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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Did Biblical Authors Literally Cut and Paste? A Review of The Dismembered Bible by Idan Dershowitz

Countless scholars have appealed to multiple documentary sources and stages of redaction to explain the complex and often puzzling state of various Old Testament texts. Rarely do they attempt to describe the actual physical process by which such editing would have been carried out. A few scholars have even gone so far as to ridicule the idea that ancient scribes could have performed complicated edits the way modern writers do. Susan Niditch criticized the Documentary Hypothesis on this very basis some years ago, highlighting the implausibility of the techniques that the pentateuchal scribes are assumed to have used.

At the heart of documentary hypothesis…is the cut-and-paste image of an individual pictured like Emperor Claudius of the PBS series, having his various written sources laid out before him as he chooses this verse or that, includes this tale not that, edits, elaborates, all in a library setting.

If the texts are leather, they may be heavy and need to be unrolled. Finding the proper passage in each scroll is a bit of a chore. If texts are papyrus, they are read held in the arm, one hand clasping or “supporting” the “bulk” of the scroll, while the other unrolls. Did the redactor need three colleagues to hold J, E, and P for him? Did each read the text out loud, and did he ask them to pause until he jotted down his selections, working like a secretary with three tapes dictated by the boss?

(Niditch, p. 113)

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The Metamorphosis of Lot’s Wife (Plus a New Video)

Recent scholarship on the Sodom and Gomorrah story increasingly explores the long-ignored connections with Greek mythology — and in particular, the theoxeny motif that typically involves one or more gods visiting human civilization in disguise. This motif forms the framework for chapters 18 and 19 of Genesis, and it occurs in the Greek New Testament as well, but it is absent from other Near Eastern literature.

I first wrote about Sodom and Gomorrah several years ago. I’ve created a new video on the topic that covers much of the same material, but with some new insights and approaches. You can find it on YouTube here.

One aspect of the story I do not address in the video is that of Lot’s wife. The instantaneous transformation of the unnamed Mrs. Lot into an upright mineral formation is unique in all the Bible, and apparently unique among Near Eastern literature as well. What should we make of it?

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Nimrod and Other Legendary City Founders

In the middle of a genealogy about the descendants of Noah in Genesis 10, the author inserts a brief and obviously incomplete narrative about a great king named Nimrod who founds and rules several of the great cities of Babylonia and Assyria. The story cannot be described as historical, of course. No ruler named Nimrod can be found in the archaeological record, and the cities in question — to the extent that they can be identified — were established at different times over the span of several millennia.

It might seem strange that ancient authors would invent or tell stories about fictitious founders of great cities, but this was, in fact, common practice. Ancient Greek authors were particularly interested in the founding stories of Nineveh and Babylon, even though they possessed very little reliable knowledge about those cities and their histories.

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Babel: History, Mythology, and Meaning (Video)

Episode 2 is now up. This time, it’s about the Tower of Babel story and how it fits into both the biblical narrative and the typical patterns of Near Eastern mythology. It’s broadly based on this article about Babel that I wrote several years ago, but I have some new material and a new approach to the topic that I think many of my readers will find interesting. The YouTube description also links to a transcript if you prefer to read that instead.

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The Timeline of Noah’s Flood (Video)

In case you saw this post briefly disappear, I apologize for the confusion. I inadvertently uploaded an older version of the video and quickly took the post down so I could rectify the error.

When I first wrote about Noah’s flood some years ago, I offered an interpretation of the flood timeline based primarily on a 1980 paper by Niels Peter Lemche. Later, I discovered a more recent paper by Lloyd M. Barré that solved some of the difficulties that remained in the reconstructions attempted by Lemche and others.

Anyone can read the paper for themselves of course, but I thought it would be nice to demonstrate the flood chronology visually as a follow-up video to Episode 1, which I posted two weeks ago. Shorter videos like this will be treated as supplementary instead of getting their own episode number.

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Announcing a New Video Project

My media consumption increasingly comes in the form of YouTube videos these days — particularly documentary-style video essays on a variety of topics that interest me. One of my primary interests is obviously biblical studies, but there aren’t a lot of video channels that take biblical research seriously and communicate it to general audiences. So I decided I would give it a try.

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Noah’s Flood: Competing Visions of a Mesopotamian Tradition

December of 1872 marked a watershed in biblical studies. At a highly publicized lecture for the Society for Biblical Archaeology, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone in attendance, an Assyriologist named George Smith revealed the startling contents of a tablet he had recently discovered. The tablet, one of 25,000 or so that had been excavated from the ruins of ancient Nineveh and sent back to the British Museum in London, told the story of a universal flood that sounded very much like the tale of Noah’s Ark that every churchgoer is familiar with. The tablet turned out to be one of twelve that made up the now-famous Gilgamesh Epic.

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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 »

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.Read More »