What Was the House of Joseph?

I’ve just published a new video on my YouTube channel — this time about the story of Joseph. It’s based on this article I wrote a while ago, but as usual, it has some new material and a new approach to some issues.

Although a small minority of scholars still argue that the story of Joseph was written in the monarchic period, the modern consensus seems to be that it dates to post-exilic times and is linked somehow to the Jewish diaspora in Egypt. The canonical narrative begins and ends with a focus on the twelve sons of Jacob who are to become the twelve tribes of Israel; but as we know, the twelve-tribe motif is a fictional reinvention of Israel’s history that emerged quite late, and you don’t find individuals with those names in ancient inscriptions, ostraca, et cetera. At the very least, any part of the story involving the twelve sons of Jacob/Israel cannot be so ancient.

However, the name “Joseph” does seem to be older than most of the other names. Even in the Bible, there are places where Joseph is listed as a tribe or house that is distinct from other Israelite tribes, including Manasseh and Ephraim—oblivious to the verses in Genesis and Numbers that “replace” Joseph with Manasseh and Ephraim in the twelve-tribe framework.

Two questions I pondered while I was revisiting the Joseph story were (1) could there be an older core of the story that concerns only the Joseph character, and if so, (2) what, in historical terms, did Joseph originally refer to? Was it just another name for the kingdom of Israel, or did it represent something else?

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Adrien Guignet, Joseph explains Pharaoh's dream, 19th century

From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

The story of Joseph stands out in the book of Genesis as a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and conclusion. Its position in the Pentateuch also makes it a bridge between the stories of the patriarchs in Canaan and the sojourn of the Israelites in Egypt. Differences of style, narrative contradictions, details that don’t line up with the surrounding narrative, and other issues call into question the authorship and original purpose of the story, however. What can we learn from taking a closer look?Read More »

Bethel, the Forgotten God of Israel

Few literary sources about the early religion of Israel are available to us. There is the Old Testament of course, and although many of its stories and traditions are old, the text itself comes to us through redacted manuscripts produced by Judean scribes at a fairly late date. From archaeological evidence and careful analysis of some of the Bible’s earliest passages, scholars have developed a view of early Israel that was much more polytheistic right from its origins than the traditional story would have us believe.

In the early 20th century, a collection of Aramaic papyri discovered in Egypt opened a new window on Israelite religion. They consist of letters, legal documents, and literature written by and for a colony of Israelites and Arameans who were apparently recruited as mercenaries to guard the southern frontier of Egypt at what is now Aswan. Dated to the fifth century BCE, these papyri are far older than any biblical manuscripts we possess, and unlike the Bible, they are original documents with no opportunity for editing and revision over the centuries. Although Yahweh is frequently mentioned in the form “Yaho” (YHW or occasionally YHH), the letters also mention the god Bethel and the goddesses Anat-Bethel (i.e. Anat consort of Bethel), Anat-Yaho, and the Queen of Heaven in association with people who are clearly Israelites. There seems to be a clear implication that these were other deities venerated by at least some Jews and Israelites. Can we find other evidence that such was the case? For this article, I am particularly interested in Bethel, but others may occasionally come into the picture.Read More »

The Story of Ezer and Elead (and What It Means for the Exodus)

Tucked away amidst the genealogies of Chronicles almost no one reads, the tale of two cattle-rustling brothers from Ephraim might just be the most obscure story in the Bible. Like many such tales in the Old Testament, this one is brief and contains only the most essential details:

The sons of Ephraim…Ezer and Elead. Now the men of Gath, who were born in the land, killed them, because they came down to raid their cattle. And their father Ephraim mourned many days, and his brothers came to comfort him. He went in to his wife, and she conceived and bore a son; and he named him Beriah, because evil (beraah) had befallen his house. His daughter was Sheerah, who built both Lower and Upper Beth-horon, and Uzzen-sheerah. (1 Chr. 7:20-24)Read More »

Matthew’s Nativity Story, Critically Examined

Another Christmas has come and gone, and it is a time of year when one Bible story stands out above all else—the nativity of Jesus. Despite the deep reverence Christians have for this story, many (perhaps most) are aware at some level that the ubiquitous scene with the shepherds, the three magi, the star and the stable full of animals is an idealized fairytale version. As a mythologized tradition, it exists in numerous cultural variations—those from Naples may include taverns and merchants, for example, while Catalan nativity scenes always include a character who is defecating (!), called the “Caganer”. The Bible itself tells two separate tales of Jesus’ birth (one in Matthew and one in Luke), and neither of them presents an account that resembles the modern nativity portrayal. Nor, for that matter, can the two accounts be merged into a single, consistent narrative without altering or omitting numerous critical details. Then again, few people care really look that closely at the biblical texts and their background. The crèche, though not faithful to any biblical story or historical reality, is a powerful vignette full of symbolic elements that combine to create a sense of mystery and awe. In many ways, it has superseded the Gospels as the canonical representation of Jesus’ birth in the minds of believers.Read More »