While Tuthmosis III was creating the richest and most powerful empire the world had yet seen—and at the same time establishing his own enduring reputation as the greatest of all the Pharaohs—Sarah and her descendants were leading a nomadic life in Canaan. Tents provided simple homes and protection against the often harsh elements. Marriages were arranged, children born, the dead buried. The rhythm of their days was set by trying to coax a living from the unpromising soil and caring for their modest herds of sheep, goats and cattle. Nevertheless, the story of their lives at this time that we find in the Book of Genesis hints that memories of those distant links with the royal house of Egypt, although growing fainter with each passing year, still survived within Sarah's family.
When Isaac, the son of her bigamous marriage to Tuthmosis III (David), grew to manhood he is said (Genesis 25) to have taken a wife, Rebekah. Like Sarah before her, Rebekah is described as infertile, but this may be simply an extravagant scriptural way of saying that, at a time when early marriage was the norm, a girl had been taken as a bride long before she reached childbearing age.
Eventually, Rebekah gave birth to twin sons. The first to be born was named Esau, the second Jacob (Y'qwb, which means in Hebrew "the one who follows"). The most intriguing aspect of their early life is Esau's sale of his birthright. The special blessing of the elder or eldest son is a theme that we find in many biblical stories, but this is the only case where a birthright is mentioned. To what exactly did this entitle its owner? The only logical explanation would be the inheritance of property or title. We know from the account in the Talmud that Jacob did not receive any of Isaac's property after his father's death:
When Isaac died, and Jacob and Esau wept together for their father's demise. They carried his body to the cave of Machpelah, which is in Hebron, and all the kings of Canaan followed with the mourners in the funeral train of Isaac. . . Isaac bequeathed his cattle and his possessions to his two sons. Esau said then to Jacob, "Behold, this which our father has left us must be divided into two portions, then I will select my share." Jacob divided all his father's possessions into two portions in the presence of Esau and his sons, and then addressing his brother, said: "Take unto thyself both these portions which thou seest before thee. Behold, the God of Heaven and Earth spoke unto our ancestors, Abraham and Isaac, saying, 'Unto thy seed will I give this land as an everlasting possession.' Now, all that our father left is before thee; if thou desirest the promised possession, the land of Canaan, take it, and this other wealth shall be mine; or if thou desirest these two portions, be it as it is pleasing in thy eyes, and the land of Canaan shall be the share for me and mine." . .. Esau . . . taking the personal substance, he gave Jacob for his portion the land of Canaan from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the River Euphrates.*
The only apparent alternative, therefore, is that the birthright that passed from Esau, the elder twin, to Jacob was the princely title that flowed from the identity of their grandfather, Tuthmosis III.
Such a sale or transfer of a birthright is possible only in a society where primogeniture (being the firstborn) is not looked upon as the sole criterion for determining inheritance. Tablets found in the 1920s at Nuzi, the ancient city in northeast Iraq, make it clear that other criteria were sometimes used in biblical times. One concerns a man who transferred his birthright to his brother for three sheep.
The price Esau is said to have accepted for his birthright was "a pottage of lentils" (the Hebrew original is nazid adash, literally, "soup of lentils"). This is best interpreted as an indication that he did not value his birthright very highly. It cannot have been easy for him or for Jacob, living in tents and leading a simple nomadic life with their flocks, to believe the
*H. Polano, Selections From The Talmud, 83-84.
promise that one day their descendants would rule over a vast kingdom stretching from the Nile to the Euphrates. Yet, of the two, the Old Testament suggests that Jacob would have more faith in the fulfillment of such a promise at some time in the future. We are told in the Book of Genesis (15:18) that the twin brothers had vastly different characters. Esau was "a skil[l]ful hunter, a man of the open country": in contrast, Jacob, like the son Joseph who would be born to him, seems to have been more of a dreamer, "a quiet man, staying among the tents."
The Talmud confirms that, when it came to dividing Isaac's estate, the cattle and all the rest of their father's possessions were inherited by Esau while Jacob chose the kingdom. After Isaac's possessions had been divided into two equal portions, Jacob is reported to have said to Esau: "Behold, the God of Heaven and Earth spoke unto our ancestors, Abraham and Isaac, saying: 'Unto thy seed will I give this land as an everlasting possession.' Now all that our father left is before thee; if thou desirest the promised possession, the land . . . take it; or . . . the land . . . shall be the share for me and mine." After seeking advice, Esau chose his father's possessions and left
Jacob with the promised land "from the river of Egypt to the great river, Euphrates it
Later, Esau seems to have had second thoughts about his decision and, after a dispute about their father's blessing, threatened to kill Jacob, who fled on his mother's advice to the home of her brother in Haran. There he promptly fell in love with Rachel, the younger of his two cousins, but his uncle made him marry her elder sister, Leah, before he was allowed to marry Rachel. Rachel, too, proved to be infertile, but in the course of the years Jacob is said to have fathered eleven children—six sons and a daughter by Leah, two sons by Rachel's maid, Bilhah, and two more sons by Leah's maid, Zilpah. At last Rachel, his first love, gave him an eleventh son. They named him Joseph.
Shortly afterward, Jacob decided to return to his homeland, Canaan. It was on this journey that he is said to have had an encounter with the Lord that resulted in his name being changed, from Jacob to Israel. The significance of this event lies in the name Israel. The Hebrew term el is the short form of Elohim (God) and Ysra (or sar) indicates a prince or ruler.
The essential points are that Jacob had a number of children by different women; eventually he had a son, Joseph, by his first love, Rachel; and, in the story of his return to Canaan, the biblical scribes chose to emphasize again a special relationship between God and the Israelites.
Nor is there any means of knowing how much of the story of Joseph that follows this account of Jacob's early life is to be taken literally from the time of his birth until his appointment by an unnamed Pharaoh as his minister of state, the second most powerful man in Egypt. The biblical account (Genesis 37:3) goes on to make it clear that Jacob loved Joseph more than any of his other sons and gave him his celebrated coat of many colors.* Joseph's half-brothers hated Joseph because of this favoritism, and even more when he is said to have related a dream that came to him one night. "We were binding sheaves of corn in the field when suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright, while your sheaves gathered round mine and bowed low to it," he told them.
"Do you think one day you will lord it over us?" the angry brothers asked.
Then Joseph had a second dream, which he related to his father as well as to his brothers: "I had another dream, and this time the sun, the moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me." This story served to fuel the jealousy of his brothers, and Jacob is reported to have rebuked him, saying: "What is this dream of yours? Must your mother and I and your brothers come and bow down to the ground before you?" Yet he did not forget Joseph's words.
One day when his brothers were out grazing the sheep, Joseph's father said to him: "Go and see if all is well with them and with the sheep, and bring word to me." When they saw Joseph approaching in the distance, his brothers said to each other: "Here comes that dreamer. Let's kill him and throw him into one of these pits and say that a wild animal devoured him. Then we'll see what comes of his dreams."
Reuben, the eldest of the brothers, protested. "Let's not take his life," he said. "Don't shed any blood."
When Joseph finally arrived on the scene, his hostile brothers stripped him of his coat and dropped him into a pit while they sat down to a meal and considered what to do next. The matter was resolved when they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites approaching, their camels laden with spices, balm and myrrh, who were making their way down to Egypt on a trade mission. Judah, the fourth brother, said to the others: "What shall we gain if we kill our brother and conceal his death? Why not sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him? After all, he is our brother."
*Here again we have a wrong English translation of a Hebrew phrase. In Hebrew it reads ktener phessun, which does not mean "a coat of many colors" but literally reads "robe (or tunic) ornaments." The most recent translation renders it "a richly ornamented robe" (John R. Kohlenberger, The NIV Interlinear Hebrew-English Old Testament, [Michigan: Zondervan Publishing Company, 1987]).
They sold Joseph, then said to be 17 years of age, for 20 shekels and, to disguise their crime, slaughtered a goat, dipped Joseph's richly embroidered coat in the animal's blood and took the stained garment back to Jacob, who wailed: "It is my son's robe. Some wild beast has devoured him. Joseph has surely been torn to pieces."
Once in Egypt the Ishmaelite merchants sold Joseph on to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's guard, who found him a faithful servant and entrusted to him everything he owned. However, Joseph was not only efficient but handsome, and after a while Potiphar's wife tried to seduce him. Joseph rejected her advances. "Think of my master," he told her. "With me in charge he does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"
Potiphar's wife was not prepared to give up easily. She continued to plead with Joseph and, when they were alone in the house one day, seized him by the cloak and said again: "Come lie with me." Joseph refused—and ran out of the house, leaving her clutching his cloak. Potiphar's wife told her other servants that Joseph had attacked her and run away when she screamed. This was the story she repeated to her husband when he arrived home: "That Hebrew slave you brought us came to me to make a mockery of me, but as soon as I screamed for help he left his cloak in my hand and ran out of the house."
Potiphar, who believed her account of these events and was understandably outraged, promptly incarcerated Joseph in the jail where the king's prisoners were kept. Joseph proved such a model prisoner that he soon became a trusty, running the affairs of the prison with the same efficiency he had shown in running Potiphar's home. It was thus that he met Pharaoh's chief cupbearer and chief baker, who had been locked up in the same prison after giving offense to the king.
When both of them had strange dreams, they asked Joseph to interpret their significance. Joseph predicted—accurately—that the cupbearer would be released and restored to his position but the baker would be hanged. Some two years later, according to the Book of Genesis (41:1), Pharaoh himself had two mysterious dreams that none of the wise men or magicians of Egypt could interpret for him. It was then that the cupbearer explained to Pharaoh how Joseph had interpreted his and the chief baker's dreams and events had turned out exactly as predicted. Pharaoh sent at once for Joseph and explained: "I have heard it said that you can understand and interpret dreams." Joseph replied, as he had done in the cases of the cupbearer and the chief baker: "I cannot do it, but God will give Pharaoh the answer he desires."
"In my dream I was standing on the bank of the Nile when out of the river came seven cows, fat and sleek, and they grazed among the reeds," Pharaoh went on. "After them appeared seven other cows—scrawny and very gaunt and lean. These lean, gaunt cows ate up the seven fat ones. But even after they ate them no one could tell that they had done so; they looked as gaunt as before. In my dreams I also saw seven ears of corn, full and good, growing on a single stalk. After them, seven other ears sprouted—withered and thin and blighted by the east wind. The thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears. I told this to the magicians, but none could explain it to me."
"The dreams of Pharaoh are one and the same," Joseph told the king. "God has told Pharaoh what he is about to do. The seven good cows are seven years, and the seven good ears of corn are seven years. The seven lean, gaunt cows are seven years, and so are the worthless ears of corn blighted by the east wind. Seven years of plenty are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them ..." Joseph suggested that "a shrewd and wise man" should be appointed to deal with this emergency. Pharaoh replied that there was no one as shrewd and wise as Joseph: "You shall be in charge of my household, and all my people are to submit to your orders. Only in respect of the throne shall I be greater than you."
The Book of Genesis goes on to describe (41:42-45) how Pharaoh took a signet ring from his own hand and placed it on Joseph's finger; put a gold chain around his neck and arranged for him to ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and the people were ordered to cry before him: "Bow the knee." The king also gave him an Egyptian name, Zaph-nath-pa-a-neah, as well as an Egyptian wife, Asenath, daughter of Potipherah, the priest of On (Heliopolis), the center in Lower Egypt of the sun-god Ra.
Joseph is thought to have been 30 years of age when he entered the service of Pharaoh. Two sons were born of his marriage, Manasseh (Anen in Egyptian) and Ephraim (Aye). Many countries were affected at the time of the famine he predicted, including Canaan, where Jacob said to his sons: "I have heard that there is corn in Egypt; get you down thither, and buy for us from thence; that we may live, and not die" (42:1, 2). On their arrival Joseph recognized his brothers but did not reveal his own identity. Later, as the famine continued to rage, the brothers made a second visit to Egypt. On this occasion, Joseph did reveal his identity. He found the occasion so moving that he "wept aloud, and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard" (45:2). This, one of two references to the "house of Pharaoh" in the Book of Genesis, has been misinterpreted because of the later biblical editors' lack of familiarity with Egyptian usage. Then, as now, the word "house" was a synonym for "wife" as well as being used to indicate a dwelling.*
This passage in the Book of Genesis should therefore be interpreted as signifying that the Queen was told of the arrival of Joseph's brothers, and after her intercession with her husband on Joseph's behalf, he was able to say forgivingly to them:
I am your brother, whom ye sold into Egypt. Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life . . . and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt. Haste ye, and go up to my father, and say unto him, Thus saith thy son Joseph, God hath made me lord of all Egypt: come down unto me: tarry not: And thou shalt dwell in the land of Goshen, and thou shalt be near unto me, thou, and thy children and thy children's children, and thy flocks and thy herds, and all that thou hast. And there will I nourish thee . . .
Genesis 45:4-5, 8-11
The souls who accompanied Jacob into Egypt in response to this invitation are described as numbering "three score and ten" (46:27). They include Joseph and his two sons, Anen and Aye, amounting to three, who were already there. The list in the Book of Genesis provides the names of another 66 immigrants who actually accompanied Jacob: the seventieth name is missing because the later biblical editor would have attempted to conceal any blood connection between the Israelites and the Egyptians.
Joseph settled his family at Goshen in the extreme Eastern Delta—they were not allowed into Egypt proper because Asiatic shepherds had been
*It was not considered polite to speak directly about a person's wife or mention her name, and, even if she had no children, a wife would still be referred to as "the house" of her husband. The memoirs in the tomb of Ahmose, son of Abana, a naval officer who fought in the battles that led to the ultimate defeat of the Hyksos conquerors of the Eastern Delta in the sixteenth century B.C., makes this usage plain. Ahmose's account of his part in these campaigns contains the sentence: "Now, when I had established a house"—that is, had married—"I was taken upon the ship Northern because I was valiant."
"anathema" to Egyptians since the century-long Hyksos occupation two centuries earlier—and introduced his father and five of his brothers to Pharaoh, who said: "If you know of any capable men among them, make them chief herdsmen over my cattle."
The Israelites had lived at Goshen for 17 years during the early part of the reign of Amenhotep III (c. 1405-1367 B.C.), the great-grandson of Tuthmosis III, when Jacob, who felt that the time of his death was approaching, sent for Joseph and said: "Do not bury me in Egypt, but if I die carry me out of Egypt and bury me where my forefathers are buried." "I shall do as you ask," Joseph promised. It was again the Queen whose intercession is said to have been sought when Jacob died and the time had come to fulfill the promise that he would be buried among his forefathers. The passage in question makes it clear that we are dealing with a person, not a building: "Joseph spake unto the house of Pharaoh, saying, if now I have found grace in your eyes, speak, I pray you, in the ears of Pharaoh" (50:4). Joseph was granted his wish and with "a very great company" of Egyptians and Israelites departed for Canaan where Jacob was buried in a cave.
The closing verses of the Book of Genesis are taken up with Joseph's own death. We have no indication of how much time had elapsed since his father's burial in Canaan. However, before dying Joseph said to the Israelites: "God will surely visit you and bring you out of this land unto the land which he swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and you will carry up my bones from hence. So Joseph died . . . and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt" (50:24-26).
This account of Joseph's experiences clearly contains some biblical embroidery. However, the details of his life after he is said to have interpreted successfully the dreams of Pharaoh are matched by only one person in Egyptian history—Yuya, the minister to Amenhotep III.
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