stronger, more successful, or longer-lasting than that of Manasseh, then it makes sense to write Jacob’s blessing this way.
Reverse Engineering Tribal History: As with many other points in the books of the bible, when names of individuals are listed and their histories/personalities/prophecies are given, we find that what is actually happening is a historical record of the people that has been reconstructed after the fact and written to coincide with the biblical narrative. For example, Genesis 49 gives us Israel (Jacob) speaking to his children on his deathbed. He lists them in order of age (tribal significance) and prophecies their rise or fall, depending on their documented actions to that point. Indeed, what is fascinating about this is that the priests responsible for compiling the bible stories and histories into narrative form took the history of these tribes, with Jacob as the primary patriarch (after Abraham) and reverse-engineered those histories as told through the mouth of Jacob, in prophecy. It is, then, a magical element of biblical storytelling, on the surface, but more importantly, a historical record of the Israelites in Canaan and Egypt at the time.
OTHER INTERESTING BITS:
Exodus 7: I have read the Book of Exodus so many times, and have seen countless film and television adaptations of the Moses story. In my recollection, it is always Moses who is acting the part of “hand of god” (god’s empowered agent). In actuality, though, Moses is extremely humble and shy, and only whispers to Aaron what to do. It is Aaron, then, who performs every action. I don’t know how I forgot this! I blame it on Hollywood.
Exodus 8: The 10 plagues brought by god were once claimed to have been the result of a near collision between Venus and Earth. No one could find an explanation for how all those crazy things (darkness, lice, storms of hail and fire, etc.) could happen, so why not an astronomical event? Turns out that was total hogwash – but nice try! (Astronomers were not amused).
Moses: Does the story of a unique boy, given up as a baby only to eventually rise to great prominence sound familiar? That’s probably because ancient folklore is riddled with these stories, from the story of Cyrus in Persian legend to the Roman legend of Romulus, and of course the Greek tales of Perseus, Paris, and Oedipus! So, one theory is that the story of Moses was adapted by Babylonian priests from the legend of Sargon of Agade, when the priests were writing the Hexateuch.
Passover: Speaking of borrowing/adapting stories from various cultures. Passover was the most important agricultural festival after the time of Moses, and was likely a pagan holiday at first (just like Christmas and Easter). Priests writing the book of Exodus likely assigned this most important festival to coincide with one of the most important themes in early Israeli legend: the exodus.
I’ll be back next Sunday, January 28th, for my last post of this month! On January 31st, the reading list for February will be posted (with perhaps anything else I want to add that I didn’t get a chance to in these end-of-week reviews).