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.

1 comment:

Anna Tan said...

Having said all that about orality, have you heard of the Simply the Story program?

It goes back to the oral story-telling nature of the Bible, and attempts to help non-literate learners get more from the Bible than if they were to read it on their own or were to read a commentary.