Sunday, April 08, 2007

Gen 36 - 45: Joseph Makes Good

You know the story. A hard-working farm boy from the sticks goes to the big, cosmopolitan city in the desert where palm trees grow and things are laid back but sophisticated. He has a hard time at first; he's naive about women, and runs into trouble with the law. But eventually he gets discovered, and through a combination of luck, hard work, and natural charisma, eventually joins the ranks of the rich and famous and finds himself attending parties that the likes of you and I can only dream of.

That, friends, is the story of Joseph.

Genesis 36

But first, it's time out for Genesis 36, the first full chapter of family trees we've seen since Genesis 10. A sample verse (36:24): The sons of Zibeon: Aiah and Anah. This is the Anah who discovered the hot springs in the desert while he was grazing the donkeys of his father Zibeon. Oh Yeah! THAT Anah!


Joseph is not Jacob's firstborn -- he is the 12th child and 11th son, if I count 'em right -- but he is the first of the two sons that Jacob has by Rachel, the wife he actually likes, and so Joseph is special. Jacob is none too subtle about playing favorites, dressing little Joseph up in what the New International Version rather disappointingly calls a richly ornamented robe but which you and I know is really a coat of many colors. This, along with the tyke's habits of having dreams that are thinly-veiled predictions of how he is going to rule over all of his brothers, does not endear him to the older boys. So, they sell him to some slave traders, and show Dad the coat of many colors with considerably more red on it than it used to have.

(At this point, there is a break in the story for Genesis 38, a completely unrelated chapter which I think is interesting and will return to. But let's indulge our modern sense of narrative flow and keep going with Joseph for now.)

Speaking of narrative flow, actually, it should be noted that the story of Joseph has a different feel than everything that has gone before. At Genesis 12, I noted that the hypercompressed storytelling of the first chapters broadened out into a more coherent, sustained narrative. At Genesis 37, the style broadens out yet further. The story of Joseph is a full, fleshed-out story with lots of detail and even something resembling character development. It's even a bit long-winded, honestly, and one wonders why there is so much more of it than there is of, say, creation, or explanation of what God really wants and requires from his human creations. That would have been handy.

Anyhoo, Joseph has various wacky misadventures in Egypt. A slave, he nevertheless rises to chief of staff in the household of the captain of the guard. Sexually harassed by the boss's wife (as shown here, at right), he's accused of attempted rape and ends up in jail. Pharoh hears about his ability to interpret dreams, frees him, and appoints him as, basically, Secretary of the Agriculture.

So, Joseph is a real bigshot by the time his brothers come to Egypt to buy grain during a famine. They don't recognize him, but he recognizes them. So, he messes with their heads, makes them jump through hoops, occasionally imprisons one or more of them, and puts them in situations where they have reason to believe they'll be executed, all for the better part of a year before he finally says "hey, it's me, your little brother!" Doubtless they are delighted. At the end of Genesis 45, he sends them home to fetch Dad and bring him back to Egypt, where he can set them up with some good land while they wait out the famine.

And that's the story of Joseph. I think kids like this story, and actually it has all of the elements of childrens' fantasy literature. The boy-hero gets separated from his family, has adventures, becomes important and powerful, and gets to stick it to his siblings in the end. It's a pretty unbeatable formula, when you are eleven. As an adult, I find myself more wondering about the relevance of the tale than anything else.

Genesis 38

Now smack dab in the middle of the Joseph story, as I mentioned, is this quirky little chapter about another of Jacob's sons, Judah. This is yet another chapter that highlights the freakshow family values of one of the great patriarchs. For a religious tradition that is so often held up as forbidding any but the very narrowest range of sexual behavior, JudeoChristianity certainly has a lot of creepy sexuality going on here in its sacred writings.

Judah starts off wholesomely enough. He marries a local girl, the daughter of a man called Shua, whose name we are not told. She is called "the daughter of Shua." Judah lies with her in the customary fashion, no doubt crying out "I love you, daughter of Shua" in the heat of passion, and pretty soon they have three sons, Er, Onan, and Shelah.

Years pass, and Er gets married to a woman who is blessed with an actual name, "Tamir." Unfortunately, Er, Judah's firstborn, was wicked in the LORD's sight; so the LORD put him to death. (7) Yikes! that's bad! And naturally we are curious as to what exactly made Er wicked in the sight of the Lord, so we can avoid making the same mistakes. But this is not revealed.

Following the standard practice of the day, but making the modern reader rather queasy, Judah sends in the second team: Then Judah said to Onan, "Lie with your brother's wife and fulfill your duty to her as a brother-in-law to produce offspring for your brother. (8) Onan is not down with this plan:

9 But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so whenever he lay with his brother's wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from producing offspring for his brother. 10 What he did was wicked in the LORD's sight; so he put him to death also.
Well, at least this time we know Onan did wrong. Or do we? There is a tradition that this little tale shows that God hates masturbation -- because spilling semen on the ground is wicked. There is a tradition that it shows God hates birth control -- because deliberately failing to produce offspring while, um, laying, is wicked. But on the face of it, it seems to me that this passage is really about the moral imperative of getting your sister-in-law pregnant if your brother dies without an heir. And yet you never hear anyone going on about getting back to THAT traditional family value!

It goes on. Judah's first two sons having croaked on her, Tamir becomes peaved when the third one, Shelah, isn't sent her way to take care of business once he comes of age. To take her revenge on Judah, she poses as a prostitute (as shown here, at right -- it is very easy to find images for the Bible stories that involve sex) and sleeps with him, taking his staff and seal on consignment. She gets pregnant, and the townspeople tell Judah that his daughter-in-law has been foolin' around. "Bring her out and have her burned to death," cries this stalwart believer in the God of justice and mercy. Then we come to the punchline:

25 As she was being brought out, she sent a message to her father-in-law. "I am pregnant by the man who owns these," she said. And she added, "See if you recognize whose seal and cord and staff these are."
26 Judah recognized them and said, "She is more righteous than I, since I wouldn't give her to my son Shelah." And he did not sleep with her again.
Moral tale? Soap opera? First written dirty joke? I dunno. I'm just reminded of this quotation: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." The people of Genesis certainly seem to approach life with a different set of first principles than most of my friends.

Gentle readers, we are only four chapters from the Genesis/Exodus border. What a long, strange trip it has been, so far.

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