Amos 9: Shaking Things Up

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Amos 9 begins with Amos’s fifth vision, in which he sees God standing beside the altar. Which altar is not specified, but the the implies that Amos had a specific altar in mind (accepting the limitations of finding linguistic clues in a translation, obviously). Given the focus of Amos’s prophecies, it seems reasonable that he means Bethel.

There, God issues a command: Smash the capitals (the uppermost part of a column – these are load-bearing structures) until the thresholds shake; shatter them on the heads of the people. If anyone survives, God will clean them up with the sword. No one will escape.

The fact that God is standing by his own altar is significant – Amos has been clear that God’s beef is with Israel’s crappy social justice record, and that it is for this reason that they will be destroyed (we saw this just recently, in Amos 8:5-6).

When we talk about the religion of God as Amos saw it, passages like Amos 5:21-24 make it clear that he wasn’t talking about showing up to church at the correct times and diligently paying tithes. For Amos, social justice is a core feature of the religion, and any version that does not include it (or views it as some nice but optional extra) is loathed by God.

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

Amos driven from Israel, by Doré

According to Amos’s God, the people deserve to be destroyed because they have marginalized the role of social justice in their faith. It is their religion that condemns them, and so it is their temple collapsing down upon their heads that will kill them.

We can also tie this back to the idea that God will no longer speak to the people, as expressed in Amos 8:11-12. The altar will be destroyed because the people have lost the privilege of access to it.

The image also lends an immediacy to the vision. When Amos’s audience hear his words, they know the capitals he’s talking about, they know what they look like, they can visualize them falling. It contextualizes and personalizes the vision, so that the destruction is not merely something that will happen, but something that will happen right here.

The last thing I wanted to touch on with this verse is that God is speaking a command: “Smite the capitals” (Amos 9:1), he says. Who is this command being issued to? Is it Amos himself? Is the point that Amos will destroy the people (psychologically? or condemn them because now they have no “they know not what they do” excuse?) by revealing the Truth of his visions to them?

Is the command issued to the Israelites? Is it even a command, or merely a rhetorical way of describing what the people are already doing to themselves?

In the RSV, the word “command” appears a number of other times in Amos, such as when God commands “the sword” (Amos 9:4) to slay the Israelites (he does not command the wielders of the swords, but the concept of swords – or violence – more generally). So perhaps God is commanding the capitals themselves to shake.

And with that, I think we can conclude our discussion of the first verse.

Next, God explains that there can be no escape for Israel:

  • Though they dig into Sheol, God will pull them up. Sheol being the place of the dead (as we saw in places like Gen. 37:35), typically imagined under the ground. I interpreted this to mean that the people will find no rest in death.
  • Though they climb to heaven, God will knock them down.
  • Though they hide themselves on the top of Mount Carmel (apparently a sacred site, and seems to have been associated with the prophet Elijah, as in 1 Kgs 18), God will find and take them.
  • Though they “hide from my sight” (Amos 9:3) at the bottom of the sea, God will command the serpent to bite them. On the kind of serpent meant, my study Bible refers me to the Leviathan in Job 41.
  • Though they go into captivity, God will still command the sword to slay them.

God has set his eyes on them with evil intent.

Jim Linville sees a progression as we move through these five visions, and the way in which Amos seems to fade as a presence: “The mediating role of the locusts and fire, and the ensnaring ambiguity of the אנך and the fruit basket are replaced with the direct order that the temple is to be destroyed” (“Visions and Voices”, Biblical Studies on the Web, vol.80, p.39).

Doxologies

My study Bible refers to Amos 9:5-6 as the “third doxology” – a doxology being a liturgical formula of praise to a deity. The other two are Amos 4:13 and Amos 5:8-9.

In it, God is described as the one who touches the earth and causes it to melt. This is a cause for mourning, but we also seem to have some hint of hope. As in Amos 8:8, we are told that the land, under God’s touch, rises and sinks like the Nile. As I noted in my post about Amos 8, the rising and sinking is a reference to the annual flooding of the Nile, and may be meant to evoke “the symbolic expectation of subsequent renewal, as the Nile’s flooding brings silt that makes the river’s watershed fertile.” This will be especially relevant soon.

God is described as having built his upper chambers in the heavens, and his vaults on the earth. Typically, the upper chambers are where the family lives in two-story architecture, since they have the benefit of being both the coolest in hot climates (being aired out more easily, being more removed from the dust of the street, etc) and warmest in cold climates (benefiting from the body heat rising from any cattle kept below). Essentially, this makes the whole (known) universe into God’s personal home.

As in Amos 5:8-9, God is described almost as a nature deity. Here, he is the one who calls waters up from the sea and pours them down over the earth.

Moral Superiority

In much of our readings, there has been a sense that the Israelite people are special – chosen and nurtured and guided by God, entitled (through their specialness, if not their worthiness) to his unique focus. In Amos 9:7-10, however, Amos sets the record straight.

God begins by asking, “Are you not like the Ethiopians to me?” (Amos 9:7). I’m not sure Ethiopians are important here, except that they are an example of a fairly distant group of people. We have a very similar conception here in North America, and “Are people in Africa not at least as important to me as you?” would work just effectively for us today.

God admits that he did bring the Israelites out of Egypt, but then adds that he did the same for the Philistines (out of Caphtor) and Syrians (out of Kir). On this passage, Collins writes:

The significance of the exodus was that it marked Israel as a special people YHWH. Amos does not deny that God brought Israel out of Egypt, but he radically questions its significance. It was the same God who brought the Philistines from Caphtor (Crete) and the Arameans from Kir (location unknown, but cf. Amos 1:5; 2 Kgs 16:9). For Amos, YHWH is the God of all peoples and responsible for everything that happens, good and bad. The movements of the Arameans and Philistines were just as providential as those of the Israelites. In the eyes of God, Israel is no different than the Ethiopians. (A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, p.158)

Regarding Caphtor, Claude Mariottini describes it as “a possible reference to Crete.” In the same post, he writes: “The origin of the Philistines is debated. Egyptian records include them as one of the groups of people known as the Sea Peoples. The Sea Peoples invaded Egypt during the reign of Ramses III. Archaeologists believe that the Sea Peoples originated in the Aegean area.”

As for Kir, it is elsewhere associated not with the place the Syrians are from, but as the place to which they are exiled (Amos 1:5 and 2 Kgs 16:9).

God tells the speaker to “behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom” (Amos 9:8). The sudden switch to the third person when he has, up until this point, been speaking directly to the audience, is rather jarring. But I suspect that “Lord God” is being used in a way similar to the royal “we” – emphasizing importance (though with very different implications), and perhaps even using “Lord God” as if it were a title. He then switches back into the first person to say that “I” will destroy that sinful kingdom, but not completely.

What is meant by this is illustrated in the next passage. When God shakes up Israel (echoing the shaking of the capitals in Amos 9:1), he will do so “as one shakes with a sieve” (Amos 9:9) – in other words, to sift out impurities. In this case, the impurities are pebbles, and none of them will pass through.

In addition to the idea of culling, the image also invokes a scattering. Instead of having a single clump of – say – ground wheat, the individual particles will be separated from each other, and scattered “among all the nations.”

And now for something completely different

After all of that, Amos 9:11-15 sounds downright hopeful. Instead of focusing on all the destruction, we are suddenly given a vision of restoration, and even of comfort!

So it’s not surprising that many argue against the authenticity of this section. And there certainly are aspects of this section that seem difficult to interpret in a way that would allow for authenticity. The easiest example is the reference to the return of a Davidic dynasty – a dynasty that had not, in Amos’s time, fallen.

As I was reading through my notes in preparation for this chapter, it seemed like a fairly obvious conclusion. Now, though, I’m not so sure. The greatest argument against authenticity is that hope seems to be absent throughout the rest of Amos, so this sudden twist is out of character. But as I’ve already pointed out, there are two instances where the destruction of Israel is compared to the flooding of the Nile (Amos 8:8 and Amos 9:5) – a predictable flooding that recedes, leaving behind silt that makes the Nile watershed renowned for its fertility. So without looking any further, we already have two instances in which Amos’s vision of Israel’s destruction promises an After (and, perhaps just as importantly, an After that is particularly fertile).

That doesn’t mean that the section isn’t a later addition, but I’m not seeing it as nearly so obvious as many commentaries make it seem.

Amos has frequently referred to a day, a day in which judgement and destruction will come. But that day is two-sided. In that day, God will also raise up the “booth” (Amos 9:11) of David that had fallen. He will repair its branches and rebuild it as in the old days.

This is, obviously, the most difficult verse to explain away if we want to argue for the section’s authenticity. I’m not sure it’s impossible, though. While the dynasty of David was still in power at this time (and wouldn’t fall for a fair while), it was not ruling over Israel. In that sense, it had indeed fallen from its old status, and controlled a much smaller portion of the Israelite population. Perhaps the point isn’t that it would be restored from nothing, but that it would be rebuilt from what was left.

I was intrigued by the reference to a “booth” of David, while all our other readings have called it the “house” of David. A booth part of a nomadic tent structure. It feels meaningful that David is associated with tents (which evokes imagery of nomadic life) while God talks about destroying the capitals (which are part of settled architecture).

It evokes an image of raising all that has been built and starting over from scratching, coming in to Israel in booths as in the time of the exodus.

In addition to being rebuilt, Israel will come to possess what is left of Edom, as well as all the nations “who are called by my name” (Amos 9:12).

In these coming days, says God:

  • The plowman will overtake the reaper;
  • The trader of grapes will overtake the one who sows the seed;
  • The mountains will drip with sweet wine, and the hills will flow with it.

These promised blessings may be a reference to Lev. 26:5: “And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the time of sowing; and you shall eat your bread to the full and dwell in your land securely.”

God will restore Israel’s fortunes, and the Israelites will rebuilt their ruined cities. They will be replanted in the land (as the banks of the Nile must be replanted after every flood), and they will never again be plucked up.

And with that, we come to the end of Amos.

1 Kings 2: Cleaning the slate

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In this chapter, we see a very different David. With death approaching, he decides to impart some kingly advice to Solomon, starting with a reminder to obey the “law of Moses” (1 Kgs 2:3), a clear Deuteronomist concern.

And that’s all well and good, but the rest of his “advice” is far more personal – or at least is spun as such. He blames Joab’s murders of Abner (in 2 Sam. 3:27) and Amasa (in 2 Sam. 20:8-10) for “putting innocent blood upon the girdle about my loins” (1 Kgs 2:5). As if Uriah’s murder didn’t do that quite sufficiently on its own. The crime in these murders, according to David, was that Joab was “avenging in time of peace blood which had been shed in war” (1 Kgs 2:5), suggesting that he would have been quite happy to see both Abner and Amasa dead so long as it had happened on a battlefield (contradicting Solomon’s later words that the crime was that Joab had killed men who were better than him – 1 Kgs 2:32).

According to Victor Matthews, David’s concern over the cleanliness of his girdle is important because:

The girdle, which was used to tie the kethoneth and simlah, also functioned as a weapons belt and a sign of rank. In 2 Sam 20:8, Joab wears a “soldier’s garment” tied with a girdle (hagor) through which he has sheathed his sword. David uses the same term in describing Joab’s crimes to Solomon in 1 Kgs 2:5. In this case, however, the hagor, and thus the authority, has been symbolically soiled with the blood of Joab’s murder victims. (Manners & Customs of the Bible, p.111)

David asks Solomon to execute Joab. Same for Shimei, who had cursed David in 2 Sam. 16. David’s request, here, changes the tone of Shimei’s curses, and his subsequent forgivingness (2 Sam. 19). While David was fleeing Jerusalem, he argued against rebuking Shimei, considering that he may be speaking God’s own condemnations. When he returns to Jerusalem, he prevents Abishai from killing Shimei, arguing that the man’s curses had clearly meant nothing since David was now returning. At the time, he had promised not to kill Shimei (2 Sam. 19:23). Not only do we now see that David has been harbouring his resentment all this time, but also he is willing to use Solomon as a loophole to get the revenge he had promised not to seek.

My study Bible proposes that, when Joab and Shimei had angered David, his political position was was too precarious to dare act against two men with a fair bit of status and power (when Shimei appears before David in 2 Sam. 19, he is accompanied by a thousand soldiers – the implication clearly being that anything short of official pardon would have resulted in bloodshed).

That’s all assuming, of course, that this scene played out as recorded. Having played a great deal of Crusader Kings II, I know how unstable a nation is with a new king. There’s considerable upheaval inherent in a change of leadership, and factions will frequently use the opportunity to press their interests in the hopes that the new king’s lack of experience might make him weak enough to be cowed (such has been the downfall of many of my dynasties). It wouldn’t have been unlikely for a new king – especially one as young as Solomon seems to have been, placed on the throne by the manoeuvrings of his mother while his brothers acted on their own behalf – to pre-emptively squash any possible dissent.

Joab, having supported Adonijah over Solomon, would have been an obvious candidate for the axeman’s block. Shimei, who clearly had a lot of support in Benjamin (over which the united monarchy clearly had an unstable hold) and had demonstrated how quickly he could turn against a Judahite king, would be another.

It’s plausible, then, that Solomon might have used “my pa’s last wish” as a covering rhetoric for what he had decided to do for himself.

But David’s last words to Solomon aren’t all terrible. He also asks that Solomon deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai, since they had been good to David.

The requests made, David died and was buried, and we’re told that he ruled over Israel for a total of 40 years, 7 of them in Hebron and 37 in Jerusalem. This sounds like a mathematical error, but remember that he was only king over Judah for 4 of his Hebron years. If we don’t count all the years he spent on the run from his sons or under Solomon’s regency, 40 would be the correct number.

Adonijah’s fate

With much trepidation and fear for his safety, Adonijah approaches Bathsheba, asking her to ask Solomon for Abishag (David’s breast-powered radiator) for a wife. He guilts her into accepting his request, saying: “You know that the kingdom was mine, and that all Israel fully expected me to reign; however the kingdom has turned about and become my brother’s, for it was his from the Lord” (1 Kgs 2:15). His words make it clear that there was an expectation of primogeniture.

He is certain that Solomon will listen if Bathsheba is the one making the request.

Joab dying at the altar

Joab dying at the altar

As she promised, she brings his request to Solomon. Solomon, however, is disinclined to accept. As we’ve seen, taking the old king’s wives was a way of declaring one’s self the legitimate successor. Absalom did it in 2 Sam. 16:22, and it seems likely that David himself did this with Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Given that Adonijah is the elder, and that he has considerable support in the court, allowing him to marry one of David’s concubines would be greatly increasing the legitimacy of his claim to the crown.

It seems that this is where the detail about David not having sex with Abishag (1 Kgs 1:4) comes into play. Her status as a concubine may have been subject to interpretation. It’s possible, then, that Adonijah was counting on Solomon not considering Abishag to have been one of David’s official female retinue, so that he might unthinkingly accept the proposal. Abishag in the bag, Adonijah would then be free to argue her case and, in so doing, argue his own. It seems to me that this is meant to be a story about Solomon sussing out Adonijah’s scheme – particularly since it seems unthinkable that Bathsheba would have relayed the request in such a straightforward manner if she had known what Adonijah was up to.

Speaking of Bathsheba, it’s interesting to me how diminished her role is. In the last chapter, the scheme to get Solomon on the throne is made out to be all Nathan’s doing, even thought Bathsheba is the principle actor. Here, she seems to fall for Adonijah’s trick. Yet despite all this, it seems that she had a reputation as an advisor to Solomon (given Adonijah’s assumption that the request would be accepted if it came from her). On top of that, when she enters Solomon’s presence, he bows to her and she takes a seat at his right hand. It could be that she was a woman who adroitly navigated the intrigue of the court, and that her role in the events of Solomon’s succession were minimized due to sexism (not exactly an uncommon thing through history). Or it could just all be an attempt to show that Solomon is young (and therefore assumed to still be under the influence of his mother) and that he is respectful of his parents.

Complicating the issue further is how the text is presented in translations. According to Joel M. Hoffman over at God Didn’t Say That, there’s some discussion over whether Solomon should sit on a chair or a throne. In the Hebrew, the word is the same for both Solomon and Bathsheba’s seats. However, several translators have chosen to give Solomon a throne, but Bathsheba merely receives a seat. As Hoffman puts it: “The original Hebrew of I Kings 2:19 emphasizes the equality of Solomon and his mother. The KJV emphasizes the inequality of the two. The NRSV preserves the equality, but does so by giving Bathsheba a throne.”

It’s possible that Solomon had hoped that his brother, once beaten, would accept Solomon’s reign. Once it becomes clear that this isn’t the case, Solomon quickly has Adonijah. In his defence, keeping an aggressive competitor with stronger claims to the crown around would have almost certainly been a terrible idea. After all, in the Game of Thrones, you win or you die.

Another possibility is that Solomon may have hesitated to kill his brother, displaying the same reticence as David in similar situations. So Bathsheba, knowing that the son she put on the throne wouldn’t keep it long with Adonijah poking about, made up the request to prod Solomon into action. Given that no one is said to have witnessed Adonijah’s request save for Bathsheba, it’s as good an explanation as any, and it has oodles of narrative potential.

The supporters

Next, David turns his eye toward the men who supported Adonijah’s bid for power: Joab and Abiathar. Because Abiathar was a priest and had carried the ark of the covenant, he was too sacred to simply execute. Instead, Solomon gets rid of him by exiling him from court. This, we are told, completes the prophecy that had been made about the house of Eli (by “a man of God” in 1 Sam. 2:31-24, and by Samuel in 1 Sam. 3:13-14).

Having heard what happened to Adonijah and Abiathar, Joab figured that he was next. He tries the same trick as Abiathar in 1 Kgs 1, running to the tent of God and grabbing hold of the altar thorns, and Solomon sends Benaiah after him. When Benaiah tries to get Joab to come out of the tent and face his fate, Joab refuses, saying: “No, I will die here” (1 Kgs 2:30). Benaiah returns to Solomon, who tells him to grant Joab’s “request.” In so doing, Solomon says that Benaiah will “take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood which Joab shed without cause.”

So Benaiah goes back to the tent of God and slays Joab at the alter – which, it would seem to me, would be a major ritual no-no and likely to bring a great deal more guilt down on Solomon than Joab’s actions ever did (especially since at no time prior to this chapter are Joab’s murders said to curse David’s house, whereas David’s own actions toward Uriah and Bathsheba are said by Nathan to mark the start of their troubles).

With that Solomon gets rid of everyone in court who opposed his succession. To fill the vacuum he’s created, he appoints Benaiah as commander of the army, and has Zadok take Abiathar’s place as high priest.

Shimmy-Shimei

The last person on Solomon’s First Days’ Hit List is Shimei, who had cursed David during his escape from Jerusalem in 2 Sam. 16. In one tradition, at least, cursing a ruler warranted the death penalty (Exodus 22:28), though it’s unclear whether it would have applied in this case since, by David’s own admission, Absalom was the king at that time. This could be why Solomon decides not to execute Shimei.

Or it could be a nod to David’s promise not to harm Shimei, plus the fact that Shimei had never moved against Solomon himself – making a capital retaliation rather difficult to defend. Whatever the reason, he opts instead to make Shimei build a house in Jerusalem (where he can be close enough to keep an eye on) and places him under house arrest.

After three years, however, Shimei leaves his house to reclaim two escaped slaves. Perhaps he thought it was no big deal, since he returns as soon as he’s done. Solomon, however, is quite happy to use the excuse to have Benaiah execute him.

In his rebuke to Shimei, Solomon says: “King Solomon shall be blessed, and the throne of David shall be established before the Lord for ever” (1 Kgs 2:45), which seems to be a direct reference to Shimei’s curse in 2 Sam. 16:7-8.

Numbers 16: Vive la liberté!

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In this chapter, we see the melding of two separate rebellions: That of Korah the Levite fighting for more cultic privileges, and that of Dathan and Abiram, descendants of Reuben, questioning Moses’ leadership. As a result, the narrative bounces back and forth a bit and it can be a little confusing.

The leader of the Levite rebellion is Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi.

The Reubenite rebellion is a bit tougher to figure out. I think that the leaders are Dathan and Abiram, brothers, sons of Eliab, son of Reuben – and that they were also joined by On, son of Peleth, son of Reuben. But On is never mentioned again. So then I thought of the possibility that Dathan and Abiram are not brothers, that Dathan is the son of Eliab and Abiram the son of On. I don’t think that’s really supported, though, and I can’t find anyone online who agrees with that interpretation. So I think that On was just cobbled in.

Rebel arguments

Since there are two rebellions, there are two major complaints. From Korah and the Levites:

All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord? (v.3)

We saw a hint of this in Numbers 11, where Moses delegates some of his prophetic duties. Joshua, not understanding what was going on, interpreted the prophesying by people other than Moses as a threat to Moses’ authority. In that instance, Moses defends himself by wishing that God would “put his spirit upon them” (Num. 11:29) but, sadly, it isn’t so and he (and his inner circle) must bear the burden alone. Here, Korah seems to be challenging this idea from a different angle.

Having been raised a Quaker (sort of), Korah’s arguments resonate for me theologically. How interesting, then, to see God’s reaction.

As Collins points out in A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, we saw in Numbers 8 the description of a harmonious relationship between the Aaronide priests and the Levites (p.77), but this story gives us a hint at the discontent that must have cropped up at least occasionally. Numbers 16 is all about the Aaronide re-assertion of dominance.

Then there are the Reubenites. Their complaint is as follows:

Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? (v.13)

First of all, up until now, “land of milk and honey” has always been used to describe the promised land, yet the Reubenite use of it to describe Egypt here emphasises just how awful their wilderness experiences have been. Not only that, but God’s just announced that all of these people are going to die in the wilderness, that they will never again have a stable home or livelihood which, slaves though they apparently were, they at least had in Egypt.

And to add insult to injury, Moses has seemingly crowned himself their king, and all who desire self-governance (which was kinda the point of leaving Egypt, no?) so far have been killed in rather horrible ways.

I really can’t help but be sympathetic to the arguments here.

Moses’ arguments

Moses asks of the Levites: Isn’t it enough that you get to service the tabernacle and minister to the congregation? Of course, this misses the point. Taken at face value, neither the Levites nor the Reubenites are complaining that they, personally, don’t have more power, but rather that Moses and Aaron have too much. Turning it into a greed thing is, frankly, really reminiscent of what Fox News does with opinions they don’t agree with.

Even if he’s right, even if Korah, Dathan, and Abiram really are concerned only with their own personal greed, their stated complaint is still a valid one, and Moses fails to address it.

Moses’ only defence is that he hasn’t taken his position for himself, but rather that it has been thrust upon him by God:

Hereby you shall know that the Lord has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. (v.28).

True, Moses has been shown to protest the responsibility a few times – notably with the delegation of elders in Numbers 11 and his original reticence in Exodus 3. But the zeal with which God comes to the defence of any who question Moses’ authority (such as Numbers 12) should certainly be concerning to anyone.

That God is in support of this elitist power structure is hardly comforting.

The test

Moses proposes a test to show who has God’s backing. The Levites and Aaron are all to bring their censers – lit and prepared – to the tent of meeting the next day. There’s no real rules for this test, they just have to show up.

And they do.

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

Moses and Korah, by Brother Maciej, 1466

And God whispers to Moses and Aaron that they should stand apart from the rest of the Hebrew people so that they aren’t killed along with the rest. But the people overhear him and they freak out: “Shall one man sin, and wilt thou be angry with all the congregation?” (v.22).

For once, God chooses to listen to someone other than Moses and revises his plan. Instead, he tells Moses to tell the congregation to stand away from the homes of the rebels.

Then the earth opens up and swallows “their households and all the men that belong to Korath” (v.32). That would include “their wives, their sons, and their little ones” (v.27). Two hundred and fifty “people” in all, plus their families.

As Owen Ball and David Wong put it: “God listened carefully to their complaints, weighed their points, then made the earth eat them alive.”

They are described as having gone “down alive into Sheol” (v.30).

This is the third time we get a reference to Sheol, by the way. The first two, in Genesis 37 and Genesis 44, are both in the context of Jacob/Israel mourning for his son Joseph and saying that he will have to go to Sheol in sorrow (the second time in fear that Benjamin has also died). Several translations have replaced sheol with “grave.”

According to Victor Matthews in Manners & Customs of the Bible, explains that Sheol is a land of the dead inhabited by both the good – as we see in the case of Jacob/Israel – and the evil – as we see here (p.70).

The greater rebellion

God then tells Moses to tell Eleazar (Aaron’s son) to collect the censers the Levite rebels had brought and to hammer them into plate coverings for the altar. They’ve been offered before God, making them holy, so this is a convenient (and non-sacrilegious) way of reusing the metal. Added bonus, they can serve as a warning that “no one who is not a priest, who is not of the descendants of Aaron, should draw near to burn incense before the Lord, lest he become as Korah and as his company” (v.40).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the people aren’t particularly happy with the heavy-handed control tactics God seems fond of using and, the next day, the people are complaining again, this time that Moses and Aaron have “killed the people of the Lord” (v.41).

But God just doesn’t seem to get that people don’t respond well to “do as I say or I’ll kill you all” rule, so he comes down and tells Moses and Aaron to stand apart from the people so that they don’t get hit when he kills them all.

Moses tells Aaron to get his censer and carry it into the congregation, making atonement for them. Already, the people are dying of the plague, but it abates when Aaron comes with the censer. In the end, 14,700 people died, not counting the original 250 who were with Korah.

I’ll hazard to guess that this plague story was appended to the Korah rebellion because of the common feature of the censers.

Not a single ass was given

Earlier in the story, when the rebels were presenting their case, Moses turns to God and says:

Do not respect their offering. I have not taken one ass from them, and I have not harmed one of them. (v.15)

I would have assumed that the offering bit would have referred to the incense in the censers, except that it comes right after the part where Moses tells Dathan and Abiram to be there or be square and they refuse. It could, instead, be a jump back to Korah, in which case the brother of one of the competitors is telling the judge not to let the other guys win, which… yeah.

The ass bit probably refers to bribery. According to the information on Biblehub, it would be customary to present one’s leader with a horse to ride. Saying that he hasn’t taken an ass from them would be a way of saying “I haven’t taken so much as a penny in bribes.”

But why would he say that he hasn’t harmed them? Unless he’s trying to prove that he’s being fair and hand’s off-y, so the ball’s totally in God’s court to decide what to do with them?

I really don’t know, and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of commentary on this bit. Any bright ideas?

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 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.