Genesis 46: Hebrew moving day!

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The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

The meeting of Jacob and Joseph in Egypt by William Brassey Hole

Before heading into Egypt, Jacob/Israel makes a quick pit stop in Beersheba to chat with God. “Jacob, Jacob,” begins God, apparently forgetting all about Genesis 35:10 and 32:28.

God tells Jacob/Israel not to worry about going into Egypt, for “I will also bring you up again” (Gen. 46:4). Spoiler alert: He doesn’t. My study bible tries to explain away the lie by saying that Jacob/Israel technically lives on in his descendants, who are then brought out of Egypt. But let’s get real – would an old man concerned about a big move really interpret God’s statement in that way?

The sons of Jacob/Israel

And now we get another genealogy. At least this time, they did try to make it fit with the story by positioning it as a list of dudes who are entering Egypt (making me feel something like a border guard, honestly).

Jacob/Israel’s descendants by Leah:

  • Reuben’s sons: Hanoch, Phallu, Hezron, and Carmi.
  • Simeon’s sons: Jemuel, Jamin, Ohad, Jachin, Zohar, and Shaul (this later being the son of a Canaanite woman).
  • Levi’s sons: Gershon, Kohath, and Merari.
  • Judah’s sons: Shelah, Pharez, and Zerah (plus Er and Onan, who have died). The sons of Pharez are: Hezron and Hamul.
  • Issachar’s sons: Tola, Phuvah, Job, and Shimron.
  • Zebulun’s sons: Sered, Elon, and Jahleel.

Zebulun, by the way, always makes me think of Zabulon, the leader of the Day Watch in Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch series. Just sayin’.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Zilpah:

  • Gad’s sons: Ziphion, Haggi, Shuni, Ezbon, Eri, Arodi, and Areli.
  • Asher’s kids: Jimnah, Ishuah, Ishni, Beriah, and a daughter named Serah. Beriah’s sons: Heber and Malchiel.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Rachel:

  • Joseph’s sons: Manasseh and Ephraim.
  • Benjamin’s sons: Belah, Becher, Ashbel, Gera, Naaman, Ehi, Rosh, Muppim, Huppim, and Ard.

Jacob/Israel’s sons by Bilhah:

  • Dan’s son: Hushim.
  • Naphtali’s sons: Jahzeel, Guni, Jezer, and Shillem.

We’re also given a bit of math. We’re told how many people are in each of Jacob/Israel’s wives’ parties, so of course I had to double check!

  • Leah’s party: Bible says 33 (including Dinah). My count is also 33. So far so good!
  • Zilpah’s party: Bible says 16, but I count 17. The only way I get the same number as the Bible is if I discount Serah, who is female. But then, shouldn’t we have discounted Dinah as well?
  • Rachel’s party: Bible says 14. The only way I get the right number is if I discount Rachel (for being dead), but then I would have to ignore Genesis 46:27 that says that we’re to tack Joseph and his sons on to the very end.
  • Bilhah’s party: Bible says 7. I get 8.

At the end of this, we’re told that we should come out with 66 people. We add to this Jacob/Israel himself, and then Joseph&Sons who will be met with in Egypt, and we should come out to a nice auspicious 70.

Unfortunately, both the Bible’s numbers and mine add up to 70 before I ever add the four additional people! So what we end up with is a decidedly inauspicious 74.


Judah rides out ahead to fetch Joseph so that he can meet them on the road. When Joseph and Jacob/Israel see each other, they embrace and weep. Jacob/Israel announces that he can die now that he’s seen his son.

This next bit is a bit confusing, even with the study bible’s help. Joseph tells his family to say that they are shepherds, “for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 46:34). Now, when I am relying on someone’s hospitality, I try to avoid making them think that I’m an abomination…

The study bible explanation is that Joseph wants them to settle in Goshen, which would put them near him. Convincing the Egyptians that they are abominations would make them more likely to settle the Hebrews “apart in the land of Goshen.” I can’t figure out if that means that the land of Goshen is otherwise uninhabited and that settling them there would make them apart, or if this is a trick to get them a spot of land all to themselves within Goshen.

Now, granted, the Hebrews are shepherds, and I’m sure that the Egyptians would have found out about it eventually. So it makes good sense to state it right up front. But the way it’s phrased is really awkward for this interpretation.

Genesis 45: The Great Reunion

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We closed the last chapter with Judah begging Joseph to take him as a slave instead of Benjamin, fearing that their father would die if he lost Favourite Son #2.

Picking up from this, Joseph starts to tear up (presumably at the thought of his dad dying). He asks everyone to leave the room (which apparently applies only to Egyptians…) and begins to sob so loudly that “the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it” (Gen. 45:2).


Joseph recognized by his brothers by Antoine Coypel, 1730-1731

Joseph recognized by his brothers by Antoine Coypel, 1730-1731

Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, describing himself as the one they sold into slavery. But that’s totally cool, ’cause “God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). I don’t want to make too much of this, but it’s a recurring theme that I’m not at all comfortable with. God has a plan, he’s going to make himself an omelette, and if eggs get broken, well, that’s just too bad. There’s no respect for people as individuals, only as pawns for God’s use. This seems rather disrespectful. Just as Jacob/Israel loved Joseph and Benjamin while seeing his other children as little more than farmhands, so God seems to favour his plan.

Now, you may argue that preserving life is a fairly laudable goal, and that selling a child into slavery isn’t such a great price to play. But we mustn’t forget that it is God himself who is sending the famine that he then pressed Joseph into slavery to mitigate (Gen. 41:25, 28, 32).

Fetching dad

Joseph sends his brothers back into Canaan to get their families and Jacob/Israel. When they return to Egypt, he will put them in Goshen (this is plausible. My study bible says that: “According to Egyptian sources, it was not unusual for Pharaoh to permit Asiatics to settle in this country in the time of famine”).

He also instructs his brothers to tell Jacob.Israel about “all that my splendor in Egypt” (Gen. 45:13). I’m not sure whether to file this under the Old Testament’s odd habit of listing people’s possessions, or whether it’s just a son who wants to show his dad that he “done good.”

In any case, he then embraces his brothers. Benjy is the only one named and gets the first XOXOs, of course, since the others aren’t really much more than support cast.


Pharaoh hears that Joseph’s brothers are in town and he gets really excited. He promises them the best land in Egypt and gives them wagons to make the return journey a bit more comfortable for their families (although travelling in wagons prior to the invention of suspension springs really wouldn’t have been all that comfortable…). He also tells them not to bother bringing back their possessions because they will be given the very best lands.

In the middle of a famine, the pharaoh tells them to go ahead and enjoy the “fat of the land” (Gen. 45:17-18). In the middle of a famine.

Joseph gives everyone festal garments, except Benjy to whom he gives five festal garments and 300 shekels of silver. It’s absolutely impossible for these people not to constantly remind everyone who the favourites are… I would hope that he at least gave Benjy these additional gifts on the sly, but I suspect that it was done with full pomp in front of the other brothers.

Now, I’ve done a lot of travelling in my short young life and I must say that one of the key strategies is to pack as lightly as possible. Joseph doesn’t subscribe to this philosophy, so he sends the brothers home with a ton of gifts for dad – gifts that dad is going to have to lug right back into Egypt.

When Jacob/Israel hears that Joseph is still alive, his “heart fainted” (Gen. 45:26), and only the sight of the wagons that have been sent for him are able to revive him.

Genesis 44: Joseph does it for the lulz

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Joseph decides to have a bit of fun with his brothers.

He gets his steward to fill the boys’ bags with food and put in all the money they had paid for it with. He also instructs the steward to put a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack. I think you can see where this is going…

So in the morning, when “the men were sent away with their asses” (Gen. 44:3), Joseph sends his steward after them. Is this where the expression “getting your ass handed to you” comes from?

Joseph gets his steward to insinuate that this is the cup he uses for divination (Gen. 44:5). My study bible says that this is to explain how he could have known that the cup was taken by the brothers, but I wonder if there isn’t more to it. Divination is a form of power, especially in this context where Joseph gained his social status through divination. So he’s not just accusing the brothers of theft, but of the much more serious crime of attacking the source of Joseph’s power.

The accusation

In any case, the steward overtakes the brothers and “he spoke to them these words” (Gen. 44:6). For the first time in forty-four chapters, someone is narrated to have repeated something without me actually having to read the repetition! Huzzah!

The brothers are shocked. Showing surprising logic, they say that they returned all the money they had found in their sacks after the first trip, so why would they steal something now? In cringe-worthy ironic fashion, they add that if any of them is found with the silver cup, that individual should die and the rest of them be made slaves of Egypt.

The steward agrees in principle, but backs down a little bit. The brother found with the cup shall become his slave (Gen. 44:11 – I assume he’s speaking on behalf of Joseph?), and the rest will go free.

The brothers all open their sacks and the steward begins to search, starting with the eldest brother and moving down. When he gets to Benjy’s sack, dun-dun-duuuunn, he finds the silver cup! So they all return to the city to confront Joseph.

Meeting with Joseph

The brothers throw themselves to the ground before Joseph as he lays it on thick. “What deed is this that you have done?” (Gen. 44:15). The narrator doesn’t say so, but I’m pretty sure Joseph is struggling to keep a straight face through this whole exchange.

Judah pleads for Benjamin and offers to be retained as a slave in his stead by Hesdin of Amiens, c1450-1455

Judah pleads for Benjamin and offers to be retained as a slave in his stead by Hesdin of Amiens, c1450-1455

Now, this is actually an interesting passage because Joseph is testing his brothers. Because the silver cup was found in Benjamin’s bag, that means that Benjamin will become a slave in Egypt – just like Joseph was. So by setting up this elaborate gag, Joseph is testing to see if his brothers have changed over the years. Would they abandon Benjy like they did Joseph?

Judah recaps the conversation he had with Jacob/Israel, who said that “my wife bore me two sons […] If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring down my gray hairs in sorrow to Sheol” (Gen. 44:27-29). Keeping in mind that Jacob/Israel has four wives, not one, and at least thirteen children. I know I keep harping on this, but it’s really just disgusting that he seems only to care for one wife (a second wife, no less) and two of his children. This is the guy who, when one of his other kids was kept captive in Egypt, pretty much just forgot about him for ~2 years.

But in any case, Judah is terrified that his father will die if Benjy doesn’t return (filial love is a one way street, apparently), so he begs Joseph to keep him instead.

Genesis 43: Benjamin goes into Egypt

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The famine continues and Jacob/Israel (who gets to be called Israel again) & sons eat up all the grain they had bought from Joseph. This is enough for Jacob/Israel to decide to send his sons back into Egypt – something that Simeon’s captivity did not do. Or, as my study bible puts it: “Simeon, left as a hostage in Egypt, is apparently forgotten, for the brothers return only when more grain is needed.” Well, he’s no Joseph or Benjamin.

We saw this Abraham, we saw this with Isaac, we certainly saw it with Noah… It’s the idea that some kids are one’s real kids and all the others are just expendable. Nice to have as herders, perhaps, but not worth getting all emotional over. God does the same thing to Cain and Abel. Are these “biblical family values” the religious right keeps trying to push?

The refusal

Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris's 'Standard Bible Story Readers,' 1925-1928

Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris’s ‘Standard Bible Story Readers,’ 1925-1928

Despite starvation and the urging of his father, Judah refuses to go. He reminds Jacob/Israel that Egypt’s governor had told them that they won’t get to see him unless they bring Benjamin along. And, since Joseph is personally handling the distribution of grain to every single nation of the world (American aborigines included), that leaves Judah and family grainless.

Jacob/Israel says: “Why did you treat me so ill as to tell the man that you had another brother?” (Gen. 43:6). Another, better brother. A brother who isn’t expendable.

Judah responds that the man had asked pointed questions, asking specifically about their father and whether they had another brother. Besides, how could they have known that the governor or Egypt would want to see some unremarkable Hebrew kid?

Judah then appeals to his father, begging him to let Benjamin go “that we may live and not die, both we and you and also our little ones” (Gen. 43:8). See, this is how a real father would act. None of this “and also our little ones – except George. He can die for all I care” business. He gives his word that he will keep Benjy safe.

Jacob/Israel finally agrees, and tells his sons to take some additional gifts, as well as the money they had been sent home with just in case it was an oversight that they were able to keep it.

Treasure returned

Joseph sees his brothers approaching with Benjamin, so he tells his steward to slaughter an animal for dinner and to show the men in. This, of course, terrifies the brothers. They assume that they are being brought to their doom because of the money that they took out of Egypt. They are afraid that Joseph means to make them slaves to to “seize our asses” (Gen. 43:18). Just what kind of slaves are we talking about here?

They go to the steward and explain to him that they don’t know how the money got into their sacks, but that they’ve brought it back. The steward tells them not to worry, that their God must have put the money in their sacks for them as he did receive the payment for the last batch of grain. Then he brought Simeon out to them.

Dinner is served

When Joseph gets home, the brothers present him with all the gifts they brought for him. Joseph asks them about their father, and whether he’s still alive. When he sees Benjamin, he has to run out of the room to weep before he can return and call for dinner to be served. (Hilariously, the KJV has it that he had to run out of the room “for his bowels did yearn upon his brother” – Gen. 43:30.)

Interestingly, the Egyptians and the Hebrews eat separately because the Egyptians “might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). I found it rather interesting that it’s the Egyptians who are set apart in this story for their laws of ritual purity, rather than the Hebrews. I guess that comes later, as they leave Egypt. Funny how God would give them commandments that would make them more like their former captors…

Joseph, like his father, makes his favouritism clear. He serves Benjamin portions that are five times as large as what the other brothers get.

Genesis 42: The Revenge Begins

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If your High School days were anything like mine, you probably spent a good deal of time fantasizing about some future scenario in which you’ve somehow become wildly successful. Perhaps you’re a movie star, or you suddenly discover that you have magic powers, or you invent some new operating system that makes you a billionaire several times over. The method is unimportant – what matters is that you get to come back to your school and see all the people who used to treat you badly grovel at your feet.

Genesis 42 marks the beginning of some Jewish scribe’s High School fantasy.

Back in Canaan

Canaan is suffering the same starvation that is afflicting the rest of the world, and Jacob (who isn’t called Israel a single time in this whole chapter, despite Genesis 35:10) finds out that there’s food over in Egypt. He sends ten of his sons over to buy some grain, withholding Benjamin, fearing “that harm might befall him” (Gen. 42:4). We can let it slide this time since Benjy is the baby of the family.

But the rest of the boys pack up and head off to Egypt to buy grain.

Confrontation in Egypt

Joseph's brothers come to ask for grain by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris's 'Standard Bible Story Readers,' 1925-1928

Joseph’s brothers come to ask for grain by the unknown illustrator of Lillie A. Faris’s ‘Standard Bible Story Readers,’ 1925-1928

This is where the High School fantasy begins. The brothers arrive in Egypt and come to the governor (who, for some reason, appears to be overseeing all cases of grain exchange for a country in which everyone in the whole world is coming for grain). They prostrate themselves, not knowing that the governor is actually Joseph and that they are unwittingly fulfilling his dream/prophecy.

By this time, Joseph has learned to speak Egyptian and he’s using a translator to talk to his brothers. He recognizes them, but they do not recognize him. It’s all very Shakespearian in its silliness.

The brothers explain that they want to buy grain for their family back in Canaan, but Joseph keeps insisting that they’re actually spies come to Egypt to scope out any weaknesses (a legitimate concern, says my study bible, for the Egyptian frontier faced Canaan and was vulnerable to attack). The brothers insist that they are just there to buy grain. Joseph insists that they are spies. This argument continues for longer than is rhetorically necessary.

To prove that they aren’t in fact spies, the brothers explain that they are on a mission for their father and that they are ten of twelve sons. One son remained with dad and one son has died. Joseph holds Simeon hostage and sends the rest of the brothers back to get Benjamin. Bringing Benjamin would confirm their story. I’m really not sure how this would work – why would someone lie about having a brother? Couldn’t they just as easily be ten spies with a brother at home as ten traders with a brother at home?

But the brothers really aren’t in a position to contradict Joseph.

Here’s where it gets rather quirky. The brothers see some similarities between selling their one sibling to the Egyptians and leaving their second sibling as a hostage with the self-same people. They talk amongst themselves about this, wondering if this is punishment for their behaviour towards Joseph all those years ago. Reuben, who had nay-sayed at the time, takes the opportunity to land an “I told you so.” Unbeknownst to them, the Egyptian governor is Joseph and can understand their Hebrew perfectly.

The brothers return to Canaan

Joseph sells the grain to the brothers and sends them on their way, along with provisions for their journey and, secretly, all the money they had come with for grain-buying.

On the way home, one of the brothers opens a sack of grain to feed his ass (*immature giggle*) and finds his money bag intact. He tells the others and “at this their hearts failed them” (Gen. 42:28).

When they get to Canaan, they get to tell their father some bad news for a second time. The penning scribe, in all his rhetorical wisdom, chooses at this point to quote the brothers explaining the whole situation to their father. Had I been an editor at the time, I could have easily whittled this door-stop of a book down to a fraction of its current size. Just saying.

“As they emptied their sacks, behold, every man’s bundle of money was in his sack; and when they and their father saw their bundles of money, they were dismayed” (Gen. 42:35). Yeah, except that this already happened in Genesis 42:37-38. So did it happen at a lodging place during travel, or did it happen once they get home?

Jacob gets pretty upset that he’s lost Joseph and then Simeon and now may lost Benjamin as well. Reuben tries to convince him to take Joseph at his word, offering the lives of his own two sons if he should fail to return Simeon and Benjamin (Gen. 42:37). One might argue that his sons’ lives are not his to bargain with, but that would be a decidedly un-Biblical view.

But even the prospect of possibly slaying two children isn’t enough to entice Jacob. “My son shall not go down with you, for his brother is dead, and he only is left” (Gen. 42:38). To which his ten other sons surely respond: “What are we? Chop suey?”

Genesis 41: Joseph rises once again


We ended the last chapter with the butler forgetting his promise to speak well of Joseph once he is freed. Two years go by, and then the Pharaoh has two dreams:

  1. He is standing by the Nile when seven fat cows come up out of the river. Seven more cows come out, but these are gaunt and thin. The thin cows eat the fat cows.
  2. There are seven plump ears of grain growing on a single stalk. Then, seven diseased ears grow and eat the good ones.

When Pharaoh (used as a personal name, which is rather awkward) wakes up, he called for all the magicians and wise men in Egypt to come and try to interpret his dreams, but none of them can do it. Then the chief butler, springing into action a mere two years late, announces that he met a pretty nifty dream interpreter while he was in prison.

Joseph Overseer of the Pharaoh's Granaries by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

Joseph Overseer of the Pharaoh’s Granaries by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1874

The Pharaoh sends for Joseph. After making sure to tell everyone that he is merely channelling God and not doing any magic on his own (a lovely contrast to the ‘false’ magicians of pagan Egypt mentioned earlier), he interprets the dreams. Both mean that there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine, and that the duplication of the theme means that God really really means it. To get through the years of famine, Pharaoh should get himself a man who is “discreet and wise” and “set him over the land of Egypt” (Gen. 41:33) to store up food during the seven years of plenty. Surprise surprise, Pharaoh picks Joseph, saying: “you shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command’ only as regards the throne will I be greater than you” (Gen. 41:40).

Joseph gets renamed Zaphnath-Paaneah and is married to Asenath, daughter of Potiphera, priest of On (and presumably a different person from the Potiphar who originally bought Joseph). He and Asenath have two sons, named Manasseh and Ephraim.

As promised, Joseph works diligently during the years of plenty to put food away so that Egypt lives through the years of starvation comfortably. And since, “when all the land of Egypt was famished” and the people are crying for bread, Joseph “opened all the storehouses, and sold to the Egyptians” (Gen. 41:55-56), so it seems like he made a nice profit, too.

“Moreover, all the earth came to Egypt to Joseph to buy grain, because the famine was severe over all the earth” (Gen. 41:57). This must have been quite the canoe trip for the native peoples in the Americas.

Speaking of which, this famine was sent by God (Gen. 41:25, 28, 32). It seems that this was done for no other purpose than to make Joseph successful. I don’t care how much he’s put away, he can’t feed the whole world (especially if he is selling it to farmers who are presumably making no income whatsoever for seven years). People are dying the world over from starvation just so that Joseph can get some garments of fine linen and a gold chain to wear around his neck (Gen. 41:42).

Incidentally, there are no records of a Joseph or a Zaphnath-Paaneah who saved the whole wide world from a famine; at least not that I’ve ever heard of. This seems like the kind of thing the historians would mention…

Genesis 40: Joseph does time

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Some time later, the pharaoh puts his baker and his butler in jail. The captain of the guard (presumably not Potiphar) places them in the charge of Joseph.

One night,  the baker and the butler each have a dream.

Joseph interprets the butler's and the baker's dreams in a prison by Alexander Ivanov, 1827

Joseph interprets the butler’s and the baker’s dreams in a prison by Alexander Ivanov, 1827

The butler’s dream: There is a vine with three branches. The vine blossoms and grape clusters grow. The butler is holding Pharaoh’s cup, and he presses the grapes into it. He then places the cup in Pharaoh’s hands.

The baker’s dream: The baker has three cake baskets on his head, and there are baked foods in the topmost basket that he’s bringing to Pharaoh. But birds come and eat it out of the basket.

Joseph offers to interpret their dreams for them. First, he tells the butler that his dream means that in three days he will be pardoned by Pharaoh and serve him his cup once again. To the baker, he says that in three days, Pharaoh will have him beheaded and then hang him from a tree for the birds to feed on.

The butler is understandably pleased with his interpretation (especially in light of what the other guy got, I suppose), so Joseph makes him swear to remember him once he gets out of jail.

Three days pass and then it’s the pharaoh’s birthday. During the feast, he released and reinstated the butler and hanged the baker, just as Joseph had said. But there’s a twist! Once free, the butler forgets all about Joseph!

Other than colouring in pictures of David as a shepherd, my clearest memory of Sunday School is going over this whole bit about Joseph interpreting dreams. In fact, other than being in the nativity play, I don’t remember anything at all about Jesus. Odd that, for a Christian Sunday School. It’s probably just my faulty memory.

Genesis 39: In which Joseph is much favoured by God

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After a brief interlude, we’re back to the story of Joseph.

Joseph succeeds

Joseph was bought from the Ishmaelites (or possibly the Midianites, who knows?) by Potiphar, captain of the pharaoh’s guard. “The Lord was with Joseph” (Gen. 39:2), so everything he touches prospers. Potiphar sees this and puts Joseph in charge of the whole household.

Joseph with Potiphar's wife by Hendrick van Balen

Joseph with Potiphar’s wife by Hendrick van Balen

Everything is going swimmingly and everyone’s happy, until Potiphar’s wife goes all cougar on Joseph’s “handsome and good-looking” (Gen. 39:6) self. Day after day, she propositions him, but Joseph always refuses.

One day, she grabs him by his clothes and asks him again to have sex with her. In a move that would make a Hollywood RomCom proud, he jumps out of his clothes and runs away, leaving this poor desperate housewife alone with her love’s clothes in her hand. Comedy gold.

Having just been dissed, Potiphar’s wife gets her revenge by telling everyone that Joseph came in to rape her, but she screamed and he ran away. She uses the clothes he left behind as proof. Potiphar is enraged and has him put in the king’s prison.

This story is remarkably similar to an Egyptian story, referred to as the “Tale of Two Brothers.” It’s not far-fetched to imagine that two cultures might have independently come up with the same plotline, but it’s also possible that some Jews were once living in Egypt or traded with Egyptians and incorporated the myth into their own canon.

Joseph fails, but succeeds anyway

Despite being in jail, Joseph still manages to get on everyone’s good side (this guy is the ultimate Gary Stu). The jailer hands over the managing of all the other prisoners to Joseph.

David Plotz, over at Blogging the Bible, points out that Joseph is the first man in the Bible to resist sexual temptation.

Genesis describes straight rape, attempted gay rape, father-daughter incest, coitus interruptus with dead brother’s wife, sex with wife, sex with wrong wife, sex with concubine, sex with dad’s concubine, sex with prostitute who is also daughter-in-law. In any situation in which sex is available, men seize it. What’s remarkable about Joseph? He’s the first person to resist sexual temptation.

Genesis 38: A Brief Digression With Judah and Tamar

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Just when the action was getting good, we switch over to Joseph’s brother, Judah, for a little story from his nook of the family.

Judah has an Adullamite friend named Hirah. While visiting him, he catches sight of a an unnamed Canaanite woman who was the daughter of Shua. The woman has three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.

Enter Tamar

Pun very much intended!

Er marries Tamar. Unfortunately, God had a beef with Er, so he totally smote him. Because that’s the divine way of dealing with people you don’t like.

Incidentally, my study bible describes the murder of Er as: “a divine act, almost demonic in character.” I thought that was funny!

So Er died childless, which means that there won’t be anyone to carry on his name or his line. To solve this problem, Tamar was married to Onan, Er’s brother. Onan’s job was to impregnate Tamar in lieu of Er. Onan isn’t too happy with this charge so he dumps his… er, charge on the ground. Thus was born the sin of onanism, which for some reason refers to masturbation rather than pulling out. Go figure.

God gets upset with Onan, either for “spilling seed” or for disobeying Judah. Once again, God’s way of dealing with his negative feelings is to kill people, so Tamar loses her second husband.

Er still needs offspring and Tamar still needs a husband, so Judah agrees to marry her to his third son, Shelah, once he grows up. But this is all a trick because he thinks that Tamar is bad luck or something, so he sends her to wait indefinitely in her father’s house.

On trickery and disguises

Tamar waits and waits while time keeps on keeping on. Judah’s unnamed wife dies and Shelah grows up. Judah heads off to visit his friend Hirah again, as well as tend his sheep. Tamar hears of this and concocts a dastardly scheme.

The Meeting of Tamar and Judah by Tintoretto, c.1555-1558

The Meeting of Tamar and Judah by Tintoretto, c.1555-1558

She takes off her widow’s clothes and puts on a veil. Then she heads off to “accidentally” encounter Judah.

“When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a harlot, for she had covered her face” (Gen. 38:15). Apparently, the veil was something worn by the sacred/temple prostitutes of the Canaanite goddess Asherah (Matthews, Manners & Customs, p.26). Though Matthews goes on to say that in Mesopotamian custom, a veil symbolised modesty instead – as exemplified by Rebekah in Genesis 24:65. I wonder if this story is found in the Quran as well, and where they fall on the veil detail.

Judah, encountering what he thinks is a prostitute, gets right down to business and says: “Come, let me come in to you” (Gen. 38:16). There’s no beating around the bush with this guy!

Tamar agrees in exchange for a kid (no, not that kind – although, well, yes, that kind). As a deposit, she asks for Judah’s signet, cord, and staff. Then Judah totally gets to “go into her.”

My study bible notes that Tamar would have been disguised as a “cult prostitute,” which was like a regular prostitute except that she was “connected with the worship of the nature gods of fertility.” So Judah not only marries a Canaanite (Isaac would have a cunniption) and frequents prostitutes, but he’s also fraternizing with adherents of other religions!

Payment for services rendered

Once Judah comes back out of her, he heads back to his friend Hirah and asks him to take a kid to the prostitute. Hirah goes, but can’t find any prostitutes in the area. When he asks around, he’s told that there never was a prostitute in that area. When Judah finds out, decides to just let the prostitute keep the deposit “lest we be laughed at” (Gen. 38:23).

All goes swimmingly for three months, and then someone tells Judah that his daughter-in-law, Tamar, has been out prostituting herself and is now pregnant! Judah, taking his cue from God’s book, commands that she be brought out and burned.

Remember that – woman has sex, she gets burned to death.

But Tamar pulls a fast one on all these righteous dudes. She holds out the signet, cord, and staff and says: “By the man to whom these belong, I am with child” (Gen. 38:25).

Judah, to his credit, fesses up and even goes so far as to say that Tamar is “more righteous than I.” Is this because he’s just been exposed as a guy who visits prostitutes? Something that’s a burnable offence for the lady? Of course not! His crime was that he had promised her to Shelah, but hadn’t married them (Gen. 38:26).

So yeah, it’s totally okay now cause they kept it within the family… And Judah hanging out with prostitutes? That’s no big.

Just in case you were curious, Judah “did not lie with her again” (Gen. 38:26).

Twins, again

Tamar has twins. While she’s in labour, a fist sticks out and the midwife ties a red cord around his wrist so that everyone can know that he’s the first-born. But whoops, he retracts his fist and the other twin is born first! But the magic of the red cord can’t be retracted, so these twins are doomed to hate each other. Such is the life of a biblical twin.

It’s just like to point out that babies are pretty squished in there and the birthing process is a process. I’m pretty sure that they can’t just stick a hand out and pull it back in, and then have another kid pull ahead.

In any case, the first fully born is named Perez and the red cord kid is named Zerah.

On abortion

Ebonmuse, over at Daylight Atheism, brings up the point that fetus-Perez and fetus-Zerah are not seen as persons in this story. Judah was perfectly willing to kill a pregnant woman for her crime (such as it was) without consideration for her babies. This is quite a bit different from the later policy in the west to delay the execution until the babies were born.

So according to this passage, there wouldn’t be anything wrong with abortion because fetuses are merely part of the woman’s body and not separate persons worthy of protection. Just a thought…

Genesis 37: Joseph is sold into slavery

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We’re getting back into the Sunday School ready stories here.

The story begins when Joseph is 17 years old. Israel/ Jacob (whose name switches back and fourth throughout the chapter) felt that using his other sons as a meatshield for Joseph wasn’t quite clear enough. In his infinite wisdom as patriarch of the Bible, he also decides to dress Joseph better than all his brothers, giving him a long robe with sleeves (which was a whole lot more material than each of the other sons got) so that his favouritism could be rubbed into everyone’s faces every day.

The Dreams

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

The Dreams of Joseph by Raphael, 1518-1519

Joseph has a dream that he and his brothers were binding sheaves in the field when, suddenly, his sheaf rose and stood upright. The other sheaves gathered around it and bowed down to his sheaf.

The meatshield and robe incidents didn’t quite hammer things home enough. So Joseph decides to tell his brother all about his less-than-ambiguous dream. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t endear him to them.

Not content to leave it at that, Joseph has another dream in which the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to him. This time, even Israel/Jacob is rather peeved. “What is this dream that you have dreamed? Shall I and your mother and your brothers indeed come to bow ourselves to the ground before you?” (Gen. 37:10). Keep in mind that his mother died in Genesis 35. But I guess that they needed someone to be the sun and/or moon, so she gets to zombie-grovel.

Whoop, down the well!

Joseph’s brothers are all out tending dad’s flocks and Israel/Jacob asks him to go out and find them, then report back. We aren’t told Joseph is hanging around at home while all his brothers are working…

Then we get a totally weird and unnecessary detail: Joseph expects his brothers to be in Shechem, but when he gets there he’s told that they’ve moved on to Dothan. So Joseph continues on his way. This is not in any way important to the plot.

His brothers, who are pretty miffed by now, see Joseph coming and start talking about killing him. “We shall say that a wild beast has devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Gen. 37:20). Nyaaah, I’ll kill him, see? The ol’ dreamer won’t be dreamin’ no more, see?

But Reuben, Leah’s eldest, suggestions that they just dump him into a pit rather than kill him. Secretly, he’s thinking that he’ll come back later and save him once the other brothers aren’t looking.

The brothers agree and, when Joseph arrives, take off his robe (the fancy one, with sleeves) and dump him in the pit.

Sold into slavery

Joseph’s brothers are sitting around having a meal when they see an Ishmaelite caravan going by, selling stuff between Gilead and Egypt (and, of course, we need a list of the stuff they’re selling). Judah speaks up, asking: “What profit is it if we slay our brother and conceal his blood?” (Gen. 37:26). Never mind that Reuben already convinced them not to kill Joseph…

Judah’s big idea is that they sell Joseph to the Ishmaelites.

Suddenly, the Ishmaelites miraculously turned into Midianite traders! It’s a miracle! Or a mistake! One or the other, anyway. It’s not really important who they sell Joseph to…

Point is, they pull him out of the pit and sell him to the Ishmaelite (wait, we’re back to Ishmaelites now?). Because we must keep a running account book of possessions, Joseph is sold for twenty shekels of silver.

And frankly, who hasn’t thought of selling a sibling to Ishmaelites? If Shel Silverstein is any kind of authority, I hear that this is rather common among kids burdened with live-in siblings.

And that is how Joseph ends up in Egypt.

Breaking the news

Reuben, who was apparently somewhere else while his brothers were earning their silver, arrives at the pit and sees that Joseph is gone. He’s rather nettled that his plan has been foiled.

They then decide to kill a goat (which I could have sworn was a sheep in my Sunday school lessons) and dip Joseph’s robe in its blood. They bring the bloodied robe to Israel/Jacob and tell him that a wild beast has eaten Joseph. Jacob apparently doesn’t notice that the robe is perfectly intact and yet somehow drenched in blood. Apparently, the wild beasts around Dothan aim exclusively for the head.

In response, Israel/Jacob decides to put sackcloth around his “loins.” He’s so upset that he says he will never recover, and will instead: “go down to Sheol to my son, mourning” (Gen. 37:35). Little point of fact, this is the first mention of any kind of afterlife. Notice that it isn’t heaven or hell, but rather a place where the dead go as shadows. It’s similar to the concept of Hades – a dreary, dark place where the dead live. It’s interesting to see the evolution of afterlife theology…

Back to the story, we’re told that the Midianites sold Joseph to the Egyptian pharaoh’s captain of the guard, Potiphar. The Ishmaelites have apparently disappeared once again.

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