Sunday, January 29, 2012

Bible Commentary - Exodus Introduction

Exodus, the book of departures and redemptions.

Much of the biographical information about Exodus is the same as Genesis.  They are written cohesively in a common structural framework, possibly even by the same author(s), in the same time period and with the same cultural background.  As such, I would encourage my readers to go back and review my introduction to Genesis, because I'm not going to repeat that material here.

But with all that in common, the literary themes and content are vastly different.  There are some significant theological differences as well, with respect to the lives of the people described in Exodus compared to Genesis.

In broad terms, Genesis is a book of beginnings.  Starting in Genesis 1, God creates the universe, life and humanity.  We go through a swirl of history with the Fall in Genesis 3, the Flood in Genesis 7, and the beginning of the new Covenant in Genesis 12.  The life of Abraham in particular forms the precursor of the Jewish faith, the foundations of the covenant of circumcision, and they just seem to put up a lot of altars all over the place.  One of the most defining characteristics of religion in Genesis is the dynamic, unstructured format.  It seems that Abraham or Isaac would just set up an altar wherever they happen to be, and they relate to God in a direct way, through the suzerainty-style covenantal structure.  Jacob, for instance, pours oil on a rock and calls it an altar!  The Israelites were a small people, only a handful, traveling through a land of large and powerful tribes and kingdoms.  They were buffeted about by famine, attached to the land that was promised to Abraham, but in no way prepared to seize that promise from the land's inhabitants, with whom they tended to have on-again, off-again alliances such as with Abimelech.

From a literary perspective, the book of Genesis is almost entirely composed of stories.  There are several genealogies and a long poem towards the end (Genesis 49), but about 47 of the 50 chapters are stories from the lives of the patriarchs and those who surrounded them.

From this perspective, we will see that the book of Exodus is very, very different.  Exodus begins by telling us that all of Joseph's brothers died, but that the Israelites have become numerous.  Later on, we will see that there are roughly 2 million Israelite men, a massive growth compared to the 70 (or 75) who descended to Egypt.  This changes a lot of things, as the Israelites are now a competent military threat to the other powers who inhabit their world.  They are no longer a roaming household, they are now a nation.

They are still largely nomadic, however, as much of Exodus occurs during their journey through the wilderness of Sin (part of the Sinai peninsula).

Another massive difference is that a tremendous volume of material in Exodus is the record of things "God said to Moses".  The majority of what is written from Exodus 20 to 34 is God telling Moses a bunch of things, and then there are other scattered sections of Things That God Said in other parts of Exodus (notably, the Passover ordinance in Exodus 12 and 13.

To be sure, all of the Things That God Said have massive theological significance, and that's what I will discuss in the sections to come.  What I want to say now is more of a meta-comment: Exodus is the introduction of the Law of Moses.  The Law of Moses, as one can see just by the name itself, is a set of prescribed commands and regulations.  Exodus is only the beginning of the Law: Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy follow its lead closely and introduce many more rules governing behavior, worship and Israelite society at large.

The instructions in Exodus are focused on worship in particular, describing the construction of the Tent of Meeting (a.k.a. the Tabernacle) and all of the various things that go in it.  Gone are the freewheeling days of Jacob's rock lathered with oil.  Now are the days of burnt offerings, sin offerings and guilt offerings, priests and robes and ceremonial cleanliness and a multitude of other things.  The way to God is still open for those in the Covenant, but it has changed, it is tightly structured (usually at the pain of death), and it has several layers of intermediation between the people of the Covenant and God.

As I've mentioned before, the Abrahamic Covenant is now carried by the full people of Israel, and no longer by an individual.  Moses stands as the leader of the Israelites, but his role is that of an arbiter between the people and God, mediating between them and teaching the people how to approach God.

The downside for modern readers is that all of these rules and instructions can be pretty boring.  A funny saying I heard once is that in Genesis, a chapter spans a thousand years, while in Exodus, a thousand chapters span a year.  I've heard from more than one person who has tried to read through the whole bible, nailed Genesis (I mean, it really is interesting stuff) and then fell apart in Exodus/Leviticus with the Tabernacle and all of the sacrifices, etc.  But do not fear, my intrepid readers, for I shall guide you through the treacherous depths of gold and bronze, and lead you straight to the treasure of funny anecdotes or whatever else I spin up to make this palatable.  :)

Fortunately, the first 14 chapters are all a contiguous story, mostly picking up from Genesis 50, and one of the best known stories in the world: the plagues and the exodus from Egypt, culminating in the crossing of the Red Sea.

There's two last things I want to emphasize before we move along.  First, one of the biggest themes in Exodus is the redemption of the chosen people from the land of slavery.  This truly is massive, it foreshadows so much of the coming of Christ, and it is significantly tied with almost the rest of the bible as a whole.  Redemption, in a broad sense, is at the heart of the Christian message and it holds a similar place in the content of the bible.  Second, when we read about the journey through the wilderness, take note of how God interacts with the people and how they interact with God.  We are going to see another first, which is the sudden and rapid descent from the faithfulness of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to idolatry of the masses.  This idolatry and rebellion is a thematic parallel of the rebellion of Adam in Genesis, but rebellion is an integral part of redemption, because you can't be redeemed unless you have a bad situation you need to get redeemed out of.

I will explain all of these points in greater detail as we move through Exodus, but I think it's important for readers of Exodus to keep these things in mind as you travel through the hallowed halls of this book, because sin, rebellion and redemption are the warp and woof of not just the crossing of the Red Sea, but also the nature of the Tent of Meeting and the journey through the wilderness.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 50

In this chapter, Jacob is buried in Canaan and Joseph dies, signalling the end of the patriarchal era.

I'm so excited!  We're at the end of Genesis and about to begin our voyage into the book of Exodus.  As I've mentioned a couple times, the character and composition of Exodus is pretty drastically different from Genesis, and this chapter is the final linchpin that rests between them.

This chapter begins with the account of Jacob's embalming and subsequent burial in the cave of Machpelah where Abraham and Isaac were also buried.  I don't feel a need to say anything about this, it's pretty straightforward.

The account of Joseph's brothers here is amusing.  They invent a message from their dead father for Joseph to not kill them, which was certainly a possibility when you consider the pattern we previously saw with Jacob and Esau: in that case, Isaac was the parental barrier for Esau to murder Jacob, so Jacob had to flee before Isaac died.  And in that case too, Isaac came back to Esau as a servant, with humility, because Esau was in a position of strength.

In this case Joseph is in a position of strength, and like Esau he chooses not to harm his brothers.  Perhaps even more interesting to me is how it says Joseph weeps when his brothers speak to him, showing the same emotional vulnerability we have seen from Joseph all along.

On a minor note, it says that the sons of Makir (or Machir) were born on Joseph's knees.  This is the same phrase we saw before with Jacob claiming Ephraim and Manasseh as his own children, though I'm not sure if this verse means that Joseph is claiming Makir's sons or if it's just trying to convey that he was alive when they were born.

Lastly, Joseph gives a different command about his body than Jacob.  Jacob wanted them to bury him in Machpelah, but Joseph commands them to bring his body with them when they as a people leave Egypt.  This is foreshadowing what is to come right next, the Exodus from Egypt.  :)

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 49

In this chapter, Jacob gives a lengthy prophecy about the fate of his descendants.

There is a lot of complexity to this chapter, so beware, this will be a long commentary segment.

First I will give some general comments, then I will give a brief overview of Hebrew poetry, and then I will conclude by actually examining the contents of Jacob's prophecy.

The first thing to look at is cross-reference this chapter with Deuteronomy chapter 33, the Blessing of Moses.  It is structured very similarly to here, where Moses (on the eve of his death) gives his final blessing to the tribes of Israel, in poetic/prophetic form.  A fuller analysis of Deuteronomy 33 I will reserve for that chapters commentary (available here).  I strongly encourage my readers to compare and contrast these two chapters, since they are structured similarly and fulfill similar purposes.  You can also compare with 2 Samuel 23 (my commentary here), the "final words of David" and possibly some other "final words" that I'm forgetting, but I believe these three are the big ones, and really Jacob and Moses are by far more similar to each other than David is to either.

This whole pattern seems reminiscent of the modern emphasis on "famous last words" which still exists in Western culture to this day.

Next, note that while Jacob is using his sons' names, they are effectively serving as symbols for the later tribes that will be named after them.  That is, Jacob's prophecy for Reuben is not actually about Reuben himself, but about the Tribe of Reuben.  It is very interesting, then, that the actions and lives of the founders of these tribes would have so much import into their futures.  Of course, the same can be said of so many other human ventures.  Once again drawing upon the example of America, so much of our modern culture has been defined by the attitudes of the founding fathers, enshrined in the Constitution, and inherited down as the tenets of our existence, the right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness".

Jacob specifically states that this is a prophecy, when he says "what will befall you in the days to come", or literally "what will befall you in the end of the days".

Significantly, this entire prophetic segment is given in poetic form.  We have seen brief poetic segments earlier in Genesis (a few examples are Genesis 1:27, Genesis 4:23-24, Genesis 9:6-7), but this is by far the longest poetic segment in the entire book of Genesis.  The structure of Hebrew poetry is a long and complicated subject, which is far beyond the scope of my commentary here, but I will try to give a brief synopsis.  One of the most important aspects of Hebrew poetry is the placement of words into certain patterns.  One of the most common patterns is a chiasm.  This is essentially a mirrored structure like, A B B A.  Hebrew poetry also uses parallel structures where certain words recur for emphasis, or alternatively, instead of recurring words there is a conceptual parallelism.

In the examples I listed, look at Genesis 1:27.  Note the chiasm with "God created" and "image".  It says God created man in his image; in his image God created him.  This is a chiasm that emphasizes the creative act.

Next, look at Genesis 4:23-24.  There it says:
Adah and Zillah,
Listen to my voice,
You wives of Lamech,
Give heed to my speech,
Note the repetition between the first line and the third line, and the second line and the fourth line.  To wit, "Adah and Zillah, you wives of Lamech", "Listen to my voice, give heed to my speech".  This is the thematic parallelism that I'm talking about, where it repeats the same concept twice but using different words.  The other key element is that it alternates between one and the other.  This brief poem ends with another repetitive statement:
For I have killed a man for wounding me;
And a boy for striking me;
If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.
 The first two lines are a conceptual repetition, and the last two lines are also a form of literary parallelism.  The difference is that in the last two lines, Lamech emphasizes his own vengeance over the vengeance of Cain, because he is avenged 77 fold, rather than Cain's 7 fold.  As I've said before, the number seven signifies completion or fullness, so 77 signifies excessive or absolute fullness.  We see this in Lamech's descriptions of his actions, where in exchange for being struck (a minor offense), he killed his assailant (a massive retaliation), showing that he indeed avenged himself much more greatly than he was wronged.

These are the most basic structures of Hebrew poetry.  The original Hebrew also typically used lots of wordplay (with similar sounding words, like the English "where", "wear", "ware") and puns, but unfortunately the vast majority of this wordplay and double entendres are lost in translation, and since I am not a Hebrew scholar, I am also largely unaware of that level of content.  I wish I were, but you can't be an expert at everything.

With all that said, we see all of these poetic patterns occurring here in Jacob's prophecy.  I'm not sure whether to call this passage poetic prophecy or prophetic poetry.  :)  I guess it's both.

Now for the main body of the text.  Jacob here gives 12 prophecies (Simeon and Levi combined, I suppose you could call it 11), and these are listed approximately in the order of the birth of his children, starting with Reuben and ending with Benjamin, his youngest, but the middle children are mixed up a bit (from Zebulun to Naphtali it is jumbled).  The ordering of names is usually one of the first things that I look at when given a list like this, and as a general rule, the Hebrews like to put names in chronological order by age, starting with the firstborn and moving down.  That is the case here, with the list of prophecies moving through the first four sons in chronological order: Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah.  After that it gets mixed up, and I'm not sure why.  I would guess that there's either some poetic reason which is not visible in the English translation, or just no reason at all.

Starting with Reuben, he is extolled as Jacob's strength.  Being the firstborn, he is the "first sign" of Jacob's virility in his ability to bear children, which as I've said over and over is very important in ancient Mideast culture.  The main element of Reuben's prophecy is that, due to his sleeping with Bilhah in Genesis 35, he is removed from his place of supremacy as the firstborn.  His right to a double portion of Jacob's inheritance is given to Joseph, and as we will see, this covers more than just the inheritance of his physical possessions.  The promised land is also treated as part of Jacob's inheritance, meaning that Joseph will have two portions of the promised land while every other son of Jacob gets just one.  It's astonishing to think that such a thing, which appears so brief in the much longer story, and is really mentioned just that one time out of the ~20 chapters covering the life of Jacob, would have such long-lasting impact on the shape of Israelite culture.  This is pretty much the last time it will be referred to, but the implication of Reuben's removal as the head household will affect pretty much the rest of Israelite history, and as we will see a different tribe will rise to preeminence.  Ephraim will be one of the most powerful tribes, but there is a different tribe that is even stronger...

There are two main aspects to Simeon and Levi's prophecy.  The first is Jacob's condemnation of their violence, an implicit reference to their actions against the Shechemites.  This is another one of those brief-but-impactful events in Genesis, and while Jacob was clearly angry with them at the time, you wouldn't think that he would hold it against them so many years later.  Yet, here we are.  The second aspect of Jacob's prophecy is that Simeon and Levi will be "dispersed in Israel."  This is a peculiar thing to say, but it has a specific meaning: the words "Israel" and "Jacob" are used to describe the promised land, which is the inheritance of Jacob and becomes the nation of Israel (or the sons of Israel, the two are interchangeable).  So when it says they will be dispersed, what it means is that they will not inhabit a fixed area, but will be spread across the whole land.

In order to understand this, you will need to have some idea what is about to happen in Israel's future, in about 500 years from Jacob's time.  Israel will come up from Egypt, take the promised land by force, and then settle it in "inheritances".  As I've alluded to, there are tribal inheritances, and there are also personal inheritances.  The land is divided into portions, with each tribe receiving a portion (the portions are of non-equal size, but we will see more about how the portions are divided later).  Once a tribe receives an inheritance, it is then subdivided for each of the clans and families within that tribe, so that all of the people in the tribe have a place to live and to farm.  This has a lot of consequences (not the least of which is their transition to agrarianism), and I promise I will talk about them at some point, but I won't cover those now.  These inheritances are passed down from father to son, and it is intended to become a permanent possession of each family and tribe in turn.  Since everyone takes a portion of their tribe's inheritance, all of the people of a tribe live in the same mostly-compact region.

Jacob's prophecy, then, is that Levi and Simeon will not hold a tribal inheritance.  Their people will be scattered throughout all of the tribal inheritances.  From the text, it appears that this is intended as a punishment for their "wrath, for it is cruel."  In the case of Levi, we will see later why this is, and it is explained in great detail.  However, for the case of Simeon the bible never tells us why or how Simeon is dispersed in the nations.  It is vaguely implied at a few points, but never more than that, so I'll explain now what happens to Simeon.  Their inheritance ends up being a portion engulfed by the much larger and more powerful Judah.  In the end, whether through intermarriage or other means, Simeon is essentially consumed by the tribe of Judah.

Judah is given the second most favorable prophecy, next to Joseph.  I always imagine Jacob, having discarded his three oldest sons, thinking to himself, "Judah is the oldest son I have who isn't a failure.  I'll bless him."  There's a certain irony to this given Judah's questionable actions in Genesis 38, but since none of those actions negatively affected Jacob, Jacob doesn't appear to hold it against him.  This prophecy forms a backdrop for Judah's later dominance that I alluded to above when discussing Simeon's prophecy.  The first verse of the prophecy is also a pun, since Judah's name means "praise", and Jacob says that his brothers will praise him.  Judah will eventually become the most powerful tribe of Israel and it's from Judah that we derive the word Jew, to describe sons of Israel.  It's with some irony, then, that one hears of some modern Jews who associate their descent to some tribe of Israel, like Levi or Ephraim, yet the very label of their faith names them are children of Judah.

The prophecy of Judah is a long list of blessings and statements of Judah's dominance.  A diligent reader could perhaps analyze these and look for deeper meaning, but I do not have time or space to do so here.  Perhaps the most important is in verse 10, which states that "the scepter shall not depart from Judah".  This statement is generally considered to be a prophetic prediction of King David, who is a descendant of Judah.  It is also interpreted more broadly to be a reference to the Messiah, whom Christians associate with Jesus of Nazareth.  This is the first messianic prediction we have seen since God spoke of the "seed of the woman" defeating Satan in Genesis 3.  As such, this is probably the most important prediction in Jacob's speech here, and if Genesis 49 is ever referenced by other people, most of the time they will probably reference this verse.

The first thing to understand about Zebulun's prophecy is that, like all of the prophecies here, it is speaking primarily about the tribe's future status when they return to the promised land.  Therefore the "seashore" possibly refers to the Mediterranean.  On further review, I'm more inclined to say that it refers to the Sea of Galilee.  Note that this prophecy is also possibly a pun on Zebulun's name (Zebulun roughly means "habitation" according to Strong's Hebrew Dictionary)  Historically, most modern scholars place Zebulun's territory as being approximately inbetween these two bodies of water without bordering on either of them.  So at first glance, you say this prophecy is unfulfilled.  Nevertheless, there is plenty of room for doubt in this assessment because there is very little historical documentation for how the territory of Zebulun shifted as the 12 tribes settled into the promised land.  As we will see, their initial assignment only vaguely matches where the tribes actually settled, and I don't think anyone has a clear idea how their demographics changed over the proceeding centuries.  In contemporary NT times, the area of Galilee was known in general to be the land of Zebulun and Naphtali (for instance, see Matthew 4:13 and 4:15).  The tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali are roughly mushed together and considered a single region.

As we move on to Issachar, the prophecies become more and more cryptic, even to me.  I've read other commentaries on this chapter, and being diligent scholars, many of these commentaries reach and reach and reach even further looking for a coherent explanation, but my suspicion is that the original meaning of this passage is now lost to us through the vagaries of time.  "Issachar finds a pleasant land and works it like a donkey."  This probably has something to do with the land Issachar settled as an inheritance and their behavior in that land, but I am not aware of any connection this has to other events in the bible at any point.

Dan's prophecy is similarly cryptic, except that it begins with another pun (the name Dan sounds like Hebrew for "judge").  However, in spite of pronouncing Dan the judge of his people, there are very few documented leaders from the tribe of Dan over the people of Israel.  The bible mentions perhaps one well-known leader from Dan in the book of Judges, and then in later history the kingship rests with Judah and the high priests are always from Levi.  The part about Dan being a "horned snake that bites the horse's heel" is similarly cryptic and there is no clear interpretation that I have ever heard.  The imagery of a serpent would refer to either sin or the devil (see Genesis 3), but why this is ascribed to Dan is perplexing.  While the tribe of Dan is known to commit various sins in later Israelite history, the same could be said for pretty much every other tribe so I have no idea why Dan would be specifically called out here.

"For Your salvation I wait, O LORD."  This is a wonderfully pious statement that doesn't have any apparent connection with the context of what is going on or the prophecies that immediately precede or follow it.  Maybe it would mean more to me if I spoke biblical Hebrew.

Gad, Asher, Naphtali: who knows?  Your guess is as good as mine, and it's not often I get to say that.  Seriously though, you can probably make something up and be as close to the truth as any explanation I've read so far.

Joseph's blessing is a fairly long one, which basically articulates that Joseph is very fruitful, has endured hardship with steadfastness, and has overcome with the help of God, the God of his fathers.  This is a good summary of Joseph's life, with questionable application to the tribes that bear his name (Ephraim and Manasseh).  Note that the form of the blessing is very closely reminiscent of the blessing that Jacob received from Isaac in Genesis 27, with the basic formula covering the richness of the sky above and the earth beneath and supremacy over his brothers.  Joseph's blessing is longer and more detailed than the one that Jacob received but the basic structure is very similar.

Ephraim and Manasseh were certainly both large and powerful tribes in Israel, and being in the far reaches of the north, they were frequently attacked by the peoples who lived in modern-day Syria.  I guess this is possibly what the prophecy is referring to.

The blessing of Benjamin is also somewhat cryptic, but can perhaps refer to Benjamin's renowned warriors.  There are several places in the bible where the warriors (and in particular the slingers) of Benjamin are ascribed with martial excellence.

When Jacob has finished speaking, he commands his children to bring his body to Canaan, showing his commitment to the promised land which is so important to the patriarchs and their later children.  And with that, the life of Jacob ends and we are almost ready for the tribal period of Israel's history, when they become more and more known as a "people" than a "person", while still maintaining a small set of distinguished leaders to be sure.

Told you this one would be long.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 48

In this chapter, Jacob pronounces his blessings over Ephraim and Manasseh and he favors the younger over the older to the consternation of Joseph.

This chapter begins in a different time than chapter 47, as we can see in verse 1: "Now it came about after these things that Joseph was told...."  This clearly indicates a time gap between the oath that Joseph swore in chapter 47 and the illness that takes hold of Jacob in this chapter.  However, in my mind I group it all together because it is all related to the impending death of Jacob.

Jacob gives a brief recap of his lifetime and then he "claims" Ephraim and Manasseh, the two sons of Joseph, to be counted as his sons.  In effect what is going on here is that Jacob is ascribing to Joseph the right of the firstborn, a double portion of Jacob's inheritance.  The two children are put on Jacob's knees, which is reminiscent of Rachel bearing a son through her maid Bilhah (Genesis 30:3).  She says "Here is my maid Bilhah, go in to her that she may bear on my knees, that through her I too may have children."  So "bearing children upon your knees" is a sort of symbolic action representing adoption, or childbearing by proxy.  And that is what Jacob is doing here, bearing Ephraim and Manasseh upon his knees and blessing them.  Although it doesn't literally say that they were put on Jacob's knees, verse 12 says that Joseph removed them from Jacob's knees, so it is strongly implied.

I'd also want to point out Jacob's prayer in verses 15-16.  17 years ago Jacob was telling Pharaoh that his life had been short and hard, and while I questioned whether he really meant it or it was expected self-abasement, it still provides a pretty interesting contrast to what Jacob says here, that God "has been my shepherd all my life to this day".  We have seen Jacob go through so much turmoil in his life, from the sudden and unexpected exile in chapter 28 and the struggles with Esau to the tragic disappearance of Joseph, whom he thought dead, to the later turmoil with Simeon held prisoner and Benjamin taken from him.  But now, at the very end of his life, he strongly confirms his faith in the Lord and the blessings he had received.

Next, Jacob blessed Ephraim over Manasseh, which is contrary to Manasseh's right as the firstborn.  That's why Joseph desires to correct his father.  Presumably Jacob wished to favor the younger Ephraim because Jacob himself was favored over his older brother Esau.  As I previous discussed at the time, favoring the younger over the older is a consistent theme in Genesis, and it has repercussions later in the bible with e.g. Jesus saying "The first shall be last and the last shall be first".  Favoring the younger over the older is a reversal of the natural order of things (as the writer would see it), since primogeniture was intrinsic to society at the time.  I want to draw a clear distinction here between the human/cultural/natural ordering and the divine/heavenly/eternal ordering, because that is the dichotomy that Jesus and the author of Genesis are emphasizing.  The reversal is intended to highlight and contrast the differing systems of life, the natural and the divine.  And I think that this is a proper and reasonable lens through which the reader can view most of the OT and the NT.  So far we have seen this in the younger favored over the older (Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Ephraim and Manasseh, and Cain and Abel), the promised child Isaac chosen over the natural child Ishmael and Abraham's choice of the promised land Canaan over the fertile and rich but ultimately destroyed land of Sodom and Gomorrah.  And this theme will continue to recur, so I encourage my readers to be diligent in looking for new instances of it.

Joseph is bothered by Jacob's choice, most likely because Joseph didn't share Jacob's experiences of striving to overcome his older brother.  In Joseph's case, while he was not the oldest of his brothers, he was favored amongst them.  He also spent much of his life in Egypt and would possibly be much more closely aligned to the system of primogeniture which was firmed entrenched there.  Nevertheless, Jacob is his father and Jacob's word is the law of his family.

Lastly, it's interesting that the last verse says he gives Joseph a portion which he took "with my sword and  my bow", since Jacob did not conquer any of Canaan.  When you look at the Hebrew though, the word "portion" is the Hebrew "Shechem", which is the city that his sons destroyed after deceiving them into circumcising themselves.  So this is clearly a pun (and a clever one at that), because Shechem is the one part of Canaan that he did actually take with his sword and his bow (metaphorically).  I've read some really confused commentaries in the past about this verse, but it all makes sense when you learn that one word.  This last verse also confirms what I said about Joseph getting a double portion, the right of the firstborn, as a reward for his faithfulness in Egypt and saving his family through his diligence.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 47

In this chapter, Jacob and his family move into Goshen, Jacob meets Pharaoh, and the people trade all of their possessions for the food that Joseph stored up.

Continuing from where we left off in chapter 46, the Jacob clan arrives in Goshen and Joseph presents some representatives of his family to Pharaoh, including his father Jacob.  It's interesting that Jacob blesses Pharaoh, since my understanding is that in the culture of the time, it was an expectation that elders bless their juniors, or in the words of the book of Hebrews, the greater bless the lesser (Hebrews 7:7).  While the book of Hebrews is written many hundreds of years after the events described here, I think it provides a pretty good insight into the dynamics here in Genesis, both in the story of Melchizedek and here.

Jacob's pessimism is also interesting.  Specifically, Jacob says "the years of my life have been few and unpleasant", while saying that he is 130 years old.  Personally, I'd say this is not what I expect from a Jacob who just got to meet his lost son for the first time in 30 years, who now has over 70 descendants and is very wealthy on top of that, in addition to being 130 years old.  He says his life has been short and unpleasant.  In a certain respect, he is right when he says that his forefathers lived longer.  Abraham lived 175 years and Terah lived 205 years.  Isaac lived 180 years.  So Jacob recognized the decline in his health compared to his forefathers.  Either way, his pessimism overall is unfounded.

I wonder if this is part of the expected humility when dealing with Pharaoh?  Maybe there is an expectation that you will degrade oneself before him.  Or maybe Jacob truly was unhappy with his life, which is fair enough when considering the 30 year disappearance of Joseph, but you'd think that going down to Egypt again and meeting his son would have healed that wound.  In the end I'm not really sure what to think about this.

Next we see Joseph sell back the food to both Egyptians and other peoples from the region who come to buy it.  As we saw with Jacob's behavior, most likely large numbers of Canaanites are also coming down to Egypt to buy food.  So it appears that the 20% of food that Joseph collected was a tax.

I've heard some people criticize Joseph about his actions here, that he was using his knowledge of the coming famine to enrich himself and enrich Pharaoh.  My personal opinion is that I don't think this criticism is necessarily fair because, as I say so often, it is culturally post-dated.  I do think it's fair and interesting to raise a (possible) correlation between here, where Joseph effectively enslaves the entire population of Egypt, and later when the Israelites are themselves enslaved in Egypt.  It's ironic in some ways and insightful in others, but I don't think it's fair to weigh down Joseph with this burden.  I think a simpler and more realistic appraisal is that, simply put, slavery was a major institution at this time, and it was most likely considered normal and reasonable to enslave other people given the chance.  The most direct outcome of his actions that Joseph is looking for is the salvation of his family; Jacob honors him for this reason.  I don't think Joseph or Jacob or possibly even Pharaoh else felt a responsibility towards the Egyptian people, either that they "owed" the people something or that they had a moral obligation to give them free food.  If they did feel such an obligation, it is clear from the text that they did not act on it.

But that said, Joseph's actions did save everyone's lives, so I don't think it would be fair for critics to underemphasize the positive aspects of this story.

I'm also interested in verse 26.  This is a pattern we see in many places in the Pentateuch but also in the larger OT.  It's funny to us as modern readers because it is an anachronism: the statute that is "valid to this day" is of course long gone, along with the system of government in which it was established.  But it's interesting for more than just the humor value.  It's also interesting because of some more subtle implications.

The phrase "and for this reason, blah blah blah" is a didactic style that implies the story was told for the reason of explaining something.  This is called an etiological story or etiological myth.  The most prominent example of this style is the book of Esther, which concludes with the note, "and for this reason we celebrate the festival of Purim to this day".  It provides a connection to the (ancient) reader when they find out the connection between this historical story they are hearing and their present lives.  Even more subtly though, this implies that e.g. the story of Esther or here, the story of Joseph and the famine, was regarded as a story and told as such.  In this instance, I am using the word "story" very specifically.  While they may have regarded the events as historical, it was told as a story.  In a modern context, this is again similar to the stories regarding George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, for people in the US, the founding mythos of our nation which is often told as a story yet regarded as historical.  It is a mixture of history and myth, not in that myth is false, but that in myth is romanticized and stylized.  And history not in that history is true, but that in history is objectivized, unemotional and stoic.

With that framework laid out, it is clear that much of the story of Joseph lies towards the side of mythos and away from history.  There are some big exceptions though, such as the lengthy genealogy in chapter 46 and the connection to the famine here ("for this reason.....").  I think if I had to generalize the lives of the Patriarchs (from Abraham to Joseph), I would describe it as "founding myths embedded in historical context", where myth and history are defined as above.

Moving on, we begin the last story in Genesis which is the death of Jacob.  This is a long, long stylized affair, full of speeches, some songs, theatrics, dancing, etc.  Ok, so I'm exaggerating a bit.  But it is long and stylized with a very long speech by Jacob.  The first thing to note here is that Jacob is now 147 years old, meaning 17 years have passed in Egypt.  The second thing we see in this chapter is that Jacob has not forgotten the promised land that the Lord gave him, and he asks to be buried in the land of promise.  Like his fathers before him, he will not see the promised land inhabited by his descendants in full, but he wishes to be buried there as a sign of his commitment to the land.  The next chapter continues with this story.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 46

In this chapter, Jacob and his children move to Egypt and Joseph meets his father again.

This chapter starts with an interesting note, that God is essentially confirming that Jacob should go down to Egypt.  This shows that Joseph was most likely correct, that God did send him ahead as a deliverance for his family (not to mention all of the other people who survived through the famine due to his preparations).  Probably the more significant point, though, is that Jacob actually needs permission to leave the promised land. As we've seen, the patriarchs sometimes seek to leave the promised land to seek refuge during famines, but as we saw in Genesis 26, God really wanted them to stay in the land.

Dwelling in the promised land was incredibly important both to the patriarchs and to their later descendants (like the author of Genesis).  It's kinda hard to explain why, but what it comes down to is that this is the land they were given as an inheritance.  To leave the land is a physical action that almost seems to say, I am abandoning the promise, because it was a land given for them to dwell in.

So God giving them permission to leave is very important, especially since after this departure, Jacob and his sons will be away from the promised land for approximately 400 years, and not the brief 5-20 year periods that his forefathers left it during the famines of their time.  In this respect going down to Egypt is significant, and one starts to see the massive significance of the return from Egypt, which is the topic of the next book.

The next part of the chapter is a fairly lengthy genealogy, for which I should probably coin the term YAG (Yet Another Genealogy).  This genealogy is somewhat controversial as to whether it properly includes 70 people or 75, with different OT manuscripts reaching different totals.  70 would be a symbolic number of completion (7 is a full week and signifies fullness, 10 is also a number signifying completion) and that is what we find in the Masoretic Texts (the "Hebrew OT").  The Septuagint (Greek OT) and Acts 7:14 both list 75 as the total number of people.  I don't know offhand what is the origin of this discrepancy, but from a theological point of view it is unimportant, it's just one of those things scholars debate.

Otherwise, this genealogy's placement here, like much of this chapter, is to commemorate the Israelite communal migration to Egypt.  Genealogies like this, which center around the descendants of Jacob and the twelve tribal leaders, would serve to connect the Israelite readers with their past, since most (if not all) Israelites would know what tribe they were from and whose descendant they were.  Just like prior genealogies (e.g. Genesis 10) served to place the whole nation of Israel in the larger context of the nations of the earth, this genealogy serves to place the tribes and clans of Israel in the larger context of the whole nation, in the specific context of the descent to Egypt.  In this sense, I like to view genealogies as the author attempting to bring a context to the passage as the list of names and relationships give the reader a view of how these different stories fit together into a bigger picture.

In the light of this, it is particularly interesting that we get to see so many of the patriarch's mistakes.  We get to see Abraham struggle with his faith, we see his mistake with Hagar, we see Jacob's various struggles and mistakes, we see the egregious errors of Reuben, Simeon and Levi.  And perhaps most importantly, we see the massive errors made by Judah as well, in chapter 38.  This is particularly relevant because later in Israel's history, nearly all of the living Israelites and readers of this book would be descendants of Judah (for reasons we will see later).  Many nations have founding myths, like the stories about George Washington for the US, or the story of Romulus and Remus for the ancient Romans.  Yet very few of these myths are willing to paint their founders in a negative light for all of the reasons I have pointed out above.  The primary purpose of such myths is to give the people reading it a sense of place, of foundedness in the universe.  It is a natural human tendency to want this place, this foundation, to be solely positive.  That the bible contains so many negative portrayals of the Jewish fathers gives it a much greater realism and humanity in my mind.

We can also see from the number in the genealogy (70 or 75) that Jacob's children are multiplying rapidly, expanding far beyond the mere handful of his predecessors (ignoring Abraham's concubine children).  As I discussed in the last chapter, the Abrahamic promise is now being diffused over the whole community rather than a single individual.

The chapter ends with the cheery reunion between Jacob and Joseph, after being separated for possibly 25-50 years.  This part ends on an amusing note, as Joseph coaches his family to tell Pharaoh "We are shepherds".  This appears to be a deliberate strategy to be assigned to Goshen.  Joseph restates what we have seen before, that the Egyptians hate shepherds (for all of the reasons I have said before), and what we can infer from this is that Goshen is both distant from the major Egyptian cities of the time and also a very fertile land for raising livestock.  Joseph calls it the "best of the land", but the reason they are sent to Goshen is to avoid disturbing the large agrarian population.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 45

In this chapter, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and sends them back to bring Jacob to Egypt.

Joseph, confronted with his brother Judah doing something noble for the first or second time in his life, has finally had enough and reveals himself to his brothers rather than continue with the charade.  It makes for a very colorful scene, with Joseph crying "so loudly the Egyptians heard him" and his brothers (understandably) freaking out.  The bible uses muted terminology to describe their response, in the NASB it says they "were dismayed at his presence", which is a pretty amusing understatement.  I mean, just last chapter they are telling each other that this guy is going to kill them.  And now he's crying out loud and saying "I'm Joseph!", the brother they tried to kill at one point before resolving to sell him into slavery.

Joseph's speech is a pretty clear summary of the story: God used his brother's bad actions to place Joseph so that he could bring about their salvation from the famine.  Of course, this is Joseph sharing his opinion, and not God speaking, but there are a couple positive aspects.  First, we see that Joseph is not actually embittered towards his brothers.  This isn't clear when he first meets them, because he lies to them and deceives them into bringing down Benjamin.  As I've said before, his motivation for doing this wasn't entirely clear.  But now we can see that he doesn't intend to harm them.  Second, Joseph is not embittered towards his experiences in prison or in slavery in Egypt.  The most consistent theme of what Joseph says is "God orchestrated this for you deliverance"  So his focus is almost entirely on the positive aspects.

To be sure, this is Joseph speaking while he is the Pharaoh's right hand and exalted above all people in Egypt, but even so, he is now facing the men who sent him here, so if he had any hard feelings, they would almost certainly be showing through by now.  Instead of talking about such things, Joseph offers his brothers and their families refuge in Egypt from the famine, where he will provide for them everything they need in a rich land.

We again see Joseph favor his brother Benjamin over all his other brothers, because he and Benjamin had the same mother.

The other part about this chapter I love is when Joseph tells his brothers, "Do not quarrel on the journey!"  It is such a motherly exhortation it makes me smile every time I read it.  It is consistent with the generally softer portrayal of Joseph (who weeps frequently).  Joseph is indeed portrayed as somewhat gentler in this way, yet this is a gentleness that survived the rigors of years, *if not decades*, in an Egyptian prison.  This is a gentleness that refused sexual immorality repeatedly, as he fled from his master's wife, so he adhered to his principles regardless of the situation.  In spite of all the difficulties he has faced, none of these things seem to have "stuck" to him in a negative sense.  He has maintained much of the attitude of his youth in spite of both trials and success (for indeed, success itself often changes a person more than trials, by bloating the ego into foolish deeds).  While Joseph remembered his dreams of supremacy, and while he did deceive his brothers for a time, in the end he does not harm them and uses his position to benefit his entire family.  This is the faithfulness of Joseph.

Like I mentioned before, I think I personally prefer Jacob's story to Joseph, because while Joseph is an interesting figure from whom we can learn much, he never shows the dynamism and transformation that we see in Jacob's life.  If Jacob is the model of an overcomer, beating his past and his demons, then Joseph is the model of perseverance, maintaining an attitude of purity and diligence in spite of years of challenges and then years of success (remember, he was lord over Egypt for 7 years of abundance).  In the end, none of these things changed him negatively.  This is parallel but different than Abraham's struggles.  Joseph was a man who did not explicitly interact with the Lord in his entire life, as told by the bible.  We can see here, in his speech, how much God is reflected in his inner life and attitudes, but unlike his forefathers, he never spoke with the Lord that we can read about.  All of his trials were related to his physical circumstances, whether in slavery or in prison or in lordship over the most powerful nation on earth at the time.  We can see the results of his perseverance and success through these challenges.

With Abraham, all of his struggles seem to relate directly to his relationship with the Lord.  In physical circumstances, he is always victorious over everything.  When Lot gets kidnapped, he goes and destroys an entire army with 318 men.  I think we have a badass over here.  I mean, he went 100% Chuck Norris on those guys.  He grows exceedingly wealthy through his herding.  When he goes to Gerar and lies to Abimelech, God comes in and backs him up by threatening Abimelech to treat Abraham well or else.

But contrariwise, Abraham struggles in his relationship with God for almost the entire story.  Starting in chapter 15, he wonders about the meaning of God's promises when he has no son.  Then he struggles through the Hagar and Ishmael situation, which was awkward and painful.  Then God tells him to sacrifice Isaac and he goes through several days of agony over that one.  And eventually things settle down for him after that.

In both cases, Abraham and Joseph, they model the life of perseverance.  Both of them begin life, at the very beginning of their respective stories, already modeling mature aspects of their spiritual walks.  Abraham is the man of faith in Genesis 12 when God commands him to go to a new land, an unseen land, and he does it without question or even comment.  Joseph is already the favored son of Jacob and he begins his faithful service to Potiphar from the very beginning.  That's why I say we never really get to see them grow, like Jacob grows.  However, we do get to see them take their lives of faith through the many perils of circumstance and time.

In the case of Abraham, his rocky road is the forerunner lifestyle of being the progenitor of an entire race of people living under the promise of God's blessing.  He was given the covenant of circumcision and the promised seed, the Messiah.  While there were faithful men before him, like Enoch or Noah, Abraham truly is the first of a whole new line of people, living in a new way.  All of his challenges were centered around these issues, and the physical circumstances around him are almost ignored.  He is successful in everything he does, both in wealth and power.

In the case of Joseph, we see very little of his spiritual life.  All of his challenges are in the physical realm, as I previously described.  The silence around his spiritual life is peculiar and fascinates me.  We are never told of Joseph praying or worshiping or building altars, or any of the things of his forefathers.  We do see him interpret dreams, work diligently, live in purity from sexual sin, and overcome bitterness against his backstabbing brothers, a stunning list of accomplishments in my opinion, and I would be greatly pleased if I could do as much in my own life.

As I've previously mentioned, Joseph is the first one in Abraham's life whom God does not directly hand off the Promise.  This is almost certainly because after Jacob, the promised is shared amongst all his sons and not the property of Joseph alone.  So this is the time window when the promise of Abraham passes over from being carried by a single man to covering a whole community.  We will see the interactions with God change accordingly, especially going into the book of Exodus, when instead of primarily relating between God and a single man, the covenant is increasingly defined between the entire Israelite community as an organization and God.  This is somewhat contradicted by Moses's relationship with God, but.... well, I'll talk about it more when we get there.  :)  The important point here is that this time window, when Jacob is about to die and his twelve sons take on the blessing and covenant of Abraham, is when the promise passes from a single man to a community, and so while the nature of the promise doesn't change, the form of how it is manifested and how God relates to people through the promise changes.  The specific nature of that transformation is seen in part in Joseph's life, and more fully in the lives of his children in Exodus.

So in conclusion, I see Abraham and Joseph as modeling two different aspects of perseverance, the physical and the spiritual.  If one wonders how to get to a place like where they started their lives, I look to the example of Jacob, who models the life of overcoming habitual sin and trials.  After overcoming such habitual sins and other problems, then one moves on to perseverance and maintenance of those mature attitudes in the face of further difficulties, which are inevitable in life.

This is basically the end of Joseph's story.  Jacob hears that Joseph is alive, and it revives Jacob's spirit.  He truly loved Joseph more than the rest, and now he travels down to Egypt to see Joseph again before he dies.  So this turns out to be a happy ending for Jacob as well, even though just last chapter Jacob was deeply torn when he was forced to send down Benjamin to Egypt.  Things turn out better than he could have possibly hoped or expected.

One might wonder why I haven't mentioned Isaac in this long discourse.  Well, to be blunt, he doesn't really do much in his lifetime.  He is faithful to the Lord and to the promises, but his story is short and relatively uneventful.  You could perhaps also call him a model of perseverance, but the truth is that we don't get to see him face very many challenges.  His best action is praying for Rebekah's barrenness, rather than struggling in the ways of his father Abraham or his son Jacob, but in the many decades of his life this is a fairly isolated incident.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 44

In this chapter, Joseph deceives his brothers again by planting evidence to incriminate Benjamin of theft.

Joseph fills their sacks with money for a second time, but also adds a special silver cup into Benjamin's sack.  After commanding his steward to do this, he then commands his steward to go chase them down and arrest Benjamin for theft.

Verse 9 and 10 show that, as far as I can tell, Joseph's plan was to bring Benjamin to Egypt and then keep him there.  He manipulated his brothers last time to get them to bring Benjamin down, and now he is manipulating them to keep Benjamin there.  He gave his brother Benjamin "five times" the portion of any other in the last chapter, as well as blessing him and weeping at his sight.  So it's pretty evident that he doesn't intend to harm Benjamin at all, and from his unnamed steward's words in verse 10, we see that he plans on letting all of his other brothers go back to Jacob.

The fundamental tension here is that Jacob also loves Benjamin, as he made clear last chapter.  So for Joseph to have Benjamin would bereave his father.  Judah also swore to his father to return with Benjamin, and hence Judah now has his second noble act in the Bible, standing up to Joseph and pleading to exchange his life for Benjamin's.

Lastly, it's interesting that this chapter says that Joseph uses his silver cup for divination, and he says "Do you not know that a man such as I can practice divination?"  This is interesting because divination is specifically outlawed by the Law of Moses, yet here Joseph practices with no explicit condemnation.  This can probably be ascribed to his many years in Egypt, serving Pharaoh, where divination would have been common.  It's a pretty brief reference so I don't want to make too big a deal out of it, but I always find it notable when characters who are otherwise positively regarded do things in contravention of the Law.  Joseph is just another one of those characters.

Judah takes a long and humble stand that he has to exchange his life for Benjamin's, for the sake of his father, and as we will see in the next chapter, Judah's words have enough emotional force that they cause Joseph to reveal himself, rather than continue with the charade.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 43

In this chapter, Jacob again sends his sons into Egypt to buy food, this time taking Benjamin with them as Joseph demanded.

This is a really poignant chapter.  We saw before that when Benjamin was demanded of him, Jacob hesitated.  But now it comes down to starvation and he doesn't have a choice anymore.  Judah has his first recorded noble act, which is to offer his own life as a guarantee for Benjamin's safety.  Although there aren't any obvious literary parallels, this reminds me of when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.  Benjamin is Jacob's second-most-loved son (the first being Joseph), and now he is compelled to give him up: not necessarily to death, but give up his control and protection of Benjamin, to put him into the hands of another and send him on the dangerous and long road to Egypt.

This chapter also has the only mention of pistachio nuts in the entire bible.  It's not important, but it's an interesting piece of trivia.  :)  Out of all the gifts mentioned, balm, honey, myrrh, aromatic gum (in NIV, it's called "spices"), almonds and pistachios, all of them are mentioned multiple times in the bible except for pistachios.  In fact, in chapter 37 we saw three of these (balm, aromatic gum and myrrh) being transported by the Ishmaelite traders heading down to Egypt.  So we have already seen that these were considered valuable commodities which were imported to Egypt.  Jacob calls them the "best products in the land".

The next part of the story doesn't interest me too much.  There are just three things I want to specifically call out.

First, we see that the Egyptians refuse to eat with Israelites.  This again shows the subtext of continuous tension between the agrarian Egyptians and the nomadic Israelites, which I have discussed several times before.

Second, at this point Joseph's house steward tells them that he received their money, which is a lie that he was probably instructed to tell them by Joseph.  I was wondering about this in the prior chapter's commentary, because it's not really clear what Joseph intended, why he would deceptively put their money back in their sacks and then have his steward lie about it when they try to give the money back.

Third, I think I forgot to mention this before, but it's interesting how Joseph weeps several times.  This is interesting to me because, as some readers may have noticed already, the bible is not written in a format that is conducive to..... a couple different things: conveying emotions for one, modern narrative constructs for another, and even character development.  That's why I always make such a big deal out of these elements, the emotional aspects of what is going on, the general storyline narrative and the character traits and development, because they are (in general) underemphasized by the literary style of the bible when compared by a modern novel.  That can make it difficult for modern readers to engage with the bible, because it can seem long and dry.  There are a variety of reasons for this: I will list a few, but this is a complicated subject and I don't know too much about it.

First is the essential oratorical character of much of the OT (the Pentateuch, prophetic writings, and some parts of the wisdom literature like Job, the Psalms and Proverbs).  This fundamentally limits and changes the character of the written text, because readers are only getting about half of the performance.  While we get the written words, we lose the orator's intonations, music, theatrics and so forth, that made oratorical traditions so rich and still live on today in much of the Middle East.

Second is the biblical subject matter.  While we are reading through lots of storyline narrative right now, trust me when I say it won't last forever.  Large sections of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy are legal proscriptions about multitudes of social and religious issues, forming a legal backbone for ancient Israelite society.

Third is style and the effects of history.  Even when the bible is relating a narrative story that was originally written down and not derived from an oral tradition (for instance, the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the OT), it is still often dry and uninteresting to many modern readers.  That is because, to put it bluntly, the bible was largely not written to be entertaining.  A modern novel is usually written to entertain and enlighten.  The bible was written with a variety of complex motivations, some didactic, some legal, some moral, some theological, some musical, and so forth.  And while I personally find large parts of the bible interesting, my honest opinion is that it was not written to be entertaining.

There are some notable counterexamples, like the story of Esther.  However, in some ways Esther is the exception that proves the rule, as Esther was recently made into a movie.  I do not expect any movies about the book of Kings, for instance, to ever be produced in my lifetime.

In conclusion, I will do what I can to make the bible interesting by highlighting these aspects.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Bible Commentary - Genesis 42

In this chapter, the sons of Jacob go to Egypt to buy grain, and Simeon is taken as a captive by Joseph.

Now that Joseph has achieved political power in Egypt and the famine has spread to Canaan, we are ready for the fulfillment of Joseph's dreams of supremacy in his family.  This effectively concludes his story arc, forming a clear progression with 1) a defined-but-distant promise, 2) a series of challenges, 3) fulfillment of that promise.

We see how Jacob clearly values Benjamin over his other brothers.  As I have previously said, this is because Benjamin is the only (known) son of Rachel who is still alive.

We see, yet again, how Egypt proves to be a refuge for Canaanites in times of famine.  Abraham went down to Egypt during a famine and Isaac strongly considered going before God told him not to.  Now Jacob is sending his sons to buy food from Egypt.  The most probable reason for why Egypt is so consistently safe during famine is that Egyptian agriculture was heavily based around the Nile river and its delta, while farming in other regions was more dependent on unreliable rain patterns.  While there were other rivers that could be used in agriculture, such as the Jordan or the more distant Tigris/Euphrates system, the Nile was generally the largest and most exploited of the ancient Near East rivers.

Some comments.

Probably the most confusing thing to new readers is why Joseph wishes to deceive his brothers.  We can (implicitly) tell that Joseph's appearance must have changes a whole lot in the many years he was in Egypt.  We know he was sent there as a youth, possibly only 8-12 years old, and now he is 30, is wearing rich clothes, and is fluent in Egyptian (which is another sign he must have been sent young, because he was able to learn the language relatively fast and completely).  So it's pretty reasonable that they don't recognize him.

But why would Joseph lie to them and threaten them?  I think the best answer is that he was somewhat lonely and the only brother he ever got along with is his own mother-brother, Benjamin (both sons of Rachel).  Probably Benjamin had the least to do with betraying Joseph.  My guess is that Joseph wanted to have them bring Benjamin down to Egypt, and then have all the other sons return to Jacob and then Joseph would live with Benjamin away from his family.

It's also interesting to see the arguments and the guilt they all feel about betraying Joseph when they sold him into slavery.  They never before indicated they felt bad about it, but now the brothers lament how they ignored the "distress of his soul when [Joseph] pleaded with us".  Reuben (who had tried to protect Joseph initially) chastises his brothers for not listening to him when he tried to stop them.  Of course, it's easy to feel bad about something when you are suffering the consequences of your actions.

It is peculiar that Joseph returns the money into the grain sacks of all his brothers.  I'm honestly not sure what he was intending.  Maybe he wanted to bless them with free money.  It is ironic that what is intended as a gift terrifies his brothers so much.  His brothers are of course scared because they think that they were given the money by accident and that Joseph would think they stole it.  Joseph has all the power, so he could have them killed if he wanted.

It's funny to see the nervous honesty of Joseph's brothers in the face of his power over them.  It is different behavior from a group of brothers who were repeatedly defined by their lies and deception to now be desperately honest in spite of circumstances that make them appear as if they were thieves, and even furthermore being accused by Joseph of spying on the land.  Not only are they suffering for their actions towards Joseph, they are possibly also suffering because of their lifetimes of deception.  One can wonder if Joseph is doing this intentionally, since he knows their character.

I also love how Reuben stands up to his father on behalf of Benjamin.  Before now, we have never seen the sons of Jacob take responsibility for anything or anyone.  We have heard Joseph share a "bad report" about them, and we have personally observed the lies and bloodshed of Simeon and Levi and the various sins of Judah.  We also saw the sons of Jacob "staring at one another" in verse 1, clearly showing their hesitancy at taking responsibility for getting food.  Yet now Reuben is swearing by his two sons that he will protect Benjamin on behalf of his father when they go down to Egypt.  This is in addition to his (halfhearted) attempts to protect Joseph some decades earlier.  So Reuben is one of my more favorite sons of Jacob for that reason.

Nevertheless, it is too much of a risk for Jacob and he refuses Reuben's offer.

Bible Commentary - Genesis 41

In this chapter, Joseph interprets Pharaoh's dreams and is promoted to rule all of Egypt.  A famine occurs, but Joseph has prepared for it in time.

The first thing we see is that two years have passed, so we know Joseph has been in the prison for some time.  The prior chapter established two key facts: we saw that Joseph had a gift of interpreting dreams and the king's cupbearer also discovered this fact when he was reestablished in his prior position.

This leads us directly to the second thing, which is Pharaoh now having two dreams.  Again, the two dreams here are a parallel of Joseph's two dreams at the beginning and the two dreams we saw in the last chapter.  Just as Joseph interpreted the dreams of the cupbearer and the baker, he proves that he can interpret the dreams of the mighty Pharaoh himself.

We also see Joseph establish the supremacy of the LORD over the powers of the magicians and wise men.  This is a common theme in the bible, repeated again in the story of Moses and later in the stories of Elijah and Jeremiah in different forms.  The simplest explanation is that "interpretations belong to God" and therefore anyone not given a divine interpretation cannot properly interpret a dream.  However, the stories of Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah do not relate to dream interpretation, so there is a more general message here: the LORD is  supreme over human agency in all realms of wisdom, knowledge and power.  Moses and Elijah have power and prayer confrontations with unbelievers and Jeremiah has a prophetic confrontation with a group of false prophets about what is the true word of the LORD.

However, the closest parallel to this story is the story of Daniel, where Nebuchadnezzar seeks an interpretation of his dreams and all of his wise men fail, but Daniel (through the power of the LORD) provides the correct interpretation and is granted power and authority in the Babylonian kingdom.  This is almost exactly what happens here to Joseph, with a few key differences.  First, the interpretation of the dream is markedly different.  Second, Pharaoh does not show the same cynicism towards his magicians that Nebuchadnezzar has.  In the story of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar refuses to even tell others his dreams, because he thinks they will contrive an answer to please him, but that is false.  In this case, Pharaoh has no such fears and widely shares his dreams in search of an answer.

All of this seems pretty didactic to me, so I don't really want to spend much time on it.  In fact, most of the story of Joseph's life seems didactic, in terms of its general structure and message.  I suppose it could be interesting for people who are new to the bible, but in literary or theological terms it is not as interesting to me as e.g. the life of Jacob, which has richer character portrayals.

Some minor points:

Every time I read this I am amused when it says that they shaved Joseph and put him in new clothes.  It's a brief addition, but it amuses me because you see how they try to control the appearance of people who are brought before Pharaoh.  Even prisoners are made to not look like they just came out of a dungeon.

This chapter is where the "two dreams means it's serious" principle, which Joseph states in his interpretation.  It is first stated here, but it is used earlier when Joseph has two dreams with the same interpretation.

In my opinion, verse 38 is one of the most important in this chapter.  Pharaoh declares he wants someone "in whom is a divine spirit", and then chooses Joseph.  We already know that Joseph is sharing interpretations which "belong to God", and now we have a strong implication from Pharaoh that he considers Joseph to be a container of divinity.  In my opinion this is one of the earliest statements about the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the entire bible.  Most people (when looking for the earliest statement) usually go to the book of Exodus and Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-6), but I've always considered Joseph to really be the first.  Of course, one can speculate about even earlier figures, such as Enoch or perhaps even Adam (in whom God blew his breath/spirit).  But Joseph is the first person who shows divine inspiration in interpreting dreams and is the first person ascribed with a divine spirit.  Note that the term translated "divine spirit" by the NASB is the Hebrew "ruach elohiym", literally "the spirit of God".  The only reason I can think of why it is translated abnormally here is that the NASB translators considered it improper for Pharaoh to be speaking about God when he is not part of the Hebrew faith.  The underlying text is precisely speaking about the spirit of God.

It is a peculiar and striking omission that nowhere in the entire story of Joseph's life has God spoken directly to him.  Even when interpreting dreams, Joseph always interprets them correctly without being explicitly given the interpretation by the LORD.  While it does say that the LORD gave Joseph favor with both the captain of the guard and the chief jailer, we have seen nothing of Joseph's direct relationship with the LORD.  This is a strong contrast to the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who were regularly instructed by the LORD.  I don't know if there is a reason for this, but if anything it makes God's intervention in his life all the more poignant.  So much of Joseph's life is centered around his relations with other people, who are generally his masters (first his father, then the captain, then the jailer, and now Pharaoh), yet through the whole process we have seen divine protection and favor in all of these situations.

The word in verse 43, in the NASB translated as "Bow the knee!" is the Hebrew Abrech (or Abreck), and it occurs only here in the entire bible.  The exact meaning is broadly debated based on what it might be derived from.  Regardless, from the context it is clearly a reference to Joseph's authority and the submission demanded from all of the commoners.

Joseph is given an Egyptian wife.  While it is pretty clearly bad for the Israelites to marry Canaanites, I'm not sure if it's actually taboo to marry Egyptians.  Moses, for instance, marries a Midianite, who are not sons of Jacob/Israel.  And as with Esau, Joseph is not actually under the Mosaic Covenant, so these restrictions are still generally cultural and not legal or religious.

Joseph has two sons and there is no sign of the hereditary barrenness of his forefathers.  From now on, the Israelites will multiply rapidly and become very numerous.

We also see another famine.  This is not the first famine in the bible, as there were also famines during Abraham's life and during Isaac's.  As I said back then, famines happened often in this geography (though remember, I'm only listing one famine per generation so there is still a 20-50 year gap between major famines).

Lastly, we see that Joseph's solution of gathering food during the abundance is going to save many lives now that the famine had come.  There would have been no natural prediction of the famine after 7 years of abundance, but thanks to Joseph's foresight many will now live.