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.

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