From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph

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

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? Continue reading “From Robes to Riches: The Fairytale of Joseph”

Some Curious Numerical Facts about the Ages of the Patriarchs

“Why did the people in Genesis live to be hundreds of years old?” is a question that surely everyone who ever took the Bible seriously has asked. Those who have moved on from their childhood (or childish) adherence to a literal interpretation of Genesis are still generally curious about the ages and if there is any symbolism to the numbers that the Bible records with such tedious exactitude.

Some of the typical answers provided by biblical scholars are less than satisfying, and the fact is that most of the numbers themselves may simply be meaningless on their own. However, some odd facts concerning the ages of the patriarchs have recently been analyzed in biblical studies journals, adding to our knowledge of the Bible’s composition history in the process. There are two issues of particular interest: the numbers in the genealogies taken as a whole, and a problem introduced by the Flood story, which required some tampering with the genealogies by the Bible’s editors. Continue reading “Some Curious Numerical Facts about the Ages of the Patriarchs”

Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam

No scene in the Old Testament characterizes the Israelites’ frequent apostasy more vividly than the Golden Calf incident in Exodus. Like so many other biblical stories, however, this tale reveals a complicated history of development and other problems that render its intent ambiguous.

The Golden Calf story does not stand in isolation, for 1 Kings tells a very similar story about the creation of two golden calves by king Jeroboam, and there are additional references to the golden calves in Hosea, Psalms, Deuteronomy, and elsewhere. The two incidents appear to be related, but how exactly?

The situation becomes more complicated still when we bringing historical and archaeological evidence. Having skimmed several dozen books and articles that discuss the golden calves of Exodus and 1 Kings, I will attempt to summarize the most widespread academic views. Continue reading “Behold Your Gods, O Israel — The Golden Calves of Aaron and Jeroboam”

Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt

With Ridley Scott’s new motion picture Exodus: Gods and Kings nearing its release date of December 12, I thought the Exodus would make a good topic for analysis. The tale of Moses, the ten (or so) plagues, and the Israelites’ flight from Egypt is in many ways the climax of the Pentateuch’s narrative arc — a Bible story that defines the nation of Israel and the most important figure in Judaism, Moses.

Investigation of the book of Exodus could fill (and has filled) innumerable articles and books, but even a fairly cursory look at the story of the plagues reveals tantalizing details and odd inconsistencies that imply a rich and complex history of authorship and revision. Continue reading “Exodus and the Plagues of Egypt”

Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol

There is probably no artifact in the Bible more famous than the Ark of the Covenant — or, to use its fullest and most ancient title, the “Ark of Yahweh Sabaoth Who Sits Enthroned upon the Cherubim”.¹ When we look at what the Bible actually says about it, we find strange tales of the Ark’s dangerous powers, conflicting stories of its construction, contradictions about its contents, and a puzzling silence about its fate. If we dig deep enough, we even find signs of alternate traditions that have been erased by later biblical editors. A thorough look at all these passages would easily fill a book, but a few issues in particular have caught my attention lately. Continue reading “Readers of the Lost Ark: Following the Literary Trail of an Ancient Religious Symbol”

Moses: The (Mostly) Untold Story

It is well-known that many of the narrative books of the Bible contain similar traditions combined together, often in ways a modern reader would find contradictory. The Exodus from Egypt provides an interesting case. The overall narrative as it now stands paints a grandiose picture of Israel’s national past — millions of people enslaved in Egypt, who then escaped and wandered the desert for forty years before conquering the Promised Land. Yet hidden away in the text are vestigial traces of a very different story that spans only a few generations from the tribal patriarchs to the settlement of Canaan, and involves a far smaller group of people.

Continue reading “Moses: The (Mostly) Untold Story”

Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain

Anyone who has been to Sunday school is familiar with the stories of the Wilderness wanderings — how the Israelites were made to spend forty years wandering in the parched desert between Egypt and Palestine after their escape from Pharaoh, forbidden to enter the lush and bountiful lands of Canaan. In one often-told story found in Exodus 16, the Israelites find themselves going hungry and yearning for their days in Egypt when they could eat their fill of meat and bread. God hears their complaints and promises the Israelites he will provide them their fill of meat in the evening and bread in the morning. Sure enough, from that point on, the camp is overrun with quail every evening, and in the morning, the dew deposits flaky “bread” — manna — for the people to gather and eat. Exodus 16:35 reads:

 The sons of Israel ate manna for forty years, up to the time they reached inhabited country: they ate manna up to the time they reached the frontier of the land of Canaan. (JB)

In an alternate version of the story found in Numbers 11, we read that the Israelites are given just manna at first, but that they soon tire of it, and complain that they want some meat. That really rustles God’s jimmies, so he decides that not only will they get their meat, he’ll make them eat it till they get sick of it. And so it happens, that a stiff wind blows in so much quail (“from the sea”), the ground around the camp is covered with them two cubits deep! (It’s just like “The Trouble with Tribbles”, but set in Bible times.) And then, for good measure, God strikes the Israelites with a plague while they are still eating the quail, killing a whole bunch of them. (Why don’t I remember that part from Sunday school?)

Tribbles

Imagine this, but with quails.

Of course, the people needed water too. In Exodus 17, immediately following the quail-and-manna story, we find the Israelites in the Wilderness of Sin without any water. (However, they do have livestock. Why didn’t they eat that while they were complaining about having no meat? But I digress…) God commands Moses to strike a rock, and when he does, it produces a spring of water. Incidentally, this account is etiological in purpose, as it is used to explain how a place called Massah or Meribah¹ got its name.

Continue reading “Moses and the Amazing Technicolor Water Fountain”