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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Genesis 37-50: Many-colored sleeves

Genesis ends with Joseph's story, which is refreshing to me after reading about his forebears' exploits. The first thing we learn about Joseph is his robe--which NRSV says is "a long robe with sleeves," signifying exemption from labor according to Oxford. This is quite different from the "coat of many colors" I heard so much about as a kid, and makes for a more compelling reason for his brothers' jealousy (unless they just really liked rainbows).

The second thing we learn about Joe is that by 17 he hadn't learned much about when to keep his mouth shut. 37:5-11 show him telling the bros about dreams he had, whose obvious interpretations showed that they would wind up being subservient to him. Let me tell you, if I were trying not to be sold into slavery by my siblings, I'd keep that stuff on the DL, but Joe did not - how surprised could he have been when that's exactly what happened? Oops. The interesting thing I'd forgotten about is that the other eleven originally intend to kill him, before deciding that they may as well make a few bucks - in this case, greed leads to the betterment of mankind.

Chapter 38 gives us a detour, wherein we learn about Onan (among some stories I don't get but would love to have explained). The sin of Onan has frequently been stated as... how do I say it politely? It rhymes with "blasturbation." That's always kinda annoyed me, since the act he performs reads more like something that rhymes with "bloitus blinterruptus." Of course, his actual sin is disobeying God, which is certainly worse than blanking the blonkey.

After Joseph gets to Egypt, he is once again hornswoggled, this time by Potiphar's wife who, having had her sexual advances rebuked, accuses him of attempted rape (39). Oops. It's very "Edward Scissorhands."

In jail, he finds his talent for interpreting dreams, as opposed to just running off at the mouth about them. He correctly predicts the fates of the Pharaoh's cupbearer and baker, though the former turns out to be a lousy secretary. He's supposed to put in a good word for Joseph and get him out of the pen, but instead - oops - forgets for two years. Finally, Joe gets his big break sussing out visions for the Pharaoh, consequently ensuring Egypt's survival through a global famine, and at the end of Ch. 41 gets picked for what sounds like "Vice Pharaoh." Go Joe!

When his estranged family comes looking for food, Joe messes with them quite a bit (justifiably), but ultimately embraces them like brothers. Thus the people of Israel relocate to Egypt and live well, until the Pharaoh gets all nervous and starts oppressing them in the beginning of Exodus, which we leave until the next entry.

Purely examining the plot, as though it were a novel, this is pretty cool - Genesis, with all its anti-heroes, ends with an account of a genuinely righteous and affable guy... who unwittingly leads his people into centuries of servitude. "Oops" is a word that comes to mind frequently.


Anonymous Scarlet said...

The book that I mentioned about Tamar in my last comment enlightened me a lot about chapter 38. In reference to your confusion about Onan: (from my understanding) Er dies. Er and Tamar had no children. As a widow, Tamar has no protection without a son. She was a widow with no property, money or children. She could not return to her family. Judah’s family was her family. As custom required, Judah gave her to his second son Onan. Onan’s responsibility was to give her a son—this son would replace the son she did not have with Er. A son would give her the protection she needed as a widow.

My understanding is that he went to her, but at the last minute denied her the right to have a child by him. I do not think this is a reference to your first rhyming word. I think this means he refused to give her his seed to make her pregnant when they had sex. Instead “he would waste the semen on the ground”. (Difficult to dance around this stuff. As our pastor says, “sometimes the Bible is “X” rated.”)

When Judah sends Tamar back to her father’s house after Onan dies, he has disgraced her. He should have then given her to his third son, per custom. But Judah was afraid that Tamar had brought a bad omen to his family (since her past two husbands had mysteriously died). Tamar waits for her father-in-law to summon her so that she will no longer be disgraced. Years pass and he does not follow his duty. So, that is why she dresses as a prostitute and sleeps with him. She asks for Judah’s signet, cord and staff. These are his lifelong identification items. When she finds that she is pregnant, she is at risk of being killed (remember she is a widow waiting to be married to Shelah. She has learned that he is at an age for marriage. But she still has not been given to him in marriage.) She sends Judah’s identification back to him to show that he is the father of her unborn children. She is not disgraced by this pregnancy because she has a right to the seed of the house of Judah as his sons’ widow. After he receives his signet, cord and staff, he realizes his wrong, marries her but does not sleep with her again.

As a woman, Tamar is in a very difficult situation. She takes matters into her own hands to restore her societal position—the position that Judah had denied her. It is hard to imagine being a woman, having no rights, and being at the mercy of a man too weak to follow his duty. protection.

Again we see that for much of his life Judah is a man of weak character. Isn’t it interesting that God uses this man of weak character in the genealogy to the Messiah? This discredits Joe’s comment from his last entry. If Joe’s comments about how the author’s of the Bible fabricated the stories to show their ancestors in an advantageous light, then why would the author’s choose Judah instead of Joseph. It seems that God is willing to portray the faults and weaknesses of his people. Just a little food for thought…

2:39 PM  
Anonymous AlieraKieron said...

It's interesting - the motif of "Potiphar's wife" is incredibly common throughout ancient literature - it occurs as early as Homer and recurs throughout Greek literature, most notably in Eurpides' "Hippolytus". It is almost always an older woman with a powerful husband who attempts to seduce, then accuses, the innocent hero, but frequently the woman in question was also the hero's stepmother.

9:41 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Minix said...

A great book dealing with literary aspects of the Bible is Robert Alter's "The Art of Biblical Narrartive" which I read for my biblical exam. I am prefacing this post with that acknowledgement because much of what I will be writing here is taken from Alter.

All of Genesis contains a theme about election- about how the son you should expect to carry on the family line in the proper manner- the eldest son- is often not the one God chooses. This is foreshadowing of two later sons who are not firstborn and yet become prominent- Moses and David.

The entire Joseph story is set up to be a tale of "recognizing" (although often the recognitions are false or incomplete). Joseph is given knowledge through dreams- he recognizes that he will have something great bestowed upon him- but he does not have the wisdom that he needs to be cautious. Jacob recognizes the coat- and so is not explicitly lied to by his sons- but he does not recognize their treachery or the role he has played in it. Judah does not recognize Tamar but he does recognize his staff and seal- and must deal with the consequences. Joseph recognizes his brothers- and so is able to deceive them- because he is unrecognizable. Many other examples of this word occurs, in subtle ways, through out the text.

The roles that Judah and Reuben play in this story may represent the importance of their tribes in later Israel- Reuben attempts to save Joseph but is somewhat ineffectual, as his Tribe fails to become dominant- he has slept with his father's handmaid and so is a broken leader. Judah's role in selling Joseph off- as well as his willingness to stay in Ben's place later- show Judah as natural leader and allow him to represent the role that the Tribe of Judah will later take (when the Tribe of Judah later ascends over the Tribe of Ben- "taking its place" -when David supplants Saul). The confusion between Midianites and Ishmaelites may well represent two separate traditions that are woven together at a later point, perhaps one from the Tribe of Reuben and one from the Tribe of Judah.

That one version comes from a Judah narrative is further enhanced by the inclusion of the story of Tamar immediately following, an ancestor of both David and Jesus, who bares a child of Judah (and, like another Tamar- a daugher of David- is linked with sexual sin). Like most Genesis stories, birth order becomes tricky as the first two sons of Judah die for displeasing God (but it is worth noticing, after the extravagant mourning of Jacob over Joseph, how little Judah seems to care- apart from the lie he tells Tamar- who is identified explicitly as "his daughter in law" in this passage to remind the reader of how he is betraying his legal obligations to her). When the time is right, Tamar tricks Judah- as he has tricked his father and Reuben- using a garment ... but he finally treats her properly once he recognizes his staff and seal.

With regard to Joseph in Potiphar's house: One of the keys of this section is the literary repetition, such as the repeated indication of the "success" that Joseph receives because the Lord blesses him, the use of the words "all" and "house" in order to stress Joseph's loyalty to his masters and their complete trust in him, and in the discrepencies between the account Potiphar's wife gives and the account of what actually happened (Notice how she stresses that Potiphar is at fault-that he brought Joseph into the house [you may recall that Adam did something similar toward God concerning Eve]). The last of these contrasts with the false evidence that Joseph's brothers gave to his father- although in both accounts a garment of Joseph's is the evidence for what is supposed to have transpired. The blessed house will continue wherever Joseph is given "all" authority- be it prison or the house of Pharaoh. His dreams will come true- and his ability to interpret them will be the key.

The repetitive nature of speech and events when the brothers stand before Joseph is also interesting- at each step the brothers can feel that what is happening to them before the vizier is in some way connected to their treatment of Joseph and the tension escalates further and further until Joseph finally reveals himself to them. Only late in the story do we discover that Joseph is using a translator- and that he is therefore secretly hearing all that his brothers say without their (or our!) knowledge. His deceptions test their character- but they can also be viewed as a test over whether or not they have also killed/sold Benjamin (which Joseph may have thought was possible).

And God reveals Himself to Jacob- wanting him to go to Egypt- where God will make a nation of him. Because in Egypt destiny awaits-triumph, prophecy, and eventual slavery- which will become the promise of freedom. The prologue is finished with the Joseph story- but the heart of the Torah- The Great Escape- is the next book in the series.

9:13 PM  
Anonymous Dad said...

As I read Genesis 38: 27-28, I find myself left with 3 questions:

What became of the twins--Perez and Zerah-- conceived from the "prostitute by the road" affair of Judah and Tamar earlier in that chapter?

After numerous previous incidents of stolen birthrights,what is the significance of the mysterious "end around" in the birth order of the Twins?

Finally, why do the aforementioned twins apparently just disappear after the story of their birth? Do they re-emerge later in Scripture as part of "The REST of the Story"?

6:30 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Minix said...

1. They eventually end up in Egypt with the rest of the children of Israel (Gen. 46:11).

2. I think it is just another example of election being turned on its head. The firstborn son is supposed to be Zerah. The firstborn son is also supposed to be the leader- the heir- the good one. This is almost never the case in Genesis (except for Shem and, in a sense, Perez). This particular story, however, shows a change in the very order from birth- Perez becomes the firstborn but he is also the important son from whom the line of Judah will grow (aka King David) but he almost wasn't the firstborn... even though he does ultimately receive that honor. David, too, almost wasn't picked by Samuel because of his place in birth order- but God takes a hand in such things.

3. Perez is the father of Hezron and an ancestor of both David and of Jesus (Matthew 1:3). So, in a sense, they all do reappear at a crucial point much later in the story.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Minix said...

As for the bit of "bloitus blinterruptus" by Onan- which I did not have time to address in my earlier post- what really is going on there is a debatable question- although I do not think what particular action Onan performed is the important aspect of the debate.

At least part of the sin appears to be linked not with the action but with Onan's intention- with his unwillingness to father children on behalf of his brother (as the sons of Onan by Tamar would have been considered). This aspect of the text seems to assume that the Mosaic Law (the sister-in-law marriage requirement and the understanding of such children as heirs of the previous husband) already exists in the practice of the people of Israel at this time- which I suspect is a retrojection of a later (Mosaic) practice into the period of the Patriarchs, which further solidifies the authority of the practice (as well as the Divine Authority behind it). But, as we no longer marry the widows of our brothers (and, if by some odd chance we do, we tend not to regard the children of those unions as belonging to our brother) it seems to me that this aspect of the sin does not apply to our present context.

I do think, however, that this passage could be generalized to argue against the practice of contraception or, even more generally, against any non-reproductive sexual activity. While it is not the only thing happening in the text, I think that there is a logical argument to be made that God- in this passage at least- is not a fan of sexual activity that is inherently contrary to reproduction (which would include contraception, masturbation, homosexuality, beastiality, abortion, necrophilia, etc.) and that this coincides both with the command to "be fruitful and multiply" and with passages of the New Testament where St. Paul condemns what is often translated is "sodomy" but which probably refers to a much broader range of behavior. At the same time, if this priniciple of interpretation is pushed to its limit, it could appear to also disqualifiy sexual activity between spouses after the "change of life" or in the event that either partner is physically incapable of reproducing (because while miracles do happen, they do not usually occur if the uterus or testicles are removed, for example-and if the possibility of procreation is absolutely necessary in all cases of sexual activity then this would be an issue). Nevertheless, the Kantian move toward "absolutizing" necessity is, I think, a mistake (as an aside, this often comes up when Catholics talk about baptism being "necessary" for salvation with Protestants- in Catholic theology, "necessary" is not meant in a Kantian ("absolute") sense but in a general sense like "it is necessary to go to third grade before you go to fourth grade." But it is understood that there are sometimes special circumstances where exceptions are supposed to exist, so that necessary does not mean absolutely necessary- such as someone who really ought to skip third grade and go directly to fourth, or a thief on a cross who did not have an opportunity to be baptized when he heard the Gospel, or, to return to the original circumstance, to a married couple where the wife's uterus was removed).

All the same, while I agree that the argument is logical (and with the general "natural law" principle with which it coincides), I do not think that the interpretation is the primary (meaning "the most adequate") interpretation. I think that there is in fact another possible interpretation that is at least as logical (and even more faithful to the entire passage)- which Scarlet has already hit upon- which is that Onan's action can be viewed as a (willful or inadvertent) sin against Tamar (as well as his dead brother). In refusing to father his brother with offspring, Onan is also implicitly refusing to give Tamar children- which is ultimately to relegate her to a second-rate status- to be seen as barren in the eyes of the wider community and without offspring to care for her in old age. And that is, in a very real sense, a form of spousal abuse- although not one we would probably think of normally. This interpretation is given further weight when it is seen in the context of the rest of the text, in which Judah also sins against Tamar by failing to marry her to his third son- and so subtly makes Onan into a foil character for Judah (and increases our sympathy for the plight of Tamar, who is left to be barren until she takes the situation into her own hands and tricks Judah).

8:06 PM  
Anonymous AlieraKieron said...


I find that interpretation problematic in the sense that it only makes sense from the conclusion: if you already agree that God disapproves of any non-procreative sex, then the case of Onan appears to contribute to that case. But I don't believe it's a logical conclusion just from looking at that portion of the text. (And I know you aren't exclusively, but I think my point stands.) It would be just as 'reasonably' to assume that it is never acceptable to send soldiers to fight on the front line because David got in trouble for sending Bathsheba's husband. The act itself was in no way wrong (sending a general to fight on the front) but the motivation (to murder the man by proxy) was.

7:55 PM  
Anonymous Matthew Minix said...

Hey Liz,

Well- my first instinct was to launch us into a lengthy discussion of the sinfulness of violence- but I figure we'll save that for a later post when we have gotten to some of the many biblical wars that await us. :)

As you (and I) have noted, I do not actually find the "non-procreation" interpretation to be the most adequate interpretation of the passage- although I do still think that it can be argued quite logically from the text, as I will show below. But, of course, even if I didn't think it could be argued logically from the text "in itself," it should probably be said again that I simply don't accept Sola Scriptura [even in premise] but instead accept Sola Verbum Dei- which includes Sacred Tradition- so- truth be told- not only do I not see a problem with holding a theological belief that informs my reading of the text, but I would (personally) hope that my pre-existing theological beliefs, based as they are in Sola Verbum Dei, would actually help elucidate the "most adequate" meaning of the text much of the time. In this case, even with my theological beliefs, I think the spousal abuse argument is significantly more convincing- given the way that Judah also behaves toward Tamar in the passage- but I also think that the other interpretation has some genuine merit when looking at Genesis as a whole- even to the degree that I am able to ignore my theological beliefs.

I think I see your point- you are saying both action and intention must be considered, yes? But I think you are trying to separate them from each other in a way that is unwarranted, even in your example. Part of this is due to the narration you give- because you have chosen to narrate the physical act separately from the motivation behind it- but is that the most adequate narration?

As I narrate the case of Uriah the Hittite, things are far more sinister than you propose: David also sent a note saying draw back and let him die (2 Sam. 11:14-15), which made it essentially pre-meditated murder. This was not merely the act of sending a soldier to the front but the drawing back of other soldiers so that Uriah would be abandoned at the front. Leaving a soldier alone to die without strategic purpose- morally sinful, I think. In my narration, both David's actions and intentions are genuinely quite sinful... and they go together to form the murder.

Also, in my narration, it seems to me, from what we are told, that Onan's intention was that Tamar not get pregnant (Gen. 38:9-10), and so he prevented this from happening, and what he did was displeasing to God. I do think he was abusing Tamar- but I am less sure that he was necessarily thinking of it in those terms, with that as his "motivation," for I suspect his intention was less sophisticated than that. And I do think that God's response assumes something sinful in both the act and the intention- because they genuinely go together. Now, we are told that Onan's intent is not to provide offspring for his brother- but we are not told directly if God displeased with that intent, specifically, or with the larger context of contraception, generally. On the surface, both seem possible. At the same time, as of Genesis we have not had any command to marry a brother's wife- which may be a textual clue.

Recognizing that my pre-existing theological opinions usually do play a significant role in my scriptural analysis, I still think that this anti-contraception position can be argued logically from the text directly. It seems to me that God's command to "be fruitful and mulitiply" which has already been given twice in Genesis (Gen. 1:28, 9:1) to human beings who represent the whole human race (Adam and Noah) can logically be argued for as a Divine Command that remains in the background of the characters actions, almost as a kind of "hermenutical key," through the majority of Genesis events.

Basically, God commands (twice!)that people procreate- and there is an awful lot of procreating going on for most of the rest of the book, as evidenced by the massive genealogies. When Babel gets confused, it seems to be so that people do not grow too powerful- but another effect is that people end up filling the earth (as in the "be fruitful" command). Abraham's desire for children can also be read as a desire to fulfill this Divine Command; even Lot's daughters' seduction of their father can be read as such an attempt (although, once again, I think that it is more adequately read as a way to take a jab at the Moabites and Ammonites). Rachel and Sarah being barren almost keep them from being able to fulfill this command and so God's blessing them with prosperity isn't merely about fulfilling a whim (or personal choice) but allowing them to fulfill a religious obligation.

That's why I find the logical argument powerful within the text- not merely because I already happen to believe something similar- but because procreation is the larger context of the whole book. And, when we see somebody having sex and trying not to procreate, God kills them.

And with all of that said, I still think that the spouse abuse interpretation is more adequate.

11:05 PM  
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