Joseph steals the land of Egypt

Before the Egyptians enslaved the Hebrews, Joseph enslaved the Egyptians to Pharaoh.

The Sunday-school version of the story of Joseph and the famine is reasonably well-known: Pharaoh had two dreams, seven lean cows devouring seven fat cows and seven withered ears of gran devouring seven healthy ears. Joseph interpreted that as a prediction of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of dearth, and proposed putting food aside for the lean years. Pharaoh agreed, and put Joseph in charge. That allowed him to feed not only the Egyptians but his own family, coming from Canaan, when the famine hit.

The actual story (Gen. 47) has a somewhat sharper edge. Yes, Joseph, as Pharaoh’s grand vizier, took a fifth of all food production during the seven fat years. But having taken the food – seemingly without payment – he didn’t give it back the Egyptians. (Perhaps he was afraid of their becoming “takers.”) Instead, he sold it back, to the locals as well as to foreigners such as his brothers.

And when the Egyptians ran out of money, he took (on Pharaoh’s behalf) first their livestock and then their land and their persons, converting all of them into Pharaoh’s slaves (avvodim l’Pharaoh). [An avod can be either a slave or a hired worker, but it’s the same word used to describe the later status of the Hebrews: the beginning of the answer to the Four Questions of the Seder is “Avvodim hayyinu l’Pharaoh b’Mitzrayim“: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.) Having dispossessed the entire population, Joseph then proceeds to uproot it, moving the people “from one end of the country to the other.” All they were left was their mere lives; everything else, Joseph took.

To a modern eye, Joseph looks like rather like a scoundrel and a tyrant. One possible reading of the story would be that Joseph, as the first “court Jew,” incurred the hatred of the Egyptians, later taken out on the Hebrews under a new Pharaoh “who knew not Joseph.” Another would see a double poetic justice: Joseph, having been sold into slavery himself, making slaves of others; and the Hebrews, having been (in the person of Joseph) responsible for the slavery of Egypt to Pharaoh, becoming slaves to Pharaoh themselves.

But it appears that only a modern eye sees the story that way. Readers in post-Exodus Canaan might have seen nothing but a bit of folk-anthropology explaining why, in Egypt, all the land belonged, in principle, to the state, subject to a tax of 20% of the harvest. The story also might have helped drive home the importance of their own customs (Sabbatical and Jubilee) discouraging alienation of land outside the kin-group.

The rabbinic tradition, going all the way back to the Talmud, has nothing but good to say of Joseph, though the trickery of his father Jacob comes in for its share of criticism. Since he’s working for Pharaoh, he does right by making the best deal he can from Pharaoh’s viewpoint. And in the text itself the reaction of the Egyptians is joy rather than hostility: “You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.”

Autres temps, autres moeurs.

Footnote I’m no longer the designated note-taker for the Jacob Hirshleifer-Arthur Rosett Faculty Tanakh Study Group at UCLA, but this comes from our discussion last Tuesday.

The rights of polar bears

Why we have a duty to save the polar bears and other species.

In what I named the “dumbest blog post of 2011“, economist Karl Smith conceded that

There will be large environmental costs associated with climate change includ[ing] a very rapid increase in extinctions

but we should ignore this and

pursue the development of fossil fuels as rapidly as possible including looking for ways to streamline regulation in North America[n] regarding fossil fuel production


there are hundreds of millions of very poor families around the world right now, who would benefit enormously from lifting the energy constraint on growth.

So many species should go extinct for the greater good of man. Bye, bye polar bears.

Smith shrugged off my accusation of “yahoo values”. It may be sadly necessary to make a formal argument for the polar bears and lemurs and hundreds of other species. BTW, I stand by my language. Quite mild really. If you threaten a man’s grandchildren – which is what denialists and do-nothings are up to – around the Khyber Pass, he doesn’t say nasty things about you on a blog, he comes after you with a sharp knife and a plan to remove various body parts.

So here’s the argument. Continue reading “The rights of polar bears”

“What-Bible-is-he-reading?” Dep’t

Rick Perry mangles the Book of Genesis.

Rick Perry:

I think we’re going through those difficult economic times for a purpose, to bring us back to those Biblical principles of you know, you don’t spend all the money. You work hard for those six years and you put up that seventh year in the warehouse to take you through the hard times. And not spending all of our money. Not asking for Pharaoh to give everything to everybody and to take care of folks because at the end of the day, it’s slavery. We become slaves to government.

One thing we can be sure of: the world wasn’t cheated of a great preacher when Rick Perry decided to take up politics instead. For one thing, the preacher is supposed to keep reasonably close to his text.

Now, hear the word of the Lord!
Continue reading ““What-Bible-is-he-reading?” Dep’t”

The Cave of Machpelah

Notes on the end of Genesis 22 and Genesis 23: Abraham buys a burying-place.

I serve as the note-taker for the Jacob Hishleifer- Arthur Rosett UCLA Faculty Tanakh Study group, and from time to time I have posted some of the notes here. Last week we finished off Chapter 22 (Rebacca’s ancestry) and discussed Chapter 23 (the Cave of Machpelah).

Someone used to simplifying his reading of Genesis by skipping the “begats” (I, for one) could easily miss the point of the end of Ch. 22, starting with Verse 20. Abraham is told that his brother Nahor (not heard from for many chapters) and his wife Milcah have been blessed with issue: Uz and his brother Buz (invaluable for comedy routines but of little other interest) and also SoAndSo, SuchAndSuch, ThisOne, ThatOne, TheOtherOne, and WhoCares. Not only that, his concubine Remuah has also produced four forgettable offspring. One’s immediate reaction is to look in a dictionary of Hebrew idiom for a phrase meaning “Too Much Information.”

Continue reading “The Cave of Machpelah”

The book of Genesis: on not beginning at the Beginning

The first Creation myth in Genesis does not start from nothing: Elohim, the (formless) earth, “the waters,” “the deep,” and “the darkness,” and the divine spirit or breath or wind all pre-exist the creative activity described in the text.

UCLA’s Jack Hirshleifer Faculty Tanakh Study Group, having worked its way through First and Second Samuel (the story of Samuel, Saul, and David) has decided to turn its attention to Genesis. I’m way behind in posting to this blog the notes I send out to the Hirshleifer group on each week’s discussion; at some point I’ll try to get caught up on Samuel, but for now I’m going to try to keep pace with the discussion of Genesis.

[Now that we’ve finished, I can say that what Alter calls “The David Story” is both the first and the best historical-political novel ever written, surpassing even the Cyropaedia. Ahitophel’s advice to Absalom about the court concubines is the first reference in world literature to a commitment strategy.]

On, then, to Genesis 1. Everyone knows the first verse.

In the beginning (b’reisit), God (Elohim) created (barah) the heavens (ha-shamayim) and the earth (hah-aretz).

Most of us have been taught that the opening chapter of Genesis is a story of the creation of the world, performing the same function as the Hesiodic Theogony or the Babylonian Enuma Elish: or, in a sense, the contemporary Big Bang theory.

Well … not perzackly.

Continue reading “The book of Genesis: on not beginning at the Beginning”

Genesis 1:1-4: on not beginning at the Beginning.

Why is the first letter of the Bible bet and not aleph?

I have fallen behind in posting the discussion notes from the Jacob Hirshleifer Faculty Tanakh Study Group, which has been working its way through various Hebrew sacred texts for the past thirty years. The group has finished its reading of The David Story (First and Second Samuel plus the first bit of First Kings), and moved on to reading Genesis. I will try to catch up on the David material &#8212 that document may be, among other things, the world’s first and best historical/political novel &#8212 but I wanted to get my notes of the first week of our Genesis discussion up while the discussion is fresh in my mind.

The text, in its widely-imitated King James version, is familiar to most of us. Here are the first two verses, in Hebrew, transliterated, and then in the King James English:

בְּרֵאשִׁית, בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים, אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַלפְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַלפְּנֵי הַמָּיִם

B’reshit barah Elohim et-ha-shamayim v’et-hah-aretz,

V’hah-aretz mayatah tohu v’bohu, v’choshech al-p’nai tehom, v-ruach elohim m’rachephet al-p’nai hah-mayim.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

So: a creation story, to stack up against the Babylonian Enuma Elish, or the Hesiodic Theogony, or the contemporary Big Bang. “In the beginning (b’reishit), God (Elohim) created (barah) the heavens (ha-shamayim) and the earth (hah-aretz).” The question is “What brought the world into being?” and the answer is “God made it.”

Well, not perzackly. That’s the story as children, Jewish and Christian alike, learn it, but it doesn’t seem to be the story actually embodied in the text. Modern translators have finally caught up with Rashi, who pointed out that the word b’reishit doesn’t mean “in the beginning,” but is in the Hebrew grammatical form called the “construct.” So the translation should be something like “When God began to create…” or “At the start of God’s creating …”

How about “the heavens and the earth”? Does “the heavens and the earth” mean, “Heaven and earth and everything in between?” That is, is the combination of shamayim and aretz equivalent to olam, the world? (Olam is used often in the Hebrew Bible and liturgy, but never in this chapter.) As Lao-tse says, “Heaven and earth are the father and mother of the myriad of things.”

Except that “create” may also be wrong. The cognates of “barah” in other ancient Near Eastern languages mean something closer to “divide,” or “separate,” or even “differentiate.” In the story of Korach, it refers to making a rent in the earth.

Moreover, the story is not, one might say, begun at the beginning. When God began to create, the Earth (hah-aretz) was tohu v’bohu, the phrase the King James translators render “without form and void.” But it is not the case that tohu is a word meaning “formless” or that bohu, standing alone, means “void” or “empty.” Tohu v’bohu seems to be an idiom, like “topsy-turvy,” or “at sixes and sevens.”

“And a ruach elohim swept over the face of the deep tehom.”

“Ruach” is literally wind, but by extension breath, and since to breathe is to live, animation, and thus spirit. The text tells us how it is that spirit interacts with matter.

And “elohim” could be possessive: “A wind from God,” or as the KJV has it, “The Spirit of God,” but also could be adjectival: the wind could be “divine,” or “mighty,” or “awesome.”

In any case, both the aretz and the tehom ( the land and the ocean depths, pre-exist the b’reishit. So do the mayim, the waters, and the chosech, the darkness. It is those materials that God divides or separates or differentiates. [Is it mere accident that shamayim, “heavens,” includes mayim, “waters.” Later on in the chapter the heavens are created to divide the waters above the sky, the source of rainfall, from the waters below, the rivers, lakes and oceans.]

Is tehom, the depths, related to the Babylonian sea-monster Tiamat, representing primordial chaos?

So the story does not one of the creation of something from nothing, but about separation and arrangement. As the Talmud says, the first letter is bet, not aleph. Hebrew alphabetical order is parallel to Greek: for alpha-beta-gamma substitute aleph-bet-gimel. So the text starts with the second letter of the alphabet, not the first.

Or an alternative reading, not as far as I know given by the commenters: Before bet was a phonetic element, it was a word: “house,” as aleph is “ox.” The story describes the construction of a world that we can live it, and that constitutes our home in the most comprehensive sense.

Nor does the text try to answer the question that Hesiod and the authors of the Enuma Elish answer, the question that occurs to any five-year-old: “If God created the world, who created God?”

Some date the text of this chapter to the Exile and place its composition in Babylon; if so, those writing and reading it would have had the Babylonian creation story in the back of their minds. Although “Elohim” is a plural form, it takes (usually) singular verbs. A rebuke to polytheism? And is the identification of the Deity with light a rebuke to Zoroastrian dualism, where Ormuzd and Ahriman, the God of Light and the God of Darkness, eternally co-exist? Does the story in Job of the suppression of the sea-monster Leviathan by the highly anthropomorphic Sky-God Elohim reflect an incorporation of Babylonian creation myth into the Hebrew texts? There is also a belief that the author was a priest, with a strong interest in making careful categories, though on that point we found no consensus.

There is no doubt about the creation of light. “God said ‘Let there be light’ and there was light.” The darkness, we have seen, was present already. And God, having seen that the light was “good,” separated it from the darkness. This is light in the abstract: there is no sun, no moon, no stars, no fire.

“God saw the light, that it was good,” seems surprising; are we to understand that God was surprised? That light was an experiment, that might have come out differently?

To some of us, the lack of a complete creation story suggests that the text cannot have been meant cosmologically, as a physicalistic story of the origins of the world. Therefore, it is said, this must be a piece of poetic metaphysics. But that is not how it has been received. Should we assume that the “real” reading is the esoteric one?

The other striking feature of the chapter is the emphasis on naming. Is naming creating?

I can tell that we’re going to spend a long time on this text, and have a lot of fun with it.

A house for HaShem and the House of David

More notes from the Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group at UCLA. Now we’re up to 2 Sam. 7.

The seventh chapter of the Second Book of Samuel carries “the David story” forward in two directions: it accounts for the fact (in history or legend) that Solomon, not David, built the Temple, and it establishes the claim (later to be of tremendous historical significance in a way that the authors could not have imagined) that the line of David will be established forever.

Verbally, the chapter turns on the dual meaning of bet (house): meaning both a dwelling and a lineage or dynasty. David will not build a bet for HaShem, but HaShem will establish bet David forever.

Continue reading “A house for HaShem and the House of David”

Tanakh notes: 2 Sam. 6

David reclaims the Ark, dances before it, and loses the respect of his wife Michael.

More notes from UCLA’s Hirshleifer Tanakh Reading Group, battling its way through First and Second Samuel:

In Chapter 6 David, having consolidated his power internally and externally, decides to bring the Ark from Baale-judah to Jerusalem, now the City of David.

He gathers “all the chosen men of Israel” to accompany the Ark. (The Ark is still in the House of Aminadab, where we left it in 1 Sam. 6 after it had been recovered from the Philistines, but Eleazar the son of Aminadab is not in evidence).

Curiously, although David almost always “inquires of HaShem” before taking any military action, in this case he seems to act on his own. That may explain his subsequent lack of confidence in his choice.

The Ark is accompanied with all sorts of musical instruments, the Israelites playing with “all their might.” The rabbis note that only the shofar should have been used. Moreover, it is carried in an ox-cart, rather than by human bearers. The oxen slip, and Uzzah, one of Aminadab’s sons, reaches out to steady it. The “wrath of HaShem” “flares up” against him, and Uzzah is struck dead.

Continue reading “Tanakh notes: 2 Sam. 6”

Tanakh notes: 2 Sam. 5:6-end

David conquers Jerusalem and routs the Philistines.

David, having become king of all Israel, finds himself a new capital, on the border between his own tribe of Judah and Saul’s tribe of Benjamin. He does so by taking Jerusalem from the Jebusites. Having done so, he makes friendly contact with the King of Tyre and then repulses two Philistine invasions, routing the second so thoroughly as to put an end to the Philistine threat.

That much is clear. All else is obscure.

Continue reading “Tanakh notes: 2 Sam. 5:6-end”

Notes on 2 Sam 5:1-5

David is recognized as king over all Israel after the death of Ish-bosheth.

It’s been a while since I posted any of the products of UCLA’s Jacob Hirshleifer Tanakh Study Group, but we’ve been reading our way steadily through what Jonathan Alter calls “The David Story” and I’m still taking notes. Back in April, I posted the notes on Chapter 4 of Second Samuel. The group is now starting Chapter 20; I’ll try to get caught up.

Below are the notes on the first five verses of 2 Sam 5:

Then came all the tribes of Israel to David unto Hebron, and spoke, saying: ‘Behold, we are thy bone and thy flesh.

In times past, when Saul was king over us, it was thou that didst lead out and bring in Israel; and HaShem said to thee: Thou shalt feed My people Israel, and thou shalt be prince over Israel.’

So all the elders of Israel came to the king to Hebron; and king David made a covenant with them in Hebron before HaShem; and they anointed David king over Israel.

David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.

In Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and in Jerusalem he reigned thirty and three years over all Israel and Judah.

The chapter starts immediately after David has become king over the opposition of Ish-bosheth.

[That is, Ish-baal; the scribes refused to write the name of the Canaanite deity, and when it occurred in someone’s name theysubstituted “bosheth,” “shameful.”]

Abner, who had first set up Ish-bosheth as a puppet king and then betrayed him to David, is now dead, as is Ish-bosheth himself. Both have been murdered, Ish-bosheth by the hands of two of his own commanders and Abner by the hand of David’s general Joab.

Continue reading “Notes on 2 Sam 5:1-5”