History Channel’s The Bible: Episodes 1 & 2, “Beginnings” and “Exodus”

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I’ve finally gotten around to watching the first two episodes of the History Channel’s The Bible miniseries (I wanted to wait on the rest of the episodes because, you know, spoilers). The episodes, titled Beginnings and Exodus, cover the events of the Pentateuch – from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

The Bible

Conceptually, having Bible stories at all on something called the History Channel isn’t problem-free. Even among theologians, the idea that the Bible is primarily historical truth isn’t exactly considered a settled matter. But I, personally, am okay with it. Whether or not the stories are historical in a literal sense, they are certainly worth discussing in a historical context. I’d feel the same way about a History Channel Trojan War miniseries. And, at least, the series begins with a card screen telling us that it is “an adaptation of Bible stories.”

The problem is that the card screen also tells us that “it endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book,” which is a rather misleading statement.

Throughout the episodes, the authors’ theological slant is plainly evident in what they change, what they add, and what they leave out. In several cases, the departures are significant, and they colour interpretation.

The most obvious example of what I mean is what I like to call the “Hot Jesus Injections.” Throughout the episodes, there are glimpses and hints of Jesus, even though it covers only the events from Genesis through to Deuteronomy. One of the three angels that come to Abraham (wearing a hood of a different colour from the two others, of course) always has his back turned to the camera or is seen out of focus, yet he is quite clearly the actor who will play Jesus later on in the film.

The same actor also provides the voice of God whenever he speaks to the patriarchs (and Sarah). This comes out rather silly because, of course, they chose an actor who could portray a “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” He can hardly muster the thunderous boom of the Old Testament God. So what we get are the patriarchs getting thrown about by these violent storms, seeing these great acts of nature, and then this totally chill, stoner voice with a slight reverb coming down from the skies. It’s decidedly underwhelming.

Which brings me to the subject of race. There’s some attempt to at least get white people with brown eyes and dirty-blonde hair at the lightest, so I guess that’s a start – and the angels accompanying God tick off a few diversity boxes – but I expect a Bible-based miniseries coming out in 2013 to do a whole lot better than White Jesus.

White Jesus

Several narratives are altered to make them less morally troubling. For example, turning Lot’s wife into a pillar of salt just because she looked back at her home as she flees is troubling, to put it lightly. So they set her up early on as someone who is chronically contrary, making sure that the audience will be predisposed not to see her as a victim.

When God tells Abraham to go into Canaan, Lot’s wife argues against the idea. Later, when they arrive, they find that they have so many animals that they cannot graze them all together. In the Bible, Abraham proposes that they separate, so Lot heads off to Sodom. But in the miniseries, it’s Lot’s wife who nags Lot into separating, clearly against Abraham’s wishes. That’s not just filling in the gaps to make a more compelling narrative for a screen adaptation, that’s outright contradicting the source material to fit a theological agenda. Just to make it even more clear that Lot’s wife totally deserves what’s coming to her, the miniseries has her scoff at faith in “a god we cannot see.”

All of this makes it absolutely silly when Abraham goes on about how he’s been promised “as many descendants as the stars, to populate our land.” This comes right after his separation from Lot because the land is already full with just their two households. Maybe he should adjust his ambitions a little…

The destruction of Sodom and God’s conversation with Abraham surrounding that event really struck me. In the biblical story, God is all in a huff and will destroy the whole city, but Abraham argues with him and manages to talk him down a bit – at least enough for God to send the angels in to find any good men. But in the miniseries, the conversation is about Abraham discovering Jesus’ plan, and Jesus being all “don’t worry, bro. I got this.”

Lot never offers up his daughters to the city-dwellers, and he never sleeps with them after. There’s also no mention of Abraham prostituting his wife (twice). But the narrator makes a special point of the fact that Lot “never saw Abraham again” after he fled from Sodom – which, even if it fits with the biblical narrative, was certainly not something that attention was drawn to. I cannot figure out why the miniseries chose to highlight this. Given that the narrator is used so seldom, I can’t help but think that it served some kind of purpose, but I can’t think of what it might be.

Moses

I found it interesting that the ‘baby in the basket’ narrative is almost entirely glossed over. The narrator never mentions it, nor does the princess (who tells Moses of his origins). All we get is half a second of footage of picking up the basket.

Once Moses escapes to Midian, a card screen tells us that he waits 40 years before God appears to him as the burning bush. I get that the actor they got to play Young Moses lacked the gravitas they needed to play Prophet Moses, but why choose 40? I don’t remember that being in the biblical narrative, so I can only think that it was just an excuse to get a more mountain man-looking actor in.

Speaking of the burning bush, the narrative was oddly done. I found the bush itself to be rather lacklustre, and the Hippy Jesus voice coming from it really didn’t lend it any of the mysterium tremendum that I had imagined from reading the Bible text. I also found that the miniseries Moses doesn’t show any of the humility that the biblical Moses had when encountering the burning bush.

Zipporah is entirely absent. On a related note, I found the Miriam-Aaron relationship to be rather disturbing. Miriam is shown to have two children, while Aaron apparently has none (or, at least, is never shown to be associated with any children other than Miriam’s). Neither is ever shown with a spouse. Not only that, but they seem rather close – and not in the way of a brother and sister – while waiting out the Passover night. I don’t know what that’s all about, but I got a distinct Lannister vibe from them, and it was creepy.

Aaron and Miriam

I found the ten plagues to be quite well done, visually. Interestingly, the “who can turn their staff into the mightiest serpent” contest with the pharaoh’s court magicians never happens. I suppose that the miniseries’ authors didn’t want to show anyone other than a God Approved Prophet having magical powers. Again, I feel that theology got in the way of retelling the story.

After the Passover plague, the pharaoh agrees to allow the Hebrews to leave. This was the same narrative I’d heard in Sunday School, and it was the same in The Ten Commandments. But, as we learned when we read Exodus 12, the pharaoh only allows the Israelites to leave because they lied and told him that they were just poppin’ ’round the corner for mo’. The lies (and the stealing from the Egyptians) are erased by the miniseries’ authors.

Once in the wilderness, there’s no golden calf, no rebellions, no reason given for why it would take them 40 years to get to Canaan. There is, however, the carving of the decalogue, which was actually a pretty cool scene.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the acting was quite decent (though maybe they could lay off on making the actors run around the block right before each take, because I found the huffing and puffing – particularly when Moses has his audience with the pharaoh – to be quite distracting), despite the many odd casting choices. I’ve already mentioned the white-washing and tokenism, but there were also some rather offensive choices, such as putting someone with dwarfism among the baddies who capture Lot. Because, you know, physical deformity is always a reflection of inner sin, right? Sort of the Disney method of character design.

There’s some odd absurdities as well. For example, there’s the scene where Lot is captured and Abraham’s household come to rescue him. For some reason, the captors decided to use the most absolutely useless gags I’ve ever seen – while gagged, Lot manages to call out, with perfect clarity, to his wife. I get that making a proper gag is really hard, but these are actors. They could have at least pretended not to be able to speak!

I also felt that the authors allowed their theology to get in the way of both accuracy and good storytelling (and, in many instances, both at the same time). It was enough that I certainly wouldn’t recommend watching it to anyone who hasn’t already read the relevant biblical chapters.

If watching TV isn’t your thing, good news! The stories of The Bible are now available in a book!

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Inanna prefers the farmer

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The goddess Inanna is ready to marry, but must first choose a mate. Her brother encourages her to marry the shepherd-god Dumuzi, but she finds that the farmer-god Enkimdu is more to her liking. Angered by her choice, Dumuzi picks a fight with Enkimdu, but Enkimdu is able to calm the situation by promising to give him gifts and, even, to let him have Inanna. And so it is that Dumuzi, the shepherd-god, seems to win the argument and the favour of the goddess.

(Source)

Sound familiar? It should, because we covered it in Genesis 4.

As with the flood story (a Babylonian version of which is found in the Epic of Gilgamesh), we see that bits and pieces of many of the Bible’s stories were floating around in the collective cultural memory before they were written down (and edited) by the authors of the Hebrew Bible.

Moses and Abraham

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As I’m reading about Moses, it occurred to me that there are a few similarities to the stories about Abraham. I’m not saying that there is a connection, but it’s interesting to look at. I can’t help but wonder if the two heroes were not occasionally confused, or if stories were sometimes mis-attributed (and then the new associations carried forward).

Immigrants

Both Moses and Abraham are immigrants to Canaan (though ***SPOILERS*** Moses doesn’t quite make it). Abraham came from the east, from the Ur region (“of the Chaldeans”), as we see in Genesis 11. Moses comes from the west, from Egypt – as we see in Exodus 2.

It seems that there’s a strong cultural memory about coming into Canaan from the outside, whether by following Abraham or by following Moses. It may be that, when the two narratives were merged into a single tradition, Abraham’s cycle was placed before Moses’ as an attempt to legitimize Moses’ later entry into Canaan (and its conquering by Joshua), since it would have established a prior Hebrew claim to the land (something the Abraham narrative is clearly all about).

Perhaps Abraham is the initial settler of the rural shrine priests, and Moses is the initial settler of the urban sanctuary priests…

Wives that matter

In both the narratives of Moses and Abraham, we see hints of wives who matter in a possibly cultic capacity. Twice, Abraham is said to have prostituted his wife, Sarah, to a king (to an Egyptian pharaoh in Genesis 12, and to Abimelech in Genesis 20). I have no idea how much credence this is given in scholarly circles, but it does – superficially, at least – sound vaguely like an echo of Inanna (or a similar myth) being brought into the Israelite belief system.

According to Wikipedia, there was Sumerian ritual referred to as the Sacred Marriage Rite in which a king would symbolically take the place of Inanna’s consort Dumuzi and sleep with her (represented on earth by a high priestess). This consummation between king and goddess granted the king’s reign legitimacy. By sleeping with Inanna, the king was placing himself as the earthly representation of the god-king Dumuzi – in much the same way as Egyptian Pharaohs would be seen as earthly representations of the god Horus.

So when we see Sarah sleeping with two kings, it seems that she is performing Inanna’s function, indicating that she may either be a shadow of a historical high priestess or an appropriation of the goddess herself. Either way, she seems to be cultically important. (Incidentally, we see the same story repeated a third time in Genesis 26, except this time it’s Isaac prostituting Rebekah to Abimelech.)

[If Sarah/Rebekah really are shadows of Inanna, I find it interesting that in the Biblical stories, it is the men – Abraham and Isaac – who are the active agents in getting their wives into bed with the kings, rather than something the women themselves are initiating.]

In Exodus 4, Moses falls deathly ill. In order to save him, his wife – Zipporah – circumcises their son and rubs the foreskin on Moses’ feet. Either this story is a different tradition of the origin of the commandment to circumcise (which, I’ll note, was otherwise given to Abraham in Genesis 17), or the practice had fallen by the wayside at some point (either culturally or just Moses, given his rather unusual infancy).

Regardless, Zipporah serves a cultic function – symbolically sacrificing Moses’ son and saving Moses from God’s wrath. It’s even possible that Zipporah is positioned as the initiator of the circumcision ritual.

A sacrificed son

Both Moses and Abraham must symbolically sacrifice their sons. In Genesis 22, Abraham is told by God that he must sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham follows God’s instructions and, once God is satisfied that Abraham really totally would go through with it, his hand is stayed and a lamb is sacrificed instead.

In Exodus 4, God tries to kill Moses, but Moses is saved just in time when Zipporah circumcises their son. I’ve discussed this elsewhere, but it seems that circumcision – in that it endangers the mechanism by which a man might have descendants – may be a stand-in for child sacrifice. As with Isaac, it seems that Moses’ son is symbolically sacrificed to avert God’s wrath.

I find it interesting to note that Moses is shown to have only one son in the Exodus 4 story, though he has at least two everywhere else (that I’ve noticed). This parallels nicely with Abraham who, at this point in the narrative, also has only one son (having abandoned his other son in the wilderness).

 

So, what do you think? Is it plausible to think that both Moses and Abraham may have come from a single tradition, or that they might both be patriarch figures whose narratives have gotten a little muddled together at times? Have you encountered this theory before?

Book of Genesis, Divided

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I was trolling the internet and I managed to find this nifty resource on the Book of Genesis. Scroll past all the links and you get to a break down of the book, with tentative ascriptions to sources. Here’s how it breaks Genesis down:

  1. Primitive History (1-11)
  2. Abraham’s narrative (12:1-25:18)
  3. Isaac and Jacob’s narrative (25:19-36:43)
  4. Joseph’s narrative (37:1-50:26)

It’s a good way of thinking of the Book, and it certainly helps to see it all laid out like that. Check out the site for a more detailed breakdown.

Genesis Wrap Up

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I was already fairly familiar with most of the stories in Genesis from pop culture and Sunday School, so I didn’t expect to be as surprised as I was.

My first big shock came right at the beginning with the two accounts of creation. It’s a well-known fact that there are two separate creation stories, each emerging from different traditions. I hear this a lot from Atheists, which is to be expected, but I also hear it from scholars. And, while I’m sure that they are correct about the provenance of the two stories, I found it much easier to harmonize them than I had thought. The imagery of Genesis 1 is of a world, whereas the imagery of Genesis 2 is of a garden – a garden built within a world.

When I heard these stories in Sunday School, I had always assumed that I was getting a shortened version, when in fact the opposite was true. The kiddie versions of these stories are often substantially longer, filling in details that the Bible misses. I was very surprised by how short famous stories like the Tower of Babel actually are.

I was disappointed with the patriarchs. I wasn’t expecting a lot, but I figured that they would at the very least display a contextually appropriate virtue. For all I know, maybe they are. But they bear no resemblance at all to what any modern westerner would regard as upstanding . The only one who might pass as role model is Joseph, whose story is by far the most complex, realistic, and interesting of the whole book.

I knew going in that there would be portions of the famous stories that are commonly glossed over. It turns out that I was correct, but that I hadn’t quite realized the extent of it. What lay person knows that Noah got so drunk that he passed out naked and then cursed his son (and all his son’s descendants) because the poor guy had the misfortune of finding him in that state?

I tried my best to keep up with the family tree as I read, but I had to give up once my tree started looking a bit too much like a web. It didn’t help that some of the branches changed depending on which passage I read. I just don’t have the technology to clearly represent disappearing spouses.

I think my greatest take away from this first book is that God and his patriarchs bear no resemblance whatsoever to that of the modern Christian conception. Even those who believe in the vengeful, cruel God don’t seem to grasp the complexity of the character. As I tried to lay aside the preconceptions I had formed from the sanitized versions of these stories I was familiar with, I realized that Genesis is an alien book written in an alien time by an alien people. I think that it’s a mistake to think that it can be truly understood by a modern lay reader, or that it’s in any way capable of informing our 21st century lives.

Genesis 50: Jacob/Israel is buried

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Jacob/Israel is embalmed, and “forty days were required for it, for so many are required for embalming” (Gen. 50:3). This is consistent with my own impression, and a quick Google search bears it out.

Procession

From the 'Golden Haggadah,' early 14th century

From the ‘Golden Haggadah,’ early 14th century

Joseph asks permission from Pharaoh to bury his father in Machpelah, and this is granted. So Joseph heads out to Canaan along with “all the servants of Pharaoh, the elders of his household, and all the elders of the land of Egypt, as well as all the household of Joseph, his brothers, and his fathers’ household; only their children, their flocks, and their herds were left in the land of Goshen” (Gen. 50:8-7).

This, by the way, would be a huge procession. If the medieval British monarchy is any indication, the ecological impact of this procession would be huge – not to mention the effects on the people who live in the communities the procession passes through. I also can’t help but to wonder what Pharaoh did while all his servants were off at this long distance funeral. Did he cook his own meals? Did he cart away his own gong?

At this point, my study bible mentions that there is an alternative tradition that has Jacob/Israel hew out a “tomb for himself east of the Jordan,” and that he was buried here instead of Machpelah. “This explains why the funeral cortege detoured to Trans-jordan, though a main road led from Egypt along the coast to Beer-sheba.”

Joseph buries his father and then the procession returns to Egypt.

Forgiveness

Now that Jacob/Israel is dead, the brothers start to get a bit nervous. I suppose they think that Joseph was being nice to avoid upsetting dad, but that now he has no reason not to “pay us back for all the evil which we did to him” (Gen. 50:15).

So they send a message to Joseph saying, “your father gave this command before he died, ‘Say to Joseph, Forgive, I pray you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.’ And now, we pray you, forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” (Gen. 50:16-17).

Even if true, it’s a pretty nasty thing to do. The guy’s just lost his dad and the brothers are getting straight to business. If false (which it may well be, since there’s no indication that Jacob/Israel even knew what his sons did, let alone said anything about it), it’s even worse. On the other hand, Joseph could potentially press all of their children into slavery as revenge, so this is a far cry from the sort of family spat we’re accustomed to today.

Joseph reasserts that the brothers didn’t do anything but slavishly follow God’s plan – which is a horrible way to look at it, by the way. Should we open our jailhouse doors, because they didn’t do anything that wasn’t part of God’s plan? But in this case, the belief allows Joseph to forgive his brothers and he vows to protect them and their children.

Wrap up

Joseph lived to be 110, and to see his son Ephraim’s children of the third generation. We’re also told that Manasseh had a son, Machir.

When he lies dying, Joseph reminds his brothers that God will visit them and bring them out of Egypt, giving them the land that was originally promised to Abraham, then to Isaac, and then to Jacob/Israel.

With his final breath, Joseph “took an oath of the sons of Israel,” which I interpret to mean the people Israel, not Jacob specifically. The oath goes: “God will visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). And with that, Joseph dies, is embalmed, and is put into a coffin in Egypt.

And with that we reach the end of Genesis!

Genesis 49: "All these are the twelve tribes of Israel"

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In previous chapters, kids have been stand-ins for various nations: Esau represented the Edomites, Mizraim represented the Egyptians, Ishmael represents the “Bedouin tribes of the southern wilderness.” But now, the sons all represent different factions within the Hebrew people, commonly known as the 12 (+1) tribes of Israel.

The setup is this: On his deathbed, Jacob/Israel brings up each of his sons and issues a description of them that is *wink wink nudge nudge* indicative of their tribe’s place in later Hebrew society.

Jacob blesseth his sons by Gerard Hoet, 1728

Reuben: First-born and, therefore, stands to be the principle inheritor. However, due to a little indiscretion, loses his primacy. My study bible says that Reuben “was once a leading tribe but in early times was overcome by the Moabites.” The confusing mention of him sleeping with his step mom in Genesis 35:22 is explained here as typifying “the tribe’s moral weakness and instability.” Now, Israel found out about this little bit of incest and didn’t say anything at the time, so it must come as quite the shock to Reuben to suddenly have this thrown into his face!

Simeon and Levi: These are the two who convinced the Shechemites back in Genesis 34 to cut off their foreskins and then killed them all while they were too sore to fight back. As punishment, they won’t get a territory to themselves, but instead Jacob/Israel will “divide them” and “scatter them in Israel” (Gen. 49:7). My study bible notes that Levi became the priestly caste, while Simeon was eventually absorbed into the tribe of Judah.

Judah: Up until now, Judah has generally acted as spokesman for the family whenever Jacob/Israel isn’t around. This all makes sense now as Judah is destined to be the ruling class of the Hebrews. But Jacob/Israel imposes a time limit, saying that he shall rule until his sceptre “comes to whom it belongs” (Gen. 49:10). In the King James version, this verse makes reference to a specific individual: “The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be.” (Wiki has a brief and somewhat lacking explanation of this difference.) Once Shiloh or the true owner of the sceptre comes, there will be so much plenty that “his eyes shall be red with wine” (Gen. 49:12). Note: You know you’ve had too much when your eyes turn red.

Zebulun: Zebulun gets to live by the sea (not him personally, of course, since he is in Egypt) and “become a haven for ships” (Gen. 49:13).

Issachar: Issachar is a “strong ass” (Gen. 49:14). This may well be true, but it’s not the kind of thing one says in polite company. This is apparently a comment on their willingness to “surrender political independence in subservience to the Canaanites.”

Dan: Dan will become the judiciary caste. My study bible indicates that when he is referred to as “a serpent in the way, a viper by the path” (Gen. 49:17), the reference is to the “insidious warfare of a small tribe in its rise to power.” Oooh, burn.

Gad: Gad will be raided, but “he shall raid at [the raiders’] heels” (Gen. 49:19). According to my study bible (on which I feel I am over-relying in this chapter), this is a commendation for “bravery in repelling Ammonite and desert marauders.”

Asher: Asher gets “royal dainties” (Gen. 49:20), referring to the rich and high yield lands he gets (the coastal strip between Mount Carmel and Phoenicia, says my study bible).

Naphtali: Naphtali gets compared to a “hind let loose” (Gen. 49:21). This is supposed to have positive connotations.

Joseph: Joseph gets blessings heaped on him and is commended for having continued to fight (“Yet his bow remained unmoved”) even when “fiercely attacked” (Gen. 49:23-24). He gets the “blessings of the breasts and of the womb” (Gen. 49:25). We also get a little pun at the end, where Joseph is said to receive all these blessings for he was “separate from his brothers” (Gen. 49:26), which could be taken literally as his separation from them while he lived in Egypt, or metaphorically as being set apart from the common rabble.

Benjamin: The ‘blessing’ given for Benjamin is presented without commentary from my study bible, so interpret as ye will. “Benjamin is a ravenous wolf, in the morning devouring the prey, and at even diving the spoil” (Gen. 49:27).

Once all the blessings (to the extent that they are such) are dispensed, Jacob/Israel repeats his wish to be buried at Machpelah (the family burial plot that Abraham bought in Genesis 23).

And with that, he “drew up his feet into the bed, and breathed his last, and was gathered to his people” (Gen. 49:33).

Genesis 48: Jacob/Israel adopts Joseph’s kids and blesses them

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This is actually a fairly nice little chapter, and a welcome break from reading on and on about Joseph and God’s big plan to enslave all the Egyptians by starving them until they are desperate enough to sell their own bodies for food.

In this chapter, Jacob/Israel is ill and dying, so Joseph goes to him. Jacob/Israel tells his son that God had appeared to him at Luz and blessed him (seen in Genesis 35) and rehashes the whole God “will give you this land to your descendants after you for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 48:4) thing.Then comes the zinger: “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine” (Gen. 48:5). They’re mine, all mine!

But it’s okay, because “the offspring born to you after them shall be yours” (Gen. 48:6). You’d think he might have asked first…

Blessings

Jacob/Israel tells Joseph to bring his children forward, which the latter does, and Jacob/Israel embraces the two boys. “I had not thought to see your face; and lo, God has let me see your children also” (Gen. 48:11). Even the old grump in me can’t help but to melt just a little at this scene.

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh by Guercino

Jacob, Ephraim, and Manasseh by Guercino

Jacob/Israel begins his blessing of the two boys, but he puts his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Manasseh’s, even though Ephraim is the younger of the two! He begins his blessing, that they may “grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth” (Gen. 48:16).

Joseph sees that his dad has his hands on the wrong boys and “he took his father’s hand, to remove it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head” (Gen. 48:17), but Jacob/Israel rebukes him, saying that this is the correct way for Ephraim’s posterity shall be the greater even though he is the younger brother.

Apparently, this is all a ‘just so…’ story explaining the fact that Joseph’s line “came to be divided into two tribes, Manasseh and Ephraim, each claiming full rank with the other tribes,” or so says my study bible.

The blessing takes an odd turn when Jacob/Israel says: “God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.” (Gen. 48:20). They don’t need to be as Ephraim and Manasseh, they are Ephraim and Manasseh!

Nevertheless, this has been taken up as a traditional Jewish blessing that fathers give to their children on Friday evenings.

Tamar Fox puts forward two theories about why Ephraim and Manasseh were chosen as the names recited in a blessing given to children. The first is that this is the first set of brothers who are not pitted against each other. In fact, they don’t seem to have much conflict at all. The second theory is that they are the first kids raised in a “foreign land,” and that they retain their identity as Jews. In oth cases, the blessing conveys the fathers’ wish that his children emulate Joseph’s sons.

Inheritance

To conclude, Jacob/Israel tells Joseph that God “will bring you again to the land of your fathers” (Gen. 48:21) which, if I’m guessing correctly, never happens. But we’ll see.

“Moreover,” continues Jacob/Israel, “I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope which I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow” (Gen. 48:22). According to my study bible, this refers to a different tradition than the one that actually made it into the Bible, in which Jacob/Israel’s sons forcibly take Shechem (its foreskins along with it) – an act that Jacob/Israel had nothing to do with.

Fact-checking the Bible

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Now, the enslavement of the entire Egyptian population seems like the kind of thing that would be mentioned by historians. And, indeed, my study bible claims that “Egyptian sources testify that such a feudalistic system was introduced between 1700-1500 B.C.” So I decided to have a look through my library and see if I could find any mention of this.

The first thing I found was that this period fell under Hyksos rule (Hyksos is a bastardized form of the Egyptian word: hekaw-khasut, which can be translated to mean “foreign kings”). It’s at least plausible that a major shift in rulers would coincide with a major shift in ruling system. But what I could find seems to suggest that this may not have been the case. Here’s what Nicolas Grimal has to say on page 186 of his A History of Ancient Egypt:

The Hyksos introduced a method of government which was to prove equally successful for all the later invaders who applied it to Egypt: instead of attempting to impose their own governmental structures on the country, they immersed themselves in the existing Egyptian political system.

That’s it. That’s all I could find.

Granted, of course, that my library is far from complete (and focuses far more on the mythology than on the history). If anyone has any better information, I’d be very happy to see it.

Next, I tried to find out if there was ever an extended famine during which Egypt came to the world’s rescue. I didn’t find anything for this time period, but I did find the following from page 268 of the same book:

Merneptah is even known to have supplied grain to the Hittites when they were stricken by a famine.

Merneptah ruled Egypt some three centuries later, but at least this indicates that Egyptian kings did, at times, supply grain to foreigners during hard times.

Again, I would like to do more to confirm or disprove the story of Joseph, so if anyone has any reading recommendations for me, that would be much appreciated.

Genesis 47: The Pharaoh’s Monopoly

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As was planned out in the last chapter, Joseph introduces his brothers to Pharaoh and they admit to being shepherds. The plan works and not only are the Hebrews settled in Goshen, but they are also put in charge of Pharaoh’s own cattle.

Meeting Pharaoh

Joseph selling wheat to the people by Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1655

Joseph selling wheat to the people by Bartholomeus Breenbergh, 1655

Jacob/Israel is then brought in to meet Pharaoh, and Pharaoh asks him how old he is. Jacob/Israel responds that he is 130 years old, and that “few and evil have been the days of the years of my life, and they have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their sojourning” (Gen. 47:9). This, according to my study bible, “reflects the view that there was an increasing shortening and troubling of man’s life.”

Well, granted that the lifespans are getting shorted, but is it fair to say that they’re more filled with trouble? Abel was murdered, Noah saw the death of everyone outside of his immediate family, and Abraham prostituted his wife twice in supposed fear for his life. As for Jacob/Israel, with the exception of a famine that his family profited from anyway, all his troubles were in some way his own fault.

Big Government

The famine continues and “the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished” (Gen. 47:13). We don’t get an update on what’s going on in the rest of the world, though.

Joseph keeps selling food until no one in either country has any money left. When they come to him begging, he takes all their cattle in exchange for food. The next year, when they come to him again, he makes them trade in their bodies and their land – they are now slaves and all the land in Egypt (except what the priests owned) now belongs to the state. How’s that for Big Government?

Plus, the only reason that the priests were exempt is because they “had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh, and lived on the allowance which Pharaoh gave them” (Gen. 47:22). Sounds like social security! And remember that all of this is part of God’s plan!

Have the Tea Baggers seen this?!

Come over here and grab daddy’s testicles

So the Hebs are “fruitful and multiplied exceedingly” (Gen. 47:27) in Egypt, thanks to Joseph providing for his family “according to the number of their dependents” (Gen. 47:12). This phrase sounds remarkably familiar… Meanwhile, the rest of Egypt starves.

Jacob/Israel goes on another 17 years (that makes 147 years in total). He calls Joseph to him and asks him to “put your hand under my thigh” (Gen. 47:29), which is truly one of the oddest cultural practices I’ve seen to date. He makes Joseph swear to bury him along with his forefathers, and not in Egypt.

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