That’s ancient history

Reading in chapters 40-42 of Genesis recently, I was reminded of an important facet of scripture study (and, really, of any study of ancient documents):  that historians of the past seem to have had different ideas of what it was to be historians than their progeny in the modern eras.  Ancient history, it appears, is not always recounted the same way as modern history.

There is quite a bit of repetition in the Genesis narrative — and when I’m paying attention, frankly, I find this annoying.  Who needs to be told three times that Potiphar was the “captain of the palace guard” (NLT)?  Who needs to have every branch of Esau’s family tree re-hashed, just to make sure we get the picture?  But this repetition, I have come to believe, often meant something significant for an ancient writer — and for an ancient reader.

So, on one hand, there is quite a bit of repetition.  On the other hand, when certain details of the Canaan-to-Egypt story are retold, a chapter later, some details appear not merely to be repeated verbatim.  Some details are altered, or deleted, or added to.  For example, when the nine brothers (minus Benjamin and Joseph, of course, and Simeon, who has been detained in prison) are returning home after their first trip to Egypt to buy grain, one of them opens his grain sack, provided by Joseph’s servants, and finds the money used to pay for the grain  placed there.  If you take the narrative line of chapter 42 as accurate, the money was not discovered in the rest of the sacks until later, after the brothers were relating the whole chain of events to their aged father.  Yet when the brothers returned to Egypt, as chapter 43 has it, they related it differently to the man in charge of Joseph’s affairs, making it sound as though they discovered money in every sack at the same time —  while en route back to Canaan.  This amounts to a “discrepancy” to our modern ears.  But it apparently was no such problem for the ancient historian.  The truth was present in the telling, but minor details of “fact” were altered in transmission.

So, I am reminded — in the above incident and in several others, as I’ve been instructed by scripture scholars — that the historian of the ancient world didn’t view history in a precisely linear fashion.  He was telling “truth,” to be sure, but “truth” did not always equate to precise handling of the factoids of what happened.

~ ~ ~

In my reading the Genesis story, I was intrigued and moved by several aspects.  In closing this post, and as I near my summer blog sabbatical, I’m compelled to share these tidbits:

  • many mentions of “bowing low” and worshipping (all but one instance use the same root word)
    • ch. 37 — the cows and the sun/moon/stars in Joseph’s dreams
    • in 43:26, when the brothers firs re-encounter Joseph, and again in 44:14 (different word here, but similar imagery)
    • 48:12, after Joseph’s conversation with Jacob, the latter “bowed in worship”
  • even the vengeful brothers have moments of penitent lucidity about God’s providence (possibly 42:21, and definitely 42:28, 44:16), querying, “What has God done to us?”
  • possible prophetic/messianic symbolisms
    • Joseph’s being sold for silver (predicting Judas?)
    • being captive “down in Egypt” and having the promise of coming back to Canaan — I’m thinking that there is major theology contained here
      • God’s work in unexpected ways/places, such as giving sons to Joseph while “in captivity”
      • the foreseen Incarnation of Deity (“out of Egypt I have called my son,” Hosea 11, Matthew 2)
      • the seemingly story-culminating promise of God to make of Jacob a great nation in Egypt (46:3)
    • [exodus and liberation (later, in Jesus)]
  • the father’s (Jacob’s) unending, deep relationship with his son, e.g.,  — even after the presumed death
  • the connection between the two “mixed-up” patriarchal blessing scenes — Isaac in ch. 27, Jacob in ch. 48
  • the identification of Simeon and Levi (priesthood tribe-to-be) as men of violence whose descendants will be scattered throughout Israel
    • although this isn’t specified, is it possible that Jacob prophetically knew that Simeon and Levi had taken the lead in “disposing of” Joseph? … I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find just such an oral tradition somewhere in the annals of Judaism
    • particularly on Levi, I wonder about any possible connection between this patriarchal “blessing” and the later, priestly violence and blood of animal sacrifice
  • the interesting mentions of Jacob “blessing” Pharoah (47:7,10) — perhaps simpler and more a gesture of respect than a recognition of Jacob’s greater ultimate position in history, but interesting nonetheless

I’m grateful for the rich, true stories of Genesis — and for the God of ancient, pre-Christ Israel, Who is now the God of spiritual, new Israel (Rom. 9; Rev. 21:2; Gal. 6:16).


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