Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

Samuel/Saul at Shiloh

November 10, 2014

(Some Thoughts on the Structure of the Book of Samuel)

I begin my Intermediate Biblical Hebrew 1 course at Penn (HEBR 153 for those of you who are thinking of signing up) by having the students read 1 Samuel 1. We read slowly and carefully, and I give them the option of using the 40-page workbook for this chapter that starts off the Readings in Biblical Hebrew textbook by Ben-Zvi et al. that once served as the textbook for this course. It’s a story that’s intrinsically interesting, but also gives me the opportunity (1) to see how the students’ grammar chops are; (2) to introduce them to the reference tools—dictionaries, concordances, and grammars—hat they should be using to read the Bible carefully; and (3) to advance my secret agenda: The Bible’s more complicated than they told you in Sunday School. One of the complications, as I show them clearly by the time we read Hannah’s conversation with Eli in vv. 14­­–18, is that this particular chapter is not straight history. It is the beginning of a work of what my teacher Moses Shulvass (ז״ל) used to call belles-lettres. Nowadays, we call it literature.

But I keep things simpler to start with. The very first thing I show them is how different the beginning of 1 Samuel is from the books that precede and follow it. I first noticed this while preparing the essay that became “Three Biblical Beginnings,” which serendipitously found its way into a book edited by my friends Aryeh Cohen and Shaul Magid with the unfortunately deconstructive name Beginning/Again. The book of Joshua begins with the words “After the death of Moses”; Judges begins with the words “After the death of Joshua”; and 2 Samuel begins with the words “After the death of Saul.” 1 Samuel, by contrast, begins with the words, “Once upon a time there was a man….”

I don’t say anything further about this until we get to Hannah’s promise that, if she is given a child, “No razor shall touch his head.” This is one facet of the rule of the Nazirite found in Numbers 6, and—together with the “once upon a time” beginning of the book—it provides a clear link to the story of Samson in Judges 13. Perhaps this seems to the students like the “answer” to the unusual beginning of the book. At any rate, no one has ever asked the obvious question. But I have sometimes wondered about it myself: Why doesn’t 1 Kings begin with the words “After the death of David”? Instead, David does not die until the end of chapter 2 of that book, the famous “Godfather” scene.

One might have thought that scene would make a fine ending to the book of Samuel. Instead, the book ends with a series of apparently disconnected appendices that clearly do not proceed in any kind of chronological order. (Their arrangement, however, is so obviously chiastic—see the commentaries for more—that it could hardly be a coincidence.) It is a traditional truism that אין מוקדם או מאוחר בתורה (one should not assume that the Bible tells events in chronological order), and the Book of Judges has clearly rearranged things to show a deterioration in Israel’s political system, culminating with the announcement in Jud 21:25 that “in those days there was no king in Israel, so everyone did whatever he wanted.”

Samuel, of course (the book and the man) provides the transition the Deuteronomic History needs between the period of the judges and that of the kings—or more precisely, between the period of the book of Judges and the beginning of the reign of Solomon. For the transitional period includes the reigns of Saul and David, each of whom has a kind of claim to be Israel’s first king. (Like so many readers and historians before me, I’m ignoring here Abimelech of Judges 9, who is actually the first Israelite king mentioned in the Bible.) But why aren’t the last two chapters of David’s life placed at the end of the book of Samuel so that 1 Kings could begin—a la Joshua, Judges, and 2 Samuel—with the words “After the death of David”?

There’s one more feature of 1 Samuel 1 that generally surprises my students, but this is a feature that doesn’t become clear until the very end of the chapter. The first hint comes in the more than usually unsatisfying explanation Hannah gives for naming the boy Samuel:

Because I requested him from the Lord [me-YHWH sheiltiv] (1 Sam 1:20).

The word sheiltiv (“requested”) in this phrase is just one of seven occurrences in the chapter of the root שאל, which in various guises can mean “ask, lend, request, borrow.” The culmination comes in v. 28, where Hannah declares, “As long as he lives, he is lent to the Lord.”

The words “he is lent” translate the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול, and usually when I press the students for another translation they grope for a more felicitous English phrase. When I taught at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, I often found it easy to perform a magic trick. I would open the classroom door, find someone passing by, and ask then for help translating the Hebrew phrase הוא שאול. They would always innocently oblige with the most obvious translation of those words: “He is Saul.”  (See my previous post, שאל in 1 Samuel 1.)

There are many gifts for the literary-minded reader in this chapter, but one can understand the surface facts of the story without getting any of them. As Mozart once wrote to his father about his piano concertos, “There are passages here and there from which the connoisseurs alone can derive satisfaction; but these passages are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” But here at the end of 1 Samuel 1, our author demands that even the least learned readers recognize that the name of Saul resounds while the story of Samuel’s birth is being told. Anyone who wants to understand how the Bible is telling the story of Israelite history must grapple with this literary demand.

There’s another question that the story of Hannah raises, though it probably strikes most academic scholars of the Bible less as a question and more as a datum for understanding the prehistory of the book of Samuel. That is the location of the action in 1 Samuel 1, the scene of Elkanah’s annual pilgrimage: “the House of the LORD at Shiloh.” It’s well known that when David decides to build a Temple, the Lord responds indignantly (via Nathan’s dream):

From the day that I brought the people of Israel out of Egypt to this day I have not dwelt in a house, but have moved about in Tent and Tabernacle. (NJPS, 2 Sam 7:6)

Unless the Lord was trying to hide His house at Shiloh from the tax authorities, this is a clear contradiction. Is “the house of the Lord” in 1 Samuel 1 simply a reference that some clumsy later editor neglected to fix? The author of 1 Samuel 1 is anything but clumsy. It would have been easy to continue in the vein of 1 Sam 1:3, where we are told that Elkanah would go up every year “to offer sacrifice to the LORD of Hosts at Shiloh.” No need to mention a house. But our author does so, not once but twice (vv. 7 and 24).

This contradiction—it has only now occurred to me—is not (merely) a discrepancy in stitching together two sources.  It is a literary datum that explains to me why David’s death occurs at the beginning of the book of Kings and not at the end of the book of Samuel. Samuel is a story of transition, perhaps even usurpation. Just as Samuel, the last of the judges, will be replaced by Saul, the man whose name echoes in the story of his birth; just as Saul will be invisible in Israelite history the way he is here in 1 Samuel 1, being replaced by David, the eventual founder of the Israelite dynasty; so too Shiloh will be replaced. And that is exactly what the end of the book of Samuel shows us:

Gad came to David the same day and said to him, “Go and set up an altar to the LORD on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite.” David went up, following Gad’s instructions, as the LORD had commanded. Araunah looked out and saw the king and his courtiers approaching him. So Araunah went out and bowed low to the king, with his face to the ground. And Araunah asked, “Why has my lord the king come to his servant?” David replied, “To buy the threshing floor from you, that I may build an altar to the LORD and that the plague against the people may be checked.” And Araunah said to David, “Let my lord the king take it and offer up whatever he sees fit. Here are oxen for a burnt offering, and the threshing boards and the gear of the oxen for wood. All this, O king, Araunah gives to Your Majesty. And may the LORD your God,” Araunah added, “respond to you with favor!”  But the king replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy them from you at a price. I cannot sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that have cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for fifty shekels of silver. And David built there an altar to the LORD and sacrificed burnt offerings and offerings of well-being. The LORD responded to the plea for the land, and the plague against Israel was checked. (NJPS, 2 Sam 24:18-25)

And this is not just a temporary location for emergency sacrifice:

  Then Solomon began to build the House of the LORD in Jerusalem on Mount Moriah, where [the LORD] had appeared to his father David, at the place which David had designated, at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite. (NJPS, 2 Chr 3:1)

It is the location on which the Jerusalem Temple would be built—the Temple to which (according to Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History) all legitimate Israelite sacrifices must be brought. This is the Davidic Temple, the Temple that would replace Shiloh as David replaced Saul. I’m convinced that the book of Samuel ends with this episode to indicate just that. It is as if the fate of Shiloh is linked to that of Saul in 1 Samuel 1.  Saul will die in 1 Samuel 31, the middle of the book of Samuel, but Shiloh—implicitly—will be made invisible in 2 Samuel 24, the final chapter, just as Saul was in the first chapter. If only Shiloh were spelled with an א as שאול (Saul) is, I’d be absolutely certain.

The Semites at War

August 31, 2014

Civil war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I has just passed, and the 75th anniversary of the start of World War II (in Europe) — is tomorrow, as I write.   Naturally, I’ve been thinking about the Sumerians and the Akkadians.


Who were the Sumerians and the Akkadians, you ask? Well, they were the Mesopotamians, the ancient inhabitants of the country we now call Iraq. As many people know, that modern political entity was created in the aftermath of World War I. T. E. Lawrence (“of Arabia”) played a role, albeit a somewhat ambiguous one, in the British campaign that ultimately led to Iraq’s creation. As Lawrence writes:


I meant to make a new nation, to restore a lost influence, to give twenty millions of Semites the foundations on which to build an inspired dream-palace of their national thoughts. So high an aim called out the inherent nobility of their minds, and made them play a generous part in events: but when we won, it was charged against me that the British petrol royalties in Mesopotamia were become dubious, and French Colonial policy ruined in the Levant.


There’s a new book out about Lawrence, and an interview on Fresh Air with its author and (especially) a review of it in the Jewish Review of Books by Hillel Halkin led me to Lawrence’s memoir, Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I found it very strange, not least because of its constant discussion of the racial characteristics of “the Semites”:


If tribesman and townsman in Arabic-speaking Asia were not different races, but just men in different social and economic stages, a family resemblance might be expected in the working of their minds, and so it was only reasonable that common elements should appear in the product of all these peoples. In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.


Later he writes:


Its birth in Galilee had saved it from being just one more of the innumerable revelations of the Semite. Galilee was Syria’s non-Semitic province, contact with which was almost uncleanness for the perfect Jew. Like Whitechapel to London, it lay alien to Jerusalem.


And there is this gem:


The Jew in the Metropole at Brighton, the miser, the worshipper of Adonis, the lecher in the stews of Damascus were alike signs of the Semitic capacity for enjoyment, and expressions of the same nerve which gave us at the other pole the self-denial of the Essenes, or the early Christians, or the first Khalifas, finding the way to heaven fairest for the poor in spirit. The Semite hovered between lust and self-denial.


Human nature doesn’t change over the years, but a book like this is a good reminder that the superficial trappings of thought can change radically. The history of human conflict can be summarized in the slogan “them and us,” and one hundred years ago—not just for Lawrence—the Semites were very definitely “them.”


And that’s where World War II comes in. From the German perspective, of course, that war was to be the culmination of a great racial struggle between the Semites and the Aryans. But I’m a scholar of Bible and the ancient Near East. Just a couple of weeks ago subscribers to Jack Sasson’s Agade e-mail list—which once inspired a Facebook group called “Jack Sasson is filling up my inbox”—received an e-mail announcing that the Netherlands Institute for the Near East was celebrating the 75th anniversary of its founding, on August 17th, 1939, just two weeks before the war broke out. But there’s a more significant scholarly 75th anniversary this year as well, that of a remarkably timely article published by a young Danish scholar who would become one of the most famous Assyriologists of the 20th century: Thorkild Jacobsen.


In the final issue of the Journal of the American Oriental Society, dated December 1939, Jacobsen published an article called “The Assumed Conflict between Sumerians and Semites in Early Mesopotamian History.” As my teacher Tzvi Abusch wrote in his appreciation of Jacobsen, written for a volume published in his memory, this was a time not merely “when the Nazi threat hung over Europe” but also “when racist categories were normal in the academy.” As Jacobsen wrote:


According to accepted views the early history of Mesopotamia is essentially the history of a racial conflict; its events represent stages in a deadly struggle between two inimical racial groups, Sumerians and Semites. In that struggle the Semites, who could draw on racial reserves in Syria and Arabia, came out victorious.


He notes that in Breasted’s Ancient Times of 1935 (then, of course, a recent book) every phase of Mesopotamian history is “presented in terms of racial conflict.” He writes of a war between the Sumerian (and thus non-Semitic) King Lugalzagesi of Uruk (now Warka; biblical Erech) and the Semitic King Sargon of Agade, and asks:


Does this war represent a long-brewing decisive clash between the two races which formed the population of Babylonia, Sumerians and Semites, or is it merely a fight between purely political units, two city-states vying with each other for power and influence?


The short answer is that Lugalzagesi’s statue has an inscription in Semitic, and Sargon’s own inscriptions attribute his victories not to Semitic gods but to Sumerian ones.   Moreover, the later history of the conflict shows “no vestige” of racial feelings. After the Semitic kings had fallen in their turn, a Sumerian writer recording the details shows


no animosity, not even indications that the Agade kings were considered strangers, their hegemony different from the previous hegemonies of Kish and Uruk. And indeed, this total lack of hatred or even animosity is shared by all other Sumerian texts known to us and is obviously incompatible with the idea of a racial struggle.


Jacobsen’s article directly confronted not just the racist categories of contemporary culture, but the anti-Semitism was setting Europe on fire as he wrote.


According to Bendt Alster, in the same memorial volume, Jacobsen “always considered himself—with his own words—a scholar working ‘in the Danish tradition.’ He talked of the University of Copenhagen at the time when he studied there, around 1920, as ranking among the finest universities in the world. Today there is no commonly recognized ‘Danish tradition’…” The sad denouement of the story is that there is indeed a Danish academic tradition today, one called “the Copenhagen School,” whose focus on denying that the Bible is a historical document sometimes bubbles up into antagonism to modern Israel. I can still remember my shock—widely shared, if my recollections are right—when a biblical scholar named Keith Whitelam (from the University of Sheffield, the English fellow-travelers of this school) came out with a book explaining “that the Jewish version of the Old Testament is a fiction designed to legitimise Israel and that the history of the Palestinian people has been silenced.” It is the reverse of anything Jacobsen would have thought of as “the Danish tradition.”


Meanwhile, the millennia-old series of wars in the Near East is still continuing. These days, with the possible exception of the Kurds, it is all-Semitic all the time. (The Gaza war is particularly internecine, especially if — as my teacher Moses Shulvass once said to me — “The Ten Lost Tribes? They are the Palestinians.”) And we no longer think of international political conflict as racial, unless you want to interpret the North-South divide in that fashion. The struggle between the races was succeeded by the battle between the economic systems of “capitalism” and “communism,” a picture which has now given way to a paradigm of religious conflict or, more starkly, a clash of civilizations. This too will, no doubt, be followed by still another us-vs.-them distinction, equally obvious and equally transitory. But the ancient Near East will continue to resonate as the historical and also the imaginative background to today’s news. Unhappy with the government? The ancients felt your pain long ago.


Jacobsen concluded his paradigm-shifting article this way:


We must accordingly abandon the idea of a racial war. The Semitic population was very likely to a large extent formed through constant filtering in of single families from the desert. It is obvious that such single families, settling and adapting themselves to life in the city or on the farm, would very soon feel as citizens of the city-state to which they had happened to immigrate and where they had become established. They would not constitute a common group, united across existing political boundaries. Semites and Sumerians lived thus, according to all the texts teach us, peacefully side by side in Mesopotamia. The wars which shook that country and the aims for which its rulers fought had nothing to do with differences of race; the issues were purely political and were determined solely by social and economic forces.


It bears repeating that Jacobsen’s article was scholarship, not politics. I saw Jacobsen in person only once, when he came back to Harvard from his retirement home in New Hampshire to give a talk. As I saw him then, he was an old fellow with a tie as wide almost wider than it was long. But he himself was a man of great and warm vision. Jacobsen was an Aryan in the categories of his own day. But while he was working on this article he was also working to bring Jewish Assyriologists who had to flee Nazi Europe to his then academic home at the University of Chicago. As Tzvi Abusch writes about him, Jacobsen “saw an alien and distant human life as something that not only existed in its own terms but also mattered very deeply for our own cultural, spiritual, and personal lives, indeed, for the enduring human spirit.” And he saw the same in his own time. It’s a worthy example to follow.


2016 update:  See now, similarly …

Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth

November 20, 2013

This time I’m writing in response to an article that just appeared in the latest issue of the Journal of Biblical Literature, the flagship journal of the Society of Biblical Literature, the organization of academic biblical scholars.

The article, by Andrew R. Davis, is called “The Literary Effect of Gender Discord in the Book of Ruth.” Here’s what the author writes in his abstract summarizing the article:

In the book of Ruth there are numerous instances of disagreement in gender between a pronoun and its antecedent. Without discounting the various philological explanations that have been given for this disagreement, this article argues that the gender discord is also a literary device that makes an important contribution to the book’s narrative design and its development of characters. The laconic style of Hebrew narrative usually offers no glimpse of characters’ inner lives, but by recognizing the concentration of discordant forms in Naomi’s speech, we can appreciate how they characterize her grief and her ambivalence toward Ruth. The discord also highlights the theme of gender reversal in the book of Ruth. However the examples of gender discord might be explained grammatically, they also play an integral role in the characterization of Naomi and her relationship with Ruth.

Ordinarily this is the kind of explanation I love: A grammatical difficulty in the text, of the kind usually explained linguistically or simply written off as an error, is shown to be a deliberate choice by an author of literary skill. And if anyone in the Bible has demonstrated that skill, it’s the author of Ruth.

But I can’t accept this one. Here’s why. As Davis explains:

A survey of gender discord in the book of Ruth reveals two striking aspects of its distribution: first, nine of the ten instances of gender discord occur in ch. 1, and, second, the first seven instances are words spoken by Naomi.

If all the occurrences of gender discord were in Naomi’s own speech, it would be possible, even necessary, to explain them as a literary effect. But since two of them — Ruth 1:19 and 1:22 — suddenly appear in the words of the narrator, and the last (long after we have forgotten this issue) only in Ruth 4:11 (in the words of the townspeople and the elders), Davis is forced to make these latter three examples “work” in ad hoc fashion. This is midrash, not something that can be explained as a deliberate choice by a writer.

Moreover, there is an example of “gender discord” that Davis does not mention. In Ruth 2:1 the narrator informs us,

Now Naomi had a kinsman on her husband’s side, a man of substance, of the family of Elimelech, whose name was Boaz.

“Kinsman” is מודע (according to the Qere, or reading version; the word is מידע according to the Ketiv or written version). Whichever version of the word we follow, this is clearly masculine. Yet in 3:2, when we read,

Now there is our kinsman Boaz

“kinsman” is מודעתנו, where the ת clearly marks the word as a feminine form. This is Naomi speaking to Ruth; it would certainly not be hard to write another “gender midrash” to explain why she altered the form. But the nature of midrash is that one starts with a preconceived notion and demonstrates how a peculiarity in the text provides an opening for it. It does not work in the larger context; that’s what makes it midrash. Davis’s examples, like this unusual form, fall into this pattern.

There are some examples of a very deliberate gender reversals that do match the overall literary pattern of the book. The most obvious is this one:

Ruth 1:8
  But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house.”

Naomi’s two sons have died, and she is returning alone to Bethlehem. Ruth and Orpah have started out to accompany her, but she wants them to go back. In the Bible, the “natural” place for a woman to go when she is widowed is back to her father’s house; Naomi reverses this (one of several things in the book that suggest it was written by a woman).

There’s another, more complicated case of gender reversal in the book that also has a literary purpose. It works this way. Just as Boaz arrives in the field, Ruth is on her way off; the boys who are working as harvesters have been harassing her. (I’ve discussed this in three different articles, none of which are available online; but the third should appear when the Bible Odyssey web site launches next spring. I’ll link to it here when that happens.) Here’s what happens next (in the NJPS translation but with my emphasis):

Ruth 2:8
  Boaz said to Ruth, “Listen to me, daughter. Don’t go to glean in another field. Don’t go elsewhere, but stay here close to my girls. 9 Keep your eyes on the field they are reaping, and follow them. I have ordered the men not to molest you. And when you are thirsty, go to the jars and drink some of [the water] that the men have drawn.”

Boaz uses the word נערותי, “my girls.” When Ruth gets home to Naomi, however, she tells her (in 2:21):

He even told me, “Stay close by my workers [הנערים אשר לי] until all my harvest is finished.”

That’s the masculine form. Naomi — no fool — replies this way in v. 22, using the feminine form again:

It is best, daughter, that you go out with his girls [נערותיו], and not be annoyed in some other field.

And indeed v. 23 tells us:

So she stayed close to the maidservants [נערות] of Boaz, and gleaned until the barley harvest and the wheat harvest were finished.

Naomi’s remark in v. 22 is subtler than the NJPS English translation implies. The Hebrew has her enthusiastically agreeing with Ruth — but changing the gender of the word Ruth uses. Ruth may have used the masculine form casually; in Hebrew it can also imply both sexes. But one of the themes of the book is the many moments when history could have taken a different turn and prevented King David (Ruth’s great-grandson) from being born. In this case, we are wondering whether working all summer with the same group of guys might lead Ruth to a relationship with one of them instead of with Boaz. Naomi sets things straight right away, and both Ruth and the narrative follow the path she has laid out.

These are the kinds of gender reversal one finds in the book of Ruth. They fit the overall literary patterning of the book. I read the book of Ruth with my 2nd-year students at Penn every year, and often one of them thinks s/he has found “the pattern” that explains the grammatical gender discrepancies. But then another one shows up and the pattern is broken. I have to think that Andrew Davis, though his article is a worthy effort, hasn’t found it either.

Why Were the Israelites Enslaved?

April 3, 2012

Were the Israelites ever slaves in Egypt?

To many, this will seem like an absurd question. The book of Exodus has a dozen chapters explaining that they were. Yet recent decades have found at least some biblical scholars casting doubts on the historicity of this story. The sociological approach pioneered by George Mendenhall outlined a plausible scenario that describes the rise of the Israelites in Canaan as a “peasant’s revolt.” According to this scenario, the Israelites were an amalgam of primarily indigenous, “lower” social groups which escaped the power of the Canaanite city-states and unified in the name of a new religion, “YHWHism.” (Interestingly, the book of Chronicles also seeks to portray the Israelites as indigenous and, despite covering biblical history from Adam to Cyrus, does not recount the exodus from Egypt.) The so-called “biblical minimalists” wish to deny that any of the biblical texts that describe what went on before the Hellenistic period are really historical. If the people who came from Babylonia to Judea in the Persian period had no connection with biblical Israel in the first place, as Thomas Thompson suggests, then it goes without saying that the tales of Egyptian slavery have nothing to do with historical reality. The mere fact that Exodus describes this period at length offers no proof of it to the skeptical mind.

But there is one aspect of the biblical account that should give even the most skeptical mind a reason to reconsider. There is the fact that “Moses” is an Egyptian name, of course, but that is not what I’m talking about. It might well have been selected by an author to provide local color to a concocted story set in Egypt. I’m referring to something a bit more subtle than this, yet more far-reaching, found not in Exodus but in the book of Genesis.

The literary function of Genesis, in the context of the Pentateuch as a whole, is to set up the situation at the beginning of Exodus, where the Israelites change from a family of 70 males (Gen 46:27, Exod 1:5) to a nation of slaves. That is, most of Genesis is devoted to making sense of the fact that the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. In the context of God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 12 that the land of Canaan was to be his, there would seem to be no place for something that would interrupt that process. There are at least three different explanations in Genesis—one explicit and two implicit—for the Israelites’ period of enslavement. I suggest that the difficulty in explaining points to some kind of real occurrence that demanded explanation.

The first solution, and the only one that directly addresses the problem, is found in Genesis 15, the chapter that describes the “covenant between the pieces.” This strange chapter describes a ritual unlike any other in the Bible, in which Abram (as he is still called at this point) takes three three-year-old animals and two birds, cuts the animals in half and sets the halves (and apparently the two birds) opposite each other. He fights off the birds of prey that descend on the carcasses until sundown. Then, in a kind of hypnotic trance, he sees a flaming torch pass “between the pieces” and hears God’s voice proclaim:

You must know that your offspring will be alien, in a land not their own. They shall enslave them and oppress them for four hundred years. But I am going to judge the nation which they will serve; and afterwards they will go forth with great wealth. But you shall come to your ancestors in peace and be buried at a ripe old age. It will be the fourth generation that returns here, for the iniquity of the Amorites will not be complete until then. (Genesis 15:13-16)

This passage solves the problem of Israelite slavery in Egypt by, as it were, cutting the Gordian knot. God simply announces that, before the promise of the land is fulfilled, Abram’s descendants will be slaves in a foreign land. The justification for this unexpectedly harsh decree comes, in context, almost as an afterthought. The text acknowledges that the land which God has given to Abram is already inhabited by another group of people. They must be geographically or at least politically displaced in order for Abram’s descendants to inherit their land. Hinting at what will happen to the Israelites themselves later, the unspoken assumption of this passage is that “iniquity” justifies displacement.

But this explanation, straightforward as it is, leaves itself open to some uncomfortable questions, even for readers who are inclined to accept its basic premise:

(1) What is the nature of the Amorites’ wickedness? They certainly have not been given any commandments, and are under no obligation to God as the Israelites will be when they are commanded at Sinai.

(2) How exactly does one measure quantities of iniquity, and how will God determine when the “complete” amount that will justify displacement is reached?

(3) Sharpest of all, if Abram’s descendants really must be kept “off stage” for four centuries, while the Amorites do what they do, why exactly must they spend those 400 years as slaves? (The giving of an alternative time period, four generations, highlights the fact that even the length of the period of slavery is arbitrary.) What justifies this sentence, which it is hard to understand as being anything other than punishment—a punishment even more undeserved than the expulsion of the Amorites a few centuries early would be? This announcement of the slavery to come, then, straightforward as it is, gives the impression of being a post hoc explanation. That is, Israel’s period of slavery in Egypt happened and, difficult as it might be to do so, had to be explained.

This particular version of the explanation works, as it were, retroactively.

Although the text does not say so explicitly, it is the Israelites’ own subsequent experience of commandedness and then of exile or at least the threat of exile for disobedience that is reflected back on to the experience of the population which, according to the biblical model, was displaced to make way for Abraham’s descendants.

Meanwhile, the first of the implicit explanations for Israelite slavery has already begun, in Genesis 12. Despite the fact that Abram has just left his home in Mesopotamia to settle in a new country as instructed by God, he almost immediately (in literary terms) leaves for Egypt. As many generations of biblical scholars have recognized, what follows is a miniature version of the Israelite sojourn in Egypt. Abram is driven down to Egypt by famine, as his descendants would later be, and, like them, is subject to arbitrary seizure by an unnamed Pharaoh. The Pharaoh and his whole household are struck by plagues as punishment, and finally Abram is “let go,” using the same verb that is the theme of the exodus story. There is nothing about this episode that explains why the Israelites were slaves; it is just something that “happened.” But it is the beginning of a literary theme that will make the Israelites’ ultimate slavery seem to the reader to follow naturally.

The very next chapter of Genesis continues the theme, and gives it a subtle twist. It turns out that Abram’s wife Sarai has a slave of her own, and this slave, Hagar, is (of all possible nationalities) Egyptian. Being childless, Sarai gives Hagar to Abram in hopes of getting a son. Once Hagar conceives, though, she begins to think less of her mistress.

Sarai, in turn, with Abram’s explicit permission (Gen 16:6), begins to treat Hagar harshly.

Hagar runs away but is met by an angel who instructs her to return and take her punishment, telling her she is pregnant with a son.

The fact that we are told of an Egyptian slave in Abram’s household immediately after the pronouncement that his own descendants will be slaves cannot be coincidence.

True, his own sojourn in Egypt makes “story sense” out of the fact that his wife has an Egyptian slave. But there is more to it than this. Just as Abram’s descent to Egypt is linked to the story of the exodus, Hagar’s story is linked with that of the “covenant between the pieces.” Both Abram and Hagar are promised a multitude of descendants—Hagar “too many to count” (l6:10), Abram as many as there are stars in the sky: “count them, if you can” (15:5). Yet the immediate prospect is one of suffering: the masters of Abram’s descendants will oppress them (‘innu ’otam, 15:13) while Hagar must return to Sarai’s harsh treatment (hit’anni, l6:9). The same root links this story of Hagar, the Egyptian slave of a Hebrew, to that of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt. Just as the angel tells Hagar that “YHWH has heard your suffering [‘onyek]” (16:1), so too, when the Israelites’ period of slavery is about to be over, YHWH has seen “my people’s suffering [‘oni ‘ammi]” (Exod 3:27; similarly Exod 4:31). No more than this is said, but the reader cannot help but wonder whether the suffering of Hagar the Egyptian slave at the hands of Sarai is somehow meant to justify the later suffering of Sarai’s descendants as slaves in Egypt.

There is another biblical story which, though it too does not present itself as an explanation for the Israelites’ enslavement, continues this theme by describing the enslavement of the entire Egyptian people by a Hebrew. This is what happens in the story of Joseph, after he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams and realizes that after seven years of plenty famine will strike the land of Egypt. Installed as the grand vizier, Joseph accumulates a large enough store of grain to feed Egypt during the years of scarcity by collecting the grain of the seven years of plenty in government storehouses. But when the famine strikes, Joseph does not then simply dispense the grain that was collected for the emergency.

Instead, he sells it back to the people who grew it:

There was no food in all the land, for the famine was extremely severe. The land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were faint with hunger. Joseph collected all the money that was to be found in Egypt and in Canaan for the grain rations which they were buying, and Joseph brought the money into the house of Pharaoh. When all the money in Egypt and Canaan was used up, all Egypt came to Joseph saying, “Give us food, or else we shall die on the spot, for there is no more money.” They brought their cattle to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food for the horses, the sheep, the cattle, and the asses. He provided them with food that year in exchange for all their cattle. That year went by, and the next year they came to him and told him, “We cannot deceive your lordship—the money is gone, and so have all the cattle, to your lordship. Nothing is left before your lordship but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, we and our land too? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. Just give seed so we can live and not die, and so the land may not be desolate.” Joseph bought all the agricultural land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for each of the Egyptians sold his field, because the famine was so harsh on them; and the whole land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he transferred them to the cities, from one end of Egypt to the other …. Joseph said to the people, “So I have acquired you today, and your land, for Pharaoh. Here is seed for you. Sow the land, and when the harvest comes, give one-fifth to Pharaoh and keep four-fifths for yourselves, for field seed, to eat, and for those in your houses and to feed your children.” They said, “You have given us life. We have found favor in your lordship’s eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh.” (Gen 47:13-21, 23-25)

So by the end of Joseph’s stewardship over Egypt’s response to famine, not only have the Egyptians, as a people, been enslaved, but they have been enslaved by Joseph. As the first of Jacob’s descendants to come to Egypt, he is the vanguard of the family that will eventually become Israel.

Since this story explicitly describes the enslavement of the Egyptians at Joseph’s hands, it seems reasonable to think of it as an implicit justification of the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites. Just as in the Hagar story, this is not stated straightforwardly, but the inference is a natural one to draw: Joseph enslaves the Egyptians unfairly (in return for the grain which they themselves grew), so a kind of balance is achieved when the descendants of Joseph’s family are, in turn, unfairly enslaved by the Egyptians. Unlike God’s announcement of the future to Abram, which comes (as it were) out of the blue, Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians provides the subsequent enslavement of the Israelites with a certain atmosphere of historical inevitability. Abram’s descent to Egypt, the mistreatment of Hagar, and Joseph’s enslavement of the Egyptians all give the Egyptians’ subsequent enslavement of the Israelites a certain narrative logic. My claim is that this theme was included in Genesis at least partly to provide a story that does, after all, make sense out of the Israelites’ enslavement. Where the announcement to Abraham presented the period of slavery as a divine decree, albeit one that makes no moral sense, the enslavement of the Egyptians, though not directly presented as an explanation, does make moral sense of it.

The story of Joseph, though, does not merely provide a possible reason for the enslavement of the Israelites; it also serves as the plot mechanism which brings the Israelites to Egypt in the first place. Were it not for the famine and Joseph’s position of power, the sons of Jacob would have grown into a nation in Canaan, not in Egypt. Even Jacob himself, though ultimately returned to Canaan for burial, spends his last years as the patriarch of a family that is growing, and prospering, in Egypt. Is there anything more to this than an unfortunate happenstance, something that “seemed like a good idea at the time” but ultimately backfired? I think there is, because of the way the Joseph story is connected with the earlier story of Jacob, which provides the second implicit explanation of Israelite slavery in Egypt.

If the Egyptians’ enslavement of Joseph’s descendants serves (from a literary perspective) as “payback” for Joseph’s enslavement of them, it is obvious to most readers of the Jacob narrative that there is an element of “tit-for-tat” in this story as well. Just as Jacob stole Esau’s blessing from Isaac by disguising himself as his older brother, so Laban foists Leah on Jacob by disguising her as her younger sister, Rachel, on Jacob’s wedding night. One might think that, once Jacob has had his own trick played back upon him, balance is restored and the whole larger episode is closed. But this is not so. True, Jacob has been suckered into giving one sister primacy over another, just as he suckered his father into giving him primacy over his brother. But Laban, who arranged the deceit, was a distant relative—distant in all senses of the word. Jacob has not yet known the pain of being deceived, as Isaac was, by his own son. But he is about to.

The tale is familiar. Joseph’s older brothers, irritated at Jacob’s favoring him and incensed at his dreams in which they bow down to him, throw him in a pit while they decide whether or not to murder him. Meanwhile, a caravan takes him to Egypt. Finding him gone, the brothers kill a goat, dip Joseph’s famous coat in its blood, and ask Jacob whether or not he recognizes it. Since the coat is indisputably Joseph’s, Jacob assumes that the blood is Joseph’s also—forgetting how he himself had used goat skin to simulate Esau’s hairy hands. Now, at last, Jacob is deceived by his own sons; now, at last, he knows an anguish like that of his brother Esau, who wept at being deceitfully supplanted by him.

Unfortunately, the chain of moral causality is not broken at this point. Jacob may have received his payback, but the instruments of his punishment—his sons—now must pay for the cruel deceit they have worked upon their father, and for what they have done to their brother. For though Joseph is not dead, he is no longer free and living in Canaan. Instead, he is a slave in Egypt—the first of Jacob’s descendants to be one but, as we readers know, not the last.

Again, the rest of the story is so familiar that we tend to think of it as inevitable. Through God’s care of him, Joseph ultimately rises to a position of power in Egypt second only to that of the Pharaoh. This is truly providential, but not merely because Joseph is the one man with the wisdom to save enough grain during the years of plenty to supply food during the years of famine. For Joseph does not merely do this; he plots his revenge as well. He has been a slave in Egypt, so the Egyptians must enslave themselves before he will give them back the grain they themselves grew. He has been cruelly treated by his brothers, so when at last hunger draws them down to Egypt and into his power—where they fail to recognize him as a grown man in Egyptian garb—he toys cruelly with them, heedless of his father’s pain, until at last he reveals his identity to them and makes the last, fatal mistake and makes them an offer they cannot refuse: Move the entire clan down to Egypt so I can provide for you during the remaining five years of famine.

It seems natural enough for Joseph’s family to move to Egypt at this point in the story, yet we as readers know that this is the move that will make the Israelites’ ultimate fate as slaves fall into place. Joseph is so thrilled with the way the story has turned out that he actually sees the divine plan behind his brothers’ action, but misinterprets it: “Though you planned evil against me, God planned it for the good” (Gen 50:20). The brothers’ nefarious plot put Joseph on the scene so that he could interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams and save Egypt. Yet he too could not resist the lure of manipulating his kin by using a false identity, a trick that had started with Jacob’s deception of his father Isaac.

With the story of Joseph, then, two themes merge. One is the theme of deception that runs throughout the Jacob story, each deception leading, measure for measure, to a greater one, with worse consequences. The other is the theme of Egyptian enslavement, first symbolically with Abram, Sarai, and Hagar, later explicitly as a consequence of Joseph’s cruel policy of disaster management. The deception theme, unlike the enslavement theme, does not provide a moral logic for the subsequent enslavement of Jacob’s descendants. But it does make “story sense” out of it, giving it a kind of tragic inevitability. As readers, then, we are prepared either way for the enslavement of the Israelites in Exodus 1.

Of course, there is still another explanation for their enslavement, the demographic fear expressed in Exod 1:9 by the Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph”: “the Israelites are more numerous and mightier than we.” But just here, where the actual enslavement is described as taking place, it is treated so casually—in a verse or two—that the political, “current events” aspect of it seems unimportant. Instead, it looks as if the author of Exodus took enslavement as the inevitable consequence of the stories in Genesis—or rather as the necessary background for the story of the plagues and the deliverance that he knew must follow. What we are left with is a view of Genesis as a kind of historical novel desperately trying to explain how the Israelites were enslaved.

The archaeologists tell us that there is little reason to think the Israelites came from outside the land of Canaan. Chronicles says the same thing, and I believe them both. Yet Mendenhall’s belief that the Israelites must have had an original core-group who had escaped slavery in Egypt is still persuasive:

A group of slave-labor captives succeeded in escaping an intolerable situation in Egypt…. [Once in Canaan,] entire groups having a clan or “tribal” organization joined the newly-formed community, identified themselves with the oppressed in Egypt, received deliverance from bondage, and the original historic events with which all groups identified themselves took precedence over and eventually excluded the detailed historical traditions of particular groups who had joined later…. The symbolization of historical events was possible because each group which entered the covenant community could and did see the analogy between bondage and Exodus and their own experience.

(George Mendenhall, “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine,” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962): 73 ff.)

For if there was no Israelite slavery in Egypt at all … why does the Bible have so much trouble explaining it?


Those who would like to read more about literary approaches to the exodus story (outside of Genesis) will find more about them in my book The Bible’s Many Voices. You can look at some of it here.

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